Road to Round 3: Boxing Game History
EA Sports' Fight Night Round 3 is just around the corner - its release date is set for February 22nd, 2006. But we've no idea where boxing games are going without knowing where they've been, so TeleFragged is looking back at the history of the genre. We won't be looking at every one ever made, because let's face it: most of them were crap. But we'll instead look at the ones that really stand out, and we'll do it in chronological order - it leads up to my assessment of how FNR3 will likely stack up against boxing games from the last twenty-plus years.
Boxing (Atari 2600)
As far as I know, this is the first boxing game ever made for a home console - it was released in 1980 on the Atari 2600. It's about as simplistic as you can get, and it hardly even resembles the sport itself at all. Even the pose of the "boxers" is intensely goofy-looking. It's really difficult to even go this far into the description, because this game is just so simple that I've said everything that needs to be said.
There are some great games for the 2600, but this is not one of them; if you still want to check it out, you can find this title in a couple of Atari emulation collections that have been sold over the years.
Nintendo busted onto the boxing scene with this arcade game in 1984 - its incredible graphics and multi-button boxing made for some interesting fights. Knockout punches were a total blast, and this game's six opponents were a little more realistic than its better-known sequel, Super Punchout!!. This was one of the first arcade games ever to use two screens, one on top of the other, to show a bit of information about the fight above the main gameplay screen. It was mostly useless, but an interesting gimmick nonetheless.
Playing Punchout!! again won't be easy - you'll need MAME and the appropriate ROM, or you'll have to track down an arcade that still has this game in working order.
Super Punchout!! (Arcade)
Nintendo quickly followed up its first boxing game with Super Punchout!! in the arcades in 1985. The fighters got bigger and more outlandish (this is evidenced by the fact that your first opponent wears denim overalls), and they also got tougher. Now you can duck, and you'll need it to dodge some of the crazier special attacks that'll come at you in this game. Some of the characters eventually got shrunk down to fit in the NES edition of Mike Tyson's Punchout!!, including Super Macho Man (no relation to Randy Savage), The Great Tiger, and Vodka Drunkenski (renamed, for the love of the children, to Soda Popinski in the American versions).
To play this, it's probably best to dig up a SNES and play the home version; many boxers are different in the SNES port, but much of the gameplay's true to the arcade version.
Ring King (Arcade, NES)
Released in the arcades in 1985 and on the NES in 1987, Ring King was Data East's attempt to bring just a tad more realism into boxing over games like Punchout!!. You could circle your opponent and throw some real combos that weren't just given to you by arbitrary game mechanics, but the biggest parts of the game were the two-player mode and the hilarious knockout punches. Sure, there was an intensely difficult career mode, but I had the most fun in this game just trying to set up the various punches where you'd send your opponent spinning wildly, fly back against the ropes (only to smash hard against the ground), or even send him into a near-orbit flight that only gave you a "thud!" noise several seconds after he left the screen. Many gamers absolutely despise this game, but dammit, I like it. It's fast and tough, but certainly conquerable.
This was one of the first boxing games to have you building your fighter's stats up between fights during training, and it made a real difference as you fought through the ranks. The arcade version of Ring King is ridiculously hard to win in, but the NES version, with its nearly arcade-perfect graphics and gameplay, was toned down to have a much more reasonable difficulty.
To play Ring King nowadays you can get an emulator and ROM for either the NES or arcade versions, but be aware of the legality (or lack thereof) of doing this. Finding a copy of this game on the NES now might be pretty difficult as well.
Mike Tyson's Punchout!! (NES)
This 1987 release by Nintendo is possibly the most memorable boxing game ever. You play as midget-sized boxer Little Mac in his quest to get all the way to the top of the World Video Boxing Association and beat Iron Mike himself! Then Mikey got arrested and convicted of rape - not really great for Nintendo's image. A later version of this game (which hit store shelves in 1990) replaced Mike with a white lookalike named Mr. Dream, but we might as well remember Mike from back in the day when he was an unstoppable force. The arcade version of Punchout!! had superior graphics and quite a few different fighters, but the NES version was still one of the greatest games ever made on Nintendo's classic home system.
With no two-player mode and no way to actually move about the ring, Punchout! became little more than a series of "bosses" whose patterns you'd have to memorize in order to win. But who could forget the Great Tiger's ability to teleport around the ring, or that you had to close King Hippo's fat mouth before you could even attempt to punch him in the gut? What made this game great were its amazing graphics (for the time), very memorable opponents, and increasingly difficult - yet satisfying - fights that really challenged the player without frustrating him or her too much. Both kids and adults could play and beat the game, and your progress was saved by a simplistic password system that nonetheless worked fine. Any one remember the code 007 373 5963?
Playing this game nowadays requires either an emulator and the legal-gray-area ROM, a wait for the Nintendo Revolution system which will supposedly emulate many past Nintendo favorites, or a good old NES hooked up. I'd recommend the third option, since it's not the same without the old controller, and any future versions of Punchout! aren't likely to include Mike Tyson. And what fun is that?
Final Blow (Arcade)
Final Blow wasn't a particularly great game, but it was one of the first ones that didn't try to make boxing silly. It's a mostly serious attempt and while it still takes place in a 2-dimensional ring, it does reproduce the pace and overall feel of the sport. Because it's an arcade game it's very difficult, as most players will have to get plenty of practice in order to even win a single fight.
This is another classic arcade game that you'll really need to look for online (along with an emulator) if you want to play it.
4D Sports Boxing (PC)
4D Sports Boxing, released in 1990, is probably the first action-oriented true boxing simulator ever made. The characters were made up of 3D polygons, and the full range of the boxing ring was totally usable. Cameras were adjustable (you could even see from the eyes of either fighter), and your boxer would even get tired during matches - a mix of defense and offense was absolutely necessary later in the game for survival. With a fleshed-out career mode that allowed you train and even decayed your fighting abilities as your boxer got older and older, 4D Sports Boxing was one of the best boxing games ever made.
This game can be found with some searches on the internet, but since it was published by Electronic Arts - a company that's clearly still in business - it again is a legal gray area.
ABC's Wide World of Sports Boxing (PC)
This game is a "rebranded" version of Cinemaware's TV Sports Boxing and modified to include some ABC television branding. But it's the same fantastic boxing game that adds both real sim elements like hiring managers and trainers, buying equipment, and fine-tuning your training in a comprehensive career mode. And of course, there's the compelling boxing action you'll get to take part in, which is pretty much the best part. While I still have a warm spot in my heart for 4D Sports Boxing over this game, I think it's safe to recommend this one as the objectively better boxing game.
The publisher for this game, Data East, is out of business; one can be found with some searches on the internet.
Boxing Simulators (PC)
The PC platform started to enjoy some vary deep and complex boxing simulators during the early and mid 1990s. The tradition continues on to this day, although these titles have been and continue to be released at a mere trickle. Most of them do not have any action at all, instead making the player use their brains in controlling career decisions, training regimens, and overall boxing strategy during the fight. I always liked to get into the thick of the fight myself so the pure strategy-based simulators never really appealed that much to me, but titles like World Championship Boxing Manager and Title Bout Championship Boxing are generally regarded as great games.
Super Punchout!! (SNES)
It took a while for Nintendo to release this home console port of the arcade classic, but they finally did in 1994 near the end of the life of the SNES. They didn't just dump the arcade version onto a cartridge, though, as Nintendo made up plenty of new boxers to complement this edition. It's too bad that this one came out when many people had already stopped playing their SNES consoles, as it could have been much more successful earlier in the SNES days. Its complement of opponents were probably the wildest ever (with a pretty-boy Asian kid, an old kung fu master, and other outlandish characters), and this one's difficulty got way up there once you got to the game's final tier of opponents.
You can play this one as an extra in the GameCube version of Fight Night Round 2 - although tracking down a SNES and this game is always an decent option.
The Dark Age of Boxing Games (roughly 1992-2003)
There were quite a few boxing games released during this decade-long period, but none of them saw a whole lot of popularity. In this time we saw many hideous attempts on the PlayStation, DreamCast and other systems, and they almost all suffered from either terrible controls or gameplay that was so shallow you had to be completely drunk to extract any fun from them. Which ones am I talking about? HBO Sports Boxing, the Ready 2 Rumble series, Rocky, Knockout Kings, and yes, even the Mike Tyson Heavyweight Boxing game that had zero resemblance to the Nintendo classic (save for the presense of Tyson). It was an utterly shameful era for boxing games altogether, and I was completely hopeless about the state of things until the next game in the list appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
If you must, you can track down these games and play them on a PS2, Dreamcast, even the SNES and Sega Genesis for a couple of the really bad ones. I really recommend against it, though.
Victorious Boxers (PS2)
Despite its rather unfortunate name (the whole thing's based on a Japanese comic book), Victorious Boxers, which was released late in 2001, is a fantastic title. The anime style is somewhat unique in the boxing genre, but the ability to bob and weave made this one much more interesting. Being able to realistically move around the ring, defend yourself, and throw counter punches are what sets this apart from the many inferior boxing games from the previous decade or so. A full complement of punches as well as selectable signature punches make this one plenty of fun, but it's probably the fight against the bear (yes, a bear!) that really makes this one odd. Despite this, the game includes a story for the main character, Ippo Makonuchi.
You can still pick this one up for the PS2 at many used game stores. The sequel, Victiorious Boxers 2, only gets a basic mention from me because in my opinion it was an inferior game. It had more main characters and more of a lot of things, but less fun. I'd suggest you skip the sequel.
Fight Night 2004 (Xbox, PS2, GC)
Electronic Arts realized that the Knockout Kings games were only fun if two players fought eachother while being totally drunk. Thank God, too, because while those games had a lot going for them (like the licenses to show the likeness of many world-renowned boxers), just about every boxer played pretty much the same. EA dropped the Knockout Kings franchise entirely and re-created it with Fight Night 2004, their first boxing title that required more than just slightly-controlled button mashing to win.
While Fight Night included a new punch system called Total Punch Control which was assigned to your controller's right analog stick, the system wasn't terribly useful. The power or speed of your punches couldn't be fine tuned, and only six were available anyway - a straight, hook, or uppercut from each hand. The buttons were much more useful in creating combos, and it wasn't until the next year's installment that TPC became something you actually needed to use to win.
Fight Night Round 2 (Xbox, PS2, GC)
With improved graphics, a bigger career mode, and new Haymaker punches, Round 2 seemed like it'd be the undisputed king of all boxing games. It's too bad that haymakers wound up dominating the game entirely, making both its fresh new online play as well as the career mode game a huge fiasco. Once one realized the power of these punches, which usually did twice the damage with few drawbacks, it was like we were back playing Ready 2 Rumble all over again. I wound up giving this game a somewhat negative review - not because it was a bad game, but instead because it was a step backwards from the realism that the first Fight Night was trying to accomplish.
And On to Round 3...
Fight Night Round 3 is scheduled for release on the PS2, PSP, GameCube, Xbox, and Xbox 360 on February 22nd. After many, many hours playing the demo, I'm confident that this will be the best Fight Night yet. The haymaker punches have been toned down both in power and in overall effectiveness (it's easier to "interrupt" a haymaker with a faster punch, and they tire you out much faster now), while the graphics and overall look of the game is much grittier and realistic.
Some of the rather goofy mini-games from past Fight Night games will regrettably rear their ugly heads again, and I'm cautiously hoping that the soundtrack won't consist solely of hip hop music (but who am I kidding?), but this is shaping up to be a totally wonderful game for both fighting fans and for the hardcore boxing fans who can keep a slightly open mind. If the career mode is sufficiently compelling and the online play doesn't degenerate into only a couple types of punches ever being used, then I foresee big success for this game.