Just last week, the universe graced me with another excuse to play through the Mega Man franchise. As is the custom of my people, I started at the beginning. I was now playing Mega Man 1, a game I know well from multiple playthroughs as both an adult and child, via the Mega Man Legacy Collection, a collection that ports the series forward through about five hardware generations, plays through a wireless controller, and is meant for your big, possibly laggy HD TV. As I played Mega Man 1, I thought that there was something wrong with the port, or perhaps with one of the myriad of innovations through the years; but, whatever the reason, Mega Man seemed sluggish and unresponsive. I still stomped Wily inside of an hour, but something felt… off.
Then I played Mega Man 2, and all was well.
Mega Man 2 was one of my earliest games, and, given I had no greater than twenty NES games by the time the Super Nintendo stole the mic, that game saw a lot of play. If I’m being honest, familiarity breeds contempt, so Mega Man 3, which I only played through repeated rentals, is my favorite (original) Mega Man game, but Mega Man 2 was the game I can remember playing the most through my childhood, even more than luminaries like Super Mario Bros. or Castlevania (though, to be clear, they’re both likely burned into my poor, overtaxed NES’s memory as well). My point? I may have gained the ability to beat Mega Man 2 with my eyes closed, and that shows itself quite clearly as I play the game. There’s nothing quite like it, just knowing exactly how many hits your average Friender (fire spewing robo dog) will sustain before evaporating, and leaping onto its now vacant platform as it fades from existence. Needless to say, there’s nothing wrong with Mega Man Legacy Collection, it was just that Mega Man 1 kind of sucks, and Mega Man 2 is my jam. Once I’m playing a game that clicks, it all becomes a sort of… ballet.
Top Spin aside, it’s difficult to picture Mega Man, or any video game hero, performing ballet. Video games are all about machismo, winning, and grinding your opponent into the dirt. There’s no room for pirouetting when you’re spinning your hook blades into your opponents, and nobody wants a Jak and Daxter reboot involving a tutu. But ballet is the best way I can think to describe a “perfect” video game run: it’s a pas de duex, just, instead of a dancer catching another dancer, it’s Wood Man catching an Atomic Fire to the face. Pas de Pew Pew.
Some of you may be asking why I’m making the comparison to ballet as opposed to any other physical activity. Tennis is a battle between two combatants, or soccer, something that Mega Man is very familiar with, is a similar activity that seems to draw from the same well of “physical battle” where Side A must move to counter Side B and Side B adjusts its strategy to compensate for Side A’s latest tactics. Isn’t that truer to a Robot Boy Blue hopping to evade an encroaching Mecha Dragon? My answer is a resounding, “nope.” Many video games, particularly of the old school variety, did not devote a lot of resources to AI. Yes, many enemies “react” to your digital avatar’s presence, but very little effort went into the actual nitty gritty of responding to the object of their inevitable destruction. It doesn’t take much human processing power to know how Metal Man is going to “react”, and you can plan your moves accordingly. In a way, your digital opponent is like a “perfect” dance partner, always going to make move X when you go Y, and it’s your job to keep the rhythm, to dance along, and perform to those movements. Grab the spandex, you’re in the ballet now.
Punch-Out!! for the Wii purports to showcase the sweet science of boxing, but it is the epitome of this “ballet gaming”. Punch-Out (I’m going to drop the exclamation points so my word processor stops having a fit) may, on the surface, appear similar to many fighting games, like Street Fighter 2, where a collection of rich and varied ethnic stereotypes all decide to get together and wail on each other until someone has a spinal injury. The Indian guy that can teleport, Russian guy rocking a speedo, this all seems pretty familiar. But the actual gameplay of a fighting game is radically different from Punch-Out. The difference between a straight fighting game and Punch-Out is the same difference between football and marching band; one is about grappling with your opponent, and the other is about moving with your partner.
You could, conceivably, get pretty far with a “random” playstyle in any number of games, the oft-criticized “button mashing” that has seen a fair number of Kens to victory. This is impossible in Punch-Out. Punch-Out is never about the player and making valid footsy decisions or attempting to confuse your opponent or any of the myriad of tactics available in most games; no, Punch-Out is always about the opponent, what did he just do, and what do you do to react. When your opponent winks, you will left hook, or you will fail. Luckily, this isn’t Battletoads: there’s a lot of wiggle room, so one punch won’t send Little Mac plummeting to the canvas. You’ve got time to figure out exactly when to dodge, when to counter, and when to score those sweet star punches, and when you put it all together, you’ll be downing the likes of King Hippo and Piston Hondo (Hondo? Really?) in literal minutes, if not seconds. Observe your partner, let them lead, and then achieve victory through synchronization.
As a quick trip to Youtube will show you, it is possible to complete Punch-Out, soup to nuts, all game modes, in less than two hours. This contributes to the often expressed idea that Punch-Out is closer to the puzzle genre than fighting or sports genres. The reasoning goes that if you know all the “solutions” to the pugilistic puzzles, the game can be completed in a flash, just like the puzzles of King’s Quest or Professor Layton. I disagree. Punch-Out is no more a puzzle game than Mega Man 2 is a puzzle game for asking you to deduce robot master weaknesses. Or perhaps Mega Man 2 is a puzzle game, continually requiring you to approach new challenges and to have the knowledge and reaction time to know when to pump Guts Tank full of Quick Boomerangs like sliding an I-block into place for a Tetris. Or maybe rigidly defining gaming genres is a fool’s errand from the absolute start (Pong is a sports/action/puzzle hybrid with RPG elements).
Genre aside, calling Punch-Out a puzzle game is far too reductive. If I were to label Punch-Out as anything, it would be a Performance Game, with every lost match a rehearsal. There’s a reason that Punch-Out has always placed such an emphasis on time trials as opposed to, say, number of punches landed, and that’s because Punch-Out is judging you on how long it takes to achieve a “perfect performance”. The final challenge, and greatest innovation, of Punch-Out Wii is Little Mac’s Last Stand, a sort of survival mode that requires you to face multiple opponents with little room for error. This is not a simple fighting game survival mode, though, this is the greatest test a performer can face: do you remember all the movements for all the recitals? Can you use every skill in your repertoire on immediate demand? The finale of Punch-Out is no puzzle, it’s a grueling test of muscle and cognitive memory. Super Macho Man is out for blood and spinning like a mad man, what do you do? Better remember fast.
In the end, like a proper ballet, this all gels into a product that is challenging for the performers, and, when done well, a joy for the audience. Nintendo provided the stage, players, and story, all you need to do is pick up the controller, learn your moves, and give the performance of your career. Pas into the manèges square and keep an eye on port de bras.
FGC #35 Punch-Out!! (Wii)
- System: I’m going to have to say that Punch-Out!! (Wii) is available for the… WiiU? Yeah, that sounds right.
- Number of players: There’s a two player competitive mode that… contradicts everything I’ve written here. Let us never speak of it
- Hey! Elaborate! Alright, fine. Giga Mac mode, wherein one player morphs into a massive version of Little Mac in order to pummel the other player, actually seems more in the spirit of Punch-Out!! than anything else involved, but the two player mode here likely exists as a concession to that Wii Sports crowd that everyone always imagined played games other than Wii Sports. 2-Player is the hotdog stand to 1-player mode’s ballet. … They do have hotdogs at the ballet, right?
- And we’re tossing around ballet terms willy nilly now? It won’t happen again. I swear.
- And you didn’t even talk about the boxers: I had to go with the narrative flow, man. There’s an alternate version of this article that outlines exactly how a bunch of characters that barely speak (English) are all clearly defined by their movements and expressions. Hm, maybe I could have squeezed something in there about how this sounds very much like a physical performance art, too. No matter. The amount of information quickly relayed here is staggering. As an example, they never interact, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that Bear Hugger and Super Macho Man would never get along.
- Favorite Boxer: Of all the boxers to showcase from Super Punch-Out, Nintendo decided to promote Aran Ryan to the Wii. Aran Ryan can best be described as a filthy, angry Irishman with horseshoes in his gloves. This is just crazy enough to get my attention. Like, seriously, Nintendo, it’s not like you had the Canadian guy drinking maple syrup or the Spanish guy bull fighting.
- Yes, actually, they did: Oh. My bad.
- Did you know? The absolute final boxer available is Donkey Kong, but there was originally talk of making another Nintendo character cameo: Princess Peach. This would have been the first woman to appear in a Punch-Out game (not just as a boxer, because I’m pretty sure there aren’t women anywhere in the entire franchise), and could not have been anything but bonkers. Like, given the “shape” of the game, they’d have to make her the most powerful opponent, right? As crazy as it all sounds, it’s something I’d like to see. Guess we’ll always have Smash Bros, though.
- Would I play again? I am a coward, so I occasionally like firing up the game and playing on the lower levels, usually getting up to Soda Popinski before I call it a day. There’s a part of my brain dedicated to Punch-Out strategy, but it’s not very large.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Battle Monsters for the Sega Saturn. Well, there’s a medusa fighting a karate man on the cover. That’s a good sign, right? Please look forward to it.