This review is brought to you by the one and only Retro Referee, Peter Skerritt. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @PeteSkerritt.
You’ve never felt a blow so final.
PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous
PUBLISHER: Taito (JP), Sega (US, UK)
RELEASE DATE: 03/23/90 – (JP), 1990 – (US), 03/91 – (EU)
James “Buster” Douglas Knockout Boxing tried to take advantage of one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. When Douglas beat Tyson via knockout in the tenth round of their fight on February 11, 1990, it made sense for SEGA to sign Douglas to a deal for a boxing game. Douglas was similar in his underdog status to where SEGA was versus the Nintendo juggernaut in the console video game industry at the time. On paper, this move was symbolic. Unfortunately, as far as the underlying game goes, Knockout Boxing isn’t anywhere close to being a contender for Boxing Video Game Champion.
Buster Douglas is ready to rumble.
Knockout Boxing is actually an altered version of Final Blow, a 1988 boxing arcade game from Taito. In this version, two new boxers—Buster Douglas, and the game’s final boss, Iron Head—are added to the coin-op roster, which includes Dynamite Joe, King Jason, Kim Nang, and Fernando Gomez. In order to reach Iron Head, players must win the Championship belt by defeating four boxers and then defend the belt four times. Iron Head, according to the game’s instruction manual, is “the toughest battle of your life”… and that’s not an exaggeration. (Seriously: Iron Head will destroy you.)
More like Dynamite Dork, am I right, folks?
Each boxer handles essentially the same in Knockout Boxing, so there really isn’t any advantage to picking one boxer over another. The path to Iron Head is as easy with Buster Douglas as it is with Kim Nang, so choosing a boxer is all about who the player prefers. Back in 1990, choosing Buster Douglas was the thing to do. In 2016, considering how quickly Douglas fell out of the boxing spotlight, not choosing him is a pretty common decision. Since games only last maybe 15-20 minutes each, it’s possible to play through the game with all characters and burn only a couple of hours.
Fernando raises his arm… because he’s sure (that he’ll lose).
Play controls in Knockout Boxing are fairly easy to learn. The A button jabs, the B button throws straight punches, and the C button ducks. When using the D-pad with the A or B buttons, punches can be aimed toward the body instead of the head or different punch types can be thrown. Pressing the A and B buttons together, along with pressing either up or down on the D-pad, triggers power punches. A+B+Up, for example, throws a haymaker hook towards the opponent’s head. A+B+Down launches a devastating uppercut towards the opponent’s chin. Both of these power punches have the potential to end the fight if they connect—even once. They are slow to launch, but game-changing if they hit their target. The D-pad, by itself, moves the boxer left and right. Pressing up on the D-pad without pressing any of the face buttons also raises the boxer’s gloves to defend against head shots.
Buster busts loose!
The problems with Knockout Boxing begin with the offense-first approach that the game takes. On the easiest difficulty setting, power punches can end a fight not 20 seconds after it begins. It’s similar to being able to execute a fatality in Mortal Kombat as soon as a round begins. Such devastating offense is something that should be earned after a period of time within a fight. Additionally, defense for a boxer is largely haphazard and often boils down to separation from the opponent instead of blocking. Offense winds up being the best defense, which isn’t representative of boxing. Look at Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! as an example; players must read and react to opposing offensive patterns, and Little Mac does have to block at least a few times along his path to the title. Knockout Boxing isn’t that precise, and often feels more like a button-masher than a more nuanced game.
Fernando is down for the count.
Additionally, Knockout Boxing is a very bare-bones experience. There’s nothing to signify that players win the championship belt or any build-up to facing Iron Head for the ultimate match. Instead, there are static screens that denote the player’s progress. “Defense match” screens are the only time that players see the championship belt. If a match goes longer than one round, there isn’t any kind of transitional screen; instead, the next round begins. There are still shots after victories that show the boxer being carried in the air, but it’s the same shot every time. Finally, while the game does track the highest score, there really isn’t any much rhyme or reason to the scoring system and scores aren’t saved to the cartridge once the power is turned off. Other boxing games, including Ring King and the aforementioned Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, have better senses of progression and offer more replay value as 8-bit NES titles than Knockout Boxing does as a 16-bit Genesis offering.
Kim Nang doesn’t want the world to see him cry.
One area of strength for Knockout Boxing is its visual presentation. The boxers and the referee are all large characters with considerable detail to them. Outside of the ring, there’s a decent crowd of spectators cheering on the action. The game looks better than its peers for the time period, and is an example of how far visuals had come from the aging 8-bit era to the new 16-bit era. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the sound and music. The music is sparse and fairly repetitive, and the sound effects really don’t impress much. Surprisingly, there’s no digitized speech in the game, which is a bit surprising since other Genesis games at the time had managed to use it. Single-word commands like “Fight!” and “Break!” should have been voiced.
So… how ’bout that title belt?
Unfortunately, Knockout Boxing is hard to recommend. There simply isn’t enough in the overall package to justify more than a few rounds before the game becomes a tedious button masher and skill gives way to speed and stamina. The game may look the part, with its 16-bit graphics, but the gameplay and replay value aren’t strong enough to carry it to a 12-round decision. Leave this one in the gym.