Boxing games are a peculiar bunch. The pugilistic science would seem a natural fit for a videogame in many ways; two combatants squaring off against one another; timed rounds; a defined fighting arena; natural progression; simple moves and combinations plus the chance for a spectacular knockout.
Yet for all that, it is difficult to remember a truly classic boxing game, the one-on-one fighter genre dominated by the more versatile likes of Street Fighter or Tekken. But that is not to say that the odd diamond hasn’t appeared from the rough.
And so to The Final Round. Released in 1988 by Konami, it is a one or two player slugfest. The two player mode sees you and a mate punch each others lights outs until there is a winner whilst the single player mode lets you embark on a quest for the championship in the usual genre tradition of successive scraps.
Starting out as Jabbin’ Jim, a shabby looking journeyman fighter if ever there was one, you battle against eight opponents of escalating difficulty, ending with a title bout against the honestly-not-Mike-Tyson champion.
Before you hit the ring, you get the chance to allocate 100 attribute points across three areas; power, speed and stamina. Each has its benefit and so it is up to the player to decide whether you want to be a lumbering powerhouse, a flighty slapper or a balanced all-rounder. It’s a nice addition and makes a tangible difference to gameplay. It’s all very well loading up your power gauge to land a big haymaker but if you don’t reserve some attribute points for stamina, you may find yourself hitting the canvas and staring up at the lights as the ref counts to ten.
Graphically this is still fairly impressive. The fighters are distinctive, big and chunky, visibly reacting to hits as the fighter is sent spinning on his heels as a big hook lands. It retains a big fight atmosphere too, the crowd cheering along enthusiastically whilst sound effects add a meaty crunch as blows land.
Controls are simple with a button mapped for head punches, body punches and blocks, or combine your punches to land super shots that drain chunks of your opponent’s energy. Each combatant starts with 100% energy, represented by a bicep posing animation in the corner of each screen. In a neat visual touch, as the fighter’s health decreases, the animation gradually slumps down to represent your physical decline.
If you do taste the canvas, mash the buttons to beat the count. On reaching your feet some of your energy will be restored, the amount dependent on your stamina attribute assigned at the outset. Indeed it can sometimes feel unfair when you are locked in a tight scrap and manage to land a big punch, your opponent hitting the deck but then getting back up with more energy than you. It would seem fairer to allow the fighter who delivered the punch to also recover some health whilst he waits for his opponent, although it does of course work in your favour when you are the one felled. Three knockdowns in a round mean a TKO, a flashy animation showing you the fighters demise in glorious slow motion.
Fights themselves are a little underwhelming. Whilst the graphics look nice, the camera pulled up and back to allow you to move freely around the ring, movement feels a little stilted. The boxers arms don’t seem to extend fully so punches are all on the inside leaving little scope for fighting at range. Instead the best tactic, certainly in the early fights, is simply to wade in and button mash hoping for a combination to unleash a power punch. The further you get the more you will need to use the ring and utilise the block as your opponent becomes more adept at blocking your punches and returns fire with his own. It’s a tough challenge but one that rewards the player prepared to learn and adjust their tactics whilst the desire to see the next fighter keeps you motivated to shove another 10p into the slot.
In between bouts you get the opportunity for training rounds and the chance to boost your attributes. Skip rope, jab at dummies and bash away basketballs to increase your stats. Not only are these extra curricular sessions good for your stats but they help break the routine of round after round of effectively the same thing.
This was of course far from the ‘final’ round of boxing games and nor was it the first.
King of Boxer (aka Ring King) was published by Data East in 1985 and was one of my earliest boxing game memories. Growing up in Hastings we had a bustling seaside arcade scene but this little beauty would make its way to the town courtesy of the annual fair. Graphically is was fairly basic, the stunted boxers shuffling round the ring with heads bigger than the bodies and oversized gloves. But the music was catchy and it was just great fun to play, so much so that our little gang of ne’er-do-wells would replicate bouts in our gardens, mimicking the short arm punches and dazed expressions.
One of the most famous exponents of the genre is of course Punch Out!! from Nintendo, which hit the arcades in 1983. Unlike Final Round and King of Boxer, action was viewed from behind, your fighter a translucent outline. I had some experience with it but my younger self spent far more time with a clone on the Spectrum, Frank Bruno’s Boxing, which replaced the green hero of the arcade cabinet for the titular hero himself. Whichever version you opt for the game required you to time your punches and blocks to get round the guard, building up your power gauge for a knockout blow.
Sticking with the Spectrum and Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing took a different approach. Graphically basic (hey, it’s the Spectrum), action is viewed from side on as the fighters sling leather at each other in your quest to win the title. Unlike the other games in this list, you can customise your fighter and allocate between-fight time to various training activities. In addition you get to pick who you fight so if you are feeling brave (and well prepared) you can aim higher up the ladder to progress quicker. Whilst basic by today’s standards, it offered a commendable attempt at realism that was unmatched by its peers.
Bringing things into the modern era, Ready 2 Rumble and Fight Night on PS2 offered distinctive experiences. The former opted for a cartoonish approach with over the top, outlandish brawlers. The latter meanwhile offered an altogether more strategic affair, giving you the chance to battle the likes of Lennox Lewis or Roy Jones Jr, the analogue sticks providing a comprehensive range of punching options.
In terms of contemporaries, Final Blow from Taito, also released in 1988, was the closest competitor. The combatants were big and chunky, the visuals taking on a grittier tone than Konami’s effort but it suffered from severe limitations. Fighters could only move left or right, you did not have full range of movement around the ring and punches would fling out at such speed that they lost any sense of weight. Bouts therefore become a monotonous toe-to-toe slap-fest, marking this out as very much the loser of this particular contest.
Limited to some extent by its own genre and lacking anything in the way of depth, this is nonetheless a good looking, great sounding brawler and the go-to boxing game of the arcade era.