Games 5/26/09: Punch-Out!! Wii, Bionic Commando (2009), Star Trek: DAC

Punch-Out!!
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Next Level Games/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

With “Punch-Out!!’s” dreadfully overdue return to the big stage, Nintendo has ignored its typical attention to all-ages accessibility with regard to its Wii lineup.

If you’re a fan of past “Punch-Out” games, the news of this lapse could not be better.

Exteriorly speaking, everything about the new “Punch-Out” is exponentially more inviting than what older games could ever possibly deliver. The cast overwhelmingly consists of holdovers from games past, but they’re significantly more alive thanks to a some inspired cel-shaded art, a loving attention to animation detail, and voice acting, which adds an entirely new (and frequently funny) dimension to each boxer’s preexisting personality. In terms of presentation, it’s everything “Punch-Out” should be in 2009.

But all that audiovisual likability is merely a front for a game that remains as faithful as ever to the “Punch-Out” philosophy.

In fact, though the challenge is never unfair, this is the most imposing iteration yet. The classic fighters have modified and diversified their attack patterns since you last saw them, and there are numerous instances in which dodging in a specific direction and countering with a specific punch is the only way to expose a fighter’s true weaknesses. The extra frames of animation give fighters more opportunities to fake you out, while other ticks and vocal cues clue you in on what you need to do and how quickly you best do it.

Best of all is what happens when you knock out the defending champion and take the belt. Previous “Punch-Out” ended here, but this time around, you have to fight the entire cast again and figure out a slew of dramatically more challenging new attack patterns. Each fighter also has addressed a glaring weakness you might have exploited the first time through, so you’ll have to find another way to put them down before they get you first.

“Punch-Out’s” unflinching dedication to its original ideals is wonderful, almost astonishing news, because this level of challenge also completely undermines the game’s optional support for motion controls and even the Wii Balance Board. Using motion controls to punch and the Balance Board to dodge makes for a silly good time during the game’s no-frills multiplayer mode (two players, offline only), which pits you against friend as dueling Little Macs. But the fighters in the single-player modes’ upper echelon, to say nothing of challenge you face when defending the belt, are simply too quick to take down using any of these methods. “Punch-Out” allows you to turn the Wii remote sideways and use it like an NES controller, and if you wish to master “Punch-Out” in 2009 as you did in 1987, this unequivocally is the way to go.

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Bionic Commando
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: GRIN/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, strong language, violence)
optical communication

There aren’t many hard and fast rules that apply to the entirety of game design, but there are some.

For instance: Don’t punish your most spirited customers.

That “Bionic Commando” even nicks this rule is bewildering when you realize GRIN got the hardest part absolutely right. The original 1988 “Commando” made its name entirely through the main character’s bionic arm, which allowed him to swing through the kind of 2D levels most characters jumped through at the time. It worked then, and it works remarkably well now in spite of a third dimension and a mostly hands-off approach that makes it easy to miscalculate a swing and plummet to your death. Intuitive controls, combined with credible motion physics, make for a fun swing mechanic that’s neither too hard to master nor so easy as to be mindless.

The arm proves just as invaluable in combat. Spencer (that’s you) can toss everything from parked cars to park benches at enemies. He also can, among other tricks, lift enemies into the air like kites and swing kick into them like they’re bowling pins. “Commando” employs a deep rewards system for using every trick in your arsenal, but considering how pithy your firearms are by comparison, the bribery isn’t even necessary.

But all this cool stuff never gels like it should because of some constricting level design, which teams up with some unfortunate methods of punishment to keep adventurous players from getting too frisky. Outdoor levels that look like open-ended playgrounds reveal themselves to be anything but, walled off by a very blurry line of radiation that quickly kills players who accidentally cross those lines and can’t cross back quickly enough. Optional collectables off the beaten path should be a blast to acquire due to the gymnastics needed to reach them, but many of them take you so far out of the way that it’s hard to even get back to square one without risking a plummet.

That alone wouldn’t be so bad if “Commando’s” sparse checkpoint system didn’t punish you for playing adventurously. After a few instances of losing 10 minutes of forward progress because you accidentally landed on a radioactive rooftop or missed one jump after nabbing some useless collectable (which you lose anyway if you don’t reach another checkpoint before perishing), you might be too annoyed to bother anymore.

The bitter taste left by moments like these, to say nothing of a storyline that’s hammered by awful voice acting and frightfully unlikeable characters (Spencer absolutely included), makes “Commando” a game that’s as detestable at its worst as it is loveable at its best. Those entranced by the series’ legacy absolutely should carry out any plans to give it a run-through. But a weekend rental likely will be all “Commando” needs to make its mark, provide some entertainment, and subsequently wear out its welcome.

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Star Trek: DAC
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network and Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Naked Sky/Paramount Digital Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone (fantasy violence)
Price: $10

The “DAC” in “Star Trek: DAC” would seem to stand for “Deathmatch, Assault and Conquest,” if only because those are the gameplay options presented to you in the game’s menu screen. The actual game is similarly straightforward. “DAC” is a two-dimensional, overhead-perspective space shooter. It features four environments inspired by “Star Trek.” It pits the Federation against the Romulans, and allows you to embody one of three ship types on either side of the fight. The aforementioned modes provide the basis of the game’s objectives, and while “DAC” allows soloists to play against A.I. bots, it’s clearly designed with online play (two teams of up to six players each) in mind. The actual gameplay is unspectacularly solid: The three ships on each side (Flagship, Bomber, Fighter) have unique characteristics, controls and firing methods, and an abundance of power-ups caters to both strategic and frantic combat styles. The different modes of play are timeless for a reason, and while “DAC” does absolutely nothing to break any ground anywhere, it plays competently and looks nice doing it. Just don’t expect much more than that: “DAC” doesn’t expound on the “Trek” universe for any sort of storyline, and beyond the timing of its release the game shares no significant ties of any kind with the new film.