“Don King Presents Prizefighter” Video Game Review: A Boxing Fan’s Take

“Don King Presents: Prizefighter,” the sole aspirant to the “Fight Night” throne atop realistic boxing video games for the at-home console gets off to a promising, if not exactly good, start. Amid considerable hype — fitting for a game named after Don King, no? — comes 2K’s “Prizefighter,” which boasts a fun career mode and stiffer artificial intelligence than EA’s “Fight Night” can muster, but weaker graphics and complex, button-mashing-heavy gameplay. It has the hallmarks of a typical initial offering for a sports game series: a kind of clunkiness that is redeemed by some innovation that can be built upon in subsequent editions. I’ll hit the good. Then I’ll hit the bad. The Good Unlike my esteemed colleague Sean, I could’ve cared less about having a compelling career mode; all I wanna do in a boxing video game is punch and punch and punch and punch. But now that “Prizefighter” has given me one, I admit I like it. The backwards story mode is god-dang fun. Among the highlights is the interview footage, featuring actors playing the role of ex-girlfriends, trainers or promoters (including King as himself). Also, Mario Van Peeples is in the game. You read that right. “Kane” from Highlander II stops by! Anyway, these characters narrate the rise of your young champ-to-be as you make your way through fights, telling you years later about how upcoming fight X or career development Y gave him the chance to rise to the top. They do a lot of foreshadowing, too, keeping you interested in the story that’s far ahead. Along the way, they break up the monotony of one fight after the other with the same boxer by giving you a chance to fight in historical battles like Braddock-Baer, the climax of the movie “Cinderella Man.” Each of them illustrates some kind of lesson your trainer wants you to get, so the game has you step into legendary fights for one round and give a go at altering history. They also throw you for a loop with some realistic outside-the-ring developments. In one fight, for instance, your boxer goes into the ring with a hurt hand — something that happens to a lot of real boxers in their careers — forcing you to adapt and fight one-handed for a spell. And you have to balance media appearances and other distractions with training. More than anything, the career mode makes the game worthwhile. But it has another edge on the competition in a significant regard: the possibility of quick knockouts. In “Fight Night,” you have to knock down an opponent six to eight times for them to stay down for the 10 count. Not only does it get tedious to keep thrashing someone you’ve already so clearly outclassed, but it’s unrealistic beyond belief. Good luck finding many fights featuring one combatant who was felled six times and either got back up or was allowed to continue by the referee or his corner. There is a way to end a fight in one punch in “Fight Night,” but it requires a very challenging maneuver on the control pad that is essentially impossible against any decent fighter. In “Prizefighter,” any fight can end at any time if you land the right special punch at the right time, just like in boxing. More often than not, you need six knockdowns. But if you knock someone down, then land one of a variety of punches, odds are good your opponent will go down again and the ref won’t even count. This may seem like a small thing, but it’s an important one, for the sake of simulating actual boxing. Also important is the fact that the computer boxers are no pushovers. I can’t stress how irritating it is to have mastered “Fight Night” from basically the moment I got it and finding challenges only in whether I could have an 80% connect rate to my opponent’s 20% connect rate. I’m playing on “amateur” right now on “Prizefighter” and I’m not doing so hot. Maybe that makes me a simpleton, but I’d argue not, since I destroy “Fight Night” no matter the level of competition. There are other touches that I like, too. The roster of boxers you can fight with or against is pretty long, and it includes the likes of Kelly Pavlik, Joe Calzaghe and Juan Manuel Marquez, although there’s some filler in there, too (unless you’re a big Shannon Briggs fan). As much as I like Joe Tessitore calling the action for “Fight Night,” I’m pleased to get some Lamps and Manny. HBO’s Jim Lampley and Emmanuel Steward even sound like they’re delivering lines they would deliver in a real bout. The Bad Maybe one of the things that makes “Fight Night” easy is the fluid controls, but I don’t quite understand why, in this day and age of more joystick-centric controls, “Prizefighter” feels the need to make you press every freaking button in the universe. It steals some of the defensive joystick-based stuff from “Fight Night,” but the rest is pure button-mashing. You have to hit two buttons at once to deliver an uppercut, even. And the reactions are sometimes delayed; if press a button you deliver a jab and your opponent beats you to the punch, you don’t just stop jabbing — you get hit, then a second or so later, the jab comes out. You can hold your opponent to recover health, if you somehow manage to simultaneously press down on both joysticks. Not easy. Gameplay and appearances in general is disappointing. Punches frequently miss wildly when your opponent is standing right in front of you. The boxers don’t move fluidly at all. Punches that do damage often don’t connect one iota, visually — it’s a little like Rocky 3 in there, where a punch stops several inches short of a jaw, but the game treats it like you’ve landed a shot. The graphics are rather weird at times. I can’t figure out why Vic Darchinyan’s back looks like the back of an emaciated 90-year-old man. This gameplay issue, by the way, is a major knock on the game itself. Some aspects of the fights are enjoyable, but after dozens of games, I’m still trying to figure out how to throw certain punches, still finding the angles from which punches are thrown awkward. Training in career mode gets pretty boring and repetitive, like a task that has to be completed before you get to have enjoy yourself. That’s realism I can do without. This trait, it has in common with Fight Night. The roster of boxers may be impressive, but the research that went into building them was poor. Take the case of Edison Miranda, who’s fighting in real life this weekend. Each fighter is ranked in four categories: strength, stamina, dexterity and agility. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Miranda’s career would know which one of those he’d get high rankings in and which ones he wouldn’t, because he’s so obviously strong in one of them and significantly less so in some of the others. And yet, Miranda, who has 26 knockouts in 30 wins and is the proud owner of some of the most explosive knockouts and damaging punches in boxing over the last few years, is ranked extremely low in the “strength” category. And while he’s improved his overall boxing skill level of late, he certainly doesn’t fight in real life like he does in “Prizefighter,” that is, slick and light on his feet, hard to hit and quick. That’s wacky, buddy. It’s like Bizarro professional boxing. The Miranda case is not the only one like that. Overall? Would that “Fight Night” and “Prizefighter” combine into one video game featuring the best of both worlds. The vastly superior gameplay of “Fight Night” makes it still the better game. But if “Prizefighter” can tighten up its presentation and gameplay for “Prizefighter 2,” it’ll get into the ballpark because of its other assets. I have to think 2K can do it — I long ago switched to its basketball game, but it took years and years for it to eclipse EA’s basketball game. In boxing, it’s not there yet, and has a ways to go. UPDATE: Looking around after posting my review, it seems my take on the game is quite similar to those of other reviewers. But this New York Times’ review stands out. Why? Because even a video game review is an opportunity for them to throw in their rote, false “boxing is dying” line, the one they throw in every boxing story they’ve written in forever. What’s worse is that the reviewer implies that he expects this video game to save boxing itself. The Times’ Seth Schiesel (I would make some kind of “try saying that five times fast” joke, but then I’d be guilty of the same kind of thoughtlessness he was) writes about all the things he was able to do in the game, like fighting in “dank gymnasiums,” then offers this witty “insight”:

What I have not been able to do, however, is find a game that will help rescue boxing from its long decline in popularity and cultural relevance over the last decade or so.

This is a new low in mindless boxing coverage by a mainstream publication. Under what pretense does Mr. Schiesel come about expecting this video game to “help rescue boxing?” Look at this shoehorn job:

A big problem for professional boxing today is that it is being eclipsed by mixed-martial-arts leagues like the Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Extreme Cagefighting. While most mainstream sports are suffering from falling television ratings, mixed martial arts has become perhaps the fastest-growing spectator sport in the country. If there is one thing a boxing game has to get exactly right it’s the basic mechanics of punching, inflicting damage and defeating an opponent. Prizefighter doesn’t come close.

HUH? The good news is, I’ve been working on a boxing board game. If Mattel picks it up, maybe, just maybe, I can save pugilism myself!

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.