The Golden Era, Dark Ages And Renaissance Of Boxing Video Games

Even before I liked boxing, I liked boxing video games. It’s like with boxing movies — you don’t have to appreciate the sport to appreciate the drama of the sport. Video games have always had a cathartic role in my life, and what’s more cathartic than taking out one’s teenage rage by punching an imaginary opponent ’til he bleeds, or ’til he crumbles to the ground, or better yet, both? Even without such rage, boxing makes for good video game action, when done well.
Maybe you don’t know it, but we’re in the midst of some kind of boxing video game golden era. Go to the arcade, and you’ll find perhaps the best boxing video game simulation you can play. Grab a Wii controller or two, and you can get something similar to that boxing simulator, but cuter and more cartoony (as with all things Wii). Chuck in the latest edition of the Fight Night series for the XBox360 or Playstation 3, and you’ll get the most realistic boxing video game money can buy.
And now, in the last couple months, manufacturers have announced the development of another boxing video game geared toward realism, and, also, a throwback “arcade-style” video game that emphasizes action over authenticity.
What better time than now to take a look back at the best and worst boxing video games of the past, what’s up now and what’s in store for the future?

The Golden Era
Atari Boxing more or less began it all. Forget how it stands up today, because it just doesn’t. In between games of Space Invaders, it was great, but limited, fun. Ultimately, the strange view-from-above perspective made it look like two creepy spiders having a touchfight, but it was pure-button mashing joy for the youth of the 1980s.
(It’s hard to believe that there are people who film themselves playing video games then put it on YouTube. I never thought it would come in handy. But today, it shall.)

In the arcade in 80s came Punch-Out!!, the precursor to Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. This was the one where you saw through your green hash-wirey self to fight your comical opponents, such as the infamous Glass Joe. Who would return for the Nintendo version featuring Iron Mike.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! has to be the greatest boxing video game ever. Each boxer was something of a puzzle you had to solve. There was trash-talking between rounds. In the parlance of video gamers, Tyson was one of the finest “level bosses” of all time. He seemed unbeatable, and when word broke that a kid down the block had beaten him, it was just as shocking as when Tyson was finally beaten himself by James “Buster” Douglas.

What I didn’t recognize at the time, but do now, is how filled to the gills the game is with politically incorrect characters. The boxer from India hangs around on a flying carpet. Soda Popinksi was the renamed Russian “Vodka Drunkinski,” toned down for the children’s audience of the NES, but with plenty of allusions to his real name during trash-talk — ex., “I can’t drive, so I’m gonna walk all over you” (gooooooo Cold War bigotry!).
It wasn’t all good for boxing video games in the 80s, mind you. Ring King was decent enough in its own way, despite the fact that the ring was the size of a helicopter landing pad, because at least you got to punch people really high up into the air. But it’s more notable for what’s wrong with it. Even as a youngster, or maybe especially because I was a youngster, I couldn’t get past the unintentional hilarity of between-rounds energy recovery. During these scenes, your trainer helps you recover this energy in a fashion that can only be said to resemble… um, how do I say this?… “providing a man oral pleasure.”

At my local arcade was another video game — the name of which I haven’t been able to track down — that was totally awesome, where you would actually put your hands in handles and punch at the screen. Alas, it was always broken. Imagine, giving kids some complicated electronic equipment to jerk around, and it gets broken. Unfathomable. It was ahead of its time, but its flaws would foretell a slump in boxing video game fortunes.
The Dark Ages

“Buster” Douglas had his own boxing video game. That’s all you really need to know about what came next, through most of the 90s. George Foreman and Riddick Bowe got their own forgettable turns at boxing game titles, too.
Evander Holyfield’s Real Deal Boxing was about the highlight, or at least that platform. It prominently featured, for what I believe to be the first time in home video game boxing, cuts. You could make blood spray off your opponent’s head if you hit him in it enough, and you could score a TKO if you hit him in his bloody puss enough. That’s right, you could gore up the computer or a friend to such a degree that his career was threatened. You gotta hand it to people behind the Sega Genesis — between Holyfield and NHL Hockey, where a good hit or fight would land an opponent on the ice with blood pouring out from his head and his leg twitching, they really innovated the concept of making someone bleed sickeningly in a video game.

Creating your own boxer was another good feature of the game and its successor, Greatest Heavyweights of the Ring. The best thing about that game, obviously, was that it featured some real legends of the ring, instead of one single star — you could be Muhammad Ali and press a taunt button that would let you say “I’m pretty.” Whoever voiced Rocky Marciano in the below clip sounded like a woman — Barbara Streisand? — imitating a man’s voice, but whatever, taunting is awesome.

Oh, in Holyfield’s game, if you beat him, eventually he retires. If only real life was like video games.
Super-NES tried to revive Punch-Out!!, but by then, the game had aged severely.

I suspect the rise of martial-arts style video games like Street Fighter, where the range of “moves” was far more intriguing to the little fingers of video gamers, has something to do with the 90s slump.
EA, the creator of most of the successful sports video games out there these days, began to plant the seeds for what would eventually become a successful run of boxing video games in the early 2000s. But it didn’t start off too impressively. What’s to like about this, an installment in “Knockout Kings,” with the blocky virtua-characters and punches that don’t look like they’re actually connecting right?:

But it wouldn’t take much longer for things to get better.
The Renaissance
Ready 2 Rumble, from 1999, was the game that got me interested again. It was the same kind of arcade-like action — funny characters, trick punches, a focus on action over realism — of Punch-Out!!, but updated. I loved me some “Afro Thunder.” I loved trying to spell out “Rumble” by landing some shots, then you got to do some “special move” business. I just never got tired of it. (Those may be some of the dorkiest sentences I’ve written in my whole life, and that’s saying something.)

Eventually, too, EA began to get its act together. By the time the game changed its name to Fight Night, I was hooked. It got really good when you controlled most of your actions with two miniature control pads, instead of buttons. Suddenly, it was easy as pie to deliver a left hook to the body, pull back out of the range of a punch by swiveling your hips, then counter your out-of-position opponent with a right uppercut. In the earliest iterations, the supreme pleasure came from knocking down an opponent near the ropes; the game would prevent him from falling if you unloaded with seven punches in a row.

In the latest iteration, you can modify everything from your created boxer’s jaw size to whether he defends primarily via shoulder roll. Actual boxing strategies, like a double jab, usually pay off. The PS3 version is even more realistic, because it’s in first-person point-of-view and having a cut eye means you can’t actually see the opponent as well. But if you just want to try to blast out your man arcade-style, you can. In fact, my girlfriend, who has no interest in boxing whatsoever, basically has dumped me for the game. So far as I can tell, she doesn’t actually want to visit me anymore. Just Fight Night Round 3.

There are problems with the game, mind you. The game’s’s artificial intelligence isn’t great — I got so good at beating the computer boxers that I once had to struggle for a challenge by seeing if I could get all the way through the game using nothing but my jab. When it became obvious after about 20 fights that I could, things got boring. Fighting a friend is thus way more entertaining, because they’re less predictable. Also, opponent boxers are just plain annoying sometimes. There are the guys who throw 20 punches a round and spend most of the time just throwing up various defenses — left glove up, right glove down, both gloves up, etc. — and it looks like they’re having some kind of spasm. Then, later in the game, the opponents get really amazing at dodging punches when they’re on the verge of a knockout. Some big-name boxers, like Floyd Mayweather, aren’t in the game, because it’s harder to get individual fighters to negotiate away the rights to their images than it is for EA to negotiate a deal with the NBA. And there are no one-punch knockouts like there are in real boxing. Still, it’s better than anything that’s come before it, realism-wise.
The two other dominant games in the other markets — Wii Boxing on the Wii, and Mocap Boxing in the arcade — are the ones that do the best job of simulating the workout of a boxing game. Honestly, every time I play one of them, I get a new appreciation for boxers, since in both your arm motions and other movements make your boxer do his thing. If I can’t throw 17 punches in a minute without wanting to quit, how in the world do some of these guys throw 1,000 punches in a little less than an hour? With force? While bouncing around? And getting hit back?
But forget realism. It’s not about that. It’s just the best way to simulate what it feels like to be a boxer. When, as in Wii Boxing, your opponent looks like a Fisher-Price toy, realism is going to be hard to come by. But they’re as fun as all get out, these two games. I wish Wii Boxing was a little less blurry at times. I wish Mocap Boxing didn’t have such a lame name — Motion Capture, get it? — but what can you do.

That brings us to what’s next. Don King has a boxing video game coming out this spring, called Don King Presents: Prizefighter. I swear I made a joke like this before ESPN’s Dan Rafael did something similar on his blog — “I wonder if playing the game gets you sued by King in real life?” But really, it’s good to have some competition on the market for Fight Night. EA’s proven time and again that they are prone to getting lazy when no one’s pushing them, and here, as it has been before, it’s 2KSports doing the pushing. Word is there’ll be 30 current fighters — one screen shot features Joe Calzaghe — and your career will be tracked like a documentary. I’ll surely provide a review when Don King’s title comes out.
The one that made news last week was EA’s newest title, Facebreaker, hailed as a return to arcade-style boxing video games. Says here that you’ll be able and encouraged to hit your opponent below the belt and ignore all other sorts of rules. I thought that was called “mixed martial arts,” not boxing, but what do I know. EA’s record of building arcade-like versions of its regular sports titles — like NBA Street — is sterling, so I’m expecting greatness. I just won’t count on anything topping Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

About Tim Starks

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