Friday, November 23, 2012

Punch Out that Red Steel P2: A meditation on First Person Melee

at 4:22 PM
There may not be an established FPB (first-person brawler) genre, but if we wander through the annals of gaming history (okay) we'll stumble upon a few games that approach the notion, or at the very least contain elements of influence for the theoretical genre-to-be. The most outright, blatantly advertised-as-such game is probably Zeno Clash, but because that's pretty obscure and I've yet to play it, you'll have to hold your pants on while I discuss some games that anyone has ever played, Punch-Out!! and Red Steel 2. Please note that I'm more familiar with Super Punch-Out!! than its NES precedent, so I'll be using the franchise name to refer to the games interchangeably. They aren't that different.

So why the hell Punch-Out!!? Not only is the game not first person, but it's clearly a fighting game, not a brawler. It's so close over-the-shoulder though (your character is goddamn transparent!) that I'm willing to use my imagination and call it first-person. Since the camera is static, there's clearly nothing that would fail to translate to a first-person game. As for the dueling nature, come on guy. You know brawlers and action games are just wide-scale implementations of fighting mechanics! In 1992 the terms were completely interchangeable - Final Fight was liberally referred to as a fighting game, and Street Fighter as a beat-em-up. I don't think it's that hard to imagine a Punch-Out!! with three or four fighters in the ring, but the game was so caught up in being a realistic boxing simulation that Nintendo was afraid to cross that line. So let's look at the mechanics.

It's not obvious how to make a fighting game fun without bogging it down in Systems (look at Guilty Gear and it's Super-Counter this and Hyper Roman Mega Greek Cancel), but Punch-Out!! was way ahead of its time. Sometimes it's dismissed as a rhythm game, but that's not any fairer than calling Arkham Asylum the same thing. There are clearly rhythmic elements to the combat, simply because the interplay is reactionary. The player has to observe, look for patterns and openings, and respond with defensive and offensive maneuvers. A pure rhythm game requires fixed responses to cues - when you see an X on the screen, you press X. Punch-Out!! creates gaps for improvisation. If a jab is coming, you can duck, block high, dodge left or right, or counter-punch. Which to do is left to the discretion of the player and his overall strategy. Reflexes are key, but so is strategy. How do you outsmart your opponent and knock him into submission?

I make an Arkham Asylum comparison despite the fact that Punch-Out!!'s combat goes beyond that. It can't simply be transposed into a third-person overhead action game. The strategy of the combat plays up a relationship between the player and his opponent, a direct chaining of relentless action and reaction that keeps them locked face-to-face. There's no backing away, no running for cover - the tension is built because the battle is up-close and personal in a first-person perspective, because every missed opportunity is not just the loss of a hit, but a gained opportunity for the enemy.

This brings us around to the complexity of this enemy. The focused combat needs an opponent worth focusing on, something that can't be taken down by a repeated string of standard attacks. Attacks need to follow some structure in order to allow the player any strategy beyond blind reflex, yet a vast repertoire has to keep him on his toes. Punch-Out!! gives the combatants a flurry of moves to draw on, even more than the player has at his disposal, and distinguishes different opponents by their preference. Learning these preferences also serves to slowly build up the player's own skill-set, his understanding of how to deal with moves in every situation.
What says complex, sophisticated foe better than clown?
Punch-Out!! is a game offering a lot more than meets the eye. It's not a simple rhythm game and certainly not a boxing sim, but rather a first-person fighter that demands the same acuity and alacrity as its side-scrolling and third-person peers. A FPB could stand to learn from the complexity of Punch-Out!!'s opponents and the tension it builds with locked-in head-to-head battles.

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