In the business of selling consumer goods, it's often times not so much what you sell, but how you sell it that matters most. Case in point is the McDonald's fast-food chain. I don't think anyone over the age of 16 actually thinks McDonald's makes a tasty hamburger, but through aggressive marketing and vast franchise distribution, McDonald's is the most dominant force in the fast-food industry. The same could be said of the Knockout Kings boxing games that have graced multiple consoles. Slick packaging, plentiful licensing agreements with real-life boxers, and a slew of celebrity endorsements has been enough for most gamers to overlook the mediocre gameplay and make it the front runner in this niché sports genre.
Under these kinds of market conditions, it would appear highly unlikely for a new boxing game like Victorious Boxers: Ippo's Road To Glory from Empire Interactive to succeed. This is a boxing title that benefits from no real-life licenses, strangely focuses on unpopular lighter weight classes and it's a videogame adaptation of a popular Japanese manga (comic) series that most North Americans have never heard of. Much like the title's protagonist, Ippo Makunouchi, Victorious Boxers is an underdog right from the start.
However, if any boxing aficionado passes up this title just because Lennox Lewis doesn't adorn it's packaging or Mike Tyson's name isn't in the title, that would be an injustice greater than Roy Jones Jr. being robbed of a gold medal in the 1998 Olympics. For Victorious Boxers is the best boxing game to come along since 4D-Boxing in all its flat-shaded polygonal stick figured glory graced the PC many eons ago.
For those who are willing to give Victorious Boxers a shot, I'm sure many will not be initially impressed. In fact I'm willing to bet that many readers will think I've become mentally ill or I was on some potent drugs while playing Victorious Boxers to give it such a resounding vote of confidence.
I'll admit that upon starting up the game for the first time, I was far from impressed by the awkward introduction movie, the overall sparse graphics, and the limited amount of modes that basically consisted of a streamlined 'story' mode and a standard issue 'versus' mode. The lack of any attribute training options, create-a-boxer feature, or any other customizable element only reinforced the notion that I had pissed away my money on a dud.
It wasn't until about half a dozen boxing matches later when I encountered a tough-as-nails adversary did my view of Victorious Boxers start to shift. Through out the course of the numerous rematches that it took to beat this difficult opponent, I started to realize the subtle use of control and technique that made Victorious Boxers unique and special.
To sum up what makes Victorious Boxers a serious contender in two words: pure gameplay. The in-ring action is near flawless. Unlike so many boxing games in the past that interprets boxing as this stationary rock'em sock'em style of fisticuffs, Victorious Boxers pays just as much attention to movement and positioning with the lower half of the body as it does its offense and defense with the upper half.
Rather than bullish head-on collisions, fighters will bob, weave, and duck with incredibly fluid motion and it takes a considerable amount of skill to be able to 'catch' a fighter and land effective punching combinations to get the knockout or decision. Victorious Boxers is definitely challenging.
All the credit goes to the wonderful control scheme that makes the smooth flowing action possible. Most boxing games require players to depress any number of buttons to block punches. Any one whose ever boxed or gotten into a fight can tell you this style of control doesn't really make sense because in the heat of action fighters don't make cognitive decisions to guard particular punches thrown at them. Fighters today throw such lightning fast combos and the recipients of those punches are forced to react defensively with instinct rather than with the mind.
Victorious Boxers control setup is a more accurate representation because it doesn't have a 'conscious' blocking method. Instead, Victorious Boxers focuses more on motion for defense and brilliantly utilizes the incremental sensitivity of the analog control stick to facilitate both evasive tactics and footwork. Bobbing, weaving, and ducking type motions are performed by pressing the analog stick minimally while full step movement is done by holding the stick completely in one direction. Blocks only automatically occur when two fighters make contact with the exact same punch.
That said, Victorious Boxers' greatest attribute—strong attention to gameplay—is also its greatest weakness. Outside of the in-ring action to master, there's very little else for players to sink their teeth into. The game is all business to the point of being almost arcade-like and long-term play-life is seriously jeopardized. For those looking for a little more content or those who might not appreciate the art of boxing as much as I do, Victorious Boxers under whelms.
Much of what I've written may not even matter in the larger scheme of things. No matter how good Victorious Boxers is, it won't be able to overcome its inherent disadvantages of being a boxing game about fictional anime light-weight boxers that no one outside of Japan has ever heard of. At best, Victorious Boxers is destined to be a sleeper hit that may manage to achieve cult status. At worst, Victorious Boxers won't even register on anyone's radar. In this media-driven day and age of information, good craftsmanship just isn't enough to the make it in the videogame industry. Marketing and business savvy play just as important role in achieving success.
Critic's note: At the time of writing this review, it was announced that makers of Knockout Kings, EA Sports, is working with New Corporation, the developers of Victorious Boxers, on creating the next entry of the Knockout Kings series for the Nintendo GameCube. So perhaps for the future of boxing games, it will be possible for good business and good art to come together for one incredible boxing game.