It’s funny, but as technology in the gaming world moves forward, a lot of gamers are still looking backwards. Retro gaming is still hugely popular, whether that be with people still playing on older, original systems, the current trending of re-releasing classic platforms (such as the SNES Classic), or games created and released today that are made to look, feel and play like they were released several years in the past. There is a number of reasons why these retro-looking games continue to thrive in 2018, and when done correctly, they can offer hours upon hours of nostalgic happiness. A huge market today is 16-bit titles that look like they belong from the 1990s, and this is where Punch Club comes in. A boxing/life sim that would look right at home on the SNES or Sega Mega Drive, but does it hold up in 2018 like other modern 16-bit titles?
In Punch Club, you’ll play as (named by you) fighter whose father was murdered in an ally. His dying wish was not for you to grow up to be a doctor, soldier, or astronaut. No, no, a boxer is what your old pa wants you to become. After the brief intro where a police officer sort of adopts you, you are thrown into the grueling and sometimes quite unforgiving world of Punch Club. It doesn’t take long to learn the mechanics here, but it will take a long time to master them. Now, before we continue, anyone looking for a Streets of Rage-inspired title may be slightly disappointed here. There is no actual fighting in Punch Club, it is a fighting sim, so you’ll be managing the action from the sidelines, à la Football Manager. That doesn’t mean the fights aren’t entertaining, as they are (we’ll get to that later), but if you’re expecting to button mash your way to victory, that is not the case here. What is difficult to master is the actual management, and not just of the fights themselves. Punch Club isn’t just a fighting sim, it’s also a part life sim as well where balancing everything around you is crucial to your success in the ring or wherever else you’ll throw down.
Out of the ring, you’ll need to train for fights. To train to fight, you either need to buy your own equipment or pay to use a gym. To pay for the equipment or gym time, you’ll need to work to earn the cash to do so. And to earn said cash, you’ll need to make sure you are well rested and have eaten good meals, and to eat you’ll need to work to earn money for that. You get the message, right? Punch Club is more than just turning up and battering someone, it is about balancing all the essentials, just like in real life, really. Sometimes the most fun that could be had in Punch Club is outside of the ring, earning loads of cash, having a fridge stocked with food and training like an absolute machine. Even out of those core necessities there is also the added drama of maintaining friendships and a girlfriend! Heaven forbid you should put all your focus into training for one of the biggest matches of your life rather than just hanging out with the missus! This is where Punch Club can become frustrating: It is sometimes too much of a life management sim. We play games to escape the sometimes mundane lives we live, and after playing Punch Club for a prolonged period of time, you soon realise you are actually playing something you are trying to escape.
Punch Club is all about balance: work enough, eat enough and sleep enough. But where balancing doesn’t really help is in which fighting style you’ll decide to use. There are three main attributes to train towards: strength, agility and stamina. You are advised early on in the game to concentrate on one as this will serve you much better as the fights become more difficult. That doesn’t mean you completely forget the other two. So, for example, if you decide you just want to become an absolute tank and focus on strength, you will still need to train the other two but just not as much. Training towards one specific attribute will also allow you to pick one of the three fighting styles: Way of the Bear, Way of the Tiger and finally, Way of the Turtle. Choosing one of these will allow you to unlock specific fighting skills suited for that style, namely heavy punches for the Bear and lightning quick kicks for the Tiger. The actual ‘fighting’ here in Punch Club is a lot of fun and actually does require some thought. Much like in Football Manager and all other sport sim games, you’ll need to prepare your fighter (which is, um, you) a set of instructions. The skills you learn from the fighting styles come into play here. You have several slots to put these skills in, so you can choose to just fill all of them with heavy strikes, but your opponent might be a bit more of a conservative fighter, which means you’ll hit him harder, but he’ll hit you more often. If a certain method isn’t working, then you can switch to a different plan of attack at the end of each round. Running out of stamina? Then for a few rounds just have your fighter block and dodge until you earn some back. Or perhaps you’re low on health, but they are low on stamina? Fill the slots with as much attacking moves you can and try and go out swinging. There is more to the combat than simply just pressing X and waiting for it to be over. You need to think about how to approach each fight, and if your strategy is not working, change it before it is too late.
The 16-bit graphics are an absolute joy to look at, and the retro-inspired soundtrack is marvellous. This is a game that really looks like it should have been released in the mid-90s. There is a tremendous amount of humour in Punch Club, and any fans of 80s and 90s pop culture will find some absolute gems throughout the world. Speaking of the world, travelling around is limited to fast travelling where (and here comes the life management again) you can either choose to catch a bus, which doesn’t take away any time from your day, or you can walk, which is obviously free but does take some time. Throughout the world, you’ll meet characters based on some pop culture icons, such as an ex-Navy Seal named Casey who now makes pizza, a character from a certain club where the first rule of that club is to not talk about that club, and there are two very familiar gentlemen standing outside the grocery store. You know exactly what sort of humour and characters you will encounter throughout the game within the first few minutes when someone demands some clothes, footwear and a motorcycle from you. Punch Club isn’t subtle in its use of pop culture references, but you really won’t care when you get to fight a teenage mutant crocodile in the sewer because they won’t pay up for their pizza.
Developer: Lazy Bear Games
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 24th May 2018