The History of Boxing and Gaming
What’s the deal with fighting? Who in their right mind would subject themselves to a beatdown in front of a massive crowd for a living? As it turns out, quite a few people. People have probably been fighting since people existed, although not necessarily for entertainment. Now, violence is everywhere. You see it in movies and TV, hear about it in song lyrics, read about it in the news, and perform it yourself in games. People generally look down on the current culture of oversaturated violence.
As a sport, however, fighting is seen differently. It’s not necessarily about the violence itself, but witnessing someone overcoming their opponent and themselves both mentally and physically. It is a matter of heart, not violence, and for many, that is where the beauty of the sport lies. That has been the case for a long time. The ancient Greeks used ox hides as gloves to spar each other. Romans did similar with strips of leather. After the fall of Rome, interest in bare-handed fighting waned slightly until its revival in England, known as prizefighting, although there were no official rules. Much further along in world history, President Theodore Roosevelt boxed quite often until he was blinded in one eye. All of this before video games were even conceptualized!
Boxing in Entertainment Media
The sport of boxing is particularly fascinating. It is a more recent development in the history of fighting but has been improved and refined since its inception. Compared to sports like MMA, which are sometimes unfairly viewed as crude and messy, boxing is considered more refined and strategic. As far as pop culture goes, Rocky is the first to come to mind when it comes to boxing movies, and for many sports movies in general.
The Rocky films have a very specific message of fighting being the great equalizer among humans. The first two movies pit Rocky against Apollo Creed, a rich and famous, yet likable, narcissist. He represents the upper class and those who have been handed everything they want on a silver platter. Rocky represents the underdog, the everyman with whom most of the audience will be able to sympathize. In the end, Rocky proves that not despite but as a result of his hardships, he can step into the ring as Apollo’s equal as long as he gives it all he’s got.
Even now the franchise still rakes in cash with the wildly successful Creed movies, where Rocky trains Apollo’s son Adonis. While the story of Rocky was loosely inspired by a Muhammad Ali fight, the movie Cinderella Man is a biographical film about boxer James Braddock. Braddock starts the movie unemployed due to an injury, but slowly rises to fame through his hard work. Also biographical, Raging Bull explores the dark side of boxing, where Jake LaMotta’s inability to connect with those around him is a result of the violence he partakes in during matches. These franchises had a great impact on the general perception of boxing, making it seem honorable and noble.
So how does that translate to the medium of video games? Well, to start with, the inherently competitive nature of boxing is key. Sports will always be great fodder for game concepts. There is built-in competition both for couch play or online, and when commonly played games such as football and soccer are adapted, players usually already know the rules, and therefore already know they’re interested in playing a game featuring those mechanics. You can use established celebrity athletes to advertise your game, recreate legendary matchups, the possibilities are endless. Boxing in particular is an excellent subgenre because of the high barrier that comes with real boxing. Anyone can pick up a basketball and play a pickup game in real life, but to give boxing a shot means putting yourself at risk for getting rocked way harder than you signed up for.
The first attempt at a boxing game came in 1979 with the appropriately but lazily named Boxing Match. Its simple name matches its simple gameplay, however. On a two-dimensional plane, two blobs of color move back and forth throwing out the same jab over and over until one of them goes down.
This was a product of the limited technology at the time, but compared to other games of the time such as Space Invaders, its aging gameplay is forgivable. A few years later, in ‘83, Rocky Super Action Boxing was released following Rocky III which arrived the year prior. Rocky Super Action Boxing was a step in the right direction with improved character sprites and a whopping two different punch animations, a high and low punch.
The Golden Era of Boxing Games
Things would shortly be on the upswing for the boxing genre, as 1984 saw the release of Punch-Out!! in arcades in Japan and America. Punch-Out!! made a lot of changes to the formula that helped it immensely, making it not only more reminiscent of a real boxing match but also a great deal of fun for those who played on its release.
Instead of the side angle of the previous two games, it had an over-the shoulder-view that better placed the player into the action. The gameplay was far more in-depth, there were several attacks, blocks, dodges, and what was known as the K.O. Meter that filled up as the match went on to finish off opponents. The enemies were all far more emotive and exciting than the blobs of the past, each with a distinct personality. Their eyes would flash yellow before they attacked, forcing the player to react quickly to incoming danger. They would react to being punched in a cartoonishly charming fashion.
It wasn’t necessarily a recreation of the excitement that came with real boxing, but it was a great success nonetheless, winning several awards that year including Game of the Year by certain companies. The series would remain relevant for years, most recently fans of Super Smash Bro’s Ultimate will recognize that the Punch-Out!! protagonist, Little Mac, appears as a playable character, K.O. meter and all. This was the beginning of not only the Punch-Out!! franchise, but of serious interest in the subgenre.
The rest of the ’80s saw several more newcomers, as well as several sequels to Punch-Out!!, including a spin-off called Arm Wrestling just to throw a wrench in the already confusing franchise. There was also the notable release of World Champion Boxing Manager (WCBM) in 1990. While the other games were exclusively about taking control of a fighter and beating down opponents, WCBM chose to focus on the training aspect from the perspective of a manager. You get to decide how your boxers spend their time, when they train, and watch as your athletes gain strength, stamina, and speed. It was an interesting and creative departure from the existing market that called for a strategic approach instead of the timed button presses of its competitors.
Interestingly, as the new millennium arrived and 3D models became commonplace, the more realistic appearance of these games simultaneously improved the possibilities for player input but also reduced the fun aesthetic of older games. The rough models started to lose the charm of the last few decades and tread slowly towards the uncanny valley of too-realistic graphics. The Wii Sports boxing game revived some of that which was lost. The simple Miis which were customized by the user, utilized motion controls for throwing punches, blocking, and dodging. The most recent Punch-Out!! entry also came on the Wii, featuring more cartoon-inspired graphics and fun characters to avoid the stagnation in other boxing franchises.
Modern Boxing Games
As the ’00s ended and the ‘10s began, the output of boxing games slowed down. The only notable release came in 2011 when we got Fight Night Champion with a mediocre appraisal on Metacritic. More recently, we have seen a shift to Virtual Reality, Creed: Rise to Glory being the most notable. Virtual Reality might have been the last step necessary to fully immerse players in the sport without actually putting them in danger (Unless you consider punching a spectator while blinded by the VR headset danger).
Boxing’s relationship to video games is long, confusing, and oftentimes straight-up weird, but we’ve now arrived at the advent of something potentially great with the new opportunities that come with Virtual Reality for further immersion. It is even possible that games become the new home of the sport instead of TV.
Saved by the Bell
For those who are more interested in the strategy behind training for boxing and want to create your montage straight out of a Rocky movie or those who just want a break from the constant action of modern gaming, there are still options. The upcoming World Champion Boxing Manager 2 may scratch that itch for you by reviving what worked from the original and making plenty of additions and improvements to bring it up to modern standards. Not to mention, a closed beta has just been recently announced until March 30th, 2022! Head on to the Ziggurat page and sign up for their newsletter to reserve a spot!
Bottom line? There’s never been a better time to get into the genre, as you’ve got a catalog of classics to get through and a lot of potential in the coming years, so tape up your gloves and step into the ring!
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