If the Game Boy Advance is known for any one particular thing, it is especially well known for a bevy of classic remakes, many of which have turned out to be close to, if not just as enjoyable as, the originals. One title that has remained elusive, however, is Nintendo's Punch-Out!! franchise. Pick either Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! for the NES or Super Punch-Out!! for the SNES, and either way, you've got an extremely addictive and fun boxing title in your possession. Yet, to this day, Nintendo has not seen fit to bring a port or any sort of remake of either title to the GBA. However, that hasn't stopped Destination Software and Inferno Games from paying homage to these great boxing titles with Wade Hixton's Counter Punch. Counter Punch isn't quite up to the level of Nintendo's classic boxing games, but it is as much of a loving tribute to those titles as you will find in this day and age.
Counter Punch's title character, Wade Hixton, isn't quite the type of hero you'd expect to find in a game of this type. Wade is, for all intents and purposes, a slack-jawed, mullet-sporting hick. As the game's story goes, Wade--an unknown, unimportant boxer--is on his way home from a monster truck rally when his car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Despite his excellent duct-taping job on the car's various engine parts, the car is dead, and Wade has it towed to a garage in the nearby town of Big Piney. Big Piney is no ordinary town, however; it's a boxing town. It seems that every single resident of Big Piney either boxes or is involved with boxing in some way or another. As you play, you'll work your way up through the Big Piney boxing circuit, earning cash, learning new moves, and gaining respect as you go.
As you work your way through Big Piney, you will encounter an extremely colorful roster of characters. Your opponents include a slick-talking boxing promoter named Don, an angry tribal native, a demon with a penchant for barbecue cooking, a bubbly raver girl (complete with glow sticks and oversized pants), a 400-pound silverback gorilla, an unintelligible pimp named Sweetness, and even an evil version of yourself. You'll also encounter an array of non-boxer characters, such as the mechanic who works on your car, the local bartender who also refs all of your fights, and a washed-up, homeless former boxer who teaches you a thing or two about dirty fighting. Every character's dialogue fits perfectly with his or her wacky gimmicks, and though it isn't all knee-slappingly funny stuff (seriously, how many mullet jokes can you fit into one game?), overall, the game's bizarre sense of humor works really well.
In terms of gameplay, Counter Punch definitely shows its inspiration in a number of key areas. The boxing mechanics are wholly simplistic, with basic punches taking up the A and B buttons and right and left uppercuts available to you via the R and L buttons. As you box, typically your best strategy is to block and dodge as your opponents punch, then run in, get in a four-punch combo, and repeat until your opponent has hit the mat. Additionally, as you earn more cash through matches, you can hit up various training facilities around Big Piney and purchase new, special punches that you can use to decimate your foes. These special punches become available as you build up a special meter underneath your life bar, and once they peak, you can deliver a massive wallop. Of course, your opponents have their own uniquely gimmicked special attacks, which you must look out for during a match, and each is as deadly as your own, if not more so.
Like the Punch-Out!! of old, Counter Punch relies heavily on quick, reflexive action on your part, and you have to act fast to dodge or block in the correct direction and then throw down your own punches. The degree of difficulty of fighters also spikes higher and higher as you go along, until you get to the final boxer, who, in a nod to the simply unstoppable Mike Tyson, is nearly impossible to beat. However, while almost everything about Counter Punch's gameplay can be easily compared to those classic boxing titles, something about the game's method of play just feels a bit off. Specifically, even though you gain new attacks throughout the game, the action just feels rather repetitive after a while. Also, once you've gotten the right level of twitch required to beat each boxer, they never become any harder, so you're basically just schooling them over and over again. Whether it's an actual flaw specifically related to Counter Punch or an unfortunate result of a classic gameplay system not aging as well as it could, somehow Counter Punch's gameplay just isn't quite as great as it seems like it should be.
Another problem with the game is its rather severe lack of depth. There's no real circuit system to speak of in Counter Punch; rather, the game employs an entirely open-ended story mode, where you can simply travel around Big Piney, fighting each boxer as many times as you please. The trouble is, there are only nine boxers to fight in the game, so it doesn't take you long to mow through all of them, and, in fact, it will probably take you twice as long to beat the last boxer as it did all the other boxers in the game combined. There are no other modes in the game outside of the story mode, so essentially, once you've powered up Wade with all the upgradable moves and beaten every boxer, there isn't much reason to come back to the game again unless you're just looking for a quick, meaningless distraction.
However, while Counter Punch may be short on depth, the game features no shortage of presentational style. The game's graphics are simply a joy to look at in every conceivable way. Counter Punch has a sort of hand-drawn look to it, and though most titles that try to employ this style animate rather stuttery and generally look kind of bland, Counter Punch pulls it off beautifully. The in-ring action animates incredibly smoothly, and the characters are bright, colorful, and excellently designed. The same can be said for the game's cutscenes, which, while made up entirely of static images, look incredibly sharp. The game also features lots of little visual touches that further pay respect to the Punch-Out!! series, such as the between-round menu screens, which hearken back to Punch-Out!! in a blatantly obvious but awesome way. As far as audio is concerned, the game's soundtrack is superb, both technically and stylistically. The songs represent each character perfectly, and they never get old, either. Counter Punch also features excellent sound effects that are both comical and brutal at the same time. There's no voice work to be found in Counter Punch, save for the referee's count after a fighter has hit the mat, but because the rest of the audio is so good, it doesn't really matter.
Even though Wade Hixton's Counter Punch may not be quite the slam-dunk remake of Punch-Out!! that GBA owners have been hoping for all these years, you can't deny what the game manages to pull off. It may not have all the addictive qualities of the games it idolizes, nor does it really have much in terms of depth, but the game's incredible visuals and sound, its offbeat sense of humor, and, most importantly, its legitimate affection toward one of the greatest boxing franchises ever made truly make it a game worth playing for anyone who has loved and appreciated the Punch-Out!! series.