GameCube owners who have been waiting for a boxing game for their system finally have a version of the best boxing game on the market. This 2003 edition of the series isn't a full-fledged sequel to Knockout Kings 2002, though. Instead, it's a special edition of sorts that is available only for the GameCube.
Knockout Kings 2003 includes more than 40 fighters from the lightweight, middleweight, and heavyweight divisions. The bulk of the game's fighters have been modeled after real pugilists from the past and present, including the likes of "The Golden Boy" Oscar de la Hoya, Evander "The Real Deal" Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, and Felix Trinidad. The game also includes a large number of fictional fighters to round out the divisions. You can create your own fighter in the game's career mode, which has been changed around a bit when compared with the career mode found in the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions of Knockout Kings 2002. The GameCube's career mode has more to it than just climbing the ranks. The game takes into account your performance during a bout, which means if you fight a hard grueling bout, your fighter will need to take time off before his next fight. While this is a welcome addition to the career mode, it seems as though it could have had more impact on your fighter's career. Hopefully we'll see a more robust career mode in the next version of the game.
The biggest addition to Knockout Kings 2003 not found in the nearly identical 2002 releases is the game's slugfest mode, which is basically like an arcade mode that features looser gameplay and a super move meter similar to the one you might find in a traditional fighting game. In slugfest mode there are no rounds--fighters scrap until one of them is counted out. A meter in the bottom corner of the screen displays four head and four body slots that represent eight specific punches. Landing these eight punches earns you a super punch, but you can also max out your fighter's super ability by doing this four times. This new mode is especially well suited for two players, since it's extremely fast-paced and focused solely on the action. This mode also features in-game rewards such as health and damage multipliers. Since this mode allows you to earn points based on your performance, you can set matches so they end when one of the fighters reaches 20,000 points, gets three knockdowns, or hits any number of other milestones. This mode, while obviously not about simulating the real sport of boxing, is a whole lot of fun, especially against a second player. The battles in slugfest mode pitch back and forth depending on your ability to attack specific points with specific punches or your ability to defend against these specific attacks.
In the regular modes of play, Knockout Kings 2003 strikes a good balance between being an authentic boxing experience and being a very intuitive and fun game to play. The game's authenticity includes the real fighters and venues, and the fighters deliver believable performances that are comparable to those in real life. Sure, you won't see Felix Trinidad throw 1,700 punches in a real fight, but the way he bounces around the ring and the damage his punches inflict seem just about right in the game. The gameplay is intuitive, thanks to a great control scheme that is very similar to that of Midway's Ready 2 Rumble Boxing series and Empire's Victorious Boxers for the PlayStation 2. The buttons on the face of the controller deliver your fighter's punches, which include left jab, right cross, left hook, and right hook. The analog stick controls not only your fighter's movement in the ring, but also the position of his upper body. For example, if you slightly push your analog stick forward, your fighter will duck down. If you push the analog stick slightly to the left, your fighter will lean his upper torso to the left. Pushing the analog stick all the way in any direction causes your fighter to move in that direction. The great thing about this control scheme is that it actually lets you bob and weave without giving up any mobility or the ability to fire off punches. Another benefit of this control scheme is that you can naturally duck down and throw punches to your opponent's body by using the same buttons you use to throw punches to his head. Even blocking punches takes skill, since you have to push the block button once for every punch you want to block, which forces you to become skilled at timing your opponent's punches and combinations.
The opponent AI in the game is quite good. The game features several levels of difficulty, ranging from extremely easy to ultrahard. The difference between the settings is simply the number of punches and combinations that the computer throws and blocks. On the easy setting, your opponent is little more than a moving punching bag. On the hardest setting, he blocks and evades a good majority of the punches you throw. Plus, he throws a heavy dose of well-placed punches and combinations. The game's pro setting is the sweet spot, since the fighters throw a reasonable number of punches and don't stop everything you send their way. The fighters pick up on your habits as the rounds progress, which means that while you may get away with a lot of body punches in the first round, your opponent will start to throw uppercuts to counter them in the second. The fighters even try to stay away when you have them in trouble, which is important since the game doesn't show any health and stamina meters by default, making it important to watch your opponent's demeanor
Visually, Knockout Kings 2003 for the GameCube is a great-looking game. The first thing you might notice about the game's graphics is that the 3D modelers were very generous when creating the fighter models. Trinidad and the rest of the fighters in the lightweight and middleweight classes look extremely muscular--more so than in reality, but within reason. The faces of almost all the fighters look pretty much like their real-life counterparts. Their faces also realistically degrade after taking damage over a period of rounds and even contort when struck, which is a neat effect--but it can be seen only during a slow-motion replay. The real eye-catcher that makes Knockout Kings 2003 look great is the game's animation. The fighters move and throw punches quite realistically, although the animations when fighters get knocked down are a bit over-the-top. When you're knocked down, you'll see a neat visual effect of a blurry referee seen from your fighter's view. All the action during play can be seen quite well, since the default camera angle intelligently moves with the fighters during the bout. You can change the camera angle to a variety of views, including a first-person view that actually works fairly well. The only thing that looks a bit off is the collision detection, but only during replays. During play, the collision detection looks spot-on, but when you watch a replay, the punches don't look like they are making realistic contact. To accentuate contact, you'll see sweat and occasionally even blood fly off the fighters as they are struck. The crowds and arenas are fairly simple 2D images arranged with minimal animation that doesn't look particularly good. However, your eyes are typically fixed on the two men in the ring, in which case the backgrounds do their job.
If there were one place that Knockout Kings 2003 could use some major improvement, it would have to be in the game's audio department. The sound effects and even the play-by-play commentary are all well done but are simply not as stellar as the game's other aspects. The sound effects are excessive at times--when you land a punch that sends your opponent to the canvas it sounds like a gun going off. The commentary provided is unfortunately a bit repetitive and dry.
In the end, Knockout Kings 2003 is a great boxing game. It's not a simulation in the sense that it gives you the ability to do everything in the ring that real fighters do, like clinching, but it's a simulation in the sense that the game simply delivers a terrific interpretation of the sport of boxing. You can use finesse and box your opponent if you want, as well as go toe-to-toe, and the game's damage and stamina system rewards you for doing either well. The game looks great, plays very well, and offers enough of a challenge to last a while, which adds up to make Knockout Kings 2003 a must-own for any fight fan.