Rage of the Gladiator Review
I’m a huge fan of the Punch-Out series. Unfortunately, Nintendo only releases one of those games about every decade, so I was thrilled when I heard that someone was finally ripping off the fighting system. Why hasn’t it ever been done before? After playing Rage of the Gladiator, I now realize that the simple joy of timing-based dodging and slugging is not so easily replicated.
You play as prince-turned-gladiator, Gracius, in a predictable tale of usurping kingships and revenge. The story is told through brief interludes in which the camera pans over a painting while amateur voice acting explains how Gracius has been wronged. You battle 10 different bosses, including a ninja, Indian snake charmer, a beholder, a demon, an orc, and an elderly Asian kung fu master. Yes, the cast is as generic as it sounds. In this genre, it’s important that opponents have some character, but these guys look like they came out of retirement from an ancient DOS RPG.
Each boss must be knocked down three times total (no knockouts here) and there are no timed rounds. Your rival will begin with the simplest set of attacks during segment one and progressively complicate things each time it gets back up. Sometimes they’ll even transform into a huge snake or grow into a giant for the third wave. An excellent variety of enemy attacks keeps you on your toes; you’ll constantly be reading your opponent for visual or audio cues to determine what’s coming next. Later enemies will blast a series of projectiles at you, forcing you to perform a random sequence of dodges, jumps, and sometimes just staying put without doing anything. The normal career is certainly challenging, and if you fail, it’s easy to bounce right back into a fight with little fuss or loading.
The battle mechanics do a reasonable job of replicating the Punch-Out experience and add some new elements to the formula. Holding the Wii remote sideways recreates the familiar dodge and attack rhythm from the NES days (motion controls are an option, but just aren’t precise enough once the difficulty rises). Star punches are now pre-scripted, over-the-top combos that involve summoning meteors or growing giant-sized and stomping on your opponent. Punch-Out vets will enjoy the additional challenge of a jump button for dodging low attacks and the added hazards like snakes and fire on sides of the screen during some bosses that penalize dodging in the wrong direction.
Two things might fluster the Punch-Out faithful. High and low attack controls are essentially reversed from what you’re used to – meaning that you’ll have to hold the down direction on the d-pad to toggle low hits while high hits are the default attack. It takes some getting used to. Also, the first-person view feels less precise than a third-person camera. Instead of staying in place while the character dodges left and right (like it would in third-person view), the camera swivels with you during dodges and can be disorienting during heated sequences. Additionally, it is tough to know exactly where the hit box is when you can’t see your character getting nailed.
The game’s most drastic departure, however, happens between fights. A skill tree grants new abilities over time, allowing you to invest in new combos, increase your likelihood of a critical hit, regenerate health, and more. While this adds a nice layer of depth and sense of progress, it feels like a missed opportunity in some respects. Beating normal mode only fills up a third of the skill tree, so every point is precious. There were plenty of times where I wished I hadn’t wasted points on some ability that turned out to be useless or imperceptible (five points for a measly five percent increase in damage? C’mon!). Since there is no way to respec or earn points from rebattling old opponents, you’re stuck with your bad decisions as the enemies keep getting harder.
The main career mode can be played a total of three times if you’ve got the skill and patience. Normal mode is totally doable for the average gamer, while challenge mode adds several deadly new attacks for every opponent – plus an entirely new final boss. The third time through requires you to earn an A rank or higher on every challenge mode battle. Only the truly crazy and hardcore will put themselves through this, but at least it’s out there.
If you’re a huge Punch-Out fan and slightly curious about Rage of the Gladiator, I’d still recommend the WiiWare download. While it doesn’t dethrone the champ, it’s got the potential to be a contender if Ghostfire Games makes some changes next time around.