Both of the twins were black belts in judo at 15 years old. I was 3 years younger than them, a babe of just 12, and as a skinny kid with few real friends, I worshipped them and their general auras of badassery. The twins were the first to expose me to the Rocky soundtrack. We listened to it alongside a few others (Mortal Kombat, Batman Forever) as we did pushups and planned each night’s escapades. After lights out in the boys’ wing of the boarding school, we would dress all in black, carry knives and shuriken, and clamber around the school grounds in the pitch dark, breaking into buildings and stealing things of little value, because that’s what ninjas did.
Twenty years later and I’m basically still a ninja in Lazy Bear Games’ aptly named SNES throwback Punch Club, a game that tweaks boxing management by throwing in some light RPG elements. As a ninja, my stat of choice is Agility, and in the heat of battle I can deliver some pretty brutal kicks to my enemies’ faces. That’s because my diet consists of meat, frozen pizza, and energy drinks, and I spend all my time either working out, sleeping, or kicking ass. OK, maybe I’ve made a friend here and there, engaged in some romance, and even delivered a couple of pizzas, but in this day and age, who hasn’t? So that’s me in a nutshell. But what about the game I’m in?
Well, bizarre writing lends a particular atmosphere to Punch Club, which often feels like a clever ESL student pastiching American pop culture and Hollywood films (off the top of my head: Rocky, The Godfather, Fight Club, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Fighter.) The game’s purposefully generic, off-beat humor also seems to simultaneously reference the wonky translations of many Japanese-born SNES titles and the generic banter of 80’s and 90’s action films. This retro feel is complemented by Punch Club‘s charming graphics, each location a lovingly crafted tableau that perfectly captures the era with its colorful pixel art. The 8-bit music and sound effects are more of a mixed bag, going from amusing to grating over the course of a couple hours. Of course the beauty of PC games is that you can easily keep a browser or media player open in the background and swap out the music for something more… copyrighted. In that spirit, here’s a short playlist of songs I listened to as I punched and kicked my way through the game:
Journey – Eye of the Tiger
Rocky Theme Song
Europe – The Final Countdown
Mortal Kombat Theme Song (this track is more intense than I remember it, maybe save it for the fight sequences?)
Ace of Base – All That She Wants (for the romantic bits)
La Bouche – Be My Lover (same)
Eiffel 65 – Blue (I have no justification for this)
Eminem – Lose Yourself
Dilated Peoples – Worst Comes to Worst
Gangstarr – Full Clip
Bee Gee’s – Stayin’ Alive
OK, Julian, we didn’t come here for the music. Is Punch Club any good? Well dude, life isn’t binary.
*Puts on the serious face of an HBO character and begins to tell you an anecdote instead of answering the question*
About an hour into the game, my girlfriend—who had been hovering in the background—commented: “There. Where it says ‘Cafe – job offers can be found here.’ That depresses me profoundly.” With those few, biting words, she pretty neatly summed up my feelings about the game’s more ‘realistic’ mechanics: daily stat loss, the repetitive struggle of working out just to stay in shape, the need to eat and sleep, working a boring job just to survive… these are the cold hard facts of life.
In fact I bet most people’s boxing careers are actually quite a lot like Punch Club… the fight against poverty, decay of the flesh, boredom through repetition, the threat of injury, an unvaried diet, and the ever-present menace of sheer bad luck.
This kind of resource management (and I know there are plenty of fans out there) often feels like trying to bail out a rowboat that’s sprung a leak. The lack of permanency in one’s achievements, which I’m aware lends realism and balance to the game, just serves to make me worried and anxious. This, coupled with the many, many RNG-based fights you basically just have to sit through (with minor strategic input at the beginning of each round), can sometimes make playing Punch Club feel like a chore. That’s not to say the game isn’t fun. With the right music, and after enough game time, you’ll probably become hellbent on exploring the skill tree, fulfilling your (light) RPG destiny, and beating your way to the top. I know I did.