Say what you will about Michael Buffer, but the guy has managed to squeeze more money out of a single catchphrase than just about anyone else on the planet. That single sentence got him high-paying gigs in boxing, wrestling, television, film, and yes, even video games, including 1999’s arcade boxer Ready 2 Rumble, by Midway.
Essentially, Ready 2 Rumble wants to be Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out 2.0 very badly. It’s even cut its wife’s face out of its wedding photos and pasted Little Mac’s face into it. The gimmicky characters, big, exaggerated movesets, and generally flippant approach to boxing in general definitely reek of an attempt to make a Punch-Out for the new millennium, but the question then, is did they succeed?
Not quite, but it’s not a bad effort in and of itself. You start out with about fifteen characters instantly playable in Arcade Mode, where you basically fight your way up the rankings like most other boxing games. You can unlock four more by working your way through Championship Mode, the main single-player mode. When you first dig into Championship Mode, you start by naming your gym and selecting from a very small pool of available fighters, which eventually grows as you win titles. You’re also given a little bit of startup cash, with which you’ll train your fighter, wager on them in exhibition prize fights, and eventually enter them into the rankings for a crack at the title. Your fighter has four attributes, Experience, Dexterity, Stamina, and Strength, which can be raised through the various training minigames, or by purchasing supplements of questionable origin that do not come cheap.
Though you can elect to auto-train and get a decent result every time, you can score higher by playing the minigames yourself, and they’re actually not bad. For example, the sway bag exercise plays like a game of Simon, where you keep adding on movements in a longer and longer chain, and speed bag asks you to mix up your punches and timing to keep the bag bouncing off the ceiling. Some of the drills, like the weightlifting and the aforementioned speed bag, do take a bit of time to get used to, but you should be able to catch on quickly and get into fighting shape.
Prize fights make up half of the work, and here you can wager up to twenty large per fight. I’m not 100 percent sure about this, but it does feel like your opponents don’t improve with training to match your fighter, so it’ll mostly feel like knocking over tomato cans after a while. You won’t be able to pound jabronis for quick cash forever, though; you have only twenty fights to climb from tenth place to the title before your ranking is reset. To clear Championship Mode entirely for a fighter, you’ll have to repeat this process three times, through Bronze, Silver, and Gold levels, culminating in a final title fight against Damien Black, who I’m pretty sure is an actual, factual demon.
Unfortunately, it’s when you actually step into the ring that things go to pot a bit. You do get ring announcements from Michael Buffer himself, but once the bell rings, you’ll happen upon R2R’s biggest hitch: it’s not entirely sure if it wants to play as a tourney fighter in a boxing ring or a serious boxing sim with goofy characters, and it’s not particularly good at either. Y’see, each character has an assortment of special moves that require a number of directions and one or more of the punch buttons, like any other tourney fighter. The problem, though, is that the overwhelming majority of these moves take a LONG time to develop and are pretty telegraphed, so they’re not exactly practical to build your offense around. Worse yet, the game does take reach into account, so a smaller fighter like Afro Thunder has to come inside to land anything, let alone a slow, looping special move, made even worse if the last direction you need to press in the combo is away from your opponent.
Even if you eschew the big flashy moves and focus on more fundamental boxing, you’re probably going to be handicapped somewhat by the wonky control scheme. The C buttons function as your punch buttons, with B and A controlling blocking, so your right thumb has to control both offense and defense, effectively negating any quick counters or sudden defensive moves. Not only that, but there’s no parry feature, nor any real bonus for bobbing and weaving, so it’s extremely hard to create an opening big enough for a nice flurry or attempt at a special move. You can land enough punches to make your opponent stumble backwards, but again, that means they’re stumbling out of your reach again.
As you manage to cobble together offense, you’ll begin to see letters at the bottom of the screen that spell out “rumble”. When it’s all spelled out, pushing A and B will trigger Rumble Mode…oh, excuse me, RUMMMMMBLLLLLLE Mode, in which you have infinite stamina and can unleash the Rumble Flurry, a frantic combination of punches and special moves that CPU fighters will block every single time. Good, bad, or indifferent, Rumble Mode is also pretty short-lived, so it’s not exactly the game changing momentum shift it’s advertised as. Worse yet, any progress you’ve made towards Rumble Mode is erased at the end of the round, so you can’t carry it over to start the next round off with an advantage.
It’s kind of a shame the play control is such bollocks, because the designers really did a pretty solid job of everything else. The characters are properly cartoonish, and not quite as shamelessly stereotypical as Punch-Out’s, although there are a few…questionable ones, like the Taiwanese Jet “Iron” Chin and his nonstop “WAHHH” and “WA-SHAH” faux martial arts shrieks for every punch, and Alabamian Tank Thrasher being, quite literally, a big fat pasty moron. As stated, Michael Buffer handles the ring announcements, with two different versions for each fighter, depending on what ring attire you’ve selected, and the sound quality is quite good, especially for an N64 game. Cornermen blurt out useless advice, and the crowd reacts appropriately to the flow of the fight.
Animations are a bit of a mixed bag here; fighters move around really stiffly, but punch animations and special moves are much smoother, with nice effects, like the motion blur for Big Willy Johnson’s Clockwork combination or Salua’s jiggling belly when he launches a pelvic thrust attack. Fighters do show damage as the fight progresses, as well; there’s no blood, but bruises and shiners are prominent, and if you elect to play the game in first-person mode, which you can, both from yours and your opponent’s perspective, for some reason, you can really start to see the results of your whoopin’ add up.
I really wanted to like Ready 2 Rumble. I really did. I like a good boxing game, and as we’ve seen, a boxing game with wacky characters and gimmicky attacks can, in the right hands, be a classic. Unfortunately, R2R’s fence-sitting between tourney fighter and boxing sim does it absolutely no favors, and the presentation can only carry it so far. It’s not an awful game by any stretch, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you REALLY loves you some fisticuffs and are looking for something besides a pure boxing sim, just be warned, Punch-Out 2.0 it is not.
Slick presentation, Michael Buffer earns his paycheck here, to be sure, characters are fun gimmicky instead of kinda racist gimmicky.
Can’t decide between light arcade fun and serious boxing simulation and the gameplay suffers for it.