Knockout Kings 2003
Okay, I’ll admit it- I’m not really interested in sports. If anything, I’m just a follower of local teams or players, sitting back without knowing what’s really going on. Sure, the Oakland A’s are one hell of a baseball team, and the Raiders still kick some arse every now and then. But none of these teams or their video games leaves me wanting more. I prefer something a little more personalized, something more directly competitive. And although boxing has lost much of its popularity over the years, I’ve been intrigued by the professional fighters that have come and gone through the years. So when I tracked down a copy of Knockout Kings 2003, I finally found a sports game that I could truly enjoy.
As far as games go, the fighting genre has been kind of limited in the long run. We’ve all had our fill of SSB:M, Tekken, Soul Calibur 2 and countless other franchises. There are so many kinds of 2-D and 3-D fighters out there that are essentially the same, save for different characters and features. How many rehashed versions of Street Fighter have we seen over the years? The same old fighting games, just repackaged under another name and sent forth from different developers. But what happens when you take away all of the superhuman abilities, all of the special attack gimmicks, and all that extra baggage? You get boxing. Nothing fancy, nothing over the top. Just two guys standing in the middle of the ring, ready to carve into their opponents’ faces with their fists. How simple can it get? Surprisingly, boxing has just as much fun and strategy mixed in as your average fighting franchise game.
Forget about Ryu and his silly little Hadoken attacks. This massive lineup of Knockout Kings features some of the finest combatants ever to step in the ring. You’ve got everyone from Oscar De la Hoya to Evander Holyfield to the great Muhammad Ali ready to fight for you. Everyone except a certain ear-biting heavyweight are present and accounted for, giving a varied and vast lineup for you to enjoy. You’ve got all three ranks of boxers to choose from, from the quick and deadly lightweights to the incredibly destructive heavyweights. Plus, you can create your very own boxer using the games’ customization options. With literally dozens of boxers at your disposal, you can spend as much time as you want with your favorite fighter.
Once you’ve spied your favorite fighter, take a look around at the various gameplay modes. There’s the basic Slugfest Mode that pits you against a lineup of fighters one after the other. All you have to do is choose a boxer, step in the ring, and pray you last enough rounds to see the next bout. There’s also the Exhibition Mode that alternately serves as the practice mode. While the fights in Exhibition Mode only last one bout, you’ll end up spending hours creating and perfecting a fighting style. Since the AI uses the same fighting strategy no matter which mode you’re in, you can as much time playing exhibition matches as you want and learn you opponents’ moves. And while these are the fundamentals of just about any fighting game, they are still important to the longevity of the game and balance each other out.
But unlike the basic Slugfest and Exhibition Modes, it’s the Career Mode that truly shines. You are given the option to create your own customizable boxer, complete with strength, speed, and endurances modifications. You play through a whole roster of fighters, working your way up through the ranks and earning all of the titles on your way. What make this mode interesting are the physical limitations of your fighter. Remember, your character is only human. He has strengths and weaknesses that can be exploited throughout his career. If you focus on developing your fighter’s speed, you sacrifice strength or endurance in the process. What’s the point of having an ungodly amount of power behind your punches if you’re too slow to execute them? It’s up to you to pay attention to your fighter and balance out his skills based on your preferences and strategy. The more time you spend developing your fighter, the better chance that he’ll become the champ.
But all excellent gameplay modes aside, this game still operates just like any real tournament. You’re fighting with two fists and nothing else. That means that you’re limited to only a handful of specific punches and maneuvers to execute. You have your basic jabs, hooks, and crosses to deal out the punishment, along with a few varied uppercuts and some cheap shots to mix up your attack. And all though there isn’t a myriad of complicated button combos or specials, this small moveset is more than enough to keep you punching. The trick to this game lies with how that moveset is implemented. Should you soften up your opponent with a few well placed jabs, or stick to uppercuts to keep some distance? Should you unload a flurry of hooks while their guard is down, and then follow it up with a cross or two to keep them off balance? It’s all up to you.
Of course, your opponent isn’t going to take all this punishment lying down. The AI in this game is superb, complete with dozens of devastating combos and maneuvers. Unless you’ve completely mastered your fighter’s moveset, you can’t spend the entire round attacking. Your foe will unleash combo after combo on your unsuspecting face if you’re not carefully. Thus the need for defensive strategy comes into play in the middle of the fight. You’ve only got to press the shoulder button to keep your fists up and block, but it’ll do no good against some of the more formidable fighters. You must duck, bob, and weave your way around your adversary, striking only when you see an opening or weakness in their defense. It’s that blend of offensive and defensive strategy that makes this boxing match a worthwhile and challenging experience.
But what makes this game even better is its presentation. Sure, there have been plenty of boxing games in the past that have had little or no detail, like Punch Out or Ready 2 Rumble. But this latest incarnation of Knockout Kings features incredibly realistic and detailed fighters. You can see the physique and stature of each fighter during the matches, as well as the welts and blood flowing down their faces. Muhammad Ali looks like a reincarnation of his legendary matches of yesteryear. Evander Holyfield has that ridiculous signature moustache on his beaten face. You can practically see the light shining off their sweat as they pound each other in the ring. Plus, you’ve got a handful of arenas to choose from, like the famed Caesar’s Palace or the beautiful Kona Coast in Hawaii. And although there a re few framerate issues and occasionally overlapping objects, the game still comes off as a beautiful vision of a grisly sport.
Also, the audio quality is top notch. The game comes complete with a soundtrack of upbeat but unmemorable rap tunes to keep the fight going. But real fun lies with the commentary. You have two announcers sitting off-screen, making judgments and critiques of the progression of the fight. These two quirky fellows offer tons of sound advice and add so much more character and appeal to the fight. If you listen closely, you can learn a lot by what these guys have to say and tweak your strategy to aid your win. And if all else fails, the infamous Mills Lane offers his superior judgmental skills and recognizable voice to all of the matches. And once all of these small elements are blended together, it makes for some fine fighting.
I love boxing. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s simple concept that needs to be grasped, or maybe it’s the underlying strategy inherent in the sport. Maybe it’s the legendary fighters that have lived and trained to become the greatest of all time. Or maybe it’s just the appeal of seeing to people beating the hell out of each other. I don’t know. But in the meantime, Knockout Kings 2003 is still one of the finest boxing games to date. It’s attention to details and the technical aspects of this sport make it a game to remember. But in the meantime, I’m signing out. For all you boxing fans out there, good fight, good night!