They have been a staple of gaming since the medium first came into the home environment – boxing games! So much fun, and one of the few sports you can adapt into a zany and colourful kids game, to a beautiful and nuanced fight simulator, over the years we’ve seen more than our fair share of boxing games come and go. Most, except franchises produced by EA, had one entry into video games and that would be it. Rare exceptions like Evander Holyfield’s Real Deal Boxing that went onto spawn Greatest Heavyweights on the Sega Megadrive, were few and far between. But what is the history of the sport in video games? Is it just a cash-in on a popular champion, or is there commitment to making a true boxing game in the spirit of the sweet science? We look back at some of history’s best and worst entries into digitising the sport, and we also ask the question: Is it time boxing games made a comeback?
One of the earliest entries in the genre was Boxing (Activision, 1980) released on the Atari 2600, the game featured a top-down view of two fighters, one black, one white, with either the first to land 100 punches winning by KO, or if the time reached two minutes a decision would be called.
The game did little in the way of actually simulating the sport, it had small intricacies here and there, like the ability to tie an opponent up on the ropes, but it soon faded into obscurity and people forgot about it.
The next entry from Activision came in the way of Barry McGuigan’s World Championship Boxing, available on the 8-bit home computers of the mid-1980s. Whilst an advance on their earlier attempt on the Atari 2600, and with a side-view as opposed to top-down this time, the game featured a career mode, as well as the option to play multiplayer. It would lay the foundations for what could be expected from boxing games in the future.
However, it was what would come less than two years later, that would define boxing games in the mind of millions of video games fans – I’m talking about Punch-Out.
Originally an arcade game released by Nintendo, Punch-Out was ported to the NES as Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, with the protagonist, a boxer known as Little Mac, having to fight his way up through the ranks before facing off against Iron Mike himself. It’s a game I still play to this day and was the first boxing game to spawn a series, with Super Punch-Out for the Snes following later. Although not adherent to the rules of the sweet science, it was a lot of fun, with each opponent having a particular pattern of attack the player would have to learn to counter and then attack. An interesting fact about Nintendo’s deal with Mike Tyson is they actually cut the licensing deal before Mike won the WBC heavyweight title from Trevor Berbick. A risk for the company that certainly paid off, although Nintendo declined to renew the licence following Mike’s loss to Buster Douglas in 1990.
And there was another champ receiving his own game around the same time Tyson received his, only this was a fictional champ, Rocky was released for Nintendo rival Sega’s Master System. Rocky would let you take control of the series’ protagonist and fight your way to the championship belt. It was this game that James ‘Buster’ Douglas’ Knockout Boxing would be based on. A simple rehash of the Rocky game using tweaked graphics. Douglas would see another game released under his name, this time for Sega’s new kid on the block, the Megadrive (Genesis), which would be an adaptation of Final Blow. A side-scrolling boxing game that was a hit in Japan.
It was around the early nineties that everyone seemed to be having their own boxing game released. Acclaim gave us George Foreman’s KO Boxing, on the Snes and the Megadrive, which when ported over to Master System, in a bizarre set of events they adapted James Buster Douglas’ Knockout Boxing to feature Foreman instead. There was one lovely touch in this port that I’ll always remember, and that’s Foreman munching on a cheeseburger in between rounds. Other than that, the game was terrible.
Boxing games weren’t done there though! Because in 1992 Sega would release Evander Holyfield’s Real Deal Boxing. A side-scrolling boxing game where you would create a boxer and fight through the top thirty before facing down Holyfield for the world title.
The game was incredibly detailed for its time. It could even be called a boxing simulator rather than just a game, with the ability to attack a boxer’s key areas in a fight. If you couldn’t get to the head, you could go after the body, it involved a lot of strategy with an array of choices when it came to creating your fighter.
Career modes were not a new thing in boxing games. The usual rise through the ranks wasn’t anything that hadn’t been done before, but the controller had happened and along with the ease of using buttons and a D-pad, made the experience a lot more enjoyable. But that didn’t stop with Holyfield’s game, like some unwritten rule, the new heavyweight champion got their own game. Riddick Bowe Boxing, also known as Chavez (Julio Cesar Chavez replaced Bowe as the namesake in the game) was released. Based on the engine that drove Boxing Legends of the Ring, itself a strange game that pitted various middleweights throughout history against each other, the boxing game was here to stay.
The game was good, but not great. Clunky graphics and a strange perspective when playing, made it difficult to win over fans. Another curiosity from this era was Muhammad Ali Heavyweight Boxing.
Released across various platforms, the game was a run-of-the-mill drive to the championship and a fight with Ali himself. Included in the game as an Easter egg was a secret character called Ali Muhammad. The game was moderately successful, even incorporating full-motion video in some parts. But it was came next on console that I would consider a true boxing classic.
Greatest Heavyweights was released in 1994 for the Sega Megadrive. Published by Sega, it brought together eight of boxing’s greatest heavyweight champions. Fantasy matches such as Muhammad Ali vs Rocky Marciano, or Joe Louis vs Larry Holmes. Based on the Evander Holyfield game (it was nothing more than a re-skin and tweak job) the game was a fantastic single-player as well as multiplayer experience. I lost many hours to slugging it out with my friend, rivalries would be formed, classic matches would be fought. It’s a game I still play to this day every now and again.
Strangely the game was lacking Mike Tyson, although due to his legal troubles and imprisonment at the time, his absence was understandable. For what we had in the past, Greatest Heavyweights was a true revolution and a predecessor to EA’s own Knockout Kings. But before we go there, we need to talk about Prize Fighter.
Prize Fighter was an oddity of a game. Developed by Digital Pictures and released on the Sega Mega-CD, you played The Kid and had to fight your way to the championship. Th entire game was an interactive film, with regular cutscenes between fights. The actual atmosphere of the game was great. Th gritty 1950’s and at the height of the Mafia’s influence in boxing. If this was a game that was released today, then it could have done very well using today’s motion technology (think about what something like this could do on Nintendo hardware) but it failed and received poor reviews. But it was one of the first boxing games to contain a story… only it wouldn’t be the last.
But EA were about to raise their game. Knockout Kings hit the PlayStation in 1998 and was a phenomenon. Various boxers from history in various weight classes. The first iteration of the game had a strange graphical look, but it’s second part was astonishing and found its groove. The series would spawn a yearly series up until the start of the tens. Although the series’ name was rechristened Fight Night when Nintendo purchased exclusive rights to the Knockout Kings brand, with only Knockout Kings 2003 seeing release on the GameCube.
Every year a new version would update and increase its roster, with many boxers from the modern and past era finding their way in. With each new cycle of hardware the graphics would improve until they reached a point where they became almost indistinguishable from reality.
But while EA focused on boxing simulation, other developers had their own ideas for boxing games only they went down the route of making boxing fun.
Ready 2 Rumble Boxing was released in 1999. A fun punch-’em-up similar to Punch-Out but massively updated. Another title, Victory Boxing was released around the same time. This title was unique for the fact that it was the first to use an analog stick to throw punches, a feature later lifted by EA for Fight Night.
Not to put out, other boxing games were released. Don King Boxing, Mike Tyson Heavyweight Boxing, and even Punch-Out made a comeback on the Wii, only this time it used the motion controls to allow you to control Little Mac’s fists.
In 2011, EA released Fight Night Champion. It was a modern great boxing game. Not only did it have a fantastic selection of fighters, it also had the best single-player experience in a boxing game. A well-told story mode featuring popular actors of the day. Telling the story of a fighter who is wrongfully convicted and sent to prison and then makes a return to the ring on his release for a vengeful showdown.
But despite this success, EA decided to put the franchise on hold. The rise of UFC as a sport, and EA’s own attempt to create an MMA fighter to compete with THQ’s UFC game, it was only when EA secured the UFC licence, that it became clear that none of the major games development companies had any interest in developing a new game based on boxing.
But as EA would try to offer UFC as a fix for boxing game fans, we all knew it wasn’t the same. The last great bastion of a true boxing simulator had gone, and doesn’t look like it’s planning a comeback any time soon.
Although boxing games still exist and come out to this day, the console market is severely lacking. There are many boxing fans out there still craving a great boxing game to rise from the pile and give us what we want. Whether EA will heed the call or a new challenger will step up to fill that gap, only time will tell.
Boxing is an important sport, and more in context, a dramatic sport that fits well in the video game industry. With new games likes Arms on the Nintendo Switch set to step into the limelight, the DNA of a good boxing game is alive and well in gaming, but it’s the digitisation of the sweet science that ever boxing fan craves.