Here’s a nice example of why Full Motion Video games sounded great on paper. Using the most realistic graphics possible (real life), you’re placed into the virtual eyes of an up-and-coming boxer. You’ll experience the march into the ring, the corner talks, and the fight itself through his eyes. It’s an opportunity to experience something exciting without placing yourself in any harm whatsoever, and it’s hard to see how any game that lets you wallop an actual dude by proxy wouldn’t be recognized as the greatest game ever made.
To be fair, Prize Fighter services expectations to a point. Three of your four opponents are played by veteran Hollywood stuntmen (Manny Perry, Ben Bray, and Jimmy Nickerson), so the taking of punches is certainly convincing. They also toss out at least as many insults as punches. Between Mega Joe’s cartoon windup punch, and T-Rex actually barking at you in the middle of a fight, there’s some real satisfaction in besting them. If you’re anything like me, you’ll chuckle quietly when a screaming right hook sends Honeyboy ricocheting off the ropes and onto the canvas.
There’s also some real thought put into the story (brief as it is) and the presentation. You’re “The Kid,” entering the boxing world at a time when it’s made quite clear that no one expects much from you. Clichés are piled on quickly, from the press questioning if you’re ready for the big time, to a ubiquitous tubby heckler openly betting against you ringside, to the crooked boxing promoter encouraging you to take a fall. All video is also presented in black and white, a la Raging Bull, and the general look of the set and costumes seems to suggest this takes place in boxing’s glory days. The developers surely know their boxing flicks, and while it’s campy – oh yes, it’s campy – it seems to be offering up a legitimate homage as well.
Unfortunately, gameplay doesn’t hold up, and it comes back to the same old limitations of using video. Despite how it’s sold (or how you would logically expect it to work), this is another timing game unreliant on the video running in the background. When I first started playing, I was missing punch after punch, regardless of my opponent’s distance, and thought there was some kind of issue with properly judging depth. Nope. Instead, it’s just a system literally based on pressing the right button at the right timecode, selected at some programmer’s arbitrary discretion.
Fighting happens in a much smaller window, with first-person video watching your opponent bounce around and toss shots. Your own mitts are show as overlaid sprites. A and C punch (left and right fists, natch), with D-pad modifiers dictating hooks, jabs, body shots, and uppercuts. Left and right on the D-pad causes you to bob and weave, giving you a chance to avoid incoming shots. The B button covers up. You’ll take no damage, but can’t see or fight back either, so it’s best avoided. If you have a 6-button controller, then separate buttons are given for left/right hooks and jabs – this is highly recommended since the timing windows are only fractions of a second, and D-pad combos are very imprecise.
Actually landing a punch is exclusively reliant on throwing the right strike at the programmed timecode. To be clear, this has virtually nothing to do with the video in the background. Your opponents barely bother to cover their faces, and leave openings a good boxer could easily exploit ALL the time – but if you throw a punch that’s not during one of these inconsistent timing windows, absolutely nothing happens.
To aid you here, the game features a “training mode” toggle that puts indicator arrows around the border of the video. Spot the arrow, throw the correct punch, and Bob’s your uncle. Unfortunately, this is the only way that the game is playable. I’m not sure what it’s “training” you for, except for rote memorization of the video clips. Again, you’re never actually fighting these guys, just trying to hit invisible cues at the right time. Training mode’s indicators also last for only the first round, so you pretty much knock them down in Round 1 (luckily, not that difficult), or not at all.
If your button presses happen to line up with the very brief opportunity windows, there’s a quick half-second insert of a separate piece of video where your opponent gets hit. It’s not incredibly distracting, and it does at least allow some satisfaction of connecting a blow, but it also doesn’t pause the main video – you’ll cut right back into the fight, slightly throwing off your timing and making combos literally impossible. Punches accumulate damage, shown through indicators at the bottom of the screen. Cause enough damage and your opponent is knocked down, with a randomized chance to get back up. Repeat until the fight is over.
The video limitations are a problem. There’s no strategy involved, and barely a game to be had here. Training mode makes this all playable though, and there still is some fun in whomping on boxers in first person. Trying to hit the indicated punches as the right time has some challenge to it as well, as they come fast and disappear faster. Ducking also adds some skill, since you can do it at any time and it always appears to work. So Prize Fighter isn’t that bad overall – actually one of the better FMV games – but unfortunately, there’s not much to the package.
There are only four opponents, two per disc. Honeyboy is your weak Glass Joe type, scaling up to your final bout with Nuke “The Duke” Johnson. If you beat The Duke, you win. However, you’ll need to grind on the three other fighters before you’ll be strong enough to take him on. Successful fights build experience points, which you can then spend on upgrading your left and right punches or overall health. This at least allows for a sense of progression, and a clear end goal, but it’s still the same three fights repeated across the entire length of the game.
It’s also important to note that the fights themselves never change. Clinches are used as video transitions, so fights are broken up into seven or eight fight clips. Each clip plays out exactly the same – your opponent will throw the same punches and offer the same openings. At the end of the clip, he’ll go in for the clinch and cover the camera with his body. When the ref breaks it up, it will be the start of a new clip. So, each clip never changes, but the order they are played in is randomized. This offers some limited variety, but obviously not much. Once you learn the sequence of moves within a clip, it’s a just a matter of spotting which one has loaded and going to work. It’s another limitation of using video.
The Duke has over 5300 points spread across his fists and stamina. For reference, you start with 321. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how good your reflexes are if the stats underneath don’t support it. Expertly timed punches will bounce right off your higher-leveled foe, while you yourself won’t have the health to last long enough to wear them down. Making matters worse, the length of the fight seems to determine how much XP you get out of it. You’re not rewarded for fighting well – quite the opposite, actually. If you’re knocking down dudes in the first round, you’ll see around 100 points per match. With only three boxers to grind on, you quickly become overleveled for them, but not yet strong enough for Duke.
Meanwhile, the video running before and after each fight never changes. Each fight is like Groundhog Day; the promoter always gives you the evil eye after your “surprise” win, you always collect the same blonde’s phone number, and every fighter taunts you with the ferocity of a first encounter – making no reference to the twenty previous times you steamrolled them. Luckily, you can save your progress to the Sega CD’s internal memory. You at least won’t have to bash out 30+ fights in one sitting.
Graphically, it works. There’s still pixelation and smearing of objects – I’m not sure the black and white video helps the compression much, but it’s certainly clear enough as to what’s going on. Audio is great, and the production itself is shot well. The first person view feels authentic, and having the screen rocked by punches sells the fight pretty well. There’s some talent to spot here too, with one of the biggest inclusions being Michael Buffer as the ring announcer (the “Let’s get ready to rumble!” guy). The quality’s certainly there, and I suppose it’s a compliment that I wish there were more fighters and more story.
If we all learned anything from the FMV experiments, it’s that there’s only so many ways you can make a game based on the technology. This is actually one of the better ways. It’s not a great boxing game since you’re never truly fighting your opponents – Holyfield’s Boxing is a better choice there – but it’s an enjoyable interactive movie. Still, even if you’re on board with that, the limited number of boxers and necessary repetitive grinding with diminishing returns doesn’t keep this enjoyable for too long.
Video is shot well and has a lighthearted, campy tone. Sells the idea of being in a virtual fight well enough.
You can’t throw the punches you want when it makes sense for you to – nothing will happen. Difficult and frustrating to play without Training Mode. Stats further determine the power of your punches, forcing you to repeat endless fights against the same few boxers.
“He begged me to bring him. He always wanted to be a boxer… until the tragedy…” – Scrawny kid’s mom.