Last time out, I reviewed Punchout!! – an unashamed arcade game, loosely based on boxing. When it comes to computer boxing games, though, my favourite remains Barry McGuigan’s Boxing (or Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing to give it its full title) released by Activision in 1985.
The game tasked tasking you with taking a lowly fighter up the ranks with the aim of becoming World Champion. To achieve this, you had to take on a series of progressively tougher boxers, earning the right to fight for the title.
Barry McGuigan’s Boxing was one of those rare games that combined strategic elements with arcade orientated gameplay to produce a game that was accessible and fun to play but captured the spirit of the sport.
It’s clear a lot of care went into making the game a fun experience. Players could customise their boxer (common enough nowadays, but fairly unusual 30 years ago), choosing their hair, short and skin colour, as well as their boxing style. Only the last of these had any impact on how the game played, but being given the freedom to design your own fighter gave you a closer connection to your on-screen avatar.
Moving into the game itself, you started off low down the rankings and had to work your way to the top by taking on (and beating) the boxers around you. In keeping with the game’s realism, you could only challenge fighters immediately above or below you in the rankings, and had to beat them to unlock the next group. Before choosing an opponent, you could view their stats and record, giving a strategic element to fight selection, allowing you to take on opponents you thought you could win, or avoiding those who looked too strong for you.
The game’s second strategic element involved training. You had a number of weeks to prepare for each fight and could assign how long you spent on different training activities. Some increased your stamina, others enhanced your strength and you had to look at your strengths and weaknesses, and those of your opponent, and plan a training strategy that would give you the best chance of victory. This was tremendous fun and, when played with a friend, could lead to some lively discussions on whether you should spend 4 weeks training with the heavy bag, or devote more time to sparring!
Training over, it was time for the actual fight. Unlike Football Manager where the matches were computer controlled, you took control of your boxer in a boxing arcade game viewed from a side on perspective. Whilst the available moves were fairly limited, they were well implemented. Like the training, you really felt that your hit selection had a direct impact on the course of the fight. At the end of each round, you’d get a summary of the number of blows the two fighters had landed, the condition of each fighter and how the crowd was feeling, so that you could see how you were doing.
It’s here where your training also began to show. If you’d done lots of roadwork, for example, your stamina would be high, meaning you could slug your way through a longer fight. If you’d focussed more on bag work, your chances of scoring a KO were increased, but the longer the fight went on, the more tired and slower you got, leaving you vulnerable to a full or technical knockout\(being knocked to the canvas three times in a single round).
This could make fights a really tense affair, particularly against the higher ranked opponents. You often got a sense for how a bout was going and this might influence how you tried to see out the fight. If you were clearly ahead on points, but getting tired, did you cover up and try and go for a points victory but risk getting caught by a heavy shot and knocked out or did you go on the offensive but risk running out of energy? The game was a brilliant balance of risk and reward that required you to think carefully about how you managed a fight.
The decent roster of fighters (all with names “inspired” by famous fighters) meant it took a while to get to the top and, whilst each bout was effectively the game (allocate training, fight) it never became dull. Although there were a few basic types, each opponent fought in a slightly different way, meaning you had to learn on the fly and adapt your approach with each new game. The surge of adrenaline as a fight reached its final stages and you awaited the judges’ decision felt very real.
As with so many 8-bit games, the real disappointment came with the ending. Working with limited resources, programmers usually concentrated on cramming as much as possible into the game, leaving little memory for anything more than a perfunctory “Congratulations – You have won!” message. With Barry McGuigan’s Boxing, you didn’t even get that. Beat the man himself and there was no fanfare, no congratulations, no presentation ceremony for the new World Champion, You were just returned to the list of fighters, with your guy now occupying the number one spot. Given how much time and effort you put into getting there, this was a real anti-climax.
Once you’d reached the top, the game did run out of steam a little. It never really ended but offered you the chance to defend your title against the same fighters you’d already beaten on the way up. Usually, my friend and I just switched the game off at this point and went and played something else instead.
Despite the weak ending, I still have massively fond memories of Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing. It successfully combined strategy and arcade action in a way that few games have done either before or since. It might not have been a massively accurate boxing simulation, but it captured the spirit of the sport well. I’ve played other boxing games since, but never found one as fun and engrossing as Activision’s little gem.