When visited Japan in October last year, I nearly blew a blood vessel when I saw a poster for Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting, the greatest boxing manga ever known to man. That blood vessel probably burst when I realised that the game would not be released until December. I then kind of forgot about it until a couple of months ago, when I saw that the game was available for download on the PlayStation Network for a consideration discount. And though I hadn’t played my PS3 for months, I decided it was time to dust it off and get back into action.
Hajime no Ippo is the longest-running boxing manga in history. It started in 1989, a year before Mike Tyson would be knocked out by Buster Douglas in Tokyo, and it’s still being drawn today by the same artist, George Morikawa. There are now 110 single volumes and nearly 1,100 individual weekly entries in the series, and the amazing thing is that the main protagonist, former bullied high school student Ippo Makunouchi, is still not world champion. That takes patience and dedication.
Volume 1 of Hajime no Ippo (1989) vs Volume 110 (2015)
The other reason I was so excited for the game was because Hajime no Ippo, the franchise, is also responsible for arguably the greatest boxing simulation video game ever made, Victorious Boxers, a game I still occasionally break out on the old PSP on long journeys. The game, and its comprehensive training-mode version Victorious Road (PS2) — based on the foundations of the classic Boxer’s Road series — features the smoothest and most dynamic gameplay system I’ve ever experienced on a boxing game. Most gamers only know about the Fight Night series, but if you want fun, exciting simulation boxing that feels authentic and awesome, then Victorious Boxers is the one.
Victorious Boxers, still the best boxing simulation around
The last Hajime no Ippo game I tried was Hajime no Ippo: Revolutions, which seemed like the greatest idea of the time because it utilises the Wii’s motion controllers, but the game itself turned out to be quite a disappointment because of the system’s inability to capture precise hand and body movements. My guess is that it’s the same reason why there are so few motion-based boxing games out there.
The Wii version was a great idea without the hardware to pull it off
Anyway, back to Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting on the PS3, the first game in the franchise since 2008. I knew the graphics were going to be fantastic, but apart from that I didn’t know a whole lot more.
After playing it quite a bit over the past month, my overall impression is that it is a fairly fun, albeit somewhat repetitive game that is far more arcade than simulation. It’s much closer to an advanced version of Punch Out than Victorious Boxers. In fact, the games it most resembles, in my mind, are those Dragon Ball Z games where people beat the crap out of each other like Street Fighter but have these insane special/finishing moves that are unstoppable and unblockable once the correct buttons are pressed at the right time. The result is a fast-paced arcade-style boxing game you will probably play a lot for a little while and then never touch it again.
Like Revolutions, The Fighting goes for a stylish anime look as opposed to the old polygons or “realistic” representations of manga characters. The lines are thick and there’s a distinct hand-drawn feel that almost makes you feel like you are watching the show’s long-running anime series. Personally, I prefer the CGI-type renderings in Victorious Boxers, but I suppose for an arcade-style game the artwork matches.
I am assuming they got the original anime voice cast for the game, and it sounds good. It’s got the typically lively manga-style music that will get your blood steaming and the sound effects will make you feel like bones are being crushed (and sometimes they are) by the punches. It’s all very over-the-top in the way that the anime is.
The core of the game is its story mode. You start off with Ippo, of course, and follow the progress of the manga in terms of which opponents you face. When you beat an opponent you add him to the roster, meaning you can start using that character in the free play mode or, if they have one available, their own story mode. Certain characters can only be unlocked once you complete a story mode for a certain character.
Before each fight, there’s a bit of story that plays out in manga form. It’s nice to relive those moments but after a while you’ll start skipping it and get straight to the action.
Unfortunately, like some of the previous Hajime no Ippo games, not all characters are available. This will disappoint a lot of fans as it did me, because part of the allure of games like Victorious Boxers is that you can fight every single guy Ippo has ever faced in the manga. Here, the roster is simplified down to just the key guys and the most popular characters, meaning you won’t get to take on characters such as Ponchai (whom Ippo first used his Dempsey Roll against), Hammer Nao, Iwao, Jimmy Sisphar, and so forth. Given that the game was released in late 2014, the newest character introduced is Alfredo Gonzales, though the big boss, Ricardo Martinez, is of course also available.
The way the game stretches out the story mode is by offering an “IF” alternative path, which is automatically triggered if your character wins certain fights they are lose in the manga or lose certain fights they win in the manga. For example, if Ippo beats Date in their matchup, that would open up a new path the character would be able to pursue, even though the original path will still be available if you play it again and intentionally lose that fight. You have to complete both paths to “finish” that particular character.
Ricardo Martinez is still the ultimate boss
This method opens up a new world for characters who don’t get to fight a lot in the manga or anime. That said, apart from a newly invented manga story intro to the fight, it doesn’t really add much more to the playing experience because you can simply create the same matchups in the free play mode.
Speaking of which, I feel like the free play mode is essentially for players to hone their skills and gain experience points. Yes, there are experience points to be gained after each fight and characters can level-up to make them stronger. Some characters start off their story modes against extremely difficult opponents — ie, Takamura’s first fight is against Brian Hawk — so you may need to go to free play mode to build him up a bit before going back to challenge them again.
As I alluded to above, the gameplay of The Fighting is pure arcade action. You have a button for block and different buttons for different punches — jab, straight, hook, and uppercut. The most important button, however, is probably the dash button, which allows you to side step punches, step back, or dash forward.
Each boxer has several meters they need to keep track of and is all up on the screen for everyone to see. There’s of course the health meter, and emptying that means your fighter will be knocked down. Each time you get knocked down you lose a “life”, so to speak, and when you run out of those you get knocked out completely (unless the three knockdown rule is in effect and you get knocked down three times in a round). In other words, you know exactly when a fighter is going down and whether he will get back up.
There is also the stamina meter, which reduces each time you throw a punch and recovers fairly quickly when you don’t. If you run out of stamina your boxer will just stand there puffing, opening him up to barrages of punches from your opponent. There’s the block meter, which decreases every time you block a punch and lets you know when your character’s block will be broken make you vulnerable to attacks thereafter. Lastly, there’s the finishing move meter, which accumulates throughout the course of the fight. Once it is full (I believe there are three levels all up), you can press a button to execute the special move. It looks like an ordinary punch with a blue light around it, but once it hits, the game automatically enters into a cut-scene where the character will summon the special move and deliver massive damage to the opponent.
Each round is a sped-up three minutes, and after each round you’ll get to rest and read strategy advice from your corner. Each character has a set of skills (some have more, some less) that can be equipped before the fight and in between rounds. The skills — such as stronger jab, stronger endurance, better counters, etc) are obtained by beating certain characters in the story mode, and some skills are exclusive to some boxers. A skill could also be activated in certain situations, such as if you are knocked down or injured, or if you’ve done so to your opponent. Then there are skills that can be equipped that cancel out skills equipped by your opponent. It’s not that complicated.
There are two keys to mastering the game — combos and counters. The first is to learn the combos of your particular fighter, which you can conveniently access in a drop down menu once you pause the game. Some boxers have unlimited combos that can go on for eight punches or nine punches until your character runs out of stamina, and almost all characters have “Sunday punches” that can break through blocks at the end of combinations if you key them in the right order.
To be honest, I was kinda disappointed after I started playing The Fighting. I loved the simulation-type boxing games and this was more like Street Fighter, which is less fun when you play by yourself. It’s really repetitive and one-dimensional. You just have to block, side-step punches, then counter. Rinse and repeat. It becomes a meter-denting exercise that doesn’t take a long time to learn.
Additionally, there are probably only two knockdown animations and the character always looks exactly the same when on the canvas. The finishing move animation is also the same every time and you might start to get sick of how long it takes to execute after a while. And being an arcade-style game, there’s no blood, with only a couple of levels of facial swelling that’s nowhere close to what you see in the manga.
That said, after a while, I started really getting into the game and found it to be highly addictive. The skill-level required turned out to be higher than I anticipated. While it is still a meter-denting and button-mashing exercise at heart, each character has different strengths and weaknesses — not to mention combos — that take time to master. Each opponent also requires a slightly different strategy, one that might take more than a single attempt to figure out. If you damage an opponent’s skull or ribs, for instance, you might need to keep attacking the same spot to maximise damage. Sometimes to win you will need to toggle the skills a little to neutralise your opponent’s advantages. It’s little things like that that can make the game exhilarating.
Accordingly, I played The Fighting religiously for a couple of weeks straight and had lots of fun, but once I stopped, there was no urge to ever play it again. I might give it another go if I get the chance to play it with someone else, but for now, it’s going back into the vault. This is one for the fans of the franchise and arcade-style boxing games. Those looking for something to take the mantle away from Victorious Boxers will still have to wait.