I’ve never been great at fighting games. I’ve been a fencer for a decade and a half, and you’d think that would mean my fingers are fast enough for it. Somehow, I just don’t have the finesse necessary to pull off quarter circles, combos, and techs. I’ve always found the fiddly aspect of the more complex ones frustrating. Sometimes I just want to get back to the basics, and punch stuff.
The Punch-Out series was one of the original fighting games, with the first hitting the NES in 1987, and its sequel debuting on the SNES in 1994. These games were deceptively simple; you could block, dodge, jab, body blow, and throw out an uppercut if you played your cards right. That didn’t mean they weren’t hard. Both games brought ingenuity and creativity to an otherwise straightforward premise.
Despite their popularity, these games haven’t seen much of a renaissance, beyond the punchout reboot for the Wii. A majority of modern fighting games see players engaging in combat from a side-view, stringing together complex combos for flashy special attacks.
Mexican game developer Bromio aims to change that. Their upcoming title, Pato Box, is a throwback to what made Punch-Out a masterful series. Packed with visual charm, and already promising some exciting takes on what constitutes a boxing match, Pato Box hearkens back to the Punch-Out era, finding the right ways to make a simple premise engaging.
“When I was young, I played a lot of Super Punch-Out. And I’m really good at it! Punch-Out was my favorite game,” said Antonio Gutierrez, lead programmer of Pato Box. “Since the beginning of the game’s development, we really liked the idea of using Punch-Out elements, since we feel that it’s a great formula, but it kinda got forgotten and there are not a lot of games like it. When you think about boxing in videogames I think Punch-Out is the first thing that comes to mind (at least for people our age), but we didn’t want to just make a clone of Punch-Out, we feel that it’s a formula that can be improved upon and gives a lot of room to be creative.”
Creativity shines through pretty quickly in Pato Box. The player takes control of the eponymous Pato Box, a championship boxer with a very simple duck’s head. Immediately, Pato Box is betrayed by Deathflock, the shadowy corporation that backs his fights. He sets out on a quest to discover who engineered his downfall, and why.
Pato Box is rendered in a unique style, presented as if reading a graphic novel. The thick black and white strokes that make up the world around you are simple, and even youthful, but help to foster a noir atmosphere. People in the world are two-dimensional, which smacks of an older, retro style.
Pato Box has some difficulty expressing his thoughts to the people around him. And whenever he interacts with folks, they do all the talking. I suppose it makes sense – with a beak, it must be pretty hard to strike up a conversation. And Pato Box’s two beady black eyes certainly aren’t betraying many complex emotions. But Gutierrez assured me that he still has them.
“Without giving any spoilers: Patobox is capable of speaking…sort of. Something happened to him and he chooses not to. He struggles with this because in a way he does not have that necessity, but this is how some of the symbolism takes place in the game,” said Gutierrez. “Sometimes we want to say so much without finding the right words, or we think people won’t understand us. Sometimes they do not even listen, until we need to shout. Some punches take place along the way until we find out how to communicate and how to express what we really want to. It is also symbolism within the game of how some people’s voices are heard against people with power, and how important they are.”
And those tiny black eyes of his actually belie a virtuistic, untouchable interior. Gutierrez explained, “The whole game is about criticism of a culture that is chained to different systems, the same ones that he is part of, and he does not even realize. The characters he faces are in a way a representation of this; people with power, a company with control over a lot of stuff. I wanted to create a noble character, so noble that he has become naive and innocent around what is really happening around him, just like an animal.”
“Patobox does not have vices or worries or even remorse about stuff. That’s how he has become an icon within the game, because he does not have a personal agenda with dubious intentions,” said Gutierrez. “He is true to his dreams and his necessities. If we compare him to other characters you will eventually see that ‘humans’ in this world are shady, sad, unconscious, and in a way they have already surrendered to this system, to the people with power. That’s why the main character will start understanding the truth behind all those sponsored fights and eventually open his eyes to what is real, not knowing entirely what is not, and reality will have a visual distortion in his head as he learns, and accepts this.”
Gutierrez explained to me that Pato Box, as a character, has a very singular focus. This heavily influences how our duck-headed hero struggles with his surroundings. It makes his task all the more daunting. Though he might only be able to interact with the world around him through his boxing gloves, that’s not going to stop him from figuring out why he was betrayed in the ring.
“Patobox is a character with one goal in his life: becoming a boxing champion. Yes, that is his life. It is what he does and what he knows best, what he loves. That’s one of the funny things about him, trying to overcome challenges with that experience reflecting two things: his passion about this sport, and how stressful can it be to only know how to do things related to it. In a way his own dream has become a curse, and he will find out more about this within the game.”
That being said, it hasn’t been an easy road for Bromio either. Based in Puebla, Mexico, Bromio started out as a team making apps for Google Play. They knew they wanted to work their way toward bigger games, however.
“These were a sort of stepping stone for us to make a bigger game, to focus on a bigger project. They taught us a lot about game development, and gave us the opportunity to work on Pato Box,” explained Gutierrez. “But the game industry in Mexico is very small.”
Pato Box has to deal with these constraints – where developers in other countries might be able to simply reach out to pre-existing infrastructure, the Bromio Team hasn’t had that luxury.
“Most difficulties come from the lack of resources in game development. There are not a lot of game companies here, and its difficult to find people to work with. And at the same time, there is not a lot of media that covers games from Mexico since they are for the most part really small,” said Gutierrez.
Bromio is one of the only teams in Mexico working on an ambitious indie project of this scale. With the creativity their team is bringing to Punch-Out style gameplay, they could really make some waves.
“One of the few things we are trying to evolve in the formula is moving away from only boxing matches,” said Gutierrez. “Pato Box is the boxing champion, but every other member of Deathflock has their own set of skills.”
The downloadable demo includes one major boss battle, pitting you against a hirsute chef with a crustacean companion. This fight yanked me directly into the realm of absurdity, reminding me a little bit of WarioWare. The smarmy, grimacing cook telegraphs his attacks via his lobster friend, and the player must react accordingly to dodge waves of boiling soup, or the chop of a blade. Once the fight gets serious, ingredients will drop from above. The player must drop the proper ingredients into the soup in order to tempt the chef to lean in close enough to waft the aroma, opening him up for a solid punch.
The fight is hectic and grows nicely in complexity. It was difficult, but in the sort of way that made me come back every time not frustrated, but eager to win. It’s a boss battle that highlights the creative possibilities within the boxing match scenario.
Pato Box is a game with a lot of promise, and having just recently met its Kickstarter goal, it’s slated to bring us some thrilling gameplay. The demo confirms that Bromio has the ingenuity to design some really interesting takes on boxing gameplay. With any luck, we’ll soon be able to plumb the depths of the enigmatic Pato Box, and get to the bottom of his betrayal.
Follow Pato Box on Twitter here.