Let me make something clear before we even get started with this review, friends. I personally consider Punch-Out!! to be somewhere in the top ten NES games of all-time. Maybe top five, if you catch me on the right day. On paper, it should have been a relatively easy thing to replicate. In practice, the boxing ring of gaming history is filled with felled would-be contenders. Thunder Ray ($8.99) is the latest to try its luck at putting up a fight against the champ. No one should expect an indie to take down a top-tier Nintendo release, but if it can even pull a few rounds it would be doing better than most. Let’s weigh in on this one and see how our challenger measures up!
Thunder Ray comes from us by way of Purple Tree Studio, and if nothing else I will say that they’ve made a game that looks and sounds brilliant. It’s stylish, distinctive, and the designs for your opponents are fantastic. As well they should be, as this game borrows its theme (intentionally or not) from a would-be Punch-Out!! sequel that ended up making its way out on the NES under the title Power Punch II. It saw an expy of Mike Tyson named Mark Tyler taking on alien opponents across the galaxy after finding the competition on Earth insufficient. Thunder Ray uses an almost identical concept, and let’s give it some points for clearing the first admittedly low bar: it’s far better than Power Punch II.
The basic set-up of Thunder Ray will be familiar to Punch-Out!! fans, especially those who played the original arcade games or Super Punch-Out!! on the Super NES. You’ve got your boxer in the foreground, back to the camera and facing his opponent. Said opponent looms large in front of him and us, allowing them to be extremely expressive. That serves two purposes. First, it gives each opponent a lot of personality. You can see their facial expressions and body language change easily, and each of the eight opponents is different from the others in these regards. Second, it makes it easier to spot their tells. As in Punch-Out!!, it’s generally better to play reactively rather than proactively. Each fighter has their own patterns, and if you can learn how to avoid or block their attacks, you’ll be in a great position to reply in kind with your fists.
Since these opponents are (mostly) aliens, they’re not afraid to cheat in some creative ways. It’s humorous and makes every fight different, while also adding some character to the opposing fighters. In a bit of a change from the source of its inspiration, you’re not really aiming for knock-outs or to try to wear them down over the course of multiple rounds. These fights all go to three knock-downs. If you get knocked down three times, you’re done. If you can get them down three times, that’s your win. You can’t be saved by the bell here, so fight carefully. When you land your final blow, your opponents will often explode into a disgusting gory mess, so don’t play this one in front of the tots.
You’ve got a few moves of your own. Your normal punches come in four types, with high and low punches for your left and right arms. You can also charge up for some stronger punches, and if your meter is full you can attempt a ridiculously powerful super attack. As you play through the game this attack will be upgraded, allowing you to fill up more meters for more misery. Apart from your strikes, you can dodge in either direction, duck under attacks, and block. You’ll have to learn the attacks of each opponent to know which way to respond to their various attacks. On the easiest difficulty there’s a lot of room for error, but the medium and hard difficulties aren’t very forgiving.
So how does this all work on mobile? Regrettably, virtual buttons. Four directional buttons laid out in a frankly asinine way that makes it really hard to hit the direction you want, and four punch buttons that are more sensibly arranged. When your super attack is ready to go, an extra button will appear. I found the game really hard to play this way, and changing to the other control type in the options didn’t help at all. If the directional buttons were just laid out in a normal way, it would have been a lot better. Those who have external controllers will find a better experience that way, which makes sense given this game was originally designed to be played on a controller.
But let’s suppose you have that controller, or perhaps you get along with the virtual directional buttons better than I did. How is Thunder Ray in that case? Here’s the thing about Punch-Out!!: it’s more of a rhythm game than a boxing game. Give it a think, and you’ll probably see what I mean. And in a rhythm game, response time is everything. It’s why Punch-Out!! is one of the benchmarks for latency, and why you don’t see ol’ Parappa and Lammy show up as classic rereleases too often. A little lag can destroy a rhythm game. Those stellar graphics I was praising Thunder Ray for earlier? They include some really dynamite animations for both Ray and his opponents. They look great. But they are so animated that they take a while to come out, and you can’t interrupt them until they’re finished.
This leads to a lot of situations where you can see what the opponent is going to do but Ray hasn’t finished the punch you just asked him to throw, so you have to eat the hit. It’s very frustrating, and it forces you to try to anticipate what your foe might do even before they throw out any tells. You simply can’t trust Ray to take the offensive, and you also can’t put faith in longer combos. Again, you can get away with a lot on the lowest Rookie difficulty. If you want to have the least frustrating time with Thunder Ray, that’s where you’ll want to play. But you’re not playing the real game that way, and you’ll be done with it in a flash. Eventually you have to move up the difficulty if you want to keep getting some fun out of this, and that’s where the lag from being unable to cancel animations lets you down.
I don’t mind that Thunder Ray is somewhat light on content. With how much goes into these fighters, there’s a reasonable amount here for an indie studio. But with that being the case, it’s vital that what is here is polished to a shine. I think in terms of presentation, it’s fair to say Thunder Ray manages that. But it feels like the gameplay had to settle for being second place on the priority list when it should have been first. When the animations aren’t getting in the way, this is a fun game to play. The punches have great weight to them, the opponents are interesting to look at and satisfying to learn, and the way the different difficulty levels ratchet things up is good.
Unfortunately, the animations get in the way often. You have to learn to work around them. You also have to learn to work around the touch controls if you’re not using an external device like the Backbone One. Frankly, that’s too many things to have to work around in a game like this. I think the developer could address both of these issues, of course. If we had a better layout for the virtual directional pad or the option to place the buttons as we prefer, that would be great. If we were able to interrupt animations, that would be even better. Thunder Ray could be excellent with a few fixes. At that point, only its brevity would be contentious, and I think it could weather that.
I can only review the game in front of me, though. And that game is one that gets a lot of things right and a few things wrong. The things it gets wrong happen to be some of the most important things for a game like this, however, and that spells bad news for Thunder Ray. There’s some fun to be had with this game, but a lot of frustration comes with it. Not that spicy frustration that comes from Mike laying you out for the hundredth time, either. No, it’s the frustration of playing a game that gets so close to being a contender instead of a bum. Here’s hoping some updates can turn this one around so it can become a comeback kid in the future.