As it was a successful franchise, a Rocky videogame was as inevitable as hearing a nerve-jangling rendition of Eye of the Tiger at a bad karaoke night. I believe this was the first Rocky game ever released, and the honour of introducing the Italian Stallion to the gaming world fell to Sega themselves with this 1987 Master System cash-in. I mean, sports simulation title.
Fair play to Sega, they obviously put some real effort into the title screen: by 1987 standards, that's a really excellent rendition of Rocky even if he does look like he's struggling to put on a dressing gown. So, you've seen the lovingly-rendered opening screen and now you're hungry for some red-blooded leather-on-face action, yeah? Yeah! Alright, let's go!
Except no, not yet. Before you get to any actual gameplay, you have to play this little mini-game, and by "little mini-game" I mean "sixty seconds of furiously mashing the buttons". I think there's slightly more to it than that: getting into the correct rhythm seems to rack up the punches faster, but as the rhythm is apparently based on the unknowable, blasphemous drummings of the Outer Gods you'll have a hard time finding it. At least all this training is bound to make Rocky's punches sharper and more accurate than ever!
Oh dear. From what I've read about the arcane secrets of Rocky's training system, meeting the training requirements makes you slightly more powerful or faster for the upcoming fight, and you can also smash the record completely and receive an extra "over-training" bonus. I did not achieve any of the over -training bonuses, because my hands are mere flesh and blood and not the nanotech-infused vibro-fists that Sega made mandatory for success.
Once your fingers are appropriately knackered, you can step into the ring with your first opponent.
I don't think you're making the best use of the available screen space there, Sega. The first bout is against Apollo Creed, Rocky's greatest rival and occasional homoerotic sparring partner.
Ding ding, indeed.
You get dropped straight into a fight with the world heavyweight champion, because a minute spent hammering the buttons for an almost imperceptible increase in strength is all the training you need. You could have at least let me punch a side of beef while a fat, drunken man asks me whether I'm having sex with his sister.
The game itself, then. Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Let's start with the good, and the most obvious thing Rocky has going for it are the graphics. They're colourful and detailed, and if you compare them to something like Great Boxing Rush Up (which was released in 1990) you can see that they're excellent for their time. It's especially nice to see they used the right colours for each boxer's trunks and gloves, with Apollo's star-spangled shorts looking particularly vibrant. And tight. Very, very tight, like he's got a wound down there that requires constant pressure. Maybe it's a coping technique, the hope being that he'll be distracted from the pain of Rocky's punches by the grinding agony in his compressed gonads.
And now, we move onto the bad - the gameplay. Rocky may have supermodel looks, but sadly it has supermodel depth, too. This is partly to blame on the limitations of the two-button controller (and only partly, because Punch-Out managed just fine): you only have one punch button, which can supposedly be manipulated to produce a variety of punches, and one defence button. You can block high, you can block low, or you can duck. It sounds like a decent enough compromise, and it might be if any of these aspects really worked properly. It's all a problem of space, you see.
You know how I mentioned earlier about Sega not making the most of the screen's size? It's a problem that carries over into the actual gameplay. If you look at the screenshots, you'll notice that all the fighting takes place on one horizontal plane, with Rocky forever on the right-hand side. You can never move off this plane: you can't slip to the side to avoid a punch, and you can't move around the ring, condemning you to a boxing career of button-mashing drudgery. It's not even a very wide horizontal plane - anything below their feet is some kind of null-space which cannot be interacted with, and the top half of the screen is filled with that gargantuan status bar. I know it's important information, but a simple health bar in the bottom corner would have been fine, Sega.
Because only this narrow strip of land is habitable by boxers, it forces you to go toe-to-toe with whoever you're fighting. This is unfortunate, because they can all punch harder than you and your defensive moves make Justin Bieber look like an iron golem who took defence classes from the Berlin Wall. Your block only lasts a split second - no covering up and waiting for an opening here - and while the duck is much better for dodging a punch, your opponent is always throwing combos so as soon as you stand back up from the duck you'll get clocked. In the end the only real "strategy" is to mash punch, occasionally holding down to attack to the body, and hope they fall over before you do.
The other weird thing is that Rocky simply will not stand still. If you don't press anything he staggers back and forth, a few paces each way. I presume the intended effect was to make it look like Rocky is bouncing around on his toes but instead he looks like he's overdone it on the vino and decided that this world title bout is the perfect place for a one-man waltz. This makes it very difficult to keep the right distance between you and your opponent, a situation which is made worse by the vague collision detection.
If you do manage to hit Apollo enough times - and I'll be honest, Mr. Creed is hardly showing the form of a champion here, so it shouldn't be too tough - then Rocky wins and celebrates with a big ol' smile.
It's a good job that picture says "Rocky" underneath it. I'm not sure I would have recognised him now that skin has grown over his eyes and he's only got one giant tooth.
There's no rest for Rocky, though: slam an 80's power-ballad into the boombox, because it's time for another training session!
It's not much use in boxing terms, but Rocky's "looking like a cat playing with some string" stat just went through the goddamn roof.
You next bout is against Clubber Lang, memorably portrayed by Mr. T in Rocky III but replaced with an unconvincing stunt-double in the Rocky videogame.
Mickey was right: Clubber Lang will, in fact, kill you to death if you give him half a chance.
After the easy first fight, Rocky's difficulty curve takes on Himalayan dimensions with Lang being a hundred times better than Apollo Creed in every way apart from flashiness of shorts. In fact, I was beaten so thoroughly the first time I fought him that I wondered if it was a scripted event, and I was being forced to lose in order to recreate the plotline of Rocky III. As it turns out, I'm just a bit shit.
Nice of those fishermen to encourage me, I thought. No, losing isn't mandatory, although if you failed to meet the requirements of the previous training then you really are going to struggle.
It seems obvious enough that to get past Lang, you need to get better at the game. That'd be fine if the game was good enough to allow this, but the combination of Rocky's constant movement, poor collision detection and the substantial delays between you pressing a button and Rocky actually doing anything meant that my brain just couldn't latch on to how to be good at this game.
After a few attempts, I got lucky enough to a) trap Mr. T on the ropes and b) accidentally hit him with a few uppercuts, and thankfully he stayed down. You know what that means...
More training! At least this one isn't pure button-bashing, as you have aim your punches using the d-pad and hit the pads as Mickey lifts them up. It's definitely the most entertaining training game, but as the other two were torture machines designed to cause severe tendon damage that really isn't saying much. My only problem with it is Mickey's stern expression. Hey Mick, lighten up! Give me a smile; maybe a more jovial atmosphere will help my training.
N...no. I've changed my mind. Go back to being grumpy. Please.
This time the challenge comes from Soviet man-mountain Ivan Drago. He is one tough son of a bitch.
Obviously I expected this fight to be harder than the last one - after all, that's how videogames generally work. I wasn't expecting it to be quite so ludicrously difficult, though; so pointlessly frustrating that the training games suddenly felt as rewarding and vibrant as Super Mario World by comparison. Not even my technique of trapping him against the ropes worked, because Drago can punch you halfway across the ring whenever he so chooses.
I admit, without shame, that I gave up at this point and started cheating. I used an Action Replay code to give myself infinite health. I regret nothing. Even now that I was invulnerable to his mighty Russian fists it still took me the full 15 rounds and a points decision to claim my victory, mostly because Drago seems to regenerate his entire health bar inbetween rounds.
It is possible to beat Drago without cheating: I saw a guy do it on the internet once, I swear. And I'm sure that, given enough time and practice, I could have beaten him myself (or at least not been knocked out in the second round). But that would be deeply stupid, to waste those precious hours of my already well-advanced life on something as poor as Rocky for the Master System, time better spent on something useful like learning Spanish, or even something pointless but more fun - memorizing the phonebook, carving 1:1000 scale models of the entire population of Kent out of soap, something like that. What I'm saying is that the phrase "cheaters never prosper" is bollocks.
The power of cheating leads me to world title glory, something which I'm sure has never happened in actual boxing. It also means the end of the game. Yep, that's it, three opponents and then the game is finished. It's a good job really, because the only way Sega could've made any subsequent fights more challenging would be if spring-loaded needles popped out of the pad every three seconds or something.
Rocky and a faceless clone of Adrian run jerkily towards each other in the ending, and we're left to reflect on a game of missed opportunities. If Punch-Out is the Muhammad Ali of 8-bit boxing games, then Rocky is Audley Harrison - a few sparks of promise at the beginning, but it quickly becomes a disappointment. Aside from the graphics, everything about this iteration of Rocky is subpar. One big flaw is that despite getting the graphical details right, they completely copped out on the music front and every fight is accompanied by a lacklustre little tune that is in no way "Eye of the Tiger" or "Gonna Fly Now". Given how important the music is to the whole Rocky "feel", it seems baffling that they couldn't knock up a chiptune version of one of these famous tracks. I can only assume it was a licensing issue and therefore out of Sega's hands, but it's still unfortunate.
And (brace yourselves) it gets worse. In this entire game, there is not one single mention of Thunderlips, the Ultimate Male.
An absolute travesty, I'm sure you'll agree.
Overall, then: give Rocky a miss, unless you're a rabid fan of Stallone's masterpiece. The gameplay is just too stodgy and unresponsive to be fun and with only three opponents, one of whom is nigh-impossible to beat, I think it's fairly safe to say you'll get bored pretty quickly. Punch-Out's position as the only really good 8-bit boxing game remains secure, and as for Rocky - well, at least Rocky Balboa was good.