Pow! Right in the kisser.
There's a wise old proverb that warns "Be careful what you ask for - you might get it." The idea here is that people don't truly understand their desires, that we are a fickle and impulsive species and tend to ignore consequences in favor of instant gratification. It's a good proverb, with hints of lavender and blackberry rounded out by a strong wooden finish.
After having reviewed the disappointing Knockout Kings, I felt it necessary to ask the gaming world for a better game. I asked for more depth. I asked for faster gameplay. I asked for more attention to detail. I asked for a Career mode that truly immerses the gamer in boxing. I asked for all of these things, but didn't get any of them. Instead, I got Contender. So much for wise proverbs.
Contender is a boxing game, but hardly a simulation. It's sort of a mixture between the arcade classic Punch Out and the first Tekken. In fact, Contender is more of an arcade fighting game than anything else. While good for a few kicks (punches?), there really just isn't enough here to impress.
Thankfully, there's no inane plot to bog down the game. There isn't any kind of wacky secret tournament, the fate of the world is not at stake, and your soul is not doomed to damnation if you lose. You just box people and try to win. Chalk up a few points for simplicity.
There aren't many ways to play. Main Event is the standard mode, where you pick one of several preset fighters and work your way through the ranks. You can also play against a buddy, or set up a Tournament. There is no way to create a boxer, though as you beat other boxers in Main Event mode, you open up more choices in the other modes. Pretty standard fighting game stuff.
As a boxing game, there isn't much depth to the fighting. You have two block buttons and two punch buttons, and combinations are formed by rapidly tapping a button. As you rise in the ranks, you learn a few more punches. These are occasionally useful, but are no more difficult to pull off than the normal ones. The drawback is that special punches take more time to throw, so you have to time it right. The most complex punches require little more than one D-pad direction and a trigger. This really isn't the kind of fighting system gamers should expect from a game released in 1999.
Your opponents are pretty dumb and don't react much to your fighting style. Most follow a pre-determined fight plan, and after a round or two you can usually figure out how to beat them. Not the sort of AI experienced gamers are looking for.
The graphics are decent, though unexciting. The boxers are made of several large polygons, giving them a comic-book feel. The movements are pretty smooth, but they don't look much like real people moving around. On the other hand, the framerate is okay and there aren't many errors. Again, nothing noteworthy here.
Whoever was in charge of the sound for Contender should be beaten up and thrown into a deep pit. There is a total of 4 irritating and repetitive music tracks, the kind of music that makes you want to ram pencils in your ears. Sound effects range from bad to lame. I'd rather listen to a garbage truck at six in the morning. I think you get the drift.
Oddly, there are a few bright spots that are worthy of mention. The Main Event mode, while lacking in much depth, takes a LONG time to get through. Unlike the brevity of many fighting games these days (how long did it take you to reach the boss in Tekken 3? 10 minutes?), Contender has a whopping 40 characters to fight. Your skill ratings increase slowly as you fight more, so you can't just beat up everyone right off the bat.
Another nice inclusion, or rather, nice 'un-exclusion,' is female boxers. There aren't any height, weight, or gender restrictions, which opens up the opportunity to beat up girls (no offense). On the downside, Contender pulls no punches in the racial stereotype department. You'll see a fat Chinese guy named Fu, a lanky African named Dugua, a drunken Irishman named Lucky Day, and a nasty Middle Eastern chap named Hadji. Sheesh. Somehow they left out an Italian named Guisseppe, a Mexican named Paco, and a Jew named Moishe. Maybe those three were busy walking into a bar...
In the end, however, Contender offers little to the gaming world. It is a bland and contrived title, and certainly a far cry from what we really need. "What do we really need?" you ask? Simple. We need a game that does for boxing what the FIFA, NBA Live, or MLB games do for their respective sports: recreate a sports experience as thoroughly as possible. We've seen games with managing components, drafts, detailed player creation, histories, licensing, and enough depth to drown in. Why do developers continue to ignore realistic boxing, a sport that has strong ties to success in the video game world, in favor of crummy, half-assed arcadey games like the two for the PSX?
Don't ask me. I learned my lesson at the top of the review.