The first game I’ve ever reviewed in my life, way back in 1996 when I was 12, was actually 4D Sports Boxing. Or at least I thought that’s what it was called, even though supposedly the official name is just “4D Boxing”. I was downright ecstatic about it, ranting “mamma mia it’s so good!” over and over again like a starstruck child, but then again, I WAS a child! What was so special about it, I hear ye ask? Oh, let me tell you.
Was there life after Punch-out!?
Boxing games were pretty common in the early nineties, when Tyson was making the rounds and Punch-out! was one of the better titles for the home market. 4DSB innovated in a few aspects that still make a difference today in the much more crowded fighting game market on the PC. It was the first real 3d boxing game (or should I say “4d”?): even though by default the ring is viewed in a isometric perspective, the boxers are always fully poligonal models Naturally, they’re just polygons with no textures one would see in Alone in the Dark or early first person titles like Total Eclipse. But make no mistake, back in 1991 this was cutting edge technology. We’re talking about a game that ran on a 8086 CPU with 640k of ram and that weighs less than 1MB. It is possible to turn the camera all around the ring in 3D, along with fighting in a first person perspective, not only from the player boxer’s but also the opponent’s, years before the Virtual Boy and similar experiments..
Fighting in a first person perspective in a 3d environment was revolutionary, even though it might seem to be pretty much unplayable nowadays. This is because, in order to make the game run decently, the graphics in 1st person are mostly wireframe. Surprises don’t end there, 4DSB offers a refreshing variety of personalization options for the boxer: beyond the name, it is possible to choose from different faces (or heads rather), physical measurements and colours of jerseys and shorts. Sliders can also be used to modify the boxer’ stats, should one want a fighter nimbler or heavier and able to deal more punishment to his opponent. This is something very common in today’s fighting games, especially evident in the wrestling games used by streamers on Twitch.
What was the 4D in 4D Sports Boxing all about anyway?
The “4D” brand was merely a commercial idea by Mindscape for the European public, the only common ground between the different titles in the series are full camera control and 3D environments. One of the more memorable games in the series, after 4D Sports Boxing, would surely be 4D Sports: Driving. Giving a full array of choices to the player in the early nineties on a Pc game, let alone one that fit on one single floppy, was pretty hard to do, but also managing to pull out one of the first polygonal boxing game still fun to play thirty years later? Nothing short of a miracle! This is a lesson in technology to be forever commemorated: nice graphics mean nothing if the game underneath is not fun to play. This might be pretty obvious to everyone reading this, but I assure you, it is still very relevant to the videogame industry today.
Very distinctive software, indeed
The game still offers a pretty decent round of boxing, despite how the controls are a tad too complicated for their own good. The player is locked down in one place, forced to choose between standing still or throwing a flurry of punches to the computer opponent. It is surely more fun to play against a human, as long as one manages to configure a joystick in DosBox. I’m not here to write an article to critique the game’s faults almost thirty years after, since that would be pretty much pointless. Instead I’d like to focus my attention on the tiny details. Like the newspaper at the end of the fight, advertising your victory with a brief replay of the knockout punch. Even if you don’t like boxing games, 4D Sports Boxing‘s innovative features are still important to recognize. As a kid I remember spending hours creating a character, trying to make up outrageous names for him and training to go against the champion. Many important design choices were made by the trio of Jay MacDonald, Rick Friesen and Chris Taylor (yes, that Chris Taylor) back when they were working at Distinctive Software. Two years prior they had created the fantastic Test Drive II : The Duel, one of the best driving game sequels of the nineties.
The game has been an abandonware stalwart for many years, easily found on many websites, it has never been officially released to the public domain but, by now, it’s generally safe to download and play. Obviously there were no other boxing games in 3D for years after this, ABC Wild World of Sports Boxing (another pretty catchy name!) has way more personalization in its boxer creation mode but that was an entirely 2d game. And well, if you wish for something a bit more over the top there’s always By Fair Means or Foul, which I also mentioned in my original review; that game had no boxer personalization at all but you could kick or headbutt the opponent while the referee was asleep. Yeah, seriously.