While playing The Con, I just can't shake the feeling that I'm playing an updated, streetwise take on Nintendo's Punch-Out. The controls and pacing of both games are very similar, but, whereas Nintendo's game featured a wholesome group of cartoon characters, Sony's game includes a stable of street thugs that talk dirty, wear trendy clothes, and display bling such as jewelry and tattoos. The Con also expands on gameplay by tacking on role-playing nuances that allow players to create and train custom characters, buy new stuff from various in-game shops, and even bet on fights and take dives. All of those additions are welcome, for sure, but the developers probably should have put more effort into making the combat less repetitive and into better intertwining "the con" aspect into the main body of the game. Even so, this is a solid arcade-style fighting game that should appeal to players looking to participate in their own handheld fight club without risking real bruises and fractures.
Much of the reasoning behind the Punch-Out comparison comes from the fact that both games share similar themes, viewpoints, and controls. Both games put players in control of up-and-coming fighters. Both games use a third-person viewpoint that puts the camera right behind the player's shoulder. In both games, matches are one-on-one and victories are decided by the typical "drain their health meter first" format. Even the control schemes in both games are similar. The Con is setup so that players have specific control over a character's individual arms and legs. For example, the square button will initiate a left jab and the triangle button will initiate a right jab. The X and circle button will initiate left and right body blows, and, if you pick a martial artist, those attacks will be kicks instead of punches. Meanwhile, the directional pad lets you dodge to the left or right, duck, and sway back. That's pretty much exactly how things were done in Nintendo's old Punch-Out games.
Sony's Santa Monica studio co-developed the game with Japanese developer Think & Feel, which was responsible for the Victorious Boxers series of boxing games, so the similarities between The Con and Punch-Out aren't surprising. After all, Victorious Boxers also borrowed heavily from Nintendo's hallmark franchise.
Using Punch-Out as a blueprint was a good idea from the standpoint that many players are already familiar with that style of controls and gameplay. Plus, matches in The Con have the same back-and-forth, push-and-pull rhythm that matches in Punch-Out had. That's not a bad thing. Unfortunately, by sticking so close to the Punch-Out formula, the developers of The Con also retained one of Punch-Out's worst aspects — the repetitive and often mechanical combat. It isn't an exaggeration to say that you can get through half of the story mode just by alternating between the left dodge – right dodge – sway defensive combination and the left punch – right punch – left body blow – right body blow attack combination. They tried to make things more interesting by incorporating grapples, power attacks, and parry moves into the mix, but there really aren't many opponents in the single player modes that require those "advanced" moves. CPU opponents telegraph their attacks and frequently fail to take advantage of counter and parry opportunities. Playing against a human-controlled opponent via WiFi obviously yields a tougher fight, and you'll definitely have more fun with the game if you can find a friend to link-up with. If you can't manage to find a living opponent, you'll still have a decent amount of fun with the single player modes so long as you take frequent breaks in between play sessions.
To its credit, the game's role-playing aspects help alleviate, at least to some degree, the dulling sensation brought on by its repetitive combat. Players have total control over their characters' looks, fighting styles, growth, and fight schedules. The character editor is insanely specific, to the point that you can adjust arm sizes, hair styles, and chest sizes just as easily as you can select individual hats, tops, bottoms, and shoes. You can edit fighting styles and attack combinations too. Characters in The Con know a variety of fighting disciplines other than boxing, including wrestling, kickboxing, Jeet Kune Do, and Tae Kwon Do. Reputation points earned from fighting will cause your characters to gain levels, which in turn will unlock new attacks that you can add to your characters' arsenals. One of the nicest things about the story mode is that fights aren't pre-scheduled. Instead, the game shows you a list of six different gangs, organized by their rank and the number of weeks they'll wait for you to train, and you can pick whether you want to face a tough opponent or go after the weaklings. The weeks leading up to the fight are training weeks, but you don't actually spend them training in the boring, hands-on sense. Instead, those weeks are doled out in the form of points, which you can spend to upgrade your characters attributes (such as power, speed, skill, toughness, and health) or to rest from a previous fight. Outside of gameplay, in-game shops let you spend fight winnings on literally hundreds of new clothing, jewelry, and accessory items for your characters.
Another of the game's role-playing aspects has to do with "the con" itself. The game's title has nothing to do with anything that happens in the story. Rather, it refers to the fact that players can bet on fights and increase the odds by playing cons or taking dives. You can bet money on yourself or the opponent and specify when during the fight the bet gets placed. If you bet on yourself, during the fight you can take punches until the bet is placed to make yourself a longshot and stack the odds. If you bet on the opponent, you can dole out punches to get the audience behind you and then take a dive after the bet is placed. In either case, the goal is to milk the audience so that you win more cash. There is a risk involved in playing the con though. If you make it too obvious that you're trying to sway the odds, the crowd will turn against you and attack your character after the fight. Not only will they take way your prize money, but they'll also cause injuries that you'll have to waste money and time on to heal.
Clearly, "the con" is an interesting concept that, if implemented right, could significantly enhance a game like this. There's just one problem with "the con" in The Con–it doesn't matter. You need to earn $100,000 to enter the final tournament at the end of the story mode, but you'll achieve that whether you place straight bets or make use of multiple cons. Cons will certainly get you there faster, though. The only thing you really need money for in the game is to purchase items from shops. If you're into catching 'em all, that may matter to you. Most people, however, probably won't care that some items are pricy or are only sold for a limited time. Since "the con" aspect isn't necessary, it doesn't jazz up the game as much as it should. That's too bad, considering how excessively the feature is discussed in the game's marketing materials, in the included manual, and in many of the game's non-gameplay video scenes.
Glamour snobs can at least rest easy knowing that the game's presentation is extremely polished, what there is to it anyway. Fight locations are sharp, detailed, and filled with spectators, but they're not very large and there aren't very many of them. I counted perhaps 10 in all during the time I spent laboring through the story mode. The character models are sharp and the animations for actions such as attacks and hit reactions are fluid. Thanks to the character editor, you can dress up some gorgeous looking ladies and gentlemen. Thick thighs and a thong, ooh sweetie I love the way you fight. Unfortunately, few of the game's character designs are memorable. Even Punch-Out had King Hippo and Soda Popinski. The cut scenes in the story mode are rendered using a combination of game engine graphics and comic book transitions, and they feature full voice acting. You won't get much out of the story, however, since it's mostly one hackneyed phrase after another. In a nutshell, your character has killed a gang leader and taken control of her gang of thugs. For some reason, a rival gang leader isn't happy that you killed his friend and rival, and much of the story involves the events that lead up to the eventual and totally predictable conclusion. As for the audio, the sound and voice effects are realistic and varied, although unremarkable, and the soundtrack is packed with stereotypical hiphop beats that almost make a person crave EA Trax. Almost.
Should you decide to take the plunge and bring The Con home, you should be able to get your money's worth. The story mode includes hundreds of stock and randomly-generated opponents, and it will take a good 20 hours or so to earn the money and respect necessary to unlock the final tournament and the closing story sequences. The quick play mode offers the standard one-on-one "arcade" option, as well as survival and time trial options. There are also multiple ad hoc (local) wireless multiplayer modes. If you find a friend with a copy of the game, you both can compete using custom characters and bet the items you've won in the story mode. If your buddy has a PSP, but doesn't have The Con, you can use the "game sharing" feature to play quick matches with them using stock characters.
As a complete package, The Con is an enjoyable, modern-day rendition of the classic Punch-Out. Admittedly, the combat is repetitive and the entire concept of "the con" doesn't really work. Still, the combat fundamentals are solid and it's easy to get lost in all of the role-playing aspects that occur outside the ring.