I've not seen Rocky Balboa the movie, but if the scenario depicted in the game of the film is anything to go by, it's an unconventional narrative.
A boxer – Rocky Balboa – finds some way of cloning a version of himself from various ages. Additionally, he discovers some form of time travel and, for good measure, body possession. He can then jump between key points in his life or other people's lives in an attempt to beat other people or himself up, in a boxing ring or elsewhere. Scenarios soon become increasingly ridiculous, resulting in fictional '70s world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed fighting someone who in ordinary chronology would essentially be a foetus. All whilst dressed in stars and stripes pants.
Actually, what I suspect happened is publisher Ubisoft decided the best way to port 2004's home console success Rocky: Legends to the PSP was to add a couple of new scenarios and characters, shoehorn a complicated control system onto a format that can't take it, and enjoy an association with a celluloid franchise that no-one asked for in the first place.
The pre-match entertainment promises much. Players are offered a series of training bouts, exhibition matches, historical fights, quick brawls or multiplayer contests. Whilst winning conditions will vary, the agenda is the same: defeat someone from Rocky's history, either by knocking them down – often many times, frustratingly – or being awarded the most points per round. Then try again, but harder.
And as the contenders dance into the ring, there is much to be excited about. The cinematic re-runs – complete with rousing score – will bring a smile to fans of the series, despite the time it takes to load them. In-game, Rocky Balboa is pretty enough too, with decent polygonal representations of silver screen icons bobbing and weaving convincingly.
But from the first bell, it's clear that, like Rocky himself, we've seen much better before. Put simply, the game's control system is ill-suited to the PSP. Sure, it's admirable that the developer has crammed in four pages full of attacking and defensive options, but they're impossible to a) remember, and b) get to work, particularly as the analogue stick acts both as a regular joystick and an action key.
Whilst some moves look easy on paper, in the heat of a fight you can't pull them off with any regularity. Pulling down on the analogue stick, and hitting Square and Triangle within a fraction of a second, for example, shouldn't be a chore. But it's hit and miss stuff. Pun not intended – because it's really not funny.
Indeed, Rocky Balboa's fights soon descend into the style of brawl I used to favour at school: hit and hope. The temptation is to button-mash, but this rarely produces satisfactory results.
It's a shame, because the game's paraphernalia hints at so much more. There are countless scenarios and stacks of options, designed to placate both those demanding some deep 'mano et mano' action, or those looking to while away some time on the bus. But each is just a simple variation on a common theme: beat someone harder than you, within a time limit or over a certain number of rounds. Over 15 rounds, it's a dispiriting and all too realistic exercise in stamina.
There are moments that shine. During bouts – and providing certain conditions are met – there's the option to engage Power Mood, which slows the action down enough to more accurately plan consecutive punches. The sound changes, too: each hit ricochets like a shotgun. It's immensely rewarding, if frustratingly short-lived.
But during ordinary play, Rocky Balboa becomes arthritic. Thumbs ache, knuckles crack. Which may be authentic, but it's not entertaining. In standard fights, opponents will get back up from knockdowns at least three times – a standard video game convention, but one which, in the ninth or tenth round, absolutely frustrates.
Punching someone out – particularly if you've activated the slow-mo mode – should be a moment of satisfaction and of triumph. But knowing that if it's the first time you've done it, it'll count for little other than a points bonus makes it entirely unrewarding.
The Rocky films should offer a rich tapestry upon which to paint a rewarding video game. Instead, Ubisoft has taken a concept which works pretty well on consoles with twice as many buttons, and reduced it to an unrewarding test of stamina.
The last Rocky film I saw was Rocky V, in which an aging Stallone beat up a child in the street. Some of my fellow cinema-goers, during the rowdy climax, stood up and shouted at the screen. I was too embarrassed to do that at the time, but whilst gazing at the PSP this time around, I know how they felt. Only this time, it was in a bad way.