Remember Mike Tyson’s Punch Out? The glory-days NES title may be the greatest boxing game ever. Sure, EA’s Fight Night series may be more realistic and have better graphics, but give me Bald Bull, Soda Popinski and Little Mac any day.

Pattern memorization, exploiting weakness and watching for that special move tipoff were the name of the game in Punch Out‘s day. I have a feeling the developers of Facebreaker loved Punch Out.

Facebreaker is a cartoon action boxing title. There aren’t any body shots, cut men, mini games or realistic sweat modeling here — just pulse-pounding pugilistic punishment.

The controls are simple: high punch, low punch, throw and block. By holding high/low punch, your fighter performs a hook. By holding block, a dodge is executed. By holding block and a punch button, your fighter will unleash a devastating parry — a dodge resulting in a free hit.

Movement is controlled by the left analog stick. A strategic dash is performed with a flick of the stick. Aside from the special punches (more on those to come), that’s it. The controls take minutes to learn, but lend themselves to deeper strategy.

The title utilizes a “rock, paper, scissors” system, meaning that jabs/hooks trump “breakers,” breakers beat blocks and blocks beat jabs.

Breakers are charged attacks that can be quite devastating if you box correctly. There’s a meter in the bottom corner of the screen that charges up as you land consecutive punches without being hit. Unleashing these when the meter is not full results in a “breaker” — either bone, ground, air or the titular, instant-kill facebreaker. Knowing when to charge forth in an attempt to get the devastating finisher or use it more intermittently to pile up damage is where much of the strategy comes.

Alas, here is where the game’s brutal AI teaches you a thing or two about boxing. AI fighters are unrelenting in their quest to turn your face into a smashed melon. Early on, you will find yourself getting dodged, blocked and parried to oblivion — often resulting in knock out after knock out.

The trick is that each opponent has a Punch Out-like tell that soon reveals itself, resulting in an “Oh, now I get it” moment that is actually rewarding, considering the way your head had so recently been used to mop up the ring. Yes, the AI is punishing and you will find yourself cursing out your opponent, but the fights are rarely “cheap” — they just take time to figure out.

The only exception to this rule is when it comes to sudden death. In the single player mode, Brawl for it All, it’s a race to get three knockouts before the three two-minute rounds expire. If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of being in sudden death, you may as well quit and try again. The AI goes berserk and will obliterate you. I found myself up two knockouts to none going into sudden death, only to be smashed thirty seconds into sudden death. Frustrating indeed.

Facebreaker takes the cartoon action label seriously with its character models. There’s a voodoo witchdoctor, a stereotypical Russian explosives expert, a DJ from the U.K., and a Spanish charmer cleverly named Romeo. It didn’t take a genius to come up with these characters, but they are all presented with tongue firmly placed in cheek — they know they’re stereotypes and fill the purpose of being entertaining just fine.

All the characters have clear strengths and weaknesses. Heavyweights are strong, but slow. Lightweights are fast, but weak. Middleweights are the best of both worlds. It’s clear the fights in Facebreaker aren’t regulated, because there are no weight classes. It’s pretty entertaining to see the enormous Brick beat on the waify Kiriko.

Each character also has a special move that instantly stuns opponents and allows for some quick breaker meter building. More balancing issues arise here as some characters’ special moves are overpowered. For example, Romeo’s stun move is parrying an opponent’s parry, which requires great timing and the ability to read your opponent — not easy to do. On the contrary, many of the heavies’ stun moves are their throws — simply pressing ‘B’ results in a stunned opponent. Some of them are even ranged!

One of the most unique aspects of Facebreaker comes from the “real-time facial deformation” that occurs upon repeated beatings. By round three your opponents jaw will be off to the side, their eyeballs rolling and face discolored. It’s always enjoyable to see your foe’s post-fight face.

With a number of unlockable costumes, characters and a fighter creator, there’s quite a bit of replay value here, begging you to master each of the fighter’s unique styles. The character creator even has realistic models of quasi-celebrities like Heidi Montag (of The Hills), Kim Kardashian, Snoop Dogg, and EA Sports head honcho Peter Moore. The best I can say about these models is that they are very fun to beat on.

Facebreaker is a fun party game — with lots of surprising moments and fast-paced gameplay. The single player mode leaves something to be desired and will be too difficult for all but the most battle-tested gamers. It’s rare to hear that a game by EA needs a sequel, but Facebreaker is a game that could be ironed out into a very solid title with a second installment.

As it stands, it’s an absolute rent for fighting game fans and a game I would certainly keep my eye on when it drops to the $20-30 range. An EA game that could become a cult hit? Watch for Hell freezing over later this week.

RATING 7 / 10