When Frosty Pop teased the sleek minimalist puzzler rvlvr last month, it looked like the company best known for the irreverent and joyful indie games Slap Shots! and High Dive might be going for a change of direction. Worry not folks! Last week The Contender: Fight of The Century appeared on the App Store since then, reassuring us that there’s still loads more silly fun to be had.

The Contender is a throwback to the good ol’ days of the embarrassingly bad Rocky IV, Sugar Ray Leonard at his peak, and an abundance of delightfully awkward boxing games. With its retro graphics, top-view camera, and MIDI sound effects, The Contender digs deep into the nostalgia without coming across as too gimmicky.

As goofy and silly as the gameplay itself is, from the boxers’ stretchy arms to the knockdown animations, it’s also a game that respects both the sport of boxing and those who participate. While someone who’s never stepped foot in the ring might find the set-up tagline of ‘In a world you cannot understand, the ring is your salvation’ a tad melodramatic, for boxers themselves, this speaks a truth. The truth. The ring is where you learn who you are and what you’re really made of. Far from being over the top, the tagline shows that the game’s developers really get it.

The Contender Tagline

At the intersection of authenticity and silliness, The Contender is a game that you want to like. More accurately, it’s a game that you really want to love and love hard. It’s a game that you hope will find both a home on your home screen and a little place in your heart. Unfortunately, for everything that’s right about the game – the graphics, sound effects and background music, premise, and promise – the gameplay itself is lacking.

The Contender Two-Player

You can share your device and give playing a tug-o-war feel in The Contender’s two-player mode.

The Contender: Fight of the Century is playable as is, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that with one or two slight tweaks it could be awesome.

The main issue affecting playability is the game’s controls. The controls should be simple, as there are only four potential actions for your wee fighter: move left, move right, punch left, punch right. However the arrangement of the buttons is likely to make playing difficult for quite a few folks regardless of device, and particularly tricky for anyone playing on a tablet.

The Contender Gameplay

With the movement buttons grouped together on the left side of the screen and the punch buttons grouped together on the right, adjusting in the heat of the fight requires some serious thumb stretching and gets really uncomfortable really fast. It slows down your movement and response, making it hard to build up a real flow.

If The Contender is supposed to be something like a virtual Rock’em Sock’em Robots, moving and hitting should ideally be a seamless experience. While it’s totally possible that the current set-up works for many contenders (presumably those with big thumbs or smaller devices), something as simple as adding the option to rearrange the controls could make a massive difference for those who find themselves (literally) over-extended.

The Contender Knockout

It’s still possible to score yourself a knockout even with the awkward controls but you might also get a hand cramp in the process.

The obvious order option would seem to be move left, punch left, punch right, move right – making movement a bit more fluid (increasing your ability to land/dodge punches). Scaling the buttons down a little (especially important for tablet players) would also help players land more punches with a little less stretching overall. More punches means more action and more action means more fun.

The other slight change that could make a big difference is a clearer instruction animation immediately following a knockdown. The ‘come hither’ hand in the center of the ring seems to be inviting you to tap, but it isn’t obvious whether tapping as fast as you can at this stage makes much of a difference like it clearly does in between rounds. Throwing in a written instruction or changing up the animation here could make it clearer what’s expected. The less guesswork the better.

The Contender Red Hand of Salvation

Again, as frustrating as The Contender can be, there’s still enjoyment to be had. The frustration isn’t an angry frustration; it’s more a disappointed frustration because it’s so close to awesomeness, yet so far. To use another sports and games analogy, if The Contender were a dart, Frosty Pop has hit the green of the bullseye. That’s good. It’s a point. But if it tucked its elbow in a little on the throw it’d be in the red — and that’s what every developer is aiming for.