When I realized that the site’s 200th review milestone was coming up, I knew there was only one game I could review to commemorate the occasion. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out is pretty much responsible for this very site and getting me interested in classic gaming again. I didn’t even know about emulation until I saw some friends playing this on a high school computer. After a round or two with everyone crowded around and cheering me on, it was like I was a kid again. That it happened to be Punchout probably also helped renew my interest – this was an amazing game when it was released, and continues to be a blast today. But before I get into all that, I should really talk about Mike Tyson.
I was a little wee for boxing in 1986, so I missed the exploits of young Mike Tyson and his rise to fame. And fame it was, because boxing was a much bigger sport back then – probably because involvement (and investment) of shakers like Donald Trump turned it into a spectator sport for the rich and famous. At the very least, it certainly gave a curious gilded edge to a sport about two sweaty men grabbing and hitting each other. Boxing then was as hip and popular as a blockbuster movie premiere, and the fighters, drama, and socialite support made the sport far more interesting than it actually is.
Whoa, now hold on there boxing fans. I’m not trashing your sport. In fact, I gained a bit of respect for it from watching Spanish boxing in college at 2 am. I had no idea what was being said, but like a lot of people my age, my only real experience with boxing was the Rocky movies. Spanish middleweight championships on Univision are not Rocky. Boxing in general is slow and ponderous, based upon the simple fact that no one in that ring really wants to get punched. This means lots of circling around the ring, feints, and tying up when you get tired. It’s generally not that exciting, and first round knockouts are a rare exception. That is why a 20-year-old kid with a 27-0 record rises to fame and becomes a hot property to put on a game cartridge.
I went on YouTube to see some of his major fights, and I recommend anyone interested take the time as well. They are absolutely, jaw-droppingly unbelievable. According to Steve Kent’s interview with Minoru Arakawa in The Ultimate History of VideoGames, Nintendo signed Tyson up for a three-year contract before he even won the WBC title from Berbick in November 1986. This is important, because it means they took a gamble on the kid based solely on the promise he was showing (and his impressive record). They weren’t buying an established name, they were betting on what he would become. After all, Tyson was going up against a champ, could have easily choked, and Nintendo could have been left holding a title with a loser’s name stamped on the front. But no, oh no. He literally beat Trevor Berbick retarded. Mike Tyson was a fucking monster, and Nintendo had him. The Big N was about to prove to the industry what an excellent game and an excellent name could really do – to the tune of more than a million units sold.
I do believe that part of that figure is the popularity of its leading man. But I’m also convinced word got around about how this truly was one of the best titles on the NES, or any home system for that matter. By all accounts it shouldn’t be. It’s a stripped port of Nintendo’s Punch-Out arcade cabinet. The concept was three years old, the NES couldn’t hope to recreate the wireframe boxer, and the graphics took a dive. Like so many arcade-to-home ports, this could have easily been a ratty conversion outdone by its original. Luckily, Nintendo truly made this its own NES exclusive. They added more fighters, played up the characters, and refined the gameplay for the home to the point that more people readily know about this game than the graphically-superior version than preceded it.
Tyson’s Punch-Out has you playing as up-and-coming boxer Little Mac. The character himself is probably the cornerstone of the game’s quirky Japanese humor. Just about every opponent Little Mac will face absolutely towers over him. He has to leap in the air like a Jack Russell terrier just to land a punch on an opponent’s jaw, and larger foes like Super Macho Man or Bald Bull come out looking more than a little intimidating. Still, Mac’s got heart, and a combination of head and body blows triggered with either the left hand or the right hand (A and B) to get the job done.
And this is where the game shows its true colors. It’s not a boxing simulation by any stretch of the term. Instead, it’s an enjoyable puzzle game calling on perception, quick reflexes, and pattern recognition. Every one of the boxers telegraphs their punches through a series of “tells” that signify they’re about to attack, and with what kind of attack. The intent is for you to recognize that a particular punch is coming, dodge Little Mac out of the way, then quickly exploit the opening each fighter leaves after missing with their strike.
For example, Don Flamingo taunts you. You strike, and he blocks, following up with a exaggerated uppercut that fits with his grandstanding character. You’re meant to bait him, dodge the uppercut, then pummel his face with left-right head combos. That’s basically the entirety of the game. You’ll have to learn each character’s unique tells, dodge their attacks, and follow up. The flamboyance and overconfidence of these opponent characters is where a majority of the humor lies, and also how Little Mac is able to win the fights against such seemingly impossible odds. Nice touch.
And a varied cast you will have, each representing some culture from across the world. Glass Joe is the Parisian who can’t take a punch. King Hippo is the enormous Samoan who can’t even get back up after being knocked down. Great Tiger is an Indian mystic who can actually teleport. They’re a varied group with their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as their own unique fighting styles. Each also have unique super moves tailored to their character, such as punishing combos or brutal strikes. These are the moments that the boxers can become really dangerous, and if you catch the full attack, then you will almost certainly get knocked down. However, the strategy shines again in that you can stop every attack cold with a well-timed strike, once you learn when and where this opening is. There are few things more satisfying than stopping Bald Bull’s charge with a solid gut-punch, and watching the second-or-two moment where he freezes with a pained look on his face before collapsing to the canvas. Yeah. Charge that, bitch.
Tyson’s graphics are absolutely perfect for the NES. They obviously lack the detail of the arcade, and even the Sega Master System (going by its Rocky game), but they play to the strengths of the console. Little Mac looks confident but outmatched, until you see him put his all into each of his punches. Animation for all the windups and hits completely convey power behind them, and seem within authentic limits. In other words, it looks cartoony, but not fake. Graphics do suffer slightly from many reused frames. It’s obvious, but forgivable, when a character flashes a “pained” look and then snaps back to a default expression.
Facial animations are good enough to show the tics that telegraph punches, even down to tiny details like winks or flashing gems, which is all that really matters. Character portraits on the introduction and mid-round screens are even better than the game itself, and help show and sell their various eccentricities. You even get to see your trainer Doc, who I think looks like Dizzy Gillespie and Static thinks looks like Carl Winslow from Family Matters (we’re probably both wrong). He is totally and completely useless, offering you such fighting tips as “Watch his punches!” and “Join the Nintendo Fun Club today!”
The audio is well-covered, with an awesome crowd noise, punch sounds, and chimes. A standard theme plays in the background of every fight; classic and unobtrusive. It changes to a more frenetic theme when anyone gets knocked down, and the crowd roars in response. Mario even comes out for the count and ruling, with charming garbled speech noises. None of this sounds real mind you, but it perfectly suits and supplements the game. Power punches, for example, sound especially gamey, but it really doesn’t matter when they help you keep track of what’s going on on-screen and heighten the experience as well. Soda Popinski’s laugh is also a particular highlight, possibly because it’s an unexpectedly dead-on guffaw coming through the speaker.
Like all first-party NES titles, controls here are an exercise in simplicity. By default, Little Mac stands in the center of the ring. Pressing left or right on the D-Pad dodges in that direction for about a second, before snapping back to the center. Pressing down blocks with your gloves, and down twice ducks. B punches with your left hand and A punches with your right, allowing you to easily set up left-right combos, or jab at the opponent’s unprotected side. These throw body blows by default, or head shots when combined with Up on the D-Pad.
You have a life bar, which is obvious enough, and a system of hearts. Hearts measure stamina, and you lose one when you block an attack or land a punch that gets blocked, and a series of them if you actually get hit. Dodging to the side costs no hearts, and as such is the preferred method of countering an attack. If you lose all your hearts, Little Mac will turn purple, start panting, and be unable to attack. Only a few successful dodges will earn him a handful of hearts back to keep fighting.
Super punches are rationed out by stars, which you earn for landing an unexpected attack. Most opponents will block your strikes if you initiate an attack instead of countering one of theirs. There are brief moments here, or at the beginning of one of their swings, when you can get a shot through. Connect at one of these times, and you’ll see a star over the opponent’s head and hear a chime. You can then trigger a power attack with the Start button, costing one star each time. It takes some time to charge up, but can drop some opponents in one hit if timed well, or take out a large chunk of their health otherwise. The charge-up time can make them dangerous to use at random, and you lose stars if you get hit, but the crowd-pleasing power attack it triggers can often turn the tide of a fight.
Punch-Out comes with a welcomed passcode feature, perfectly placed. Each time you win a title bout in the World Video Boxing Association, you get a scene of Mac training against the skyline of New York City and a code to key in on the title screen and continue where you left off. The passcode saves your current title, and begins you at your next series of fights. It’s ingenious because the game would be far too short if you simply got a new passcode before each fight, and far too long and nearly impossible if you got no passcodes at all. They figured out exactly where to plant your save points, to the great benefit of the game. And they even kindly give you a code right before your dream fight with Tyson, because let’s face it, you’re going to need it.
Tyson is one bad mama jamma in this game. In what is probably a perfect recreation of an actual match between 1987 Mike Tyson and any gamer in the world, he lays your ass out in one punch. You read that right, one unblockable punch. After three, you’re out for good. Tyson as depicted in this game is probably a fair representation of him as a boxer at the time. You have some initial anticipation and fear, followed by a healthy blast of “Oh SHIT!” when he knocks you down in a single punch. I think that was a feeling held by many of his legitimate opponents. It also created the myth that in-game Tyson was unbeatable.
It’s not true. Tyson can be beaten in the same way as you’ve been fighting your other opponents – watch for telegraphs, dodge, counterattack – except that he leaves absolutely no room for error. He’s perfect as a final boss for this game, because he represents the pinnacle of everything you’ve learned along the way. If games are supposed to train you on how to become better at them throughout the course of playing, then Tyson expertly forces you to call upon every trick you’ve picked up along the way to beat him. He’s not a copout boss, and there’s not a totally awesome ending waiting for you – beating Tyson is its own reward. But he will take work, and it’s up to you if you want to invest the time. Still, if you’ve refined your skills, you deserve to beat Tyson, and deserve to beat the game.
That’s not me. I’ve never beaten Tyson, but that’s the real magic of this game. You don’t have to “win” to enjoy yourself along the way. You can take your last belt and retire, not feel cheated by doing so, and even enjoy playing through those boxers you’ve defeated again. And the lure of possibly getting good enough to beat Tyson is always there, even if you never make good on it.
I’m trying to think about something bad I can say about the game to be objective. There is a short list of fighters, but the game length and difficulty seem just right. The graphics are dated, but still perfect for the game. The character “Mr. Dream” they replaced Iron Mike with after the license expired is very generic, very white, and very lame – but even that version of the game remains just as enjoyable. It simply seems like the stars were aligned when this title came out, and it showcases the kind of quirky, fundamentally enjoyable games Nintendo would become famous for. It’s a wonderful mix of challenge, simplicity, humor, and fun that all games should aspire to and most, even Nintendo itself, will not likely be able to match. Absolutely flawless.
Timeless classic encapsulating all that was fun about games and late-80s culture.
Few games will be talked about like this twenty years after their release.