“Superman don’t need no seat belt.”
This is one title I’ve grown and grown to appreciate as an adult until the realization dawned on me that this is truly a heavyweight champion of a game. Thing is, I have little nostalgic affection for it. As a kid, I didn’t like it. It seemed too hard and too random. It seemed impossible. Now that my perception has improved and I can recognize its complicated patterns and appreciate its humor and personality, I recognize that Punch-Out!! is a boxing legend.
This review is for the second Western NES version. To clarify, let me share a little bit of gaming history. The NES version of Punch-Out!! is a home port combining the gameplay of two 1984 arcade games: Punch-Out!! and Super Punch-Out!!, which originated many of the NES edition’s caricatured boxers.
Changes in the NES version involved shrinking the protagonist so that players could see over his head to watch their opponents’ body language. Originally the player character was a wire frame in the arcades. The NES didn’t have the technical capabilities for such things but the home port did have many unique features over the arcade games. Elements like the beginnings of a basic plot and some music for the bouts, as well as passwords, were added to the home version.
The game was released in Japan on the Famicom in a gold cartridge. The final boxer in this version was Super Macho Man and the cart was a prize for the Golf U.S. Course Famicom Tourney of ’87. Many of us who grew up in the states remember that the final fight was against Mike Tyson, so how did that coalesce?
Founder and former president of Nintendo of America, Minoru Arakawa, came up with the idea of attaching Mike Tyson’s name to the US release of Punch-Out!! in order to boost its sales and lend it some star power. Arakawa personally witnessed Tyson in the boxing ring and was awed by his fighting ferocity. At the time of the match that Arakawa witnessed, Tyson had yet to win the heavyweight championship title, so this was a risk for Nintendo of America but they took it and no one can doubt that Tyson’s stardom helped propel the US version, the version I know from my youth, re-titled Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. Sales were stellar enough that the game was even re-released in Japan with Tyson in it.
The licensing deal was a three-year agreement wherein Nintendo could use the boxer’s face and name from 1987 to 1990. Tyson reportedly received $50k for it. At the end of the three years Nintendo decided to drop Tyson’s name from the game and release it yet again as Punch-Out!!, often with the subtext Featuring Mr. Dream, a new final boss that replaced Tyson. This was definitely wise on Nintendo’s part since Mike “Iron” Tyson later thrashed his career, reputation, and public image. Nintendo backed away just in time! Tyson was undeniably a great athlete but he lost his title to Buster Douglas in 1990 and on top of that he was convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison (which is not enough time for such a crime). After release, he survived on a steady diet of debt, has-been interviews, comeback fights, and Evander Holyfield’s ears.
“The scariest boxer ever”, Mike Tyson was terrifying to me as a child, even before the darkest parts of his career came to pass. His teeth-baring mug at the start of the game said “I’ll straight kill you, kid.” At the end of a pretty hard game, he seemed like an insurmountable mountain of boxing muscle. Replacing his likeness with a pretty boy named Mr. Dream meant the game just wasn’t the same, but that’s the way the licensing cookie crumbles. I’m only sorry that the Virtual Console (and NES Classic) version since the change has consistently been the Mr. Dream version. Fighting “the Baddest Man on the Planet” as this intimidating final boss took on even greater magnitude considering the kind of man he became.
All of this layered history aside, Punch-Out!! remains the best sports game on the NES, if not one of the best ever, demanding perfect reflexes for its series of boss fights with complex visual cues. The game follows the career of rising star Little Mac, a 17-year-old tiny-weight from the Bronx trained by Jerome “Doc” Louis, former champion turned coach. Though young, small, and inexperienced, Little Mac’s goal is nothing short of the title of World Champion in the World Video Boxing Association, which is comprised of three circuits: Minor, Major, and World.
As Little Mac punches his way toward the title, he’ll have to face several… unusual persons in the ring. These colorful characters are the boss battles of Punch-Out!!, each with unique profiles, fighting styles, special moves, and visual cues. All of them, from Glass Joe to Bald Bull to the King Hippo, pack a lot of personality with their punches. Actually, I was delighted to learn that their original concepts were designed by a young Shigeru Miyamoto. That explains why there’s an air of that trademark Nintendo whimsicality about the boxers.
Learning how to read the boxer’s body language and facial expressions is a part of predicting which attacks they’ll use next and how best to counter them for the K.O. Some of these visual cues seem only like a split second long. Yeah, and keep in mind that this is an 8-bit game we’re talking about reading facial expressions in.
My millennial kid brother got hooked on it for hours after I got the NES Classic (finally) and he kind of gave me an epiphany when he described it thusly with his fresh, nostalgia-free mind: “This is kinda like Shadow of the Colossus but with boxing”. The longer I thought about it, the more accurate I realized his statement was.
Let me unpack that thought. Shadow of the Colossus, as you undoubtedly remember, was a game about exploring a vast wilderness to track down monsters and slay them in tricky boss fights that were half-action and half-puzzle gameplay searching for weak points and exploiting them. In Punch-Out!!, each opposing boxer you come across has a weakness, an Achilles’ heel, which must be discovered and exploited by carefully watching for openings.
Little Mac doesn’t have a wide array of attacks, ranging from a couple jabs and hooks and a special uppercut “star punch”, as well as blocking, ducking and weaving, so he cannot out-power his enemies. Nimbly avoiding damage, reading your opponent, and striking at just the right moment will win the day over mashing buttons willy-nilly. This takes a tremendous degrees of patience, memory, timing, and skill. NES games are remembered for being difficult but Punch-Out!! is right at the top of that list.
Even if you remember how to take down some of these bosses, it’s another thing entirely to master the timing that’s required. Additionally, some boxers possess multiple weaknesses, some of which are truly tough to discover and take advantage of, requiring that Little Mac strategize and study his opponents carefully. There’s even the example of a specific visual cue for an instant takedown in some fights which went undiscovered for 29 years! Look for 8-bit Jesus in the front row to duck, a cue for knocking out Piston Honda:
You might have noticed by now that the portrayal of various races and ethnicities in Punch-Out!! aren’t exactly… palatable by 2017 standards. Nintendo, or anyone for that matter, probably couldn’t get away with making a game like this today and it’s somewhat surprising that they didn’t tone it down for the Western release considering their history of censoring NES games for the West.
Punch-Out!! is very much a product of it’s time, like Looney Tunes and BBQ’s (the latter of which is currently being heavily politicized, so enjoy it while you can). I begin with Piston Honda to underscore a point that this originally Japanese game also pokes fun at Japanese. Honda spouts gibberish like “Sushi, Kamikaze, Fujiyama, Nippon-Ichi!” Glass Joe, the weakest and first of the boxers shows some cowardice and is depicted as French. Great Tiger is an Indian mystic stereotype with his magic, tiger skin, and turban. Soda Popinski (originally Vodka Drunkenski), whose name was changed to market to children, is a boxer from the USSR who embodies the stereotype of Russians boozing up all the time. Super Macho Man is a glitzy, conceited, arrogant, golden-tanned beefcake from Hollywood. Don Flamenco is a toupee-wearing Spaniard who dances into the ring with a predictable rose in his teeth. Von Kaiser is a German with ties to militarism, which has led many to surmise that Nintendo hinted at Nazism with the character.
King Hippo is one which particularly resonated with me: a hugely obese monster of a man with an ape-like appearance, he hails from the South Pacific. I actually suffered under the nickname King Hippo through parts of high school, since I too am
big-boned portly and Hawaiian. The name is a silly one and I was hurt more by the mean-spirited classmates who teased me rather than the Nintendo developers’ decision to include such a character. Is that irrational?
People get offended and it makes daily news these days. But why? Why is it news that something bothered somebody? Do you care if something bothers me? Probably not, even if you’re an altruist. You barely even know who I am! In our modern era of over-obsession with political correctness, where keyboard warriors fly off into a rage on a regular basis for things like a variant costume for a character in Overwatch or the allegation that there is too much diversity in comics, Punch-Out!! seems distinctly dated and insensitive. Now I won’t come right out and denounce the game as being racist, though we might look back on it in that way, since the game really uses stereotypes for a huge variety of groups and all colors. Making fun of everyone equally isn’t the same thing as treating or thinking of one race as inferior to another.
Growing up in the culturally diverse atmosphere of Hawaii, nobody was offended by Punch-Out!! My motley crew of friends and I understood it was just fun and not meant to be hateful. If it offends you then move on. If it makes you feel better that there are two black men without negative stereotypes attached to them in this game, then great. If you find it hilarious in its own 1980’s way, then high five because I do too. I think developers should have the freedom to tell whatever stories they want just as I have the freedom to not give them my money if they put out something hateful or racist, but I can’t change history or demand that devs change their projects because somebody is offended over “insensitivity”. At that point, what won’t offend anyone? Is there such a thing, somewhere out there in the ether that is the one inoffensive image?
Is it this one?
Anyway, take it or leave it, Punch-Out!! is the way it is. Of course everyone will have different opinions on this and I’m totally fine with that. I’m not advocating for thought-totalitarianism. But there are other boxing games out there if you don’t want to play this one. Personally, I think it’s one of the great games of all time, a mechanical wonder and a treasure trove of secrets, with some lighthearted poking of fun in the mix.
The 8-bit Review
There is so much character in this game. Each of the colorful boxers have their own funny personality and quirks which somehow the developers conveyed through the very limited graphical capabilities of the NES. Don Flamenco is the perfect example: he dances into the ring and then taunts you to punch him, clearly arrogant, underestimating Little Mac. This is a ruse that he’ll drop so he can counter-attack Little Mac. Once you knock Flamenco down, as he gets up he’ll throw a dagger-like sneer over his shoulder and immediately swoop in for a savage uppercut. You clearly scarred his pride.
Another example is Soda Popinski whose attacks are difficult to predict and hard to see coming for a lot of his “drunken” fighting style, staggering as he does. Turning these bosses into characters with feelings and emotion, with definite traits, made them larger than life, bigger than mere two-dimensional figures on an 8-bit screen. Punch-Out!! was a late game in the NES’s lifespan so it benefited from the best of the systems graphical evolution.
Yet another achievement is the speed at which the game operates. A lot of NES games seem sluggish by comparison and some of them suffered some slow down due to technical limitations. There’s none of that in Punch-Out!!, which consistently runs at a frantic pace as the boxers get faster and faster with their attacks. It makes for quite the adrenaline high.
Ah yes the music in this game is so amazing. The fisticuffs fanfare that plays over the title screen belies some great action-movie riffs that come in during the matches and training sequences. I didn’t mind in the least hearing the fight theme over and over again. Considering how hard the game is and how easy it was, at least for me, to get stuck on a fight for hours, it’s stupefying that I didn’t get tired of this track. The fight theme gets me pumped up every time, without fail.
Then there’s that definitively NES style of music that plays during the intermission sequences. Little Mac jogs behind his coach, decked out in his pink running suit with the cityscape and Lady Liberty in the background. Just the scene itself is as invigorating as watching any Rocky film (except for the fifth one). The music gets your blood pumping for the matches ahead. My kid brother actually got up and did some jumping jacks and push ups.
How the game utilizes its limited soundtrack is important. It provides you with the self-confidence and energy to take on Little Mac’s intimidating foes. It also uses the music to help describe the background, culture, and personality of the boxers you face. There are short musical intros that play as your opponent steps into the ring which are unique to each boxer. Below are the snippets of the songs “March of the Toreadors” for Don Flamenco, the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” for Glass Joe, and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” for Von Kaiser.
In each of the three circuits, Little Mac has to battle up to the title holder and defeat him in order to take the Minor, Major and finally the World Champion titles. There are three rounds in each match and Little Mac can win by knockout if the boxer can’t get up after the count of ten, or by technical knockout by putting the boxer down thrice in a single round, or by decision if the match lasts three full rounds and Little Mac earns enough points by delivering enough blows. If the underdog loses a match against a title holder, he’ll have to go back to the previous fighter and beat him again. If he loses too many times, he’ll begin to consider an early retirement.
In a match, the goal is to reduce his opponents life bar to nothing, at which point they’ll go down to the mat and referee Mario will run out to start the countdown. Often he’ll have to knockdown a boxer multiple times before they stay down. Little Mac can use a left and right jab and a left and right hook to try to get past his opponent’s defenses. Pressing left and right will allow him to dodge and pressing down lets him block blows. Little Mac has his own life bar which is whittled down every time his enemy’s punches connect, and in addition to that he has a heart counter which depletes every time he’s hit and every time he blocks or has an attack blocked. When the heart counter reaches zero, he runs out of stamina, turns pink and purple, and has to catch his breath by dodging attacks until he recovers. He’ll be unable to attack at all during this period of exhaustion so watch out for it.
If Little Mac lands a uniquely timed blow, generally speaking a counter-attack immediately before or after his opponent makes a move, he’ll see a star fly out. Consider it something like sparks flying. Once he’s gained a star in this manner, Little Mac can access his patented “star punch” by pressing start, which is his most powerful attack but also a slower one, so its recommended that he stun his enemy first before staggering them with this trademark uppercut.
Each of the bosses, as mentioned, have unique strategies that Little Mac can use against them so there’s no way to detail them all here. The bosses can be beaten in multiple different ways but using the “star punch” seems best if you can figure out how to wring a star out of them. Several of the boxers have instant takedowns that you can trigger if you land a hit just right. It takes a lot of attentiveness to look for the exact moment. With the impressive amount of secret tactics, hidden cues, fighting styles and other mechanics packed into each fight, Punch-Out!! is a marvel of gameplay, especially considering how simple the controls are. This is the epitome of how simple retro games and controls could be while at the same time being difficult to master.
The one element I can’t grade Punch-Out!! high on is its accessibility. I’ve always had a hard time playing this game, for my entire life. I was never good at it because I never knew the trick potshots that you could use to takedown the bosses quickly. If you weren’t in the know, you had to figure things out for yourself, a long and brutal process with a lot of game over screens. At least the controls are easy to understand but a lot of these bosses will seem invincible to newcomers. The game makes no apologies to rookies.
“Easy to learn but hard to master” is a phrase that’s been thrown around describing Punch-Out!! but I don’t even think that’s the case. It’s not easy to learn. You’ve got to be on your toes constantly. Even Glass Joe can turn you into a smear on the mat if you don’t know what you’re doing. The difficulty ramps up pretty quickly but it’s never cheap. All of the bosses can be beaten with proper timing, patience, and a keen eye but this still remains one of the hardest NES games I can think of and that’s saying a lot.
A very significant thing about this game’s unique brand of difficulty is the fact that no amount of internet info can really make Punch-Out!! a breeze. Yeah reading FAQs and watching YouTube vids when you’re stuck on Soda Popinski can be helpful, but they can’t physically step in to provide the pitch-perfect timing that’s demanded from you. You can spot the openings but the muscles in your fingers still have to react with some real skill. Practice, not information, is what’s ultimately going to win Little Mac that World Champ title.
Punch-Out!! has secrets it’s still yielding decades later, such as entering the phone number for Nintendo’s customer service at the time, 800 422 2602, as the password. You’ll hear a busy signal on the title screen. What the? Since there are so many different ways to come at your opponents, there are so many different ways to play the game and I haven’t stopped learning about new visual cues and new takedowns. To be honest, I’ve also discovered a hundred ways to get taken down myself.
Even though the NES Punch-Out!! is a port of pre-extant arcade games, it is undeniably the most famous entry in its series. What other game had Mike Tyson as the last boss? What other boxing game has been called a puzzle game disguised as a sports game? I can hardly even think of a modern game so simultaneously simplistic and complex.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Punch-Out!! is a thoroughly impressive game which endears itself to the player the longer you play it. I can’t be certain that everyone will forgive it for its caricaturing but that aside, the gameplay in Punch-Out!! is exemplary of all that Nintendo could accomplish. They’ve created games that are fun and engaging to play even after almost 30 years have passed. Could we say the same of many other developers still around today?
Aggregated Score: 9.0