I’ve never been a big boxing fan, but when I think of staple games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, 1987’s Punch-Out!! is one of the first that comes to mind. In terms of influential NES games it’s right up there with Excitebike, Legend of Zelda, Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros. The game turns up on “Best games of all time” lists on a regular basis mostly due to its ability to weave great gameplay, catchy music, colorful characters, and excellent presentation together. There’s been many boxing games that have followed it, but none have managed to capture the magic that the much less technically-impressive Punch Out!! offered.
The console version, initially titled Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, was based on the game Punch-Out!! that had been in arcades since 1983, so it was by no means a new concept. The limitations of the NES made some adjustments necessary so the game is far from a direct port, but many of the controls and characters seen in the original version made it onto the NES cartridge. The home version of the game was a pioneer in that it was one of the first video games to use a professional athlete within the game and in the title. In 1987 Mike Tyson was the biggest name in professional boxing, a young and fearsome fighter that was knocking out every opponent he faced. While his later career was marred by controversy, a prison sentence, and several embarrassing losses when Nintendo hitched their wagon to him he was a fantastic ambassador to the sport. By the time their 3 year licensing agreement with Tyson was up he had suffered a loss to Buster Douglas and was no longer a heavyweight champion, so Nintendo declined to renew with him and the game joined its arcade ancestor in being titled simply Punch-Out!!.
As a guy who loves boss battles Punch-Out!! was a dream come true as that’s all the game was. You took the controls as Little Mac, a pint-sized prize fighter looking to work his way to the top of the virtual boxing world. Standing in his way was a cast of rival boxers that were so unique that it felt like they were ripped straight out of the pages of a comic book. From an overweight king to a guy that’s apparently drunk on soda pop, each boxer had an over-the-top personality that’s distinctively their own. The characters were memorable enough that when an athlete gets hurt a lot today you will often see references to him being a “Glass Joe” on social media. The appearance of Nintendo’s mascot Mario as the referee was an excellent display of how ahead of the times the company was and how well they understood how to market their own brand.
From a gameplay standpoint, Punch-Out!! was all about pattern recognition and patience. Each opponent Little Mac faced had a unique move set that he must counter. The boxers each had certain “tells” that you had to pick up on that will tip you off to when they were about to strike. Trying to hurt them before this often resulted in you uselessly striking their gloves, but if you could wait for them make the first move the damage you could deal was incredible, especially given your character’s size. Punch-Out!! was as much a member of the puzzle genre as it was a sports game, the early moments of a fight were an exercise in trial and error, about learning your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and how you could exploit them. The game was way ahead of its time with the controller layout, giving Little Mac the ability to dodge, duck, jab, and strike devastating uppercuts all within the confines of a four button d-pad controller. The controls were somewhat complicated for a NES game in 1987, but still managed to feel natural and intuitive.
So enough of the history lesson, how does the game hold up today? Surprisingly well. The gameplay feels natural and I was surprised at how much of my opponent's tells that I remembered. As I mention in the videos above I hadn't played Punch-Out!! in 15-20 years and while I certainly am not as good at the game in 2016 as I was in 1987 my brain apparently tucked away the knowledge of what punches work best against Baron Von Kaiser and Don Flamenco. There's no denying that several of the characters are heavily based on racial and social stereotypes and that certainly made me a bit uncomfortable playing the game today. But the gameplay remains fun and it's easy to understand why Punch-Out!! was so wildly successful in the 80s. An uber-realistic boxing game like EA's Fight Night series wouldn't have been technically possible back then, and having played several of the games in that franchise I can say that none of them stack up to Punch-Out!! when it comes to fun. All too often we remember retro games as being great only to find that they don't live up to our fond memories once we dust off the cartridge and actually play them. But after getting as far as my 39 year old brain would take me this morning I can safely say that the game is every bit as fun as I remember it being as an 11 year old.
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The Cabinet Podcast: Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!
Ryan Noble from the averybarriecoltsblog.com joins me to discuss his favorite game of all-time, Punch-Out!!