Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! Every other Friday, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
I know that I come across as a bit of an RPG partisan when it comes to classic games, and why wouldn’t I be? Video games are my favorite storytelling medium, and most of my memorable gaming experiences from before adolescence (when psychological horror games started to gain prominence) belong to that genre. But I don’t want to give the impression that I only play games because they’re fancy books. I love games of all kinds, and even a game with almost no plot can be an amazing, timeless experience if the gameplay is done just right, or they nail some other aspect of what video games can do. Today, we cover the early days of a series that demonstrates that perfectly: Punch-Out!!
In 1983 – the same year as both the great video game crash and the release of the Famicom, Japan’s NES counterpart – Nintendo manager Genyo Takeda oversaw the development of Punch-Out!!, a unique fighter for the arcade that proved nearly as popular in the U.S. as Nintendo’s major arcade successes Mario Bros., Popeye, and Donkey Kong. Nintendo saw fit to follow it up with a quick 1984 sequel in Super Punch-Out!! (that’s right, they were on the “Super” train earlier than you thought!) that expanded the opponent roster, if not the gameplay.
Both games were particularly attractive to players because of their two-screen layout; the playable fighter, a nameless green-haired geriatric for some reason, was displayed on the lower screen while the opponent was up top. Many of the popular fighters that we remember were introduced in this early stage of the franchise and reused later, including Bald Bull, Super Macho Man, and Mr. Sandman (A.K.A. the Other Holy Trinity). Gameplay involved looking for patterns in rival fighters’ attacks, dodging them the right way, and counter-punching – novel, series-defining mechanics that were almost fully formed from the very beginning.
Once the NES launch succeeded even beyond Nintendo’s lofty expectations and revived the home video game market, Nintendo naturally sought to make the most of every property they had, and the Punch-Out!! series possessed two winning arcade games and even a primitive Game & Watch handheld “port”. They planned to released a home version of Punch-Out!! for their young system, when a happy coincidence changed the franchise: Nintendo of America founder and former president Minoru Arakawa sat through a boxing match featuring an up-and-coming Mike Tyson (now probably more famous for his appearance in The Hangover and general psychopathy than for being one of the greatest boxers ever).
Arakawa became determined to secure Tyson’s endorsement for NES’s Punch-Out!!, which he was producing and was just about complete (it had in fact had already been given a special gold cartridge promotional release), and he ultimately got his way. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, featuring a nearly unbeatable Tyson as the end boss, was released in 1987 and sold over 3 million units, mostly in the U.S. due to Tyson’s growing popularity. Tyson was allegedly paid the princely sum of $50,000 for his involvement, but being immortalized in 8-bit form was probably the bigger prize.
Nintendo made a few changes to the NES version of their game; most importantly, the player model was changed. The enemies needed to be as visible as possible, since that’s where the player’s eyes should be most of the time, but the game’s developers realized that rather than use a transparent wireframe model, they could simply make the character tiny and shift the perspective to tilt upward at the hulking enemy combatants. They named their new fighter “Little Mac”, and his underdog status became all the more evident against his physically imposing foes.
Takeda made the bold decision to include Mario as the referee in this version of the game without asking for permission, and this ultimately paid off as it more explicitly connected Punch-Out!! to the other big Nintendo hits. His team also introduced a skeletal storyline that the arcade had lacked; Little Mac progresses through the ranks of the Minor, Major, and World Circuits with the goal of being the very best (like no one ever was). Before each round of a fight, Mac now receives dubious advice from his trainer Doc Louis (whom the official guide says he “met by chance”) such as “Stick and move, stick and move!”, as wells as jeers from his opponent. Takeda’s team made some great design choices in these vignettes, particularly having damage show on the boxers’ faces as the fight progressed. Players could also press Select to get additional support from Doc and recover a random amount of health between rounds in the hopes of wearing down tougher foes.
Punch-Out!! sports truly unique practice-style gameplay; it’s as much a timing-based puzzle game as it is a boxing game. Players slowly hone their reaction times and memory until they can take down each fighter, and the only way to pull that off is through trial and error – and the errors become increasingly costly as one progresses. Each boxer has a limited skill set to avoid in certain ways, and with the exception of getting in a lucky hit in the first half of the game, learning them is the only way to progress. Punch-Out!! is considered one of the titles that epitomize “Nintendo Hard” – everyone has “that one boss” that they just couldn’t get past as a kid (for me it was Soda Popinski) – although unlike some other games of the era, few people consider the gameplay unfair. It’s just that, unlike most practice-based games, some people just don’t have the reaction times it’ll take to beat this one. Even so, it’s incredibly satisfying to finally win a match after several tries, especially after being repeatedly taunted by the victor.
Besides the brilliant gameplay and the charming sound design and visuals it shares with many of its contemporaries, the other thing that makes Punch-Out!! special is its colorful cast. The ’80s were a different time, and there’s a certain amount of humor in this game based on broad, relatively harmless (YMMV) ethnic stereotypes. Glass Joe is a wimpy Frenchman; Great Tiger is a mystic from India; Bald Bull is a temperamental Middle Easterner; and so on. Japan probably got it worse than anybody, with Piston Honda spouting nonsense phrases like “Sushi, kamikaze, Fujiyama, Nippon-Ichi…” But even today, little of it comes off as excessively tone-deaf, because Nintendo was good-natured about their jabs at the assorted stereotypes and they seem to have gone after everyone more or less fairly. A lot of thought went into the final line-up of Punch-Out!!, and the sequels would go even further in creating interesting characters that took unique strategies to defeat.
In 1990, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! was ready for a fresh printing and Tyson’s contract was up. There’s an urban legend that Nintendo cut ties with him because of the highly publicized sexual assault charges (and other publicity problems) he faced around this time, but in fact they dropped Tyson from the license before any of that came to light; instead, it was because he had suffered a stunning upset loss to Buster Douglas and relinquished his title as Heavyweight Champion, convincing the higher-ups at Nintendo that he was past his prime and not worth the cost of renewing. Tyson’s character in the game was simply palette-swapped to Caucasian and renamed “Mr. Dream”, with Tyson’s name dropped from the title. Punch-Out!! is the more disappointing version of the NES game as a result, but it’s the only one available to virtual console players because of Tyson’s image rights. As of this writing, a cartridge of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! will run prospective collectors around $25, while the re-release goes for only half that.
As an interesting footnote to the end of Mike Tyson’s involvement in the game, a company called Krome Studios Melbourne did obtain the rights to make a sequel to the game where Mike Tyson travels to outer space and battles a series of aliens with a similar combat style to Punch-Out!! This is the project that fell apart due to Tyson’s legal troubles, and although it was eventually cobbled back together and saw low-quality release under a different publisher as Power Punch II (there is no Power Punch I), it largely flew under the public’s radar without a celebrity endorsement and only exists as a memento of what could have been.
I have many fond memories with Punch-Out!! – even if, as I mentioned, I couldn’t get past Soda Popinski (a speedy Russkie famously renamed from Vodka Drunkenski due to Nintendo of America’s content standards) in my youth. The thing I find most remarkable about the game is the way it holds up better than almost anything else for a quick fix of video gaming, and how it represents a fresh source of fun for both retro and modern gamers. I now teach a Game Design class (the job I was born for), and Punch-Out!! is a frequent target for analysis and entertainment among my high school students. What works about its gameplay is timeless, and it’s the kind of thing that you don’t find in any other sports games – and in few puzzle games. It’s almost a genre unto itself, and considering its quality and success, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been emulated more often. I can still pop in Punch-Out!! today for a quick trip back to childhood… but this time, I get to bring my adult reflexes to the fight.
The Punch-Out series has seen two more games since the NES releases: Super Punch-Out!! for the SNES in 1994, and Punch-Out!! for the Wii in 2009 – far too wide a gap, in my opinion! The SNES version was a lot of fun and brought back characters that hadn’t been seen since the arcade, like Piston Hurricane and Dragon Chan. However, since it didn’t retain the challenge of the previous game – every fighter can be beaten inside of 20 seconds with the right sequence – and didn’t even include Little Mac, it doesn’t have the enduring legacy of the first home version of Punch-Out!! The Wii version, on the other hand, is every bit as excellent as the original and then some. It’s good enough that it deserves its own article, but since it isn’t technically a retro game yet, I’m afraid you won’t get it here! You’ll have to settle for Extra Credits’s brilliant analysis of the design steps involved in taking Punch-Out!! from 2-D to 3-D while retaining all of its personality.
Ultimately, this is more than just a fun game; Punch-Out!! is proof that when you emphasize gameplay and design over anything else, you can still create something just as memorable as the most affecting stories out there, and something that people will want to return to again and again.
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!