It about time.
Inspired by the fact that next month marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, I finally decided to put this one to bed. Iron Mike was going down. By TKO at 1:51 in the third round, as it turned out. Not perfect, but I’ll take it.
The history of this game has been told and re-told so many times by this point that yet another rehashing has the potential to just be tedious, so I promise keep it short. Short for me, anyway. The Punch-Out!! series started life in the arcades in 1983. Lead designer Genyo Takeda and character designer Shigeru Miyamoto created a new type of boxing video game, wholly different from what had come before. Punch Out!! eschewed any sort of realistic simulation elements and instead played more like an early puzzle or rhythm game. From a fixed point in the ring, the player had to learn each opponent’s unique pattern of attacks and deliver precisely-timed counter punches in order to succeed. The player’s green haired character was rendered using a transparent wire-frame style that was very impressive looking for the time and allowed for an unobstructed view of opponents and all the visual cues necessary to react to their attacks. The enemy fighters themselves were presented as larger-than-life cartoon characters (literally, in the case of some particularly hulking specimens) and tended to be based on exaggerated national stereotypes, like the Italian boxer Pizza Pasta and the Canadian lumberjack Bear Hugger. Punch-Out!!’s innovative mechanics and stellar visuals made it a hit and it was followed by an arcade sequel, Super Punch-Out!!, the following year.
The decision to create a version of Punch-Out!! for Nintendo’s home console that incorporated characters and gameplay elements from both arcade titles was made well before Mike Tyson was involved. In fact, an edition of the game with Super Macho Man serving as the final boss instead actually received a limited release in Japan in September of 1987. The course of gaming history changed when Nintendo’s president, Minoru Arakawa, attended a Tyson match and became so enamored of the young heavyweight’s “power and skill” that he made the unorthodox but retrospectively brilliant decision to add him into the finished game at the very last minute in order to increase sales. The resulting contract was a steal for Nintendo, as Tyson was not yet the heavyweight champion at that time: A measly $50,000 for three full years of selling the game with the boxer’s likeness. One month after the rare Tyson-less “gold cartridge” edition hit Japan, North America received the version we all know and love.
Fundamentally, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is not all that different from the arcade games that came before. There is one major difference, though. Since a transparent player character was beyond the technical capabilities of the NES, the new hero Little Mac was introduced instead. This puny-yet-plucky teenager from New York is ridiculously tiny compared to his opponents. This not only allowed for the enemy to be clearly visible from the waist up at all times, but it also made the player feel like a real underdog that had to embody Mac’s can-do spirit on every trip to the ring in order to succeed. It’s a great example of a game made better by clever reckoning with hardware limitations.
Mac is tasked with winning fourteen increasingly difficult matches in order to overthrow Mike Tyson and claim the WVBA (World Video Boxing Association) title for himself. These fights are divided into three “circuits” (Minor, Major, and World) and completing each circuit will reward you with a password that can be used to continue your game from that point in the future.
Matches take place from an over-the-shoulder perspective and consist of up to three rounds of three minutes length each (although the in-game timer runs fast, so each round actually takes up closer to two minutes of real time). Mac can win by TKO if he knocks an opponent out three times in a single round, by KO if a downed opponent fails to stand back up before the referee (Mario!) counts to ten, or by decision if he’s reached a certain score by the end of the final round.
Mac’s standard arsenal is fairly robust, considering the simplicity of the NES controller. The A and B buttons control his right and left hands, respectively, and he can deal both high and low punches when these are combined with the directional pad. His right deals slightly more damage, but his left comes out just a little faster, which can make all the difference when split-second timing is needed. He can also avoid attacks in three different ways using the directional pad: Blocking, ducking, and dodging to either side.
Each opponent, starting out with the feeble Frenchman Glass Joe and ending with Tyson himself, has their own unique set of attacks and particular patterns in which they’re used. They also have various visual tells that can clue the player in on when to attack and when to dodge. Piston Honda wiggles his eyebrows, the jewel in Great Tiger’s turban flashes, Mike Tyson blinks one eye before throwing a hook from that side, and so on. Keying in on these tells can give you the time you need to get out of harm’s way before launching your own counterattack. Each opponent also has specific short windows of time in which you can interrupt their patterns with a quick hit if you’re fast enough. Doing so will earn you a star and these can be spent to perform a devastating uppercut attack with the Select button.
These mechanics, coupled with the brilliantly absurd character designs, elevate Punch-Out!! above and beyond what a realistic simulation of the sport of boxing could have achieved with the technology of the time and the result is a timeless series of tense, dynamic, and downright unforgettable encounters. Each fight is a puzzle to be studied, analyzed, and, eventually, solved to tremendous satisfaction. From exposing King Hippo’s weak point, to defending against Great Tiger’s magic punches, to stopping Bald Bull’s charge, Punch-Out!! is one iconic gaming moment after another from start to finish.
The overall experience is aided greatly by the graphics, which feature gigantic character sprites for an NES game. This was made possible through the addition of a custom MMC2 (“memory management controller”) chip to the cartridge. This co-processor allowed for larger animated characters than the basic console hardware could display on its own. Beyond the visceral wow factor of huge combatants that took up half the screen, there was also a ton of personality packed into each fighter. Granted, a lot of it is very corny, like the flamboyant Spanish fighter Don Flamenco who dances his way into the ring clenching a rose in his teeth and the drunk Russian (Vodka Drunkenski, who had his name changed to Soda Popinski for the NES release), but this level of detail was not at all common at the time. Opponents would even trash talk you from their corners between rounds; Piston Honda promising to give you “a TKO from Tokyo,” for example.
For all its refined gameplay and lovable characters, though, Punch-Out!! does have one flaw that stands out in my mind: It can sometimes be a bit too mysterious for its own good. I outlined above the different ways in which you can win fights: TKO, KO, and decision. However, some opponents are immune to one or more of these win conditions and the game never gets around to telling you so. For a fighter like Mr. Sandman that can’t be beaten by decision, the player may not pick up on this at all, simply assuming that their failure to do so is based on having not scored enough points by the end of the fight. Even when a win by decision is possible, the game doesn’t actually tell you the number of points required. Want to beat Great Tiger with a KO? You could try all day, but it’s completely impossible. Again, there’s no clue in the game itself or even the manual that this is so. Even such things as how much health an opponent regains after getting up from a knockout or whether they get up at all are based on hidden variables that vary from fight to fight, such as Little Mac’s remaining health. Because of all these hidden mechanics, the outcomes of knockdowns and split decisions can seem completely random to a player who hasn’t completed years of careful firsthand observation of the game or studied an online guide written by those who have. Can you still beat the game without knowing every “under the hood” detail of how your victories are accomplished? Sure. It still seems needlessly cryptic to me.
On the whole, though, Punch-Out!! deserves every bit of the adulation it receives. It’s an essential title for the NES, the quintessential “sports game for people who hate sports games,” and its crowning achievement is the Mike Tyson fight itself.
When I think of challenging NES games, I don’t often think about fighting boss characters. Instead, it’s the brutal meat grinder stages that you have to survive on your way to the boss that cause me the most stress. Especially early in the system’s life, when jumping over Bowser and touching the little glowing axe thingy on the other side of the bridge in Super Mario Bros. was about as complex as things got. You’d hear people bragging about rescuing Princess Toadstool, sure, but not about beating Bowser. You didn’t beat Punch-Out!!, though, you beat Mike Tyson. His was the most complex and intimidating enemy encounter in any console game up to that time and an important landmark in the ongoing development of the “boss fight” across video gaming as a whole. To stand a chance, you needed consistent split-second reaction time coupled with the ability to suss out punching patterns that were completely different from round to round. Capping it all off was the fact that the real life Tyson was an international phenomenon around the time of the game’s release, a seemingly unstoppable engine of destruction in the ring and likely the most recognizable figure to emerge from the world of boxing since the heyday of Muhammad Ali. He may be have fully transitioned from puncher to punchline these days, but to anyone who remembers the tail end of the 1980s, stepping into the ring with Kid Dynamite is somehow still scarier than facing down Dracula or Dr. Wily, as silly as that sounds.
Of course, that three year contract eventually would expire. By the time it did, the once-invincible Tyson had already lost his title to James “Buster” Douglas and Nintendo didn’t pursue a renewal. Even if they had, Tyson’s revolting 1992 conviction for rape would have certainly put an end to his relationship with the Big N for good. One way or another, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! was never meant to last. This is why every re-release of Punch-Out!! since 1990 has featured Tyson’s infinitely blander Caucasian doppelganger Mr. Dream instead. KOing Mr. Dream is still a worthy gaming accomplishment, no doubt, but it will never be the real deal.
With or without Mike Tyson, Punch-Out!! is still as great right now as it ever was. Join the Nintendo Fun Club today, Mac!