originally published June 23, 2012
This will come a shock to those who know me well: I was never really much of a fighter. I know, my physique has been compared to a young-ish Raymond Burr (he was an athlete of some kind, right?), yet I still never got into a lot of fights. That might have been because of my irrefutably charming disposition, or my astute childhood skill of buying off the local bullies with hookers and blow.
But there were many a cold winter afternoon in my youth during which I was engaged in that most manly of pursuits, that bloody quest for dominance of the squared circle, the sweat-scented musk of pugilist obsession elbowing the fresh air out of the room..
Yes, I’m talking about Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Released in October of 1987, Punch-Out makes almost every list of the greatest NES games ever produced. Like many of the most prized cartridges, it started out as an arcade game. The final boxer in that game, as well as in the Japan-only home version, was a guy named Super Macho Man, because coming up with an actual tough-sounding name would have been too difficult. (in all fairness, they’d have probably used something lame, like Biff Thwackington.)
Nintendo America president Minoru Arakawa found himself watching a pre-champ Tyson fight, and was blown away by the boxer’s skill and raw might. He negotiated a 3-year deal to use Tyson’s likeness for the American home version of the game, which worked out beautifully for Nintendo when Tyson became the premier fighter in the world a few months before the game was released.
In the game you control a guy named Little Mac. Little because he’s little, and Mac because that makes it a McDonald’s pun. Little Mac’s ethnicity is never formally established, but when he was portrayed in commercials (for the Wii version) by boxer Paul Malignaggi, it was suggested that Little Mac was Italian. Also, if this photo of Malignaggi is to be believed, the poor guy has a hard time figuring out the proper use of head accessories.
The storyline in the game is pretty basic, even for 1987 gameplay. You’re an unknown ‘little guy’, Rocky-ish in nature I suppose, and you have to fight your way through increasingly difficult boxers to get to Tyson, your dream fight. I’m not certain what sort of backwards-ass boxing system would allow a 107-pound scrawn-bucket to fight against heavyweight Mike Tyson after only ten matches, but apparently we have to suspend our disbelief a little here.
In the arcade version, you appeared as a translucent wire frame through which you could see your opponent at eye level. Nintendo’s first home gaming system didn’t have the oomph to recreate this, so instead you appear almost midget-like, looking up at the behemoths unleashed upon you by this cruel, cruel fight schedule.
Here’s a shot of Little Mac in the corner with his trusted trainer and coach, Doc Louis, who was clearly modeled on Die Hard’s Reginald Veljohnson.
Your moves in the ring are, of course, limited. You have jabs and body blows, and if you earn a star by executing a snazzy counter-attack, you can deliver a powerful uppercut. Apart from bouncing from side to side, ducking and blocking, that was it. You could win by knockout, technical knockout, or decision. Except that, for some of your opponents, winning by decision was not possible. That struck me as unfair and rigged, but then again, it’s boxing. It’s supposed to be fixed.
Glass Joe was the first opponent in the game. Intentionally weak and frail, and visually inspired by Gary Busey, Glass Joe was designed to give you a false sense of confidence. Anyone could beat Glass Joe. If you could mash the controller against your forehead, you’d beat Glass Joe.
Von Kaiser, who is pretty much a German Rip Taylor without the pockets full of glitter, isn’t much tougher. He wobbles his head right before delivering a jab, so if you have the ability to spot that (hint: it will be impossible not to), you’ll be able to predict his moves and beat him soundly.
I understand this game may sound ridiculous by today’s standards, but believe me, figuring out the Von Kaiser Wobble was a moment of triumph, a pivotal episode of growth in my sun-coated pre-teen days.
Piston Honda lets you know that yes, after Glass Joe these are mostly going to be racial stereotypes you’ll be facing. His clue was more subtle than the Von Kaiser Wobble; his eyebrow would twitch before unleashing a jab, and he’d step back a little before letting go with his patented ‘Piston Punches’. He also did a little dance before unloading with a flurry of blows. If a boxer were this easy to predict in real life, I doubt he’d be a few short steps away from a Tyson fight.
Don Flamenco, or as I called him, the Spanish Jeff Goldblum, was big into taunting. His signature move was the Flamenco Punch, because apparently every boxer has a signature move named after them. Flamenco was the most fun part of the game, because you could catch him with a series of left-right-left-right jabs that would send him into the canvas. I’d finish a Flamenco fight and feel so infused with a sense of might and vigor that I’d have to put the controller down for a few minutes, crush a juice-box against my temple and flex my biceps in front of my dog.
King Hippo was filler. You’d punch him, his shorts would fall down, then you’d beat on his bandaged belly-button. After beating Flamenco I’d feel triumphant. Beating King Hippo just made me feel sad, like I’d just punched a developmentally disabled panda.
After King Hippo, you’d fight Indian Stereotype:
Then you’d hit the World Circuit. Three of these fights were rematches against opponents who apparently hadn’t taken you seriously the first time. Then you had Soda Popinski, the Russian who was originally named Vodka Drunkenski in the arcade version, but had to be toned down because Nintendo didn’t want American kids to know that alcohol exists. You’d also have to fight Mr. Sandman (an angry looking black guy) and the antagonist from the arcade game, Super Macho Man. Super Macho Man has pulled off an impressive feat of evolution leading up to his appearance in the Wii version of the game, transforming from a crusty Brian Dennehy:
Into a smarmy douchebag with a grey ponytail and a George Hamilton-esque tan:
Lastly you’d find yourself up against Mike Tyson, or, when the license ran out, Mr. Dream. Fighting Tyson in the game was almost impossible, which I suppose was the point.
A sequel was planned, a logical progression of the storyline which would have you fight another series of contenders up to Iron Mike, except this time in outer space. But then Tyson had to get all rape-y, and the idea was scrapped.
Punch-Out was a game of elegant simplicity, like all of the great landmarks on the original Nintendo. But I had rage to channel back then; I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much now. That, and it’s entirely possible I’m too out of shape now to hold a video game controller for that long.