Genre: Sports, Fighting
Developed by: Nintendo R&D3
Published by: Nintendo
Platforms: NES, Arcade
Feeling Like: Lights out
Nintendo was my first console.
I mean, not my first console, I didn’t get one until I was seven or eight years old. But when I was younger in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, I had friends who owned a Nintendo Entertainment System. Which meant I sort of did, too. Schemes to have sleep overs were always strategically based on if we could maximize our time with Mario, Link and Samus.
This urge to dominate digital pixels stayed with me as my family moved to the West (Best) Coast of Canada and soon Little Mac joined the ranks. I was immediately intrigued by Punch-Out!! and remain so to this day.
You have to remember, there was a ton of crap made for the NES. It’s not some holy relic that was totally pure of garbage, oh no. Random “50 games in 1” cartridges were common at friend’s houses and I soon discovered that all games are not made the same. You name an athletic activity, Nintendo had a mediocre version of it.
Punch-Out!! was such a glorious iteration of boxing, it was embarrassing to even ponder playing another. Sure, you might find a game focused on pugilism that’s more “realistic”, but none that control as well, or have the same catchy songs, or have Mike Tyson as the end boss. It’s almost ridiculous they took this kind of swing and landed it in 1987. Some would argue a better boxing game hasn’t been made since. 32 years old!
The genius of it all is that it’s not really a sports game. Or even a boxing game. If you strip down the parts, remove the flash and toss out the sizzle, it’s a puzzle game. Or a rhythm game. Or both. Quickness is important, but reading your combatant’s cues and knowing where and when to strike is what it’s all about. Button mashing won’t work here, unless you’re up against Glass Joe. Block. Dodge. Block. Break. Punch. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
It’s a truly brilliant form of trial and error. If you’re someone with average reflexes (like yours truly), you’ll fail the first time you face a new opponent. By the second or third attempt, you’ll become innately aware of their tendencies and it won’t be long before you’re moving on.
A lot if it comes from the sound design, I believe. It’s so easy to understand when you land a blow, or get blocked, or get hit that the learning curve of the fundamentals takes no time at all. The colors, the animation, the menu at the top all make it so clear as to what’s happening at every fast-paced second. Easy to learn, hard to master – the creed of many successful games.
This game was everywhere. It swarmed most video game libraries. I saw this played at my friend Adam’s house up the road, in the break room at Basketball Summer Camp, at Johnny Zee’s Arcade, at Spotlight Video, at Dobbo’s. Anywhere there was a Nintendo, there was Punch-Out!! I never owned the game, I never rented the game. All it took was a journey to find some like-minded people and that’s all that was needed.
It’s why I have such a positive affirmation for it; every instance of dodging an incoming attack, or commiserating a close loss, or cheering an eventual victory meant I was doing it with friends nearby. It could be marathoned, it could be played in short bursts. Even beating up the first few enemies rarely got old. We treated it as a warm-up – those high pitch, frantic notes of your foe staggering after a right hook never got old, particularly if it was preceded by you winding up your Star Punch.
It’s also one of the few games I can imagine where the enemies get the focus, not the protagonist. Little Mac is a wet blanket in terms of character, but Bald Bull, Glass Joe, Mr. Sandman, Bear Hugger and Super Macho Man are all larger than life. Unforgettable. This is a circus, a freak show. It’s professional wrestling. Every nationality and stereotype is presented here; it’s crass across the board. They’re all obsessed with something and have a massive amount of hubris when trash talking Little Mac. If your glove was the size of somebody’s head and you stood 5 feet taller than them, wouldn’t you feel confident?
If you’re looking for a more historical analysis of the game, I highly recommend Jeremy Parish’ Youtube Video – he goes into far more detail in terms of the licensing woes with Mike Tyson himself, the original Arcade version and much more. If you want to go down an even bigger rabbit hole, see how much mastery is on display in some of the Speedrun videos. To say some players have memorized the game doesn’t do it justice. What, you’ve never seen somebody beat an entire game (almost) blindfolded?
I’m getting giddy just thinking about Punch-Out!! I enjoyed the Super Nintendo sequel even more, and we’ll get to that one eventually. I don’t know if it’s the afterglow of a terrific weekend (as good as it can get in 2020) or the delirium knowing we’re entering an extremely busy time at work, but I feel I’ve hit another tier of quality on the 500. I know I’ve divided up the entries by 25, but it was never going to be anything other than a way to keep the site tidy.
It’s great to see Punch-Out!! everywhere in the Speedrunning community, still. The design is incredible; the graphics look amazing for a game made in 1987. Little Mac’s tiny stature works for the benefit of the game, since none of you blocks out your opponent’s tells, and it makes you feel like an even bigger underdog. It’s infinitely replayable, infinitely enjoyable. Lightning in a bottle, and it’s likely why you see so few boxing games over the years that came even close to how much fun Punch-Out!! is.