The Punch-Out!! series (Yes, you’re supposed to include two exclamation marks) is a collection of puzzle games with the aesthetic of stylized boxing matches. In every game of the series, you play a scrawny underdog that is pitted against gargantuan hulking steroid beasts, most of whom can easily crush you if you can’t outmaneuver them. You must learn the patterns and tricks of each one of your opponents; aside from warm-up weaklings like Glass Joe, merely throwing punches will get you killed. You have to recognize their patterns and use the right approach.
The cast of all the five Punch-Out!! games is a gaggle of cartoonish misanthropes, racial stereotypes, and ridiculous gimmicks. (This is actually a point in its favor; there are realistic boxing games and they are typically not fun.) The series began in a simplistic fashion with each successive game gaining more complexity and therefore asking more of the player. This culminates in the newest entry in the series, the 2009 Wii sequel, which is surprisingly deep and challenging for a console filled with simplistic games for non-gamers.
When most people speak of Punch-Out!!, they are referring not to the 1984 arcade original but to the 1987 NES version. I’m fine with this because the NES version is bloody amazing. The two arcade games, Punch-Out!! and Super Punch-Out!! were great-looking for their time and certainly innovative. It would be seven years before fighting games found their voice in Street Fighter II, but Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is absolutely the best thing resembling a fighting game to be formed before that greatest of all games.
Mike Tyson is one of the smartest and most articulate men I’ve ever seen. No, really. (Not for the faint of heart!) He could have been a Harvard professor had he been born in different circumstances. However, despite his excellent mind, Tyson is still a violent rapist lunatic without tact or subtlety. He would openly threaten people he didn’t like (And not just his opponents), ask for sex from interviewers, and make crude remarks towards everyone he met. But he was also the best boxer in the world, so putting his likeness in a video game was a good marketing move. (Contrary to popular belief, Tyson’s replacement with the fictional Mr. Dream in future versions of this game was not due to his conviction for rape but due to the expiration of his license with Nintendo, most likely because of his loss to Buster Douglas.) Tyson appears as the game’s final opponent, but the rest of the cast is still fantastic.
I love Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. The creativity in the fighting styles of the various boxers is still impressive 25 years later. There are some obvious duplicates (Don Flamenco recycles some graphics from Glass Joe, not to mention the fact that you fight him twice) but the assortment of styles is still interesting. Piston Honda teaches you the importance of blocking. Soda Popinski’s punches have slightly “off” timing, requiring you to go against your instincts to dodge properly. Mr. Sandman is orthodox but still very strong. And, of course, Tyson himself, one of the most challenging bosses in video game history.
It’s hard to get across how much better Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is compared to other early NES games. It’s neither impossibly hard like Ghosts ‘n Goblins or Solomon’s Key nor too easy like Wizards & Warriors. Like the early Super Mario Bros. games, it has just the right level of difficulty. That is, if you don’t count the ludicrously strong Mike Tyson, who will push your gaming skills to their limit and force you to fight the previous guy if you don’t beat him. No, it’s not fair, but it’s also not fair that Mike Tyson in 1987 was better at punching people than anyone else could imagine.
The arcade original used a transparent wireframe of the player’s character so you could clearly see the opponent through his body. The NES lacked the hardware for this, though, so they got creative: They made the protagonist a tiny weakling and his opponents gigantic so they could be easily visible. This had the added effect of making the hero into an underdog; he’s not fighting in his own weight class, he’s taking on opponents with fists as big as his torso. This heightens the enjoyment you get when you take one of the behemoths down.
The 1994 SNES sequel is a more streamlined process with its cleaner presentation, lack of repeat matches and exhaustion, and the ability to replay enemies you’ve beaten without the need for passwords. Yet most of the new characters have dull moves and designs and certainly lack the charm of previous and later games in the series (Only one, the Irishman Aran Ryan, would reappear in a drastically remade fashion in Punch-Out!! for Wii). It is missing effective super punches; the ones Super Punch-Out!! gives you are more frequent but much less powerful. The 3-round system is curiously abandoned and in its place is the ability to clutch in order to gain small amounts of health when the opponent is knocked down. The pummeling chiptune music of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is replaced with a mediocre soundtrack. It brings back the transparent player model from the arcade, but at the expense of that precious underdog feeling.
Surprisingly, the 2009 Wii sequel is not a completely soulless cash-in on nostalgia, as many of Nintendo’s recent releases are. It appears to be so at first, though. The first half of the game is unoriginal; you fight the same boxers from previous games with very few surprises. Then, when you beat them all, something different happens. You are the champion, and the guys you beat before are now challenging you. Only this time, they’ve all leveled up their game. They all have new skills, new patterns, new puzzles to figure out. Even the no-talent Glass Joe becomes a reasonable challenge, not to speak of the characters who were tough the first time around.
The game explodes with creativity again with its second half. Every character returns with new strategies. King Hippo fights you with a manhole cover duct-taped to his weak spot—his stomach—which makes him a different opponent entirely. Mr. Sandman has a new haircut and fighting style both reminiscent of Mike Tyson from the days of old; he is one hellishly strong opponent. The hidden boss, Donkey Kong, is Donkey Kong. You get to box a cartoon gorilla. If you don’t find that to be an amazing thing, what business do you have playing video games in the first place? The love shown for this game is outstanding.
Punch-Out!! is still going strong. The high quality of the Wii sequel may be a fluke, but there hasn’t been a poor game in the series yet.