Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! - Review

The movie Rocky is a timeless American classic. It is the story of a little guy - a nobody - who has nothing but a big heart and the desire to succeed. Against all odds, he trains, gets fit, gets a fight with the champ, and goes the full fifteen rounds with him. I want to say that Punch-Out was based on that story as the scrawny Little Mac faces boxer after boxer on his way to the dream fight. I won't say it, because it might be incorrect.

Nintendo released an arcade game named Punch-Out!! (no, I don't know why they used two excalamation points either) in the arcade in 1984, and followed it up with a sequel the next year called Super Punch-Out!! In both games, you played the role of a green boxer whose body was wireframe so you could see through him to the boxer you were fighting. These were among Nintendo's last dedicated arcade machines and were fairly popular so it naturally fell that a conversation for their new Nintendo Entertainment System was in order. The problem was the Nintendo didn't have the hardware to make a wireframe character or do any sort of transparency. Heck, they had to include a new chip in the game just to animate the large sprites of the opponents. So what to do? Shrink the main character and call him Little Mac. Now that he was a midget half the size of most opponents, his opponents could be easily seen. He may have had to jump to hit any of his opponent's in the face, but his small stature added to the game's charm.

Indeed, the game has a ton of charm. It distills boxing down to its essence. There is no maneuvering for position, just jabs, body blows, blocking, ducking, and dodging. No need to have the character move around the ring when the fun is in the punches. Indeed, the game was almost rhythmic in its fighting. Your opponent would wind up or show some other tell and that would be your cue to dodge and counter-punch (or even hit them before they got their combo off). This was the age when everyone liked sports games because they had more of an arcade feel and really concentrated on the meat of the gameplay. Tecmo Bowl is fondly remembered and even still popular among people despite, or perhaps because it doesn't have all the realism of the latest Madden.

The characters are also part of the charm for this game. Each is well-developed both in graphics and in character. Each is also an incredible ethnic stereotype: Glass Joe is an effete cowardly Frenchman, Great Tiger is a mystic Indian, Super Macho Man is a narcissistic well-tanned body-building Californian, and Soda Popinski the Russian? Let's just say in the arcade he was known as Vodka Drunkenski. In between rounds, they taunt you or complain about you. Piston Honda's panders to the camera ("Where's the NHK TV camera? Hello, Tokyo!"), Mr. Sandman makes puns on his name ("I think you're gonna have a nightmare tonight!") and Soda Popinski references his original alcoholism ("I drink to prepare for a fight. Tonight I am very prepared!") The characters are huge and cartoony, with many different facial expressions and moves that make them all feel unique. As mentioned before, Nintendo R&D3 team that developed this game created a special memory chip just to be able to animate the large boxers. It was only used in this game, but it paid off by making each of the boxers so memorable.

Finally, even though not explicitly spelled out, the underdog story in this game endears it with people and seems like an obvious nod to Rocky. Little Mac is literally a little guy - his opponent's gloves are twice or even three times as big as his head. Despite this, he manages to overcome odds and be a good boxer - one of the greatest depending on the player's skill. Through it all, his trainer, Doc Louis helps him out by keeping Little Mac jogging in a pink sweatsuit, and offering helpful advice like "Listen Mac! Dodge his punch then counter punch!" and "Join the Nintendo Fun Club today!"

The gameplay itself is largely all about reflexes and pattern memorization. When you see an opponent's tell that he is about to punch, you need to dodge and then punch back. Later opponents have special attacks that must be appropriately countered and responded to like Bald Bull's bull charge and Great Tiger's tiger punch. Some opponents can only be taken down by doing certain things like Bald Bull's second fight, King Hippo, and Mr. Sandman. The opponents get progressively harder as you move up the ranks, so the game has a really good learning curve. The final fight with Mike Tyson (or Mr. Dream is you have the version put out after Tyson's contract with Nintendo was up) is an order of magnitude more difficult than any of the other fights taking him down is a true test of gamer skill.

There really is little bad to say about Punch-Out!! It maybe could use a few more opponents, and there is really no challenge once you know how a boxer operates, but those are minor quibbles. The gameplay is fun, entertaining, and a definite test of skill. But my recurring theme through writing this is charm. This game exudes charm in its characters, gameplay, and stories. The fact that the original version stars a guy who went on to become an ear-biting rapist even adds to the charm. This game is a must for any NES collection.

Rating: 10 / 10

1 comment:

cooldog said...

This was also one of my favorite games when I was a kid. Unfortunately I don't think I ever beat Mike.