Released: August 1990
US Cartridge ID: NES-QP-USA
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC2 (128k PRG, 128k CHR)
Note: Punch-Out!! is a variant of the 1987 Nintendo release, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! As such, this review pertains to both releases.
Before releasing the Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo had already established themselves as a power-player in the western arcade entertainment business. Previously finding success in bringing Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., and Popeye to the coin-op markets, the Japanese corporation had owners of gaming centers of the early 1980s waiting with bated breath for their next highly-anticipated quarter muncher. Nintendo answered with 1984’s Punch-Out!!, an upright, dual-monitor machine that pitted players (via a green wire-frame boxing avatar) against six ranked boxers in pursuit of the title. The success of the title, largely attributable to the huge detailed graphics, synthesized voice, and humorous use of stereotypes, guaranteed a follow-up: Super Punch-Out!! was released later the same year, remaining largely the same but for an updated character roster.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is not a port of either of these games, but rather a reimagining of the ideas that laid their foundation. Genyo Takeda, brainchild behind the arcade games (as well as the later released StarTropics series) headed up the NES game’s development, and realized that the NES was wholly insufficient, in terms of technical capabilities, to provide a satisfactory emulation of the coin-op experience. As such, the graphics were scaled down, the voice effects were removed, and in their place a larger line of contenders and a coherent story line appeared – additions better suited to a home conversion than a pay-per-play arcade machine.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! places the player in the role of Little Mac, an ambitious 17-year old challenger under the tutelage of former 1950s headlining boxer Doc Louis. Working his way through progressively harder title challenges, Mac aspires to take on world heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson, and prove himself to the world.
Through fourteen bouts, Little Mac ascends through the ranks by carefully observing the patterns and behaviors exhibited by his opponents, as he is comparatively limited in his move-set. Exhibiting many qualities akin to a puzzle game, Punch-Out!! requires that each new fighter be studied for cues serving to telegraph specific moves, thus allowing Mac to react appropriately before being dealt serious damage.
Aiding his rise to the top, Little Mac has the ability to deliver left and right body-blows and uppercuts, or to smash his opponent with a super-punch, providing he’s earned a star through hitting an opponent at a particularly vulnerable point. Defensively, he can block, dodge left and right, and duck out of the way of incoming blows. The efficacy of each move relies entirely on timing: all fighters will give a signal that will indicate the move they are about to perform, ranging from obvious windups to subtle movements, including blinking eyes, or the light glinting off of a stone worn by the opponent.
The mechanics are extremely simple, but patterns require extreme vigilance to successfully follow as the game requires lightning fast reflexes in order to be successful. Many of the characters that Little Mac challenges have hugely powerful moves capable of knocking the puny pugilist down in a single blow, though the risk that comes with facing these moves can provide an opportunity to turn things around: if Little Mac can time a counter-attack successfully, he will be able to drop the opponent with a single well-placed punch.
Of all of the things that Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is renowned for, the sheer character and charm it possesses easily stands as its trademark. Each of the eleven fighters that Little Mac faces are brimming with their own quirks and amusing habits, and these unique traits are apparent in both the pre-match cinemas and the fights themselves. French Glass Joe backs up from Little Mac during a match to taunt him mercilessly, though he’s only ever won one fight in his 100-fight career. The Soviet representative, Soda Popinski (renamed from his arcade counterpart, Vodka Drunkinski, for the sake of family-friendliness) laughs hysterically, chugs a bottle of “pop,” all while informing the player that he “can’t drive, so [he’s] gonna walk all over you!”
The other fighters, including the handle-bar mustachioed German, Von Kaiser, flamboyant Spaniard Don Flamenco, the ridiculously obese King Hippo, Indian swami Great Tiger, Turkish freight train Bald Bull, the psychotically crazed Mr. Sandman, and the musclebound Ben Franklin wannabe, Super Macho Man, all contribute equally to the over-the-top, tongue in cheek nature of the game’s humor, appreciably creating a nonsensical yet endlessly entertaining backdrop that helps to downplay the sheer violence inherent in the gameplay.
The graphics are absolutely fantastic, due in large part to Nintendo’s MMC2 memory management controller chip, used exclusively in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! and Punch-Out!!Allowing the NES to address two pairs of 4k banks automatically from the CHR-ROM, the MMC2 allowed for some of the biggest character sprites ever seen on the NES to move smoothly across the screen. This provided for an unprecedented amount of animation for Little Mac’s opponents, who typically occupy a quarter of the screen at any given time with no slowdown or flicker. The sound fares just as well, providing a memorably dramatic soundtrack complemented by solid sound effects and an atmospheric cheering crowd (though the effect is achieved via an extremely distorted 1-bit DPCM sample).
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! was rereleased in 1990 as Punch-Out!! Around the time that Nintendo’s contractual relationship with Mike Tyson was about to expire, Tyson had been publicly accused of sexual assault; not wanting to associate the brand with such a particularly damaging endorsement, Nintendo did not renew the contract. Replacing Tyson’s in-game likeness with that of fictional fighter Mr. Dream, Punch-Out!! appeared as the de-facto replacement for the original version of the game.
Widely regarded as a classic ably transcending both technology and era, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! exemplifies Nintendo’s uncanny ability to turn the simplest of concepts into challenging, accessible, and addictive pieces of entertainment. As one of the best games on the NES (and as one that has aged shockingly well), no game player, regardless of age, has an excuse to pass this one up.