Retro Video Game Review: Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (NES)

by on January 20th, 2011
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Overall Rating: 5/5 Stars

Within retro game circles, it is a title that hardly needs any introduction. In 1987, a cartridge was released for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) based on an earlier arcade cabinet, only now boasting the licensed use of boxer Mike Tyson’s likeness, and would be known as Punch-Out. Not only did it soon become explosively popular, but is still widely regarded as among the greatest Nintendo games of all time.

Gameplay

Punch-Out follows the boxing fortunes of protagonist Little Mac, an undersized underdog who is out to take the sweet science of fisticuffs by storm, advancing through the professional boxing circuits of the fictional W.V.B.A (World Virtual Boxing Assocation) through battling several fighters, some of which he may have to face twice in order to win the championship belt.

The “Dream Fight” referred to during gameplay is the final match with Mike Tyson, a clash that is commonly regarded as a classic example of a tough boss fight. However, Nintendo’s license to use Tyson’s likeness expired in 1990; so, oddly enough, the cartridges made thereafter were simply Punch-Out (without the “Mike Tyson’s” prefix), and Tyson’s in-game character was replaced by “Mr. Dream.” Other than that difference and the title itself, the two experiences are basically identical.

Controlling Little Mac, the player purely participates in the ring, using Mac to box the various opponents, beginning with the ludicrously easy first foe, Glass Joe. The A and B buttons both punch, B with the left hand and A with the right. The default is a body shot to the corresponding side, but holding Up with a punch button aims for the head instead. Hitting Left or Right on the directional pad dodges in the corresponding direction, while pressing Down brings up Mac’s gloves to block a blow.

But wait, there is more: After landing certain punches, depending on the opposing combatant, Little Mac may gain a star. For every star reserved, Mac can press the Start button to launch a special leaping uppercut move that is especially powerful if landed. While trying to perform all these moves, the opponent, of course, is also trying to dodge, block, and execute their own manner of fighting style.

To add complexity, there are a few counters and bars visible near the top of the screen, displayed above the ring setting. There is a counter by a heart icon, signifying Little Mac’s stamina, with the number decreasing whenever he absorbs a blow by blocking or whether his own blows are absorbed. When it reaches zero, he is temporarily stunned, and must dodge punches for a few seconds or risk being knocked out. There is also a health bar for each boxers, designating when they will go down by knock-out, as it gradually decreases when receiving punches. The counter for total stars is also there.

When knocked out, Little Mac must rapidly press the A button to attempt revival; though after a few knockdowns, such efforts are futile. Additionally, every fight has three rounds, each with a time limit. If Mac fails to knock out the opponent in the given timeframe, he must hope to have scored enough points, as displayed on screen, to win via a decision. The goal score, of course, increases with each fighter. Losing is not the end of the world, however, as Mac may simply drop in rank and need to fight his way back up to the top. Three losses or a loss in the final match, though, mean Game Over for this aspiring puncher.

Yet what truly rounds this video game out as one of the legendary greats is the perfect balance of challenge. Compared to the endless enemies presented in some NES games, such as the beat-‘em-ups that sometimes throw hundreds of ninjas or thugs at the player(s), the number of actual fights in Punch-Out is rather tame. This is countered by the fact that each fight is an exercise in strategy, reaction time, memorization, and other skills, making each an epic encounter. The difficulty level ramps up fairly quickly; mercifully, Punch-Out offers passwords along the way that can be entered on the title screen, including one that instantly goes to the final “Dream Fight,” if so desired. This makes Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out one of the signature, fundamental, perfected carts of the 8-bit era.

Graphics

To put it simply: Punch-Out is gorgeous. Even though there are only a couple animated sprites ever on the screen at the same time, the fighters are glorious in their characterized detail, and the enemies are enormous. Their exaggerated caricatures are made possible by the special MMC2 chip inside the cartridge, which allows for bigger graphics than usual without flickering or slowdown issues. The result is amazing, and provides a masterful visual sequence for the NES. The one caveat is that the characters are often somewhat based on regional stereotypes; although this can be considered humorous, the humor can also seem a bit off-key for those who consider such generalization-based characterizations offensive.

Sound

Just as the visuals are spectacular, especially for the console, and even more so when considering its rather early development in the timeframe of the NES life cycle, so too are the background tunes and sound effects very memorable. From the cartoon-like punch sounds to the jogging theme training anthem, Punch-Out abounds in auditory goodness. There is no laziness here, as every little item seems flourished to an expert level; for one prime example, listen to the bell between rounds, an effect that would still sound great for even a 16-bit system.

Originality

Mario’s appearance as referee, pressing Select between matches to heal the health bar quicker, the hushed tones exchanged on the schoolyard between kids who claimed to have beaten Tyson, Nintendo’s choice to change Vodka Drunkenski to Soda Popinski, the seemingly insurmountable odds, the pitch-perfect challenges of it all; these elements, and more, combine to create what has become the favorite NES video game of many, and an incredibly tightly honed masterpiece by any measure. Tinkering with it, at all, would only remove from its mystique. Rating: Five stars out of five for a true knock-out.


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