Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out was one of those staple games of my youth, along with Tetris and Metroid and Worms and Bomberman and other things I can barely remember. The sort of game that was ever-present… my friends and I would gather around the little TV after school and trade turns trying to get to the final showdown with Tyson. When it would actually happen (which was not often), it was a collective victory. We all cheered and congratulated each other even though only one person scored the actual winning blow.
I rarely played it myself. I was never good at games that relied on strong reflexes. I mostly watched. But I could appreciate the intense strategy that went into this title. It was not a boxing game… it was more like extremely fast paced chess. You could be aggressive or defensive, but either way you couldn’t win the match without understanding your opponent. There is a counter for every move, and a way to circumvent the approach of every character. It’s rhythmic, poetic, beautiful.
The characters themselves were indeed questionable. No one denies this. Especially once we discovered emulation and experienced the original arcade titles. The towering Russian, Soda Popinski, was originally named Vodka Drunkenski. Great Tiger, the mystical Indian, wore a jeweled turban and appeared to have a gutted tiger in his corner of the ring. There was even an Italian character named Pizza Pasta. That’s not even clever! Just… awkward.
Those characters, however, did not matter. In retrospect, its refreshing to think that such ethnicities were represented at all. How often do you see a Polynesian anything in a game? ((Master Higgins does not count)) The characters were just there so you had a frame of reference when talking shop with your friends.”Bald Bull tried two rolling jabs right off the bat, but I countered the second one and got a star.” When you hear Bald Bull, you think “the boxer that does the Bull Charge,” not “that ridiculous Turkish caricature.” Or maybe not. Those were simpler times, before privilege was even in my vocabulary. Sometimes it’s okay to go back to that for a little while.
My friends and I spent a lot of time with this game. I’m talking years. We had expectations of one another, and a common pool of knowledge to pull strategy from. If you made it to round two and Glass Joe was still standing, you were doing something wrong. We had stories of legendary matches that became comically exaggerated as time went on. “I was almost out, and I see Mr. Sandman gearing up for the Dreamland Express, and as he’s coming at me with the first uppercut… wham! I right hook him and he’s instantly KO’d and I get a million points and my name was in Nintendo Power! Remember that, guys? It was awesome.” We became the veteran boxer stereotypes that the game drew inspiration from.
This new Punch-Out… it is something special. All the same characters, but with a few tweaks. I’m not capable of objectively evaluating an iteration of this franchise, so let me sidestep with an anecdote: I vividly recall a conversation with my friend Ryan as he was going into the second round against Super Macho Man, sometime in the summer of 1997. “Dude, what if… instead of pressing buttons to throw punches, you could, like… just punch at the screen?” Crazy talk!
We all dreamed of things like this. Don’t deny it. And I don’t think we give the Wii enough credit for enabling such fantasies. It’s not gimmicky… it what gamers like myself have wanted for a long time.
The main point to take away from this is that games can foster relationships in an extremely unique way, and revisiting old IP isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So much so that, as soon as I finish writing this entry, I am hopping on a train to go see those same friends, the ones I played Punch-Out with as a kid. I’ve got my Wii and a copy of the new game in my bag. We have all grown old, gotten fat. My hair is predominately gray now and I seem to look tired all the time. But tonight we will tell ourselves that we’re teenagers again.
So here’s your box quote, Nintendo: “Punch-Out is familiar enough to make you miss your youth, but new enough to help you find it again.”