Even though Mike Tyson’s Punchout! was one of the earliest Nintendo titles it remains one of its most significant. Not just because of its celebrity endorsement and graphics but because it is still to this day of the system’s best. Even if you are not a fan of boxing it is hard not to fall in love with the game’s characters and near perfect gameplay. I would even go as far as saying it is still one of the most enjoyable boxing games ever released.
Mike Tyson’s Punchout! follows flyweight Little Mac on his journey through the boxing ranks to face Mike Tyson in a dream match. With his coach Doc Louis in his corner Little Mac is ready to take on the world!
Despite the name Mike Tyson’s Punchout! is not a straight port of the arcade game but rather a reimagining. And in this case I would say for the better. Rather than the wire frame boxer of the arcade Little Mac is a borderline midget. Little Mac has a limited number of moves at his disposal. Aside from left and right punches he can throw jabs, duck, block, and sway left and right. The number of moves at your disposal isn’t important however but how you use them.
A number of new mechanics have been added that expand the game. The KO meter is replaced by a star counter. By nailing your opponent during specific frames you earn stars, up to a max of three. These can be used to throw a powerful uppercut that when timed right can score a knockdown. Earning stars differs per fight and requires skill to do consistently. The stamina meter keeps you from spamming punches. Every time you miss, are blocked, or get hit your stamina depletes. At zero Little Mac becomes fatigued and unable to attack until you dodge a few punches. It might seem stifling but this mechanic forces you to become better.
Part of what makes Mike Tyson’s Punchout! so great is both the absurdity and the pomp and circumstance as you progress. No reasonable boxing organization would ever let a little guy like Little Mac fight a super heavyweight like Super Macho Man because we know the outcome. As horrifying as that would be it makes for a great video game. Between the funny training montages and ever escalating series of opponents you really do get the sense of an underdog overcoming the odds and it makes the game truly special.
The cast of characters are a large reason why the game is beloved. There is no dancing around it, the cast hits every ethnic stereotype in the book. Some are even borderline offensive. But at the very least it isn’t done out of malice. Most of the boxers come from the original arcade game but some have been redesigned. Between their signature attacks and (mostly) unique animations each opponent boasts a great deal of character. While their portrayal and between round quotes are offensive they at least make every character memorable which is an important part of any boxing game.
Punchout! is the only NES game to use the MMC2 chip. This chip allowed for the large characters seen in the game, making it one of the system’s most distinct games. These are some of the largest sprites on the system and each features a wide range of expressions and animations. Super Macho man completely sells the idea that he is buff beefcake and who can forget King Hippo. It’s obvious that many share the same body type and animation (funny enough Piston Honda and Mike Tyson) but considering the results it doesn’t matter.
The detailed animation is more than just for show. Punchout! is less your typical boxing game and almost plays like a rhythm game. Every opponent has specific moves and ticks that you’ll need to watch for. Blindly attacking will not only fail but is discouraged due to the stamina system. Knowing when to swing and counterattack is absolutely pivotal and after one or two matches becomes second nature. You need to know when to try and punch King Hippo so that he becomes vulnerable. Super Macho Man’s Super Spin Punch (whew) is telegraphed, enabling you to prepare to dodge repeatedly.
It might sound stifling however the pace and rhythm is almost perfect. For every punch you take you know it was your own fault. There’s a gradual difficulty curve that is near perfect. With each new circuit the game is gradually teaching you some new mechanic. Once again, King Hippo is unbeatable unless you learn how to counter. The Great Tiger’s Tiger Punch can only be stopped by blocking. In the first encounter Bald Bull is a tough but manageable opponent. In the second encounter he can only be knocked down by KO punches. This mechanic will test how much you pay attention to specific animation frames in order to gain stars and win. The game is tough in the last circuit but the skills you have no doubt built up to that point makes it less daunting. But it pales in comparison to the Mike Tyson fight.
The Mike Tyson fight has become the stuff of legends at this point. The Mike Tyson code was one of the first video game “cheats” myself and many others ever learned. It was exciting being able to fight the final boss right away. Even with that in mind nothing will prepare you for just how brutal it is. The vast majority of players won’t last even thirty seconds. His hits are both quick and powerful, knocking you to the canvas in one shot. You will need every ounce of gaming skill to survive even one round and hope to ever ultimately win. I still can’t do it consistently and I have nearly three decades of experience under my belt. Mike Tyson’s Punchout! was released at the height of his popularity and really sells just how much of a phenomenon the man was.
Mike Tyson’s Punchout! is consistently ranked as the best boxing game of all time and it is easy to see why. I’ve been playing the game for almost thirty years at this point and it never grows old. Nintendo really nailed the mechanics and set a standard that all future boxing games are still judged against. This is every bit the classic it is remembered as and one of the greatest games of all time.