Punch-Out!! is one of those games that legions of 8-bit fans have masses of fond memories, and with good reason. The NES version was first released in 1987 as Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!, later being re-released in 1990 as simply Punch Out!!, after Nintendo chose not to re-new its licence with Mike Tyson. Designed by Genyo Takeda and Makoto Wada, this version changed many aspects from the arcade release, and in doing so made a game that improved on its predecessor in every way. The gameplay, characters, presentation, this is a game that has all the ingredients to make one hell of a memorable experience, despite its seemingly simple nature.
The premise of the game is simple. You star as Little Mac, the plucky and inspiring little guy who is on a quest to become the boxing world champion, being aided along the way by his trainer Doc. That’s really it for the plot, but this is more than enough, as the area where the game’s world really shines, is through the characters.
Right from the opening bout against everyone’s favourite punching bag Glass Joe, players are treated to one larger than life characters after another. Each character is colourful and filled with personality, and the trash talk between rounds really fleshes the characters out further. Great Tiger, King Hippo, Don Flamenco, there’s honestly too many memorable characters to name them all here. Super Mario himself even makes a cameo appearance as the straight-laced referee in a really nice touch from Nintendo. There may be minimal input from the characters with everything occurring in the ring, but their overall design and individualism really makes them shine through in a masterstroke of design.
Success in simplicity is the name of the game here, and this goes way beyond the characters and world. As with most of Nintendo’s NES games, the gameplay is simple but intuitive, and grows in complexity as you play. As far as the controls are the concerned, the d-pad is used for dodging, blocking and ducking, A and B punch, and oddly Start is used for the special uppercut. Start is the only button the feels slightly counterintuitive, but at the same time it does make it feel special. This does however mean that you can’t pause which is a pain, but the rounds are short and being able to pause may have altered the feel of gameplay slightly, as this is a game where you’re meant to make split second decisions.
In terms of gameplay, despite capturing the feel of Boxing, you wouldn’t really think of it as a sports game, in fact it’s more akin to a puzzle title. Each fight is made up of three rounds and obviously the aim is defeat your opponent, either on points or by knockout. Each opponent you face has their own individual fighting style, largely based on their personality, with each having their own weakness. Finding this weakness is the key to victory, and you’ll need to exploit this in order to land your blows and win, all whilst using lightning fast reflexes to dodge their blows. Make too many mistakes and Little Mac will face a fatigue effect, requiring you to constantly dodge until your energy is returned.
In old-school fashion each fighter has a strategy, and once you know it the fight is in your hands. This doesn’t however make the latter fights any easier, nor does this affect enjoyment. As whilst being simple, the combat is highly satisfying and presents a clear challenge, but not one that is too difficult to cause frustration. In fact, in a really clever gameplay mechanic, Doc will be on hand between rounds to give you the vital tips, all in true trainer fashion. In fact I found this vital when fighting King Hippo and had to dodge until the end of the round in order make it to Doc’s tips.
Each victory leads you one step closer to the World Championship, and this has a very arcade feel to it. This is no bad thing as this, alongside the game’s short battles, encourage you to continue on fighting. These fights follow a prescribed order that never changes. Nevertheless, there is a password system so that you can avoid repeating easier fights and return you to later points in the game if Little Mac is forced to retire, and against Mike Tyson one punch is all it can take to cause this.
The presentation also takes on the mantle of simple but deep. The sound effects for the crowd may be a little lacking, but the same can’t be said for the soundtrack. There’s tunes that introduce your opponent, playing into their personality and the famous track played whilst Little Mac is training. But none are better than the music that plays during fights, spurring you on to keep going until the bell, reminiscent of Eye of the Tiger from Rocky.
The characters are modelled excellently and designed with great personality, with this also being true for the in ring fighting, and the animations between rounds and championships. The design of the ring and the perspective in which the game is played really closes in your field of vision, making you feel that you are in the ring with only the fight to focus on. Following a Championship victory you’ll also be treated to little scenes that tell the story of Little Mac. These help give you a feel for Mac’s determination and his story, with the most memorable and endearing being training in New York. Something even Family Guy has parodied.
These little touches simply show how much care and attention Nintendo puts into developing long-lasting experiences, and Punch-Out!! is certainly one of these. Despite its simplicity, the depth within that will make you want to keep coming back time after time. It’s also a game that grows with you like many of Nintendo’s best. Ultimately, on the surface Punch-Out!! may seem like a simplistic boxing game aimed at American sports fans in the late 80s. However, what Nintendo actually created was a deep and engaging experience, one that requires quick thinking and even quicker reflexes. Moreover, the added touches to the characters really engage you with the experience, creating lasting memories and making you want to keep coming back.