Adding a Star to the Star Uppercut in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
Everyday life is a series of rhythms and patterns. We follow the comfortable groove and we’re happy if we can always get it to work in a predictable motion. Games of all kinds are also built upon finding the rhythms and patterns that make it work for the player. We’re not just talking about dancing or music games. We’re talking about action, role-playing and, more importantly, fighting games. The entire fighting genre is built upon predicting your opponent well before they take a swing. There is perhaps no more simple and clear-cut example of method in the mayhem as Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. It was on this day in 1987 that players met Little Mac for the first time and joined him on his journey to the dream fight with “Iron” Mike himself.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! was many people’s introduction to the franchise, but it wasn’t the original. The original Punch-Out!! and its sequel Super Punch-Out!! were arcade games released in 1983 and 1984 respectively. Following their release, director Genyo Takeda was tasked with bringing the series over to the original Nintendo Entertainment System. This posed a challenge as the arcade machines were arranged with two monitors placed atop one another with the bottom monitor displaying the fight and the top displaying match info. Moreover, the arcade machines housed more powerful hardware than the NES. For the port, Takeda had to find a way to scale down the experience while still making it entertaining.
Little Mac was designed in place of a wireframe fighter that represented the player avatar before. With a small boxer, not only could Takeda display Mac’s larger opponents more easily, but he could add a light underdog story to the game. The arcade versions featured no background to the journey. Takeda took the opportunity to offer between match commentary, slight story progression and some cutscenes to the game. The NES Punch-Out!! might not have been as graphically advanced, but it made up for it by offering more variety to the game.
The game plays out with Little Mac starting in the Minor Circuit, fighting his way to the Majors, and eventually arriving at the World Circuit before taking on his big fight with Tyson. In each fight, players have only left and right jabs and body blows, along with a star uppercut that can be earned and used to deliver massive damage. More importantly, every opponent has specific patterns and openings that Mac must dodge and attack in order to win. Each has their own niche tricks to be learned as players attempt to knock their opponent down as quickly as possible. For instance, perhaps the most infamous is in the fight with Bald Bull when he uses his special Bull Charge. Landing a body blow at the precise moment will wind Bald Bull, knocking him down regardless of how much stamina he has left.
In taking on the challenge of making a lengthy list of opponents for Little Mac, Takeda and his team looked to their previous characters in the arcades. Both arcade games had only featured four to five opponents. Takeda stretched this number out by taking singular character models and making them palette-swaps of one another. For example, Soda Popinski became a palette-swap of Super Macho Man and Great Tiger was a palette-swap of Von Kaiser. In this way, though each character had different patterns, it cut down the work of creating new characters for the 14-opponent roster Little Mac would face.
Though Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is famous for its titular fight with Mike Tyson himself at the end of the game, this was a late addition that came after first versions of the NES Punch-Out!! had already shipped. The story goes that former Nintendo President Minoru Arakawa attended one of Mike Tyson’s fights and was so awed by Tyson’s skill in the ring that he immediately sought a contract to use Tyson’s likeness in the Punch-Out!! game. After the deal was signed, Tyson would go on to the WBC heavyweight championship, no doubt adding to the popularity of the game when it was released less than a year later.
Despite the fact that Mike Tyson certainly brought popular attention to the franchise, Punch-Out!! also proved to be a fantastically entertaining game all on its own. It would see sequels on Super Nintendo and the Nintendo Wii, as well as regular re-release on numerous other platforms. Little Mac himself is considered a beloved character in his own right, enough that he would appear as a playable character in Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U. With its colorful style of pattern memory and fighting, few games have ever gotten players into boxing as much as Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! did and few ever will.