Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!


Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! Box Cover

#3 – Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

The hits just keep on coming here at Take on the NES Library with Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! Title Screen

867-5309 doesn’t work since I don’t know the area code

To Beat: Win all matches and reach the credits
My Goal: Beat the game without a single loss
What I Did: Beat the game with one loss
Played: 11/27/15
Difficulty: 9/10
My Difficulty: 5/10

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is probably the most recognizable sports game on the NES. It’s my personal favorite but it’s not quite honest enough to call Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! a sports game. It’s more like a pattern-recognition brawler and even that description is a little bit disingenuous. It may be hard to qualify but nevertheless it is still a beloved classic and still incredibly fun and challenging today.

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is actually the third game in the series. There were two prior arcade releases, Punch-Out!! and Super Punch-Out!!, that came out in 1983 and 1984 respectively. I have not seen either machine in person so I don’t know too much about those games. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! came out in 1987 and was re-released in 1990 as simply Punch-Out!! without Mike Tyson. When Super-Punch-Out!! was released in 1994 the visuals very closely resembled the arcade versions. That means the NES version is a downgrade visually but even then the game still looks great by NES standards. To cap off the brief history, the Wii got its own version of Punch-Out!! in 2009 as well. I have played all three of the home versions and I am very well acquainted with them except for the Wii Punch-Out!! that I have only played through once when it was released.

I want to spin back around to the NES re-release. In 1990 Nintendo did not extend their licensing agreement with Mike Tyson to put his likeness into the game. That decision coincided with Tyson’s loss of the heavyweight title to James “Buster” Douglas. Evidently the game was still selling well for Nintendo so they re-tooled the game to remove Tyson. The box art was redone and the game replaced Mike Tyson with the character Mr. Dream. Gameplay-wise he is functionally equivalent to Tyson. This version of the game was the one I grew up with. My memory is a little bit fuzzy on this one but at some point I received a catalog from Nintendo Power and my mom ordered a couple of games for me. One was Startropics and the other was Punch-Out!! (Those turned out to be good choices!) It wasn’t until I started collecting NES games in earnest that I obtained a copy of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! Even though the games are the same and the re-release seems to be a bit harder to find, the 1990 variant is cheaper to buy.

Mr. Dream Introduction

Don’t you just want to knock his perfect teeth in?

Even though this game is pretty familiar to NES enthusiasts it’s worth covering the gameplay. You play as Little Mac, an up-and-coming diminutive boxer that starts from the bottom to work his way up to fame and fortune in the World Video Boxing Association. Along the way Little Mac squares off against a colorful cast of characters culminating in a showdown with Kid Dynamite himself. Little Mac can do jabs and bodyblows that do just a tiny bit of damage compared to the damage received when he takes a hit. If Little Mac can find an opening he will sometimes be rewarded with a star that can be used to throw an uppercut, his strongest punch by far. He also has stamina represented by a number of hearts and when Little Mac runs out of stamina he turns purple in color and can’t punch until he briefly rests up by avoiding contact.

Soda Popinski hits pink Little Mac

This is what it looks like to have the wind knocked out of someone.

There are three circuits: The Minor Circuit, Major Circuit, and World Circuit. The Tyson fight stands alone at the end as the ultimate test. Little Mac must work his way up the ranks to knock off the champion of each circuit before proceeding onward to the next fighter. The actual fights play more like puzzles. Little Mac can get basic hits in but this quickly becomes a bad strategy just a few boxers in when they can block nearly everything. The way to victory almost always is to dodge punches and counter with rapid fire punches. The boxers leave themselves vulnerable to quite a few hits after a miss and that is how Little Mac can make up ground in the fight despite his relatively weak strength. Each boxer has his own set of punches to avoid and some have their own special attacks that Little Mac must figure out to dodge or counter. Often it’s these specials that pave the way for Little Mac to take advantage quickly. For example, the first boxer Glass Joe will occasionally back up and give a little taunt before coming forward with a punch. When timed properly, Little Mac can sneak a punch in just as he approaches for an instant knockdown. The game allows these tricks to be exploited while also allowing the player to win just by playing it straight with the dodge-then-counter-attack approach. Victory requires either three knockdowns within the same round (a TKO) or a single knockdown where the opponent cannot stand back up by the end of a 10-count. Each match has three rounds of three minutes each so there is ample time to determine the outcome of the match, and if time expires the judges will decide the winner of the match.

Glass Joe wins by decision

Seriously, don’t let this happen to you!

I played the game just a few months ago and I learned something very important regarding this game. My primary television for playing games is an LCD flatscreen TV which introduces a tiny bit of lag when displaying the picture on screen as opposed to an older model CRT TV. Normally this is a non-issue but Punch-Out!! is very timing sensitive and those few frames of lag make all the difference. I was able to make it through the first half or so of the game without any trouble and then all of a sudden I was getting knocked down all over the place. Despite all that I was able to somehow defeat all of the boxers except Tyson and even then I got awfully close to winning the game a couple of times. It sounds weird but it’s something you have to experience in person to understand. I have had a CRT TV stored away in my house unused for a long time and I knew I needed to get it up and running. The first game I played was Punch-Out!! and I put in the password to put me straight into the fight with Tyson as a test of both the TV and my reflexes. I was able to beat Mike Tyson on the first try but he brought me all the way to the end of the third round. I was on the ropes for almost the entire third round but I just barely made it through and won. Armed with that knowledge and that tiny bit of practice I finally felt good enough to take the game on from the very beginning.

I was very close to going undefeated but I fell just short. I was pretty shaky on both Piston Honda fights and I have no idea why. There is a way to end both of those fights quickly and my timing was off and I missed it. Then both fights went on way longer than they should have but I pulled through. Other than that I was on my game for nearly the entire rest of the run. I beat Soda Popinski without taking a hit and I knocked out Super Macho Man in the first round. But as it could be expected, I didn’t quite make it past Mike Tyson on my first try even though I was awfully close. I was just a sliver of health away from getting a TKO at the end of the second round, and then in the third round I got a little over-eager with dodging and ended up getting knocked down twice and couldn’t recover. Losing to Tyson is an instant Game Over. However, when you go back to the title screen and continue it pre-loads the last password received. That brought me back to Super Macho Man. I beat him again and then in the second round of the Tyson rematch I took him out for the victory. Curiously, I ended up with a 15-0 record on the ending screen even though there are only 14 fights in the game. I figured out why. The password you get from beating Super Macho Man records the win even though it puts you back before that fight to begin with, so it did not count the Tyson loss and double-counted the Super Macho Man win. It looks nice, but don’t be fooled. I wasn’t better than perfect on this run!

Little Mac training with Doc Louis

Training all day and all night eventually pays off

I am so familiar with this game that I know a lot of little minor details that escape most other players. I mean stuff like whenever an opponent is knocked down and gets up at the count of 1 it means an uppercut will instantly knock him down again no matter what his health bar says. During the second Bald Bull fight, whenever he is knocked down he always gets up on 9. Every single time. There are some things though that are not so obvious or easy to find, and there is one particular secret that was revealed a few years ago that was not publicly known for over 20 years. Back to Bald Bull, his signature move is the Bull Charge where he backs up to the ropes, takes three hops forward, and throws an uppercut that means an instant knockdown. The move can be countered by landing a body blow right before he strikes which is an instant knockdown right back. The secret is that there is a member of the audience on the right side that takes a picture with the flash on and if you punch as soon as you see the flash you will have the perfect timing to knock Bald Bull down every time. It does make sense that a player would almost certainly never notice this as all the attention and focus are on making the perfectly timed hit, but it does make me wonder if there are any other secrets like this here or in any other games that are out there clearly in the open that no one has figured out or revealed yet. I really hope that there is!

Punch-Out!! Famicom Gold Cart

This is just as shiny as Bald Bull’s head!

In Japan, the Famicom version also had a release and subsequent re-release although they are backwards. A fancy gold-colored Punch-Out!! cart was given out to winners of a contest and it is quite collectible and expensive as far as Famicom carts go. The game did not include Mike Tyson, ending instead with Super Macho Man. Not long afterwards the standard release of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! was launched in Japan.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the neatest feats I have ever seen in gaming and that is Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! beaten completely blindfolded. It’s a long video but it has to be seen to be believed. The game is so well made that it can be mastered solely with audio cues. I first saw this done live on the stream of Awesome Games Done Quick 2014 but the runner was unable to beat Tyson at that time. Now it has been completely dominated blindfolded and even though I have watched it I still can’t completely wrap my brain around it.

Update 5/27/16: Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is one of the more difficult games to beat on the NES. The game is both short enough to beat in a single sitting, and hard enough where it takes hours and hours of practice on each opponent to learn the patterns and how to effectively win. Then, when you finally get to Mike Tyson, all of your past skills and reflexes are put to the ultimate test and then some. Even a Punch-Out!! veteran can have some trouble in the final fight. I know it happens to me when I play and I’ve beaten Tyson dozens of times. I put it at a 9/10 difficulty rating but I think it’s not that hard to make a case of bumping it up to the elusive 10/10 difficulty.

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is worthy of its spot high up on my list of games to beat. It has tight simple controls and it is a great exercise in hand-eye coordination and reflexes. It is certainly worthy of digging up a CRT TV just to have a fighting chance at playing effectively. I am also insistent on properly including both exclamation points every time I reference Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! because the game is that exciting to play!

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! Ending

#3 – Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

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Contra Box Cover

#2 – Contra

One of the most popular games on the NES is regarded that way because it is still one of the best games around.

Contra Title Screen

Musical accompaniment by the sounds of controller mashing for the Konami Code.

To Beat: Reach the ending
My Goal: Loop the game twice
What I Did: Reached Loop 3, Stage 7
Played: 11/24/15
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 2/10

Konami was responsible for many of the best NES games made and Contra may very well be the cream of that crop. It is based on the arcade game of the same name that released in 1987 but the NES version of Contra is widely regarded as the better version at a time when arcade machines were at the bleeding edge of video game technology. I played through the arcade Contra earlier this year and I can personally attest that the NES version is much more fun to play. The main difference is in the physics and in particular the jumping. The jumps in the arcade have more float to them than the NES port and it is more difficult to dodge anything oncoming since the hangtime is longer. If I remember right the NES port has a bit more content as well.

One of the most famous things about Contra is the Konami Code. It did not make its first appearance in Contra but it is almost certainly used most often in this game to get started with 30 lives. This is nearly essential for the new player because with bullets flying all over and one hit kills it means death is all too common. The Konami Code definitely helped me when I was younger. I haven’t used the code in years in single player because I don’t really need it but it would have been a lot harder to get good at the game without using it early on.

Contra has 8 missions in total: Jungle, Base 1, Waterfall, Base 2, Snowfield, Energy Zone, Hangar, and Alien’s Lair. I recited that from memory! I would say that most players could get enough practice quickly to make it up to the Waterfall level, which is where the game bumps up in difficulty mostly because the screen only scrolls up and falling back down gets you killed. That happens a lot.

Contra Base Level

There is nothing more “video game” than shooting at walls

The base levels are played with a behind-the-shoulder perspective instead of the side view in all the other levels. It can be a bit tricky to dodge attacks from that perspective but fortunately the levels are short enough that it’s not too bad. Well, the first base is short. The second base feels at least twice as long as the first!

The latter half of the game features some sort of gimmick in each level. The snowfield mission’s background chucks these weird baton-shaped grenades all over the place. The Energy Zone has plumes of fire that blast out of the background pipes conveniently timed to when you are in the way. The Hangar has spikes that drop down and spike walls that pop up. Finally the Alien’s Lair features a fight against a huge alien head right off that bat. That one is especially intimidating and awesome the first time you see it.

Contra Alien Fight

This isn’t even the final boss!

Contra also has a pretty nice set of special weapons that usually fly in on these little pods. There’s a machine gun, a spinning fire shot, a laser, and a spread shot. There is also a bullet speed upgrade, temporary invincibility, and a smart bomb that kills all enemies on-screen. Surprisingly to me there is debate about which weapon is the best and frankly I don’t get that at all. Spread shot is my weapon of choice and the others don’t come close.

I have played this game dozens of times over the years and I expected it to be a cakewalk this time, and I was sorely mistaken. For the first 15-20 minutes I played downright awful by my standards. I got Game Over in the Waterfall stage TWICE! It was some kind of rust I had to shake off and I hope this is not a trend going forward. I simply don’t accept using continues on a game I am so familiar with so I chose to start all over. The third time was indeed the charm and I cruised through the game after that.

Contra Energy Zone Boss

Just one of the huge memorable boss fights

When you beat the game and go through the credits the game starts over with your lives and score intact (maybe your weapon too but I don’t recall what happened to me on that) and a corresponding bump in difficulty. I had not played through the game more than once at a time until this run. As I understand it it takes a few loops before the difficulty becomes evident. For me the second time through wasn’t that much different than the first, and the third time through I only noticed it getting harder a few times. I think the game pushes out more enemies each time through and the bosses require more damage. I noticed it for sure at the end of my run at the end of the Hangar level in the third loop. I got pinned between a turret gunner and enemies constantly spawning from behind and I wasn’t able to take advantage of a brief window in between attacks to finish off the gunner.

Contra Famicom Level Map

This is what we missed out on in the US

Contra was also released on the Famicom about the same time it was released on NES. The Famicom version is even better than the NES version if you can believe that. It has extra cutscenes between levels and some other visual effects not present in the NES version. The difference has to do with a custom chip on the Famicom cart not present on the NES cart that allowed for the extra content. I have yet to play it but I hope to own a cart of my own someday for the best possible experience.

Lastly, Contra was released in PAL regions in late 1990 but this is the weakest of the releases in my opinion. It was renamed as Probotector and the human sprites were replaced with robot sprites. The game is still the same fun but with different visuals. I guess it does make more sense for defeated robot enemies to explode instead of human enemies.

Update 5/27/16: Contra has a reputation as a difficult game, and while the game is challenging I don’t think it’s nearly as hard as the general perception says it is. With limited lives and limited continues, it does take some practice to learn how to deal with the enemy spawns and bosses. I believe many people, myself included, made themselves better at Contra by using the Konami Code to have enough lives to beat the game. It’s a good method of practice and after a few runs through it that way, I imagine many players are equipped to take on the game with the normal allotment of lives.

It’s really no secret why Contra is just as fun today as it was back in the NES heyday. It has a good amount of challenge, impressive visuals and effects, fun powerful weapons, and awesome boss battles. It’s also really fun in 2-player mode that I completely failed to mention until now. I had a blast going through the game again just like always.

Contra Ending Alt

I like this shot better than the end of the credit roll.

Contra Ending

#2 – Contra

Super Mario Brothers Box Cover

#1 – Super Mario Bros.

Let’s get it started with the game that got me started on Nintendo.

Super Mario Bros Title Screen

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this screen!

To Beat: Finish World 8-4
My Goal: Beat both 1st and 2nd quests
What I Did: Beat both quests
Played: 11/23/15
Difficulty: 6/10
My Difficulty: 2/10

Super Mario Bros. is a game that needs no introduction, or at most a short one. It is classic, iconic, and beloved to this day.

This is the game that got me hooked on Nintendo for good. I don’t exactly remember when I first played but whenever I did I knew we had to have a Nintendo at home. I believe my grandparents purchased the NES Action Set for my family for Christmas when I was 5. Everyone was hooked and we played for months. We even called the Nintendo tip hotline because we couldn’t figure out how to do running jumps. I was the only one in the family to beat the game and I did it at age 6. Since then I’ve beaten this game dozens of times and I know just about every secret and trick from memory. This was an easy choice for the inaugural game of Take on the NES Library.

My run this time was pretty ordinary. I was hoping I could do a no-death run but that ended in World 4 because I foolishly decided to try jumping on top of a platform while it was moving up and couldn’t reach it. I have done a no-death run before but I have only done it once, and interestingly enough I did it as Luigi! A friend wanted to play SMB 2-player style. I took over after he lost his life in World 1-2 and I ran the table after that. I really coasted through the game that time and it was pretty neat to do that if only once!

This time however I was pretty rusty and died 4-5 times on the 1st quest and quite a bit more during the 2nd quest. As a matter of fact, I nearly got Game Over toward the end of the 2nd quest. I was trying to sprint through World 7-3 and bit the dust several times in a row. I was down to only two lives before I hunkered down and made sure I wouldn’t make any more mistakes. Fortunately I made it through the rest of the game unscathed and sealed the victory!

Super Mario Bros Killing Bowser

I didn’t actually kill Bowser with fireballs but that’s okay!

Some other miscellaneous highlights of this run included pulling off the infinite 1-up trick in the first quest, performing an unintentional wall jump, and visiting the Minus World the third time through just for fun.

Here’s an interesting tidbit about the game that isn’t very well known. The first level of each world holds an invisible block with a 1-up mushroom inside. Sometimes the 1-up block is completely missing and there’s a reason for that. To ensure that the hidden block is there, you need to either warp to that world or collect all the coins in the 3rd level of the previous world. For example, to trigger the hidden 1-up block in World 3-1 you must collect all the coins in World 2-3. That is a pretty clever and obscure secret that I’m surprised anyone was able to figure out.

Update 5/27/16: I’ve played this game so many times that it’s really a breeze for me to play, but the game as a whole is actually quite challenging and I would consider the game to be slightly above average in that department. Without using the continue code, there are only so many lives to collect and it takes some practice to be able to clear the whole game. It’s just that so many people have played this game so many times that I don’t think many people realize that the game is not a cakewalk.

I really enjoyed sitting down and playing this classic game from start to finish once again. I think this was quite an appropriate way to hit the ground running. One down, only hundreds more to go!

Super Mario Bros Ending Screen

#1 – Super Mario Bros

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