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