SPRING TRAINING MONTH #5: Punch-Out!!, by Genyo Takeda (1987)

Type of Media: Video Game

I know a lot of video game fans who want nothing to do with sports games. They eschew Madden, avoid FIFA, and even something as crazy and arcadey as a Rocket League or a Windjammers is vile to them. It’s a shame, because there are a good amount of sports games you don’t have to be a sports fan to enjoy. A prime example: Punch-Out!! on the NES, which uses boxing to deliver a boss rush-style game that requires steely nerves, quick reflexes, and a keen eye for reading tells.

In Punch-Out!! you play as the aptly-named Little Mac, a 4’8” 107 pound boxer from the Bronx who might be one of the most outmatched protagonists in video games. Little Mac, along with his trainer Doc Louis, fights his way through several boxing circuits that have no concept of weight class, pitting him against opponents about twice as big as he is.

As the player you only have a few tools at your disposal to make victory happen. You can do left and right jabs, left and right dodges, block, and duck. A heart counter next to your health bar ticks down every time you block an attack or one of your own attacks gets blocked, and if it falls to zero Mac turns purple and can only dodge until he recovers. Finally, a star counter keeps track of your special uppercuts, which you earn by landing tricky critical hits (usually a punch that interrupts an opponent’s attack). Special uppercuts do a lot of damage and you might be tempted to save them so you can unleash a flurry of knock-out punches, but if you take a hit you’ll lose a star, so you’re encouraged to use them quickly.

While Punch-Out!! starts off very easy, with your first two opponents Glass Joe and Von Kaiser barely putting up a fight as you wail on them, it isn’t long before you find yourself constantly on the defensive. Try to throw a random punch against heavyweights like Bald Bull and Mr. Sandman and they’ll block your hit before flattening you with a haymaker. Like a lot of modern hardcore action games, you’ll need to get used to waiting for the other boxer to make the first move, dodging that hit, then counter-attacking them while they’re exposed.

Not only does each opponent have their own fighting rhythm and tells, like an eyebrow twitch or a flourish with their gloves, they have unique weaknesses too. Just dodging and countering will get you through most bouts just fine, but with some experimentation and precise timing you can discover shortcuts that let you race through fights. When Bald Bull does his Bull Charge, instead of dodging you can punch him out of it at the last second. Soda Popinski throws some deadly uppercuts, but if he winds up for one you can block and confuse him, opening him up for an easy hit.

The enemy fighters you face overflow with personality. Thanks to Mac’s short stature you can see most of their bodies as they tower over you, and the art style and animation really bring them to life considering the limitations of NES hardware. They mug the screen and exaggerate their movements like characters from the old Fleischer Studios Popeye cartoons. Between rounds you get a portrait of them in their corner as they lay down some smack talk. Nearly every fighter has something distinct about them that’s helped cement their images in the canon of beloved video game characters. Soda Popinski even has a bar named after him in San Francisco.

Of course, one reason the antagonists of Punch-Out!! are so memorable is because the vast majority of them are based on stereotypes. The ever-losing Glass Joe is a wimpy Frenchman, Don Flamenco is a flamboyant, rose-throwing Spaniard, and Great Tiger is an Indian man who fights with a turban on, uses a tiger hide as a towel, and can teleport around the ring because of course all Indian people have mystical powers. Russian character Soda Popinski actually used to be called Vodka Drunkenski in the arcade version of Punch-Out!!, but the developers changed his name because they recognized it was really offensive and didn’t want to promote alcoholism to kids. While to me these depictions come across more as goofy and ignorant than maliciously racist and don’t diminish the game, your mileage may vary.

Stereotypes aside, Punch-Out!! is one of the greats from the NES era and still extremely playable. If you’re a fan of modern third-person action games, you might have a lot of fun with this because of how similar it is to Soulsborne games in how it treats boss fights. Also, if you want a version that’s a bit more modernized, there’s an updated Punch-Out!! game for the Wii that keeps the spirit of the original intact.