Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! - Accidental Triumph
How good fortune allowed me to achieve the impossible and attain special status.

Once upon a time, every hotel in Atlantic City housed a sprawling arcade that served as a perfect drop-off point for parents who needed to ditch their children while they went about pointlessly gambling away their savings. Back before it was suggested that I bring a friend along on our trips to AC, I used to wander around these carpeted wonderlands alone (though, I'd occasionally strike up a spontaneous friendship that lasted about as long as a full play-through of, say, Double Dragon) for hours on end until the day grew long and it was time for everyone to meet up at the coffee shop for dinner.

On this particular visit, we stayed at the Tropicana Casino & Resort, which had by far the largest arcade on the strip. So I was browsing through the joint, seeking out my favorite arcade titles, when my ears caught on to the sounds of fanfare so thunderous that it seemed to transcend the ordinary cacophony as if it were vying specifically for my attention. I remember tracking down the source of the reverberations by cutting across the arcade's right side and circling around a group of machines that were positioned in a plus pattern; on the far side stood this really tall arcade machine that had one of the most unique-looking displays I'd ever seen--two monitors, one stacked atop the other. It bore the name Punch-Out!!, and it seemed almost worthy of that second exclamation point.

As I sized up the machine, my initial observation was something along the lines of "Boy--that must be expensive to produce!" That had to have been the plight of its creator, Nintendo, I figured. "Nintendo" was a name I was familiar with, but it wasn't yet one that had the power to shape my world; during this period, for whatever reason, I instead associated its name more with "wackiness" and "silliness," so it was no surprise to see the name attached to something like this. Whatever the case, I was highly intrigued by what the company had cooked up here.

I can't imagine I fared too well my first time out, since I'd never played anything like Punch-Out!!, but my performance that day wasn't what most resonated with me. No--I was drawn more to the spectacle of Punch-Out!!: The sights and sounds that overpowered not just those in the vicinity but the entire arcade, which was as large as any section of the hotel's casino. The large character sprites that so entranced me as they juked and jived, seemingly gliding across the screen. The green wire-framed protagonist whose design I initially found baffling. The ceaseless roaring of the crowd. And the commentator who tirelessly identified every thrown punch as if he were being paid by the word. I was instantly a fan.

We were there the entire weekend, so I sought out the Punch-Out!! machine several times over the course of the following two days. I improved a little bit in each successive attempt, but the game was still considerably tough--more so because I completely failed to grasp the basics of dodging and countering. Still, I'd taken a strong liking to Punch-Out!!, and my retained mental images of the game dominated the "highlight reel," as I called it--the name for my reflecting upon any Atlantic City visit during the two-hour ride home. 

I could never forget the likes of Glass Joe, Piston Hurricane and Bald Bull, but I was still more enamored with the game's amazing presentation and indelible aesthetic qualities--particularly the commentator's phraseology, which I thought was its most endearing characteristic. "Left! Left! Left! Right!" he'd call without pause as I'd flail away wildly with nothing in the way of strategy. "Body blow! Body blow! Body blow!" I liked how he'd encourage me to "Knock 'im out!" whenever my KO meter would fill after landing successive blows and how he'd warn me of an oncoming barrage by shouting "Come on! Come on!" And, of course, there was nothing more satisfying than sending an opponent to the mat and triggering his rapid 10-count as punctuated by a excitedly-delivered, confirming "Knockout!"

Punch-Out!! eventually started appearing in local arcades, where I was able to spend more time with it, but I didn't fare much better. I never made it past Kid Quick, who would, as his name suggested, routinely pummel me with series of quick jabs (I had, by now, enough knowledge of the system to employ a dodge-and-counter strategy, but I couldn't fight the urge to prioritize spamming head shots in order to max out the KO meter and then hope to land enough right hooks to knock opponents out). The mental image I'd instead come to most associate with Punch-Out!! was that of failure--a visual of a mean-looking pugilist gravitating toward the camera, his eyes bugging out as he enjoyed a hearty, belittling laugh at my expense.

I'd continue to give Punch-Out!! a go whenever I'd see it, but such play sessions were increasingly sporadic. There were two reasons for this: Punch-Out!! was being slowly been phased out of arcades by the late 80s, and my attention had since shifted the newly released console version, which I felt was superior--if only gameplay-wise, as it couldn't touch its arcade counterpart in terms of presentation.

As it was in the case of DuckTales, I'm not really sure when it was I first played Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, nor do I remember who, exactly, introduced me to it. Really, it could have been one from any number of friends, cousins or classmates. The reason it's tough to narrow it down is because Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! was a game that everyone seemed to own, and I was immersed in it wherever I went. I was fascinated not only by how well it translated to the NES but also with the very idea of the game--that a professional boxer like Mike Tyson could essentially hijack a series that originally had nothing to do with him. I mean, Mike Tyson appearing in the same game as a fictional character like Bald Bull? That was just insane! I wondered what would happen if the two could ever fight.

Naturally, I was late to the party when it came to owning my own copy of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, which didn't become a part of my collection until the latter portion of 1989. By then the game had been largely spoiled for me, as friends like Dominick and Mike had already taught me a lot about the important strategies for properly exploiting weaknesses and earning stars. But I didn't consider any of that a deterrent; I knew an all-time classic when I saw one and just had to have it for myself! Sure--it might have lacked the arcade original's boisterous atmosphere and distinct aesthetic attributes (like the green wire-framed protagonist and the energetic commentator whose parlance was so iconic to me), which were so very memorable, but Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! was just too good to be torn down by such comparisons. 

Though, I wasn't too sure about Mario being cast in the role of referee, since he kinda seemed out of place amongst all of these hulking behemoths. It took me a long while to see him as anything other than an intruder ("Do they have to throw him into everything?"). A guy running across Manhattan in pink pajamas was fine, however.

In the months that followed, I established a more-personal relationship with Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!--a mode of operation that never really changed: Glass Joe and Von Kaiser were pushovers, as designed, and never gave me any trouble. Piston Honda was equally beatable (though, I remember being really pissed at his inclusion, since I felt he stole the nickname and the slot of Piston Hurricane, who I thought was a more interesting character). I already knew that the secret to easily defeating Don Flamenco (whose name I misread as "Flamingo") was to dodge his uppercut and then counter with an endless barrage of alternating left and right jabs; and I also had advanced knowledge of how to expose King Hippo's weak spot, though I had a lot of trouble distinguishing between his normal and gaping blows.

I struggled somewhat against the likes of Great Tiger and Bald Bull, whose special moves had a way of flustering me; I learned how to better protect against the whirlwind assault of the "Tiger Punch" (as we referred to his special attack) and more convincingly dispatch Great Tiger, but Bald Bull remained a nuisance until I figured out the correct timing for countering the Bull Charge. My success rate against Soda Popinksi was, let's say, 50%, depending upon how I felt that day (since so much of Punch-Out!! is reflex-based, much of your success depends on your ability to focus without distraction and your current state of mind). If there was any motivating factor, it was to avoid being mocked by Popinksi's victorious chuckling (which I'd hear many more times in the future, anyway, since this same sound sample was re-purposed as Ganon's laugh as heard on Zelda II's Game Over screen).

Then things got rough from there: It wasn't so much that I had trouble with the repeat Bald Bull and Don Flamenco fights, which had added quirks (Bull Could only be knocked down with an uppercut, and Flamenco, annoyingly, wouldn't attack unless his baiting taunts were answered, which was troublesome in that he didn't always oblige and you were short on the stamina) or that I had to repeat the latter fight whenever I'd fail to conquer the Major Circuit. No--the true source of my pain was specifically the Sandman, who was an absolute beast. He was too fast, too strong, and seemingly unassailable. On any normal run, this is as far as I could make it. And even if I was somehow lucky enough to score a TKO, the next monster in line, Super Macho Man, would hastily flatten me with his seemingly undodgable series of Super Spin Punches.

And I had to endure all of this just to get to Mike Tyson? "Forget it," I said. Instead, I decided to skip right to the Tyson fight by utilizing the famous continue-code that every kid had since memorized (007-373-5963). You can guess as to how well that first encounter went. 

"Are they kidding with this?" I wondered, exasperated. "No obvious tells and I can be knocked down in one punch?!" It was one of the most monstrous challenges ever laid before me, and I failed more times than I can remember. And it wasn't like I could turn to anyone for advice, since I didn't know a single kid who was ever able to beat him. For the longest time, it stood that simply getting to the Mike Tyson fight was victory enough.

I continued playing Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! at regular intervals and eventually became skilled enough to work my way through to the Tyson fight without much in the way of failure. Though, the final battle usually ended the same way: Me being TKOed in under 40 seconds, done in by that unreadable flurry of uppercuts. Oh, there were times when I could string together enough lucky dodges to survive the early going and force a second round, but I'd be so broken by then that defeat was inevitable. Still, I promised myself that I'd never give up trying even though ultimate victory seemed unlikely.

It remained a popular game for years in following and continued to get play wherever I went, whether I was visiting my friends or relatives in New Jersey. My cousins, particularly, stood among those who were skilled enough to make it as far as Super Macho Man, who we embelmized because he shared part of his name with professional wrestler "Macho Man" Randy Savage, whose antics we found equally amusing. Super Macho Man was an entertaining figure not only for his comical peck-flexing but for the ridiculous heights he'd reach whenever launched into the air by a knockdown uppercut. In fact, my second cousin Anthony, who'd appear at my uncle's house occasionally, claimed that he once delivered an uppercut with so much speed and force that it launched Super Macho Man completely off the screen! I of course took him at his word and tried to replicate the feat more than a few times, but it soon become obvious that I'd been had.

Otherwise, I remember that we'd always joke about how hilarious it would be if Mac could actually knock him so far back that he'd fly over the ring ropes and land in the crowd, which would then surf him away.

Well, that became the rumor, anyway, and I might have played a role in spreading it.

"So did you ever get around to conquering Mike Tyson?" you ask. Well, my brush with destiny came about under completely random circumstances: One day, my brother and his group of his friends were playing the game in our basement and desperately trying to defeat Tyson. They were ready to give up just around the time I decided to wander down there to check out what was going on; when my brother caught sight of me, he turned to his friend Ray (the best player in their group) and said, "Oh, my brother can do it! He's, like, a master of video games." 

Now, I'm sure many of you have found yourselves in a similar situation where one of your parents is conversing with a new acquaintance and talking you up as an expert in a field in which you only have normal levels of experience ("Oh, you're having trouble connecting your router? Well, my son can help you--he's the master of the Internet!") If so, you understand why it's difficult to protest the claim without feeling like an idiot.

So I didn't say a word as I grabbed hold the controller, which his friends interpreted as a confident admission of my alleged prowess. Suddenly, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure bearing down on me, and all I could think about was how embarrassing this could turn out for me. I mean, I was certainly a highly skilled player (despite how I sometimes present myself here), but I wasn't in any way a "master." That is, I didn't think for a second that I could beat Mike Tyson; hell--I'd never even come close (I scored maybe one knockdown in Round 2)! But now I was tasked with doing much more.

I've never been able to properly explain what it was that happened over the course of the following five minutes. It was as if I was under some of that Shadowgate-like "magical influence" as I flawlessly dodged every uppercut and countered every barrage en route to dropping Tyson in Round 3, which was a shocking outcome for me considering how nervous I was. Truthfully, it was probably just dumb luck, but to my brother's friends, who perceived me to show no outward emotion, it was the calm and cool domination of a thought-impossible final boss. They cheered me on as I delivered that final blow, never knowing that it was a first-time accomplishment. Of course, I continued to remain silent, acting like this was nothing new to me, because, really, it's kinda tough to speak when your heart rate is currently over 200 beats per minute.

Word of my victory spread far across the land (or at least as far as 86th Street) and earned me special status as the neighborhood's "Game Master," which I relinquished only when everyone realized how completely pointless that term really is. Fortunately, during that time, no one ever asked me to replicate my Tyson victory, lest I might have lost the title a whole lot sooner.

What--you think I was going to reject that level of credit just because it was probably undeserved? No way. I had a reputation to uphold, after all. I mean, I didn't go around calling myself "Mr. Perfect" for nothing. No--I did that because I was a fan of a guy who did cartwheels and slapped chewing gum into people's faces. And now he's dead, so I don't know what to do.

Why are you still reading this?

Since then, I've replicated this feat only one other time, the other hundred-plus attempts ending in decisive failure. I even tried again about a year ago when inspired by Game Informer's Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! "stress test," and I've regressed to the point where I can't even survive the first 40 seconds. I know I can do it if dedicate myself to the cause, but I just don't need that kind of frustration right now or, like, ever. I'd rather just enjoy the game for what it is. One day, though. One day.

Strangely, it took me far too long to catch on to the fact that the Punch-Out!! series was infamous for poking fun at ethnic stereotypes. The younger me simply assumed they were all just Americans with silly names. I never paid much attention to the between-round jousting, either, which might have been my first clue that these combatants were nationalists and being mocked. 

I bring this up now because it's only fairly recently that I returned to the arcade original and played past Kid Quick. I wasn't shocked to learn that Sandman was the game's the final boss, considering he was practically the toughest non-Tyson fighter in the NES version, but I felt so let down by the fifth competitor--an Italian fighter who goes by the moniker "Pizza Pasta." Seriously--did they just throw in the towel on that one? That's really the best they could come up with? As an Italian man, myself, I'm deeply disappointed in how my, er, "people" have been stereotyped here. Simply pairing together two popular delicacies is rather weak, I feel, and I demand that next time they come up with something much more offensive. For the kids, of course.

That's about the extent of my affinity for Punch-Out!!, and I don't have a wealth of experience with the series otherwise. I've never played the arcade sequel, Super Punch Out!!, and I could never get into the same-named SNES sequel, which always felt so bland to me; the fighting lost much of its visceral impact in the transition--its sound effects muted, and its action lacking real weight--and I played maybe halfway through before ditching it due to disinterest. The NES original is just so much more fun and has a more memorable cast.

I was one of the last from my group to learn that Nintendo had re-released a Tyson-less version of the game due to a lapsed licensing deal (originally, we thought Nintendo dropped Tyson due to his rape conviction, which actually happened a bit later). He was replaced by Mr. Dream, who is entirely lame in comparison; I only fought him one or two times for curiosity's sake, but it just felt wrong. No--it only became more apparent that this was Mike Tyson's game even if didn't start out that way; at least, that's how everyone is going to truly remember it. It's just too bad we'll never again see a legal version Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! due to the bad press and ethical dilemmas that would likely arise from such a deal (hell--the guys from Polygon would be so upset, they'd likely spill whatever's left of the water they're carrying). Talk about "Things Nintendo doesn't need at the moment."

All the same, I'll continue to enjoy the still-impressive NES original on a semi-yearly basis. And when I can make it as far, I'll give it my best shot at dropping Kid Dynamite one more time, just to prove to myself that I can.

Only then will I be worthy of the title "master."

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