time sinks

Time Sinks – Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!

by Matt Helgeson on Jul 04, 2013 at 03:00 PM

While most of my colleagues have no doubt warmed your heart with tales of their love and devotion to a particular game, I'm here to peer back into the abyss of failure and frustration.

I'll cop to it – I'm a mediocre gamer at best. It's the dirty secret of my life. Given my chosen profession, people (especially non-gamer friends or acquaintances) often assume I have professional gaming skills to go alongside my aptitude at writing and editing. They'll often say things like, "Well, I'd hate to play games with you, you'd probably win every time." To which I respond, "You might be surprised."

I'm not terrible at games. I play and complete many games, I'm just no better or worse than any average person who plays on a regular basis. Actually, in first-person shooter multiplayer I'm probably worse than average, but that's another story for another day.

I'm also not much of a completist. Once I've beaten a game – which, to me, means completing all the levels or main story mode to its end – I'm usually through. I constantly feel as though I'm falling behind on playing the games I "should" be playing, so going back through a game to unlock every little do-dad or achievement seems like a waste of precious time.

As a result, I  struggled more than most in the office to come up with a game that was a "time sink" for me. I'm going all the way back to the olden days, when all I had was an NES and my meager allowance money to save up for games. I played games many times over back then, more out of necessity than desire. But one game in particular still mocks me from the abyss of history: Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (By the way, though Tyson was dropped because of his criminal behavior and controversial lifestyle, the other version of the game is NOT Punch-Out!! - screw Mr. Dream.)

I didn't have the funds to get many games as a kid, so the ones I owned generally got a lot of play – especially if they were as good as Punch-Out!!. Since I decided to write this piece, I've been watching YouTube footage of the game, and it's still captivating. From the weird character designs (what the hell is King Hippo anyway?) to the memorable animations, Punch-Out!! sticks with me to this day.

Looking back, I'm also impressed by the elegant gameplay design. Given the technical constraints of the NES, making a boxing sim wasn't remotely possible – nor was an approximation of the first-person arcade original, which showed a see-through outline of your character and didn't have half the charm of the NES version. Instead, the developer's wisely created diminutive Little Mac, who is so short he has to jump just to connect a punch. The secret to Punch-Out!! is it's not really a sports game at all – it's more akin to a puzzle game mixed with a rhythm game like Parappa the Rapper or Rock Band. Each opponent has his patterns, which you observe and learn to avoid. After that, it's all about keeping your cool and sticking with the patterns of attacks, dodges, and blocks that work for a specific character.

You eventually begin to master the flow of gameplay, and work your way up the ranks from the likes of Glass Joe and Don Flamenco to the more fearsome types like Bald Bull and Super Macho Man. Mostly, it's about memorization and rhythm. That's until you get to Iron Mike Tyson, the real-life terror of 1980s boxing.

I loved Punch-Out!!, but the real reason I played the game nearly every day for an entire summer was because I couldn't beat Iron Mike. Unlike the other characters, who, for all their complex patterns and secret weaknesses, generally moved in predictable patterns. Not so with Tyson, whose flurries of erratic, offbeat jabs continued to flummox me as the summer wore on. His punches were incredibly powerful; he could drain your health bar very quickly if you made an error. He also recovered an inhuman amount of health after you knocked him down. The more I lost, the more Iron Mike got into my head. After a few matches, I would be so nervous I would start doing worse than when I started. As is often the case, I was my own worst enemy.

The sad truth is, I never beat Mike Tyson. They say hard work pays off, but sometimes it doesn't. Still, I had a blast that summer and consider Punch-Out!! to be one of my favorite games of all time. See you around Mike, loved you in The Hangover.

Below, something I was never able to do.

Related Story: Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! Replay