Let's talk about the Punch-Out!! series. And there's a lot to talk about.
Any list of the greatest games for the Nintendo Entertainment System [NES/Famicom] has to include Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! , which after Tyson's contract expired was later rereleased as simply Punch-Out!! (with Mr. Dream, in 1990). What kid didn't want to go up against the champ? But this was no ordinary boxing game. It's nearly a puzzle game in some ways, a game of timing, reaction and patterns as you try to figure out each opponent's weaknesses and find your opening to hit them hard. Generally, you watch for hints that they're about to attack, let them attack you first, dodge them just right, and hit them before they can react.
By NES standards, this is a perfectly constructed game that holds up just as well today. If you haven't played it in 15 years you'll still remember how to beat the outlandish, oversized fighters. Like other great NES games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, Punch-Out!! had its own world, and a colorful cast of characters. There's a goofy sense of humor to the game. Your fighter, Little Mac, is tiny compared to his opponents, who are large, cartoony, usually comedic characters often based around stereotypes of the countries they come from. They're a hilarious bunch of egotistical, punchable jerks who you'll love to hate, and work hard to bring down. The small size of your fighter makes you the scrappy underdog.
There's Glass Joe, a weakling. King Hippo, who may or may not even be human. Great Tiger, who comes from India with strange magical powers. Soda Popinski, the drunk Russian who was originally Vodka Drunkenski in the arcade. Piston Honda will ask where the NHK TV cameras are ... "Hello Tokyo!"
And your trainer, the overweight, loveable Doc Louis, will train you in a bike ride past the Statue of Liberty, give you advice and tell you to join the Nintendo Fun Club today ....
Mike Tyson was reportedly paid $50,000 for his likeness, with a three-year contract. This actually occurred before Tyson became the heavyweight champion.
A quick Google search for "10 best NES games" turns up lists like these two ...
On both lists, Super Mario Bros. 3 is the top game. The Legend of Zelda is number two, on both lists. Punch-Out!! places as either number 6 or number 7.
On a side note, Super Mario Bros. 2, which is up there with Punch-Out!! as my own personal favorite, places at #7 at Squidoo but only at #18 on IGN's list, seemingly demoted because it wasn't originally released as a "real" Super Mario Bros. game.
Originally an unreleated Miyamoto game called Fume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic, Super Mario Bros. 2 was a hugely popular game that has had very little effect on the Super Mario Bros franchise since. Its events may or may not have been a dream, and the franchise continued largely as if Super Mario Bros. 2 didn't exist. Which makes sense, since it wasn't originally released as a Super Mario Bros. game.
But the Punch-Out!! series of games have suffered from the same sort of amnesia, for very different reasons. Basically, each game in the series has pretended that other games in the series didn't exist.
Let's go back to 1983/1984, with the release of the original Punch-Out!! in the arcade. If you're my age, you probably saw this game in arcades all the time, though I never found it as interesting as the NES version, and still don't.
It was a very high-quality, well-designed game for the time, though. You fought Glass Joe, Piston Hurricane, Bald Bull, Kid Quick, Pizza Pasta, and the champ, Mr. Sandman.
Bald Bull has now appeared in more games than any other fighter. He appeared as the mysterious "Mask X" in the spinoff arcade game "Arm Wrestling." Kid Quick was reworked as "The Disco Kid" in the 2009 Punch-Out!! Pizza Pasta has been forgotten entirely. He's a pretty generic fighter with a name that's stupid even by Punch-Out!! standards.
Piston Hurricane was a Cuban fighter who was reworked as the Japanese Piston Honda for the NES Punch-Out!! Honda is a more overtly comedic, narcissistic character. On the NES, he shares the same body as Mike Tyson. Piston Hurricane returned for the SNES Super Punch-Out!!, now with short hair and resembling Mike Tyson. In the 2009 Punch-Out!! Piston Honda was renamed Piston Hondo.
This will become a pattern here. The NES changed Piston Hurricane to Piston Honda, in keeping with its more comedic sensibilities. The SNES version used Piston Hurricane, as if the NES version hadn't existed. The Wii version used Honda, as if the SNES version hadn't existed.
In 1985, a second arcade game followed almost immediately. Super Punch-Out!! featured Bear Hugger, Dragon Chan, Vodka Drunkenski, Great Tiger, and Super Macho Man.
Although the original Punch-Out!!'s opponents had been slightly cartoony, it was Super Punch-Out!! that really established the tone of the series, with very cartoony and comedic characters following international stereotypes. Bear Hugger is a great creation - a huge, bearded Canadian mountain man who will "bear hug" you to death. He was probably the inspiration for the NES's King Hippo. Dragon Chan is a Bruce Lee-like kung fu fighter, who will actually kick you rather than just box. There's Vodka Drunkenski, the drunken Russian, Great Tiger, the mystical Indian magician, and the prematurely grey-haired bodybuilder Super Macho Man.
The series was really starting to go for comedy, something also echoed in the much less popular spinoff "Arm Wrestling," where you fight a robot controlled by a nerdy young girl, a Frankenstein monster, Bald Bull as a masked wrestler, and so on.
However, the comedy and characterization is still not as overt yet as it would become in the NES version. Characters don't speak between rounds, and there's no Doc Louis or Little Mac. We do get digitized speech from the announcer.
In the arcade, you played as a transparent, green fighter, depicted as a wireframe, so that you could see through him and see who you were fighting, in first-person perspective. The NES version's Little Mac was created because the NES couldn't handle graphics in the same way. It was hard enough to create large opponent fighters on the NES, they couldn't also do a transparent fighter for the player without ruining the game. So Little Mac was created, who has to jump up to hit the opponent.
The Punch-Out arcade games were also designed to take advantage of sprite zooming, of the sort you'd normally see in flight simulators, or later in Mode 7 games on the SNES. The opponent sprites are almost always zoomed in on to appear larger. This was a bad idea which ruins a lot of the fun of the games in the arcade. The effect is very awkward and pixellated, and considering that the fighters rarely actually zoom in and out and are usually at the exact same distance from the player, they should have simply drawn the sprites larger and kept them that way. This mistake was repeated with Arm Wrestling, but not with the NES or SNES Punch-Out games.
Although you're fighting great, cartoony opponents like Bear Hugger and Great Tiger, the arcade games are never really as cartoony as you'd want them to be, and with the pixellation they're pretty ugly to look at as well. There's no fighting game-style chatter between rounds, as the NES version has. They're great games by 1984 standards but players familiar with the NES version will likely still prefer it.
The gameplay is more complex than the NES version as well. It's more like real boxing. The NES game is nearly a puzzle game, where you watch the hints that your opponent is about to hit you, block in the correct way, and find your opening. There's plenty of that here too but it's less overt, and you'll find yourself fighting more traditionally - that is, just punching the guy. If you were so inclined, you could even fight Glass Joe as if he were a real, skilled boxer in a more traditional boxing game. Certainly you can do that with Piston Hurricane and the rest. But even Glass Joe has more of a "brain" here. The NES Glass Joe is a simple creation going through obvious patterns and it's very hard to lose to him. The tells and patterns in the arcade are more subtle, even in the second, cartoonier arcade game, which is more recognizably "Punch-Out!!" Still, you'd better learn your opponents' tells and patterns if you want to survive.
The arcade Super Punch-Out!! was actually ported to home computers as Frank Bruno's Boxing ... here's a version for the Commodore 64.
It's a mediocre port at best, and curiously lacking in black fighters apart from Bruno himself [who you play as]. "Tribal Trouble" and "Antipodean Andy" are the only ones, and both tribesmen from the jungle, which might well be on the wrong side of racist. Three or four of the characters are based on familiar arcade characters. The lineup:
Canadian Crusher (Bear Hugger), Fling Long Chop (Dragon Chan), Andra Puncheredov (Vodka Drunkenski), Tribal Trouble, Frenchie France, Ravioli Mafiosi, Antipodean Andy, and Peter Perfect (who may or may not be Super Macho Man).
At any rate, the NES game was not an accurate port of the arcade games either. But in simplifying their gameplay, the NES game achieved something better, in many ways. There's an elegant simplicity to the gameplay. Your opponents behave in predictable ways, and you need to react quickly and correctly, and find your opening. You'll get nowhere by simply punching, as if this were any other boxing game. You need to find the opponent's specific weaknesses. In fact, the game is often so surprised by you throwing the first punch that you'll get a Star Punch bonus in return if it lands.
Opponents have obvious "tells." They blink, shudder, duck, and flash colors to let you know what they're about to do, if you can react quickly enough. While this was always true in the arcade, the graphics limitations of the NES and the simplified gameplay, turn this into a more specific science.
By NES standards the opponents are huge and animated. Bodies are reused to save graphics space, except for King Hippo. New characters are King Hippo, Von Kaiser, Don Flamenco, and Mike Tyson/Mr. Dream. The latter three share the bodies of Great Tiger, Glass Joe, and Piston Honda.
Punch-Out!! sold in excess of 2 million copies and is one of the gold standard classics of the Nintendo Entertainment System. You'd think that we'd see direct sequels for all the Nintendo systems. N64, Gamecube, etc. But we wouldn't see Little Mac and Doc Louis in a Punch-Out!! game for another 22 years.
So what went wrong?
Well, first of all, it wasn't a particularly huge hit in Japan. It was originally released as a limited edition cart with Super Macho Man as the final boss, then released properly with Mike Tyson. Despite the game's success in America, Nintendo had a few good reasons to not consider Punch-Out!! one of their core franchises.
A sequel was attempted, to be titled Mike Tyson's Intergalactic Power Punch.
The game was eventually reworked as Power Punch II, starring "Mark Tyler."
Soon after the release of Punch-Out!!, Beam Software began developing an official sequel starring Mike Tyson with manager Don King. Originally titled Mike Tyson’s Intergalactic Power Punch, the game was supposed to take the series into outer space where Tyson would participate in an intergalactic boxing tournament against various space aliens.
The game's production ran into immediate trouble, however, following Tyson's incarceration for the rape of Desiree Washington. Beam changed the Tyson character's name to Mark Tyler and modified King but did little to change Tyson's in-game character sprite.
Nintendo saw the game and disliked it, refusing to publish it due to lack of quality. Eventually, American Softworks Corp. published the title, and the game was released on the NES as Power Punch II, despite the fact that it was the first Power Punch title.
Power Punch II is no classic, and was and is nearly forgotten.
The Mario and Zelda franchises have the very famous Shigeru Miyamoto behind them. The Punch-Out!! series was created by Genyo Takeda, who also created Startropics. Takeda directed the arcade, NES, and SNES versions of Punch-Out!! He is credited as supervising the Wii version, and had a lot of input into the design of the Wii console itself, not wanting to chase the flashiest, most powerful graphics and hardware, but simply focus on a system for playing games.
Much of the humor and gameplay and characterization that made the NES Punch-Out!! special was created by designing around the NES' hardware limitations. It's probably fair to say that the arcade Punch-Out is closer to what Genyo Takeda really had in mind. And Super Punch-Out!! is proof of that.
In 1994, Nintendo released Super Punch-Out!! The gameplay is similar to the arcade games from 10 years earlier. You play as a nameless blonde, transparent fighter with Guile's haircut (one reviewer called him an "anime Matt Damon"). Little Mac and Doc Louis are not present, and the apparent humor of the NES game has not been amped up for the SNES - quite the opposite. The fighters, many taken from the arcade games, are often very colorful and outlandish as you'd expect, but there is a more serious tone to the game in general.
The gameplay is complex, and more like real boxing than memorizing "tells" and sequences. There's still a lot of that too, but there's more strategy and sparring. Instead of "stars" that can unleash a powerful "star punch" but will go away if the opponent touches you, you have a "star meter" which fills up gradually as you hit the opponent, and stays full until you get hit a few times. You can star-punch multiple times when the meter is full, and when you're more powerful, you can beat the opponent more easily and string up longer multiple-hit combos.
Many opponents are less cartoonish than simply monstrous-looking and ugly. The whole art style is uglier and awkward somehow, despite being produced in sharp, colorful 16-bit graphics that look great for the SNES. New characters like Aran Ryan and the Bruiser brothers look deformed, and your fighter is somehow weird-looking as well.
There is digitized voice from announcer Charles Martinet. Your opponents talk to you in text between fights, but not between rounds. There is only one round to the fight. The overall effect is very much like Street Fighter II, where opponents taunt you in text before a fight. There's Gabby Jay, a sort of elderly Glass Joe, and returning arcade characters like Bear Hugger and Dragon Chan are very funny creations, but the feel is more like a fighting game than you might expect from the NES game, and more serious.
Gabby Jay · Bear Hugger · Piston Hurricane · Bald Bull · Bob Charlie · Dragon Chan · Masked Muscle · Mr. Sandman · Aran Ryan · Heike Kagero · Mad Clown · Super Macho Man · Narcis Prince · Hoy Quarlow · Rick Bruiser · Nick Bruiser
As on the NES, there are some repeated/reworked bodies. Mad Clown is based on Bear Hugger, for example.
As a game, Super Punch-Out!! is superb. It looks and plays great, and delivers almost everything you'd want from a Punch-Out!! game in terms of gameplay. It's challenging and fun. The opponents are more complex in their actions, more like real boxers, but the pattern-recognizing react-and-hit gameplay of the NES and arcade is still key. It reproduces and greatly improves on everything that made the arcade games any good.
Super Punch-Out!! was successful, but not the huge hit you'd expect. And the reason is really that it's not a sequel to the NES game. It simply isn't. Although the same people worked on both games, Super Punch-Out!! is an improved take on the arcade games rather than the NES game. It goes in its own direction as well. None of the NES game's very popular characters are present - no Little Mac, Doc Louis, King Hippo, Von Kaiser, Don Flamenco ... and the tone, look and feel of the game is very different. Even Glass Joe isn't present, being replaced by Gabby Jay. There are only three characters that NES players would recognize, all three of whom are actually taken from the arcade games - Bald Bull, Super Macho Man, and Mr. Sandman. The latter two are especially difficult characters that you won't get to play unless you're very good at the game. Mr. Sandman is the boss of the game itself. Bald Bull's not a joke either.
It's no coincidence that Nintendo chose to portray these three characters on the game's box, which isn't particularly well-drawn. They wanted to appeal to fans of the NES game by pointing out the only three characters the two games have in common. It didn't work. Gamers putting this gem of a game into their SNES were faced with Gabby Jay, who is sort of like Glass Joe but isn't, and then Piston Hurricane, who is sort of like Piston Honda and Mike Tyson but isn't. The only possible conclusion you can draw is that this game is sort of like Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! but isn't.
Gamers of the time were familiar with the arcade game of Punch-Out!!, but it wasn't nearly as popular or beloved as the NES game. In particular, the transparent, unnamed fighter, and the use of Piston Hurricane rather than the reworked NES character Piston Honda, places Super Punch-Out!! in a world where the NES game did not happen.
Full disclosure: I played Genesis rather than Super Nintendo. I probably would have owned, played and enjoyed Super Punch-Out!! I knew the game was out there and I knew people who had it, but it was never a big deal in the way that the NES game was, and sales showed it.
The lesson of Super Punch-Out!! was that, unlike Mario and Zelda and so on, Nintendo saw the Punch-Out!! franchise differently than its NES fans did. And that failure to quite reconcile things was a problem. Boxing is a very American phenomenon, and so were these games. They weren't such a big deal in Japan, and only the NES game was ever a big deal in America. So you can forgive Nintendo for never producing another sequel.
It's a lesson we learn time and again -- If something was a big deal in the USA but not in Japan, like, say, Mortal Kombat, or even Super Mario Bros 2/USA, it will fizzle out eventually. If something was a bigger deal in Japan but fizzled in the USA, like Final Fantasy, Mother and RPG games in general, or 3D fighting games like Virtua Fighter, they will stick around forever and resurface until the USA learns to accept them too.
There is evidence that Little Mac was seen as something of a joke in Japan, rather than an iconic character.
The 2008 Wii game Captain Rainbow is a bizarre, offensive Japan-only game full of crude adult humor. You meet and try to help an island of misfit, forgotten video game characters. Catherine/Birdo is one of them. Little Mac appears, having gotten so fat he is nearly spherical. The character is depicted as having very little facial or body detail.
In the Gamecube version of Electronic Arts' Fight Night Round 2, Little Mac is an unlockable character, similar to how Nintendo characters often appeared in games by third-party developers for the Gamecube ... like Link appearing in Soul Calibur II. The issue here is that he appears as the blonde character from Super Punch-Out!!
22 years later, in 2009, Punch-Out!! was released for the Wii, but not by Nintendo themselves. Next Level Games, who had developed Super Mario Strikers, created the Wii game as a direct sequel to and remake of the NES version, almost ignoring the other games in the series. The Wii version is a lot of fun, very similar to the original NES classic, with the same puzzle-and-reaction-style gameplay and a very cartoony sense of humor.
Just as the SNES Super Punch-Out!! seemed to not acknowledge that the NES Punch-Out!! game ever existed, the Wii game ignores Super Punch-Out!! almost entirely. It is 100% a remake of the NES game, featuring the same fighters and the same sort of gameplay. It's cartoonier than ever, and the gameplay is even more obviously reaction-based than before. Characters flash and speak catchphrases to warn you what they're about to do. You'll have to be quick, though! Using lots of voice acting and humor, the Wii game expands on all the personalities we saw in the original NES game, particularly the friendship between Little Mac and Doc Louis, as seen in a separate minigame where you fight Doc Louis himself. Doc Louis loves chocolate bars. He invented the star punch. He's a former champion and a true friend. And yes, you'll run after him in a pink suit while he bikes past the Statue of Liberty. Nearly all the music from the NES game is brought back out and reworked to match whoever you're fighting - like sitar versions for Great Tiger. There are little references to, say, Bald Bull's past as an arm wrestler. And all the opponents now speak their respective languages.
A few changes ... Sadly, Don Flamenco is now less of a wimp - he's handsomer and more muscular. Mr. Sandman is a little less ugly, and seems to have become this game's answer to Mike Tyson, at one point sporting a very Tyson haircut. In fact, everyone's a little less ugly. Super Macho Man is depicted as being just as old as we always thought he was. Soda Popinksi is no longer drunk, but drinks experimental energy drinks.
Glass Joe · Von Kaiser · Disco Kid · King Hippo · Piston Hondo · Bear Hugger · Great Tiger · Don Flamenco · Aran Ryan · Soda Popinski · Bald Bull · Super Macho Man · Mr. Sandman · Donkey Kong
There are only four fighters who didn't appear in the NES game. These are Bear Hugger, Disco Kid, and Aran Ryan .... Oh yes, and Donkey Kong.
Bear Hugger is an obvious choice. As the first fighter in the second arcade game, and an early fighter on the SNES, and a great character in general, he might as well have been in the NES game. His appearance is closer to the SNES version here.
Disco Kid seems to be a reworking of Kid Quick, a semi-forgotten character from the first arcade game. He's funnier as a narcissistic disco king, but his moves are similar to the arcade.
Aran Ryan is a reworking of a character from the SNES game. He's now a very drunken and unpredictable Irishman. He's funnier with a sense of danger about him, but his gameplay bears little resemblance to the generic and ugly character from the SNES game.
I'm surprised that more SNES characters didn't appear in the Wii game. Considering how changed Aran Ryan is, there's basically nothing here that originated on SNES, and not much from the arcade.
It also took Next Level Games, rather than Nintendo, to really define what the Punch-Out!! franchise meant to NES players. It's a nostalgia game, through and through, trying to recreate and recapture the NES gameplay, at which it succeeds.
Little Mac, the NES version, has now appeared as an assist trophy in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. So that's a thing.
We're overdue for a sequel now, though much less overdue for a sequel than we were. I'm not sure how much Nintendo cares about the franchise at this point, but they probably do to an extent ... the success of the 2009 game puts it on firmer ground. And if we keep forgetting that the SNES version ever existed, a sequel is more difficult .... since there will be no one left to fight against ...
A few people have created graphical hacks for the NES Punch-Out!! which redraw the opponents into characters from Super Punch-Out!! and other games.
The All New? Punch-Out!! features:
Gabby Jay - From Super Punchout!!
Pete Pasta - The younger brother of Pizza Pasta from the arcade Punch-Out!!.
Aran Ryan - From Super Punch-Out!!
Heike Kagero - From Super Punch-Out!!
King Hippo - Recolored to become T.V. Hippo inspired by King Hippos appearence in the “Captain N: Gamemaster” cartoon show.
Alyn Tendo - An original character related to Power Punch II.
Mask X - From Arm Wrestling, an arcade spinoff of Punch-out!!
Unmasked version of Masked Muscle - Super Punch-Out!!
Al Molblin - Inspired by the Molblin/Moblin enemy character from The Legend of Zelda series.
Frank Jr. - Purple Frankenstein monster from Arm Wrestling, an arcade spinoff of Punch-out!!
Sandman - Mr. Sandman’s son.
In "Phred's Cool Punch-Out", you'll face Gabby Jay, Vodka Drunkenski, and Mask X. All the other characters have also been altered, rather crudely.
The sequel featured Doc Louis, the Bruiser Brothers, and Disco Kid. There's also a robot, the hacker's ex-girlfriend, and Zelda, among other nonsense. If you combined the more "canon" characters from both hacks you'd have something.
I don't think anyone's turned King Hippo into Bear Hugger though.