Review: Punch-Out!!

It’s time for another retro title with Punch-Out!!, released worldwide in 1987, for the NES. Again, my only familiarity with the series is through playing as Little Mac in Super Smash Bros. This is an 8-bit title, so how well does it hold up under a modern day gaze?!

The game, originally released under the title Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, is in many respects a port of two preceding Arcade titles. Of course, many games ported from Arcade to NES received an array of tweaks to work on the far inferior hardware, so ultimately it is hard to compare it to these. The game puts us in the role of Little Mac, a young, up-and-coming boxer from New York City who enters the WVBA to become a champion. He must progress through three classification circuits with the help and support of his trainer Doc Louis, defeating opponents from all around the world. The gameplay is fairly simple on paper. Mac can punch, jab, block and dodge using simple buttons commands. If the player manages to score a particularly good punch, they will collect a star, giving Mac the energy to sock his opponent with a hard uppercut. Players must keep an eye on Mac’s stamina too as running out gives your opponent ample opportunity to strike back.

It’s easy to like this pair. Here we see them training together in the game’s cutscene. Doc also gives Mac encouraging comments and hints between rounds.

The opponents are hands down the most interesting aspect of the game. Each opponents hails from a different part of the world and, despite the limitations of the 8-bit console, are given very expressive sprite treatment that helps them feel engaging to fight. I also found the strategies required to face each one to be surprisingly varied. The Japanese boxer gave his attacks away with a shake of the eyebrows, the man from Spain only strikes with counters and the impenetrable ‘King Hippo’ can only be damaged when his shorts have fallen down; all these aspects make these opponents memorable which I very much commend considering how old this game is.

The game was first released with a special licensing agreement to use Mike Tyson as the final fight and in the game’s title. When that licensing agreement was up, the game was re-released and Tyson replaced.

However, the opponents are very much of their time and not what you’d expect to see in a modern game. Opponents from all over the world means that stereotypes run amok and are only further cemented by their fight-talking dialogue in-between rounds. I’d say some of them are verging on the insensitive with modern goggles on and practically every opponent gets this same treatment. It’s not likely something to put a player off the game, but it is in this department that Punch-Out!! really shows its age.

This guy is the second opponent named Von Kaiser from Germany. One of his lines is “Surrender! Or I will conquer you!!”

The game is also no cake-walk! It is very difficult! I was tremendously grateful for the Save States on the Switch as it sometimes took over 5 attempts at a fight to even learn how to damage the opponent, let alone KO them. Each circuit has a set number of fights and ‘lives’ attached to it, so being pummelled without knowing how to fight back and then starting way back at the beginning grew quickly tiresome! Good news, if you do complete a circuit, the game provides a passcode, so you’re never sent entirely back to basics, but the circuits get so difficult it isn’t a major saving grace. The difficulty isn’t exactly off-putting overall, but it’s something that sets the game up better for short dosages of play rather than longer stints.

Doc does try and help out with some hints on how to face your opponent. The strategies are more intricate than that, but its good to know he’s trying to help!

I really liked this game. I never managed to reach the end (or even to the final circuit), but I enjoyed the journey along the way. The opponents were so expressive that, once I knew how to fight back, it felt so good to land a mighty uppercut. Also, the further in I got, the better at the earlier fights I became, so I felt like I was getting better at it even when I was struggling to progress. If you do give it a try, I’d recommend sticking to shorter periods of play as, for me, it was the best way to find joy in this little 8-bit gem.

I played Punch-Out!! through the NES Nintendo Switch Online Service. The save states are your friend, trust me!

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