The Evolution of Punch-Out!!
Punch-Out!! is not only one of Nintendo’s oldest franchises, it’s one of its most unique. Part boxing game, part puzzle game, Punch-Out!! has captivated gamers for years with its colorful (sometimes a bit too colorful) cast of characters and addictive gameplay. It’s also seen more iterations than many might think. With the first game in the series finally available for purchase on a home console via HAMSTER’s Arcade Archives series on Nintendo Switch, many who thought the NES classic was the first game in the series are experiencing the franchise’s true origins for the first time. Talking about that release on the podcast a few weeks ago got me thinking about just how much the series has evolved and how much each one draws on the prior release. So let’s take a look at the evolution of the Punch-Out!! franchise.
The very first Punch-Out!! game was released in arcades in February of 1984 here in the US, and sometime in 1983 in Japan. It was quite the eye-catcher because unlike most arcade cabinets, Punch-Out!! had 2 screens. The top screen displayed the characters who were fighting and various UI standards like health and remaining time, while the bottom screen showed the actual gameplay. Besides being the first game in the series, Punch-Out!! Is notable for a handful of other neat things too. First, the theme music. This song was used again in the arcade sequel Super Punch-Out!! and the NES Punch-Out!! as well. What’s so crazy about it is that it’s not an original song. It’s an adaptation of the theme song for the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports TV broadcast from the 1950’s. Check it out.
Second, Punch-Out!! is also known for its rather overzealous announcer. Utilizing a computerized voice, the announcer declares every punch you throw. It’s kind of weird, but it’s charming in its own way.
You play as the Challenger (Little Mac hadn’t been invented yet), an odd-looking man with green hair. The game plays from a behind-the-boxer view, with your character portrayed as a green wire frame so you can see what your opponent is up to. At the top of the screen there’s a meter that fills up every time you successfully land a punch. Once it’s full, you can throw a right hook or uppercut that deals more damage than your regular punches.
What catches most folks off guard when playing the original Punch-Out!! is just how sluggish it can feel. There’s definitely a fatigue system in there that I haven’t quite completely figured out myself yet, but your punches definitely go slower the more they’re blocked by opponents. The most important thing Punch-Out!! does though is set the standard for how the series is played. There’s a lot more opportunity to play this more like a boxing game than later entries because random punches will actually land sometimes, but at its core it’s all about recognizing patterns and counter attacking them. It’s flawed, but it’s still great fun.
Original Characters: Glass Joe, Piston Hurricane, Bald Bull, Kid Quick, Pizza Pasta, Mr. Sandman
The second game to bear the Punch-Out!! name isn’t technically a Punch-Out!! game at all. The Game & Watch Punch-Out!! was originally released in 1984 simply as Boxing. It’s a Vs. System Game & Watch, which means it has 2 removable controllers for competitive play. In all honesty, this game has more in common with Urban Champion than Punch-Out!!. Two boxers face one another in a side by side view, and you can each throw punches and dodge. The goal is to back the other guy into the corner so you can knock him out. It’s fun, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Punch-Out!!. It doesn’t feature any of the characters or music, though the box does show 2 fighters that vaguely resemble Mr. Sandman and Glass Joe. Still, that’s probably why when it was put in Game & watch Gallery 4, it was once again called Boxing.
Original characters: None
Returning Characters: (sort of) Glass Joe, Mr. Sandman.
Now here we have the first real sequel to Punch-Out!!. While the gameplay is largely the same, Super Punch-Out!! featured a brand new set of 5 boxers, all with new patterns to learn, and the introduction of the duck move for those times when dodging left or right simply isn’t enough. The first boxer you face off against is Bear Hugger who to this day is one of my favorite sprites in any Nintendo game. While the first Punch-Out!! featured some pretty wacky characters, the opponents in Super Punch-Out!! had even more outlandish designs. For example, this was the game that featured probably the most non-kid friendly fighter, the Russian Vodka Drunkenski. This guy was later changed into Soda Popinski, which in all honesty I like better because it’s even more ridiculous. Other than that though, it featured the same music, voice work, sound effects, and many visual assets as its predecessor. It’s also the only game in the franchise (unless you count the Game & Watch game) to not feature Bald Bull.
The evolution here is modest, but as far as quickly made sequels go, Super Punch-Out!! is about as good a game as you could ask for. The differences may be subtle, like the slight change to the upper screen's UI and some small modifications to the Challenger's hair, but the characters introduced here are some of the best in the franchise, and unlike the first Punch-Out!!, they all appeared in later games. I really hope HAMSTER decided to put this game on Switch, too.
Original Characters: Bear Hugger, Dragon Chan, Vodka Drunkenski, Great Tiger, Super Macho Man
Returning characters: None.
While not actually a boxing game, or even something that bears the Punch-Out!! name, Arm Wrestling is an honest to goodness Punch-Out!! spinoff, so it’s worth being mentioned in the evolution of the series. This game is weird. Similar to Punch-Out!!, you face off against a series of opponents in arm wrestling matches, and you have to watch out for their movements and counter attack. Where is the Punch-Out!! connection, you ask? Physically, the arcade cabinet resembles Punch-Out!!’s because it also uses the dual monitor setup. It also uses most of the same sound effects from the previous Punch-Out!! arcade games. But most importantly of all, it features two returning characters. You once again play as the green-haired Challenger, though this time he’s not a wireframe, and one of your opponents is the mysterious Mask X. When you beat him you pull off his mask to reveal his true identity: Bald Bull, marking the first time a Punch-Out!! opponent reappears in another game. Bald Bull’s arm wrestling prowess is even mentioned again in Punch-Out!! for Wii.
Like I said, this is a really weird game, but its not without its charm. The voiceovers are even more prevalent here than they were in the previous Punch-Out!! games, and the Challenger's V" sweater seems like an odd choice to wear to an arm wrestling competition, but it's actually a fairly fun game. I'd love to see some of these oddball characters make a return in some form or another. The giant purple Frank Jr (a Frankenstein's monster look-alike) and Alice & Ape III (a little girl and her remote controlled robot monkey) in particular would make for some pretty cool Punch-Out!! opponents.
Original Characters: Texas Mac, Kabuki, Alice & Ape III, Frank Jr.
Returning characters: Mask X (Bald Bull)
Punch-Out!!/Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!/Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream
For most people, this was their first introduction to the world of Punch-Out!!. It also happens to be one of the best entries in the series. Instead of trying to simply emulate the arcade experience on the NES, the folks at Nintendo R&D3 decided to tailor the game to better suit what the system was capable of. They didn’t want to lose the giant opponent sprites the arcade game was known for, but the wire frame look wouldn’t work well given the NES’s limitations. Instead, they made the protagonist really short so you could see the other boxers over his head. And speaking of the player character, no longer were you known simply as “the Challenger.” Now, you were Little Mac from the Bronx, accompanied by your trainer Doc Louis. Little Mac was so short he had to jump to punch his opponents in the face, but the absurdity of it all worked, and Little Mac was immortalized as one of Nintendo’s more endearing characters. As for the game itself, it plays much tighter than the previous arcade iterations. The game doubles down on the dodge/counterattack system, all but removing any chance that throwing random punches could ever win you a match. It also introduced some new mechanics to reinforce this focus on counterattacking. First, you have the heart system. If you keep punching and your attacks get blocked, you lose hearts. Once you lose all your hearts, Mac gets tired and you have to dodge a few punches to snap out of it. Second, you have the star punch system. If you can manage to land punches with special timing (different for every boxer) you earn a star. If you press start, Mac throws a leaping haymaker that can cause massive damage. This replaces the meter from the original 2 games, and gives the whole thing a more methodical feeling.
Of course, you can’t talk about this game without mentioning the Mike Tyson connection. Punch-Out!! had already been released in Japan for the Famicom in a special gold cartridge featuring Mr. Sandman as the last boss. Even though it was only available as a prize in a Famicom Golf tournament, Nintendo of Japan felt confident the game would perform well on its own. Nintendo of America though, had another idea. As the story goes, NOA president Minoru Arakawa saw Tyson in a match once and was so impressed by him that he wanted to use his likeness to help sell the game. It worked. Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! was a huge success, so much so that when it came time for the game’s retail run in Japan, it also included Tyson. Many people think Nintendo removed Tyson from the game after his legal troubles, but in fact, he was removed before any of that stuff happened because Nintendo didn’t feel the need to renew his contract. The game had become a success in its own right, and Tyson wasn’t the world champ anymore. This meant that for future productions of Punch-Out!! for NES, Tyson was replaced by Mr. Dream, the most generic white dude boxer you’ve ever seen. Mr. Dream was identical to Tyson in every way except for aesthetics. He was also not very intimidating, and a pretty lame character.
Punch-Out!! for NES is a masterpiece, and has become the measuring stick against which all other cartoonish boxing games are measured. Oh, and Mario is the referee. So that’s cool.
Returning Characters: Glass Joe, Great Tiger, Bald Bull, Soda Popinski (Vodka Drunkenski), Super Macho Man, Mr. Sandman.
Original characters: Von Kaiser, Piston Honda, Don Flamenco, King Hippo, Mike Tyson/Mr. Dream
It took 7 years to finally get a new Punch-Out!! game, but it was well worth the wait. What was so cool about Super Punch-Out!! on SNES was how it pulled from both the arcade games and the NES classic. Gone were the hearts and star punches from NES release, and in their place was the super punch meter from the arcade games. Your character (who was decidedly NOT Little Mac) worked very similarly to the Challenger, except instead of a wireframe he was presented as a transparent sprite. He could dodge left, dodge right, and duck, but it felt much tighter like the NES game. The enemy patterns were more in line with the dodge/counterattack system perfected in NES Punch-Out!!, and the player’s punches felt way more precise than they did in the old arcade games. It also looked incredible. Many of the character sprites look like they were lifted directly from the arcade game and recolored/updated, and they all look absolutely amazing. Bear Hugger, Dragon Chan, Super Macho Man, and more all looked way better and more expressive than they ever had before. Add to that the addition of a slew of new wacky characters, and you have yourself a Punch-Out!! game that deserves way more attention than it sometimes receives.
Super Punch-Out!!’s main character is a bit of an odd duck though. When the game was released, it didn’t mention Little Mac or Doc Louis anywhere. And really, this main character doesn’t look anything like Mac. A lot of folks referred to him as Mac anyway though because it was still a Punch-Out!! game, and that name was inexorably linked to that character. But for all real intents and purposes, this was definitely not Little Mac.
However, a few generations back, EA struck a deal with Nintendo to include some of their characters in the GameCube versions of their games. That’s how we wound up with Mario and his friends in games like SSX and NBA Street. For Fight Night: Round 2, not only did they include a full unlockable port of the SNES Super Punch-Out!!, but they also included that game’s protagonist as an unlockable fighter. It was… weird. Translating that cartoony character to the ultra-realistic visuals of Fight Night created a rather unnerving visage, and because that creature needed a name, they called him Mac. So, does Super Punch-Out!! star Little Mac? I say no, but it’s seemingly up for debate. It’s definitely some dude named Mac, but it’s not the Little Mac I know.
Returning Characters: Bear Hugger, Piston Hurricane, Bald Bull, Dragon Chan, Mr. Sandman, Super Macho Man.
Original Characters: Gabby Jay, Bob Charlie, Masked Muscle, Aran Ryan, Heike Kagero, Mad Clown, Narcis Prince, Hoy Quarlow, Rick Bruiser, Nick Bruiser.
Punch-Out!!/Doc Louis’s Punch-Out!!
Finally, we have the most recent release in the series, the phenomenal Punch-Out!! for Wii. The absurdity of this series’ naming conventions aside, Punch-Out!! for Wii is a masterpiece, and stands in my opinion as the best game in the series. What Punch-Out!! does is successfully combine all the pieces of the previous games with some fresh elements, remarkably well-done visuals, and some unexpectedly well crafted characters. This time, the game sort of combines the punch meter with the star system. Instead of each star counting for a single super punch, in Punch-Out!! Wii your stars stack. If you have 1 star, it throws a powerful punch. 2, that punch gets even more powerful. 3, and Mac throws an incredible haymaker that does massive damage. The controls are very tight, and while they feel more like the NES Punch-Out!!, they also incorporate the more effective ducking from both versions of Super Punch-Out!!. The boxers will employ all manner of tricks like delayed punches and attacks you can only avoid by dodging in a specific direction, and it’s all animated better than I could have ever imagined.
Speaking of the characters, not only did Little Mac and Doc Louis return in full form, they were vastly improved upon. Doc gained a delightfully weird personality (complete with an obsession with chocolate bars) and Little Mac was equal parts cheerful and determined. Oddly enough, the cheerful aspect of his personality was completely removed for his appearance in Smash Bros. 4, which is kind of a bummer. In this game though, Mac was a delight, and his trainer added a ton of personality to an already charming game. The opponents were also taken to the next level in a bit of an unexpected way. The Punch-Out!! series has always been chock full of, let’s say less than flattering stereotypes, so when it came time to really modernize the game, it seemed like the natural route to go would have been to tone down the stereotypes. Instead, Nintendo not only doubled down on them, but they took great care to make sure these characters were as true to their heritages as they could be. Glass Joe speaks French. Don Flamenco speaks Spanish. Bald Bull speaks Turkish. They’re still caricatures, and some of their stereotypes aren’t necessarily all that flattering, but they’re presented here with such love and care that it’s hard to really dislike any of them. It’s so goofy to see Canadian Bear Hugger drinking maple syrup like it’s water and wrestling actual bears that it’s hard to take offense to it. It was a bold move, but I personally thought it worked like a charm.
Punch-Out!! for Wii also featured several special fights that really took things up a notch. Returning from the old arcade days was Title Defense mode, where you have to re-fight every opponent in the game. At first glance, this is a cheap way to pad the gameplay, but in reality, it’s almost like fighting a whole new slew of characters. Glass Joe comes to the ring with a helmet on so you can’t punch him in the jaw. King Hippo has a sewer grate taped to his belly so you can’t punch it. Every character learned from their last match with you and comes back with a fresh set of moves to mess you up, especially if you’re a fan of the NES Punch-Out!! game. I swear, there are several characters that prey on people reacting to them based on how they fight in the NES game. It’s kind of amazing. Past that, you have the secret final boss match which is against Donkey Kong. Think about that. You’re getting into a boxing ring with a freaking ape. It’s genuinely terrifying, and the way he moves is nuts. Once you learn his patterns he’s not so hard, but going in blind is intimidating to say the least. Last, but not least, you have Doc Louis’s Punch-Out!!, which was a free reward for Club Nintendo members. What this is is basically a couple of new matches against your trainer Doc Louis. They’re goofy, kind of hard, and feature some incredibly funny moments.
Punch-Out!! for Wii is an amazing game, and I hope with all my heart the series gets a new installment sooner than later.
Returning characters: Glass Joe, Von Kaiser, King Hippo, Piston Hondo (Piston Honda), Bear Hugger, Great Tiger, Don Flamenco, Aran Ryan, Soda Popinksi, Bald Bull, Super Macho Man, Mr. Sandman
Original characters: Disco Kid, Donkey Kong
And there you have it. Punch-Out!! has been one of Nintendo’s key franchises for a very long time, and while it’s never quite reached A-list status like games such as Mario, Zelda, and Metroid, Little Mac and the rest of the franchise’s wacky cast of characters has more than earned its place to be listed among those names. I for one can’t wait to see where the game goes next.