This week, my Intro to College students turned in a paper on racial assumptions, proving that after drawing specific attention to a problem, a small minority of people will run to the nearest construction site and jam their head into the wet cement just for the extra layer of thickness it provides them. The pride they take in sticking to even the most backwards, offensive beliefs inspired me to write about my own favorite piece of unintentional racism: Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.
Now, when I say “unintentional racism,” understand that I may exaggerate that somewhat. Sure, we can attribute the Spanish guy’s flamenco dance to a cultural flavor. And when the Indian fighter warps in and out of the ring like a fakir, I can even chalk that up to an accidental stereotype put in the game by people who probably don’t believe that all Indians charms snakes and breathe fire. However, the French boxer goes down without a fight. The French guy. Someone had to have thought that one through. But hey, props for having the foresight to change the name “Vodka Drunkenski” to “Soda Popinski.”
But I can more effectively fight racism by ridiculing it than raging against it, so I can’t help but laugh at Punch-Out’s lack of political correctness. So while I can enjoy its horribly offensive racial overtones, I can also admit that I actually really enjoy the game. This NES remake of the 1984 arcade game tells the story of Little Mac (a pun on McDonald’s “Big Mac” and the fact that the character appears much smaller than his opponents due to the system’s graphical limitations) as he battles his way through the world of championship boxing. Standing in his way, a host of caricatures riddled with tics, tells, and glaring debilitations gather from around the globe to brutally abuse a guy less than half their size. Real-life boxer Mike Tyson appears as the final bout and major publicity stunt of the game.
Tyson graced the 8-bit ring for three years before his contract expired and Nintendo replaced him with the fictional “Mr. Dream.” Unfortunately, while his name successfully sold this game to the public, his likeness takes the championship belt in the boring-personality division. The rest of the game feels like playing through a cartoon (one of those old, 1930s cartoons that embarrass their creators so much that no one shows them on TV anymore). Introducing a real-life figure just toned back the game for its final fight.
Now stop and think about what that means. Mike fricken’ Tyson made the game less absurd. If you don’t understand how ridiculous that sounds, flip over to Wikipedia and read just the introduction for Tyson’s page. Remember when he bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear? The guy lost a boxing match for being too violent. And if that doesn’t do it for you, go to youtube and look for a clip of him speaking. The man practically sweats colored ink. Still, in 1987 he hadn’t yet done any of the things that made him infamous (well…except speaking like a drawstring doll), so I guess I can forgive his lack of personality compared to the Convention of Racial Misunderstandings.
Nevertheless, I still rank him very high on the list of most challenging boss fights in any video game. And yes, the NES-era difficulty surfaces in yet another one of my reviews. More on that later.
You might ask by this point, “Jake, why would someone like yourself, with an athletic aptitude to rival Stephen Hawking, want to play a game about boxing?” Easy; for the same reason I want to operate on tumor-ridden patients in Trauma Center.
It wouldn’t exactly take a call to your psychic friend’s network to realize that this year’s Madden, Fifa, MLB, and NBA games will wind up sitting in Gamestop next year at this time, not selling at an understandably exorbitant price of $0.99. Sports games sell well, but don’t last. They’ll never last as long as people can go outside and actually play the sport. The games feed off the excitement of real-life changes to rosters reflected electronically, but the people who play them rarely feel possessed to archive their old games for scholarly research.
Punch-Out, on the other hand, only displays the skin of a sport game. When you examine the gameplay mechanics, it actually forces the player to solve puzzles. Each opponent has a handful of attacks, each with one or two weaknesses to exploit. Discovering the trick to counterattacking takes repetition and thought, while actual sports rely on speed and perseverance. You can’t beat a single one of these boxers with luck or button-mashing. Repeatedly tackling fight after fight forces the player to try new combos, but with the simple moves available–left and right punches either low or high, dodge, and a special attack only available after pulling off a special combo move that the developers arbitrarily chose as worth awarding a star–it doesn’t take too long to figure these out.
The NES-era difficulty does detract from the game slightly. Most opponents have some sort of barrage attack they’ll eventually whip out like a flasher’s penis, and much like the case of the flasher it begins frantic attempt to get away and the shocking realization that I can’t dodge fast enough to save my ass. Little Mac doesn’t have the freshly-loaded-vending-machine play control that made NES hero Simon Belmont so famous, but I feel that somewhere along the line, someone should have sat down with him, pointed out his diminished reaction time and tendency to move immediately back into the area currently swarming with giant fists, and suggest to him that a career in professional boxing might not actually suit him as well as he thinks it does.
One too many blows to the head, though.
Even using save states, the game took me days to finish, but I hold by my choice to cheat as I honestly wanted to experience full extent of the work people put into it. I’d never even heard of “Sandman” or “Super Macho Man” as Punch-Out characters before (yet somehow everyone knew the code to warp straight to Tyson), but they added an oddly non-exploitative color and interesting puzzles to the game. Granted, if I had played it the way they intended, I could fight for years and never get good enough to face off against them. The game allows two free beat-downs from an opponent before it decides it made a mistake and sends you back to the previous fighter. Well, good for Little Mac, but he already proved he could beat that guy. He needs to practice pounding the other racial stereotype for a while, but Punch-Out doesn’t give you such an option.
I rather enjoy it, though. Yes, it makes me a terrible person to find humor in racism, but I do. Punch-Out came out at a time when intercultural sensitivities hadn’t found their way into mainstream education yet, or maybe they did but no one thought to check something as fringe as a video game for political correctness. Fortunately, no one would ever think to remake this for a modern system like the Wii.