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Punch-Out!!, the Swan Song of an Arcade Legend

30 years ago, Nintendo dropped the mike on its arcade roots with a stunning boxing sim.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

What a difference five years can make. Just half a decade after a brush with disaster precipitated by Radar Scope, Nintendo had established itself not only as the purveyor of a world-class arcade franchise (in Donkey Kong) but also as an up-and-coming successor to the console market vacuum left by the collapse of Atari and its competitors.

1984 saw Nintendo's Famicom make serious headway in the Japanese home market, quickly leaving behind rival platforms Sega SG-1000 and the MSX hybrid computer. In fact, the Famicom was doing so well and involved so few financial risks relative to the arcade market -- which was beginning to decline following the golden age of the early '80s -- that Nintendo was ready to pack it in and shift its focus entirely to consoles.

But that's OK, because before they reduced their coin-op presence to a series of pay-for-time NES demo kiosks, Nintendo delivered quite the coup de grace: A vibrant arcade boxing game called Punch-Out!!

Games had dabbled in boxing before Punch-Out!!, but nothing that had come before had come close to offering the level of presentation and action Nintendo piled into its take on the topic. By putting to use a scaling graphical effect -- something Sega would master in later years with its "Super Scaler" technology -- Nintendo was able to present its boxing with an over-the-shoulder perspective that shamed the competition. With its huge, cartoonish sprites, Punch-Out!! resembled a Laser Disc game, but it didn't rely on the cheat of streaming, pre-rendered video to wow players. Its graphics ran in real-time, meaning there were no awkward pauses or loading between actions. Just fast, fluid slugfests.

All your favorite ethnic stereotypes are here!

Some clever design work allowed the game to make use of its close-in perspective without the player's huge sprite getting in the way: During matches, the protagonist was rendered as a bright green grid, making him largely transparent in an age before alpha channels and transparency layers -- you could see right through your on-screen avatar to watch your opponent's moves.

Admittedly, those moves were considerably less intricate than in the more famous NES version of the game. The home conversion traded visual splendor for more refined game mechanics; the bad guys weren't nearly as large as in the arcade game, and the protagonist was reduced to a comical waist-high wimp, but the roster of opponents expanded considerably and their tells became far more interesting. In the arcade, you basically just watched for their eyes to flash and hoped for the best.

With his green hair and lumpy physique, Punch-Out!!'s protagonist wasn't just a boxer -- he was also a cautionary tale about nuclear radiation.

Make no mistake, though: Punch-Out!! was no mere prototype waiting for something better to come along. It was a perfect arcade sports game, fast-paced and visually striking. It sounded great, too, as a digitized announcer called out moves and encouraged you to climb to your feet when you failed. It's a similar experience overall to the NES game, even incorporating many of the same characters, but it's different enough to feel wholly unique.

Of course, like so many classic Nintendo arcade games, it may as well have never existed for all that the company seems eager to brush it under the carpet. It's a pity, because its unusual cabinet structure -- with two screens stacked on top of one another, one dedicated to displaying fight stats -- would work quite nicely on the company's modern-day dual-screen handhelds. In any case, it was quite the coin-op finale -- or close enough, since Nintendo's final two original releases, Super Punch-Out!! and Arm Wrestling, were based on the hardware and tech of this game -- and let Nintendo exit the arcade on a high note. How often does that happen?

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Comments 16

  • Avatar for whitestreak #1 whitestreak 3 years ago
    Never saw the arcade game; both because I'm a bit too young and because in my peripheral European country there was only one proper arcade at all. Still, I played Punch Out a lot, the NES version.

    Intrigued to see Bear Hugger in there, he was absent for the NES version but I seem to remember fighting him in Super PO.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #2 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @whitestreak Ah, whoops, Bear Hugger is a mistake. I just noticed I included a Super Punch-Out!! screen there. Unlike the NES/SNES games, the two arcade Punch-Out!!s were both released the same year and were basically the same with some roster tweaks and a new haircut for the protagonist.
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  • Avatar for Dogislander #3 Dogislander 3 years ago
    Nice write-up. I'm not sure if it's a case of sweeping the franchise under the carpet as it is a case of Punch-Out not really playing big in Japan. The Wii remake was outsourced to Western developers and I'm fairly sure the NES/SNES versions were a LOT more popular in the States than Japan. Just a thought.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #4 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @Dogislander Yeah, Punch-Out was a Genya Takeda joint. For whatever reason, his games always seemed to gravitate toward Western tastes (including StarTropics, which was designed by Nintendo exclusively for the U.S.).
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  • Avatar for willys #5 willys 3 years ago
    I never got to tryt the arcade because it was never at my local arcade, though if they did I woulda spent all of my money on it. Anyways I played it on the NES and beat it multiple times both the Mike Tysons punchout and the one with Mr Dream.
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  • Avatar for Critical_Hit #6 Critical_Hit 3 years ago
    Oh man - not you too, Jeremy! One of my biggest writing pet-peeves is when someone writes, "Mike" when they mean, "mic". As in, short for, "microphone". They're not dropping a person named, "Mike", lol.

    I would assume it was some sort of pun, on Mike Tyson, who will always be associated with this series to gamers... but it's not capitalized so that can't be the case.... c'mon man - you're killin' me *urgh*
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  • Avatar for SpoonyBardOL #7 SpoonyBardOL 3 years ago
    As a Canadian I'm tired of the stereotypes of our people. Not all Canadians are giant, pointy-skulled men with grizzled beards and plus signs carved into our teeth. Some of us even wear shirts sometimes. It's time for the hate to stop!
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #8 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @Critical_Hit Man, if you're gonna play grammar Nazi, you gotta pick your battles. This one's like going to war with Russia on the eastern front -- you'll lose horribly. "Mike" is a valid, widely accepted abbreviation for microphone.

    Though Punch-Out!! did drop the Mike in favor of Mr. Dream, so there you go.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #9 LBD_Nytetrayn 3 years ago
    Ah, arcade Punch-Out!!... I remember seeing those in various arcades of my youth. Good times.

    I, too, wish Nintendo would quit sweeping its arcade heritage under the rug-- especially when they're different or better than what was on the NES (this one falling more into the former). I'd love to see this on the Nintendo 3DS or Wii U. Then again, I wonder if there is still trouble with the guys who made Donkey Kong for them, and if this could be related to that?

    Also, wasn't Arm Wrestling the one which actually broke peoples' arms? Or was that another game of the sort?
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  • Avatar for Kishi #10 Kishi 3 years ago
    After the departures taken by the NES game, Super Punch-Out!! on SNES very much embraced the feel of the arcade games. Once again, there is no Little Mac, Doc Louis, training intermissions, or hearts. The star system is replaced by the original super punch meter, and an announcer serves ample voice clips. The ring background and enemies look as though they were just traced from the arcade graphics and then gone over with 16-bit detail and color depth. Although it does retain some NES improvements like complex tells and pre-fight trash-talk, the SNES game's adherence to its roots seems to be why it commands only a meager following to this day. Fans didn't care about the arcade games; they just wanted more like the NES one—which is exactly what the Wii game is.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #11 LBD_Nytetrayn 3 years ago
    @Kishi Actually, it's still Little Mac... at least, according to Nintendo.
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  • Avatar for MightyJAK #12 MightyJAK 3 years ago
    @LBD_Nytetrayn "wasn't Arm Wrestling the one which actually broke peoples' arms?"

    Atlus' "Arm Spirit" allegedly broke 3 players' arms back in 2007.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #13 LBD_Nytetrayn 3 years ago
    @MightyJAK Ah, my bad, then. Thanks!
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  • Avatar for strongbadsings #14 strongbadsings 3 years ago
  • Avatar for abuele #15 abuele 3 years ago
    I certainly remember this games when getting to the arcades in the 90's. I was no fan of them, even though Mike Tyson's Punch Out is for me still the best boxing game ever.

    It was one of the first games I ever played in the NES.
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