Iron Mike’s gonna rip out your heart and feed it to the racists

Mike Tysons PunchOut2

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (1987)

They say sport is the great equaliser, and when it’s as accessible and universal as football, I have to agree. And give sport its dues, it helped break down a lot of race barriers. You’ll still get bananas thrown onto football pitches by knuckle-dragger fans. But as moronic as that is, how does that stack up against Muhammad Ali standing up to the white United States government and telling them he had no quarrel with them Viet Cong?

Handsome, outspoken, tall and dangerous, Muhammad Ali AKA Cassius Clay AKA The Louisville Lip AKA The Greatest of All Times presents quite a bit of a difference to your playable character in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out for NES. Unfortunately, you ain’t Tyson in this, although that would have been one hell of an unlockable.

No, you are Little Mac, and that’s not just a clever nickname – he stands about 3-foot tall. Or maybe the opposition boxers are 10-foot tall by 4-foot wide, the perspective makes it difficult to tell. Still, at least Mac’s got a little bitty of power in his left and right jabs, more than you might think from a boy his size.

If you can take a wee risk and counter the opponent’s incoming punches, he’ll also be able to earn a Star which gives him a mighty uppercut, useful when your opponents quite literally tower over you. You’ll never get tired of seeing Mac jump right up into the air to rap fighters on the chin. I never saw Ali have to do that, did you?

They could have done with The Greatest in this game – a more racist lineup of pugilists you will not see. It starts off with the Frenchman who can’t wait to throw up the white flag, Glass Joe. Yes, I should also mention that the majority of the opponents’ names are puns, in addition to being bigoted, so in that respect they’re double jobbing. That’s the sign of an efficient pun, didn’t you know?

You quickly move on to Von Kaiser, with a rich moustache that’d put General Melchett’s to shame. I have to admit, when it came to parodying warfaring moustachioed Germans I’m just glad that they didn’t plomp for old Adolf. The champion of the Minor Circuit of the World Racist Boxing Association is Piston Honda, fresh from the highly efficient car garages and with a pair of caterpillar eyebrows that dance the flamenco.

And speaking of flamencos you’ve got the man himself, Don Flamenco from Madrid, who dances about the ring with a rose in his mouth and a toupee on his head. Is there some sort of national stereotype that the Spaniards are a bit follically challenged? I’d certainly have expected something more along the lines of Razor Ramon – or is that more of a Latin American stereotype? Am I the racist after all?

Anyway, it’s around this time you figure out that jabbing blindly isn’t the way to get through the game. Probably less than a dozen NES games have anything resembling a ‘learning curve’, it’s usually sink or swim, and the swim is in a pool of hydrochloric acid.

But Punch-Out properly eases you in, and while you better believe it gets incredibly tough by the end, at least you can get past the first ten minutes and have some fun. Also, even if you do get knocked the hell out into the mire of brain damage and early retirement, you’ll find that the next time you play, you’ll be better equipped and able to progress farther.

But God, you really do feel every little inch of your four foot nothing height in there, as big fat King Hippo bears down upon you like a guffawing Hindenburg in florescent red shorts. You’ll need to bob, weave, duck and dodge, though you might forget some of those, especially ducking. As well as that, if you keep hitting the opponent’s gloves or let yourself get whacked around, you’ll lose stamina and temporarily tire out.

There are almost rules, though. There’s three rounds of 3 minutes, although they’re not three real minutes and indeed the timer speeds up or slows down depending on how hard you’re currently hammering the opponent. You usually have to knock the opponent out, though – although you can win by decision, you need a helluva lot of points to get the win. That holds true even if you knocked down Mr. Sandman six times and he hardly laid a glove on you. Corrupt or what?

Later in the game there’s a spate of rematches with previous boxers, now new and improved, and a hell of a lot harder. That’s all before the racial stereotypes culminate with the USSR man Soda Popinski, previously known as – and I’m not joking you here – Vodka Drunkenski. I know the whole thing here was to send up as many nationalities as possible, and I know this was in the last knockings of the Cold War. But God almighty lads, did you have to?!

And I have to love the idea that Nintendo toned down Soda Popinski’s name but retained all of his dialogue that obviously refers to alcohol. I’m surprised he didn’t tell everyone that he can’t drive because he loves “grape juice” and that he’s not gonna kill you in the ring, Ivan Drago style, but that he’s going to “defeat” you instead.

And gosh, I haven’t even got to Tyson yet. I could not imagine a scarier end boss to any game than Mike Tyson. I’m being serious – Giygas is absolutely nowhere compared to Kid Dynamite. I ought to add that Tyson’s presence in this game preceded his conviction for rape, although it wasn’t that unfortunate conviction that led to him being removed from the game and replaced by the no-personality pilchard called Mr Dream.

No, it was probably Tyson’s surprise loss to James “Buster” Douglas, coupled wth the fact that Tyson probably still commanded a massive fee at the time (before his several bankruptcies) that led to his removal. To my eternal shame, I’ve only got the non-Tyson version of the game, but let’s both pretend that I’m up against the Baddest Man in the World here.

It wouldn’t matter anyway because I’ve never beaten him, or Mr. Dream. Actually, if we’re being double honest, I can’t seem to get past Super Macho Man either. I can breeze through the rest of the game, even Bald Bull and Mr. Sandman getting nowhere near me. But then Macho Man, his grey hair, his spin punches and his bouncing tits all conspire to send me to the canvas.

At that point – and I love this – Super Mario comes in, having decided to take up a part-time job as a boxing ref for whatever reason, and gives me a short count to 10 before I’m declared KO’ed. If you think the friendly and affable Mario may be on your side for Punch-Out, forget it: he’ll give long count after long count to the opponent, and he’ll even stop counting for a moment if the opponent rears up onto all-fours for a bit before falling back down again.

Tyson knew all about long and short counts against Buster Douglas – mind you, he knew a thing or two about crippling uppercuts as well. If you should somehow manage to make it to Iron Mike, or more accurarely if you search out the passcode that brings you to him immediately, then he’ll probably put you on your backside in seconds.

That’s because for the first 90 seconds of the fight, you have to be perfect with your dodging – each and every punch he throws is an instant knockdown. I did tell you that Little Mac is about 40 centimetres tall. So it makes sense: if you threw your little nephew a haymaker uppercut designed to fell Goliath, then he’s not exactly going to stay on his feet, is he?

It’s alright though, because you’ve got Apollo Creed in your corner. No, sorry, that’s Doc Louis. A former heavyweight champ, it seems poor old Doc took a few too many blows to the head himself during the course of his mysterious career. So while he may be fairly nimble on a bike (let’s not make the obvious joke here), when Mac is under the cosh and getting the larrups from Bald Bull, Doc patting you on the shoulder and telling you to join the Nintendo Fun Club today isn’t exactly what you need to hear.

Still, stick with Doc and you’ll eventually triumph over the best fighters in the world and stand on top of the World Video Boxing Assocation wearing all three belts, rival fighters dead at your feet, and even Tyson paying you compliments. One of the best games on the NES ends there, with no credits screen and certainly no apologies for the shocking racism that you’ve just witnessed. But that’s the murky, seedy underbelly of professional sport for you.

4 February 2020

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