Commentary

What made Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! so special?

For gamers of a certain age, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! will always be the undisputed champion. And while Nintendo's latest incarnation won't feature Iron Mike, there's no better time to give thanks and look back fondly at one of the most enjoyable video games of all-time.

Originally Published: November 27, 2008
By Patrick Sauer | Special to ESPN.com

Mike TysonAP Photo/Douglas C. PizacLong before he was tattooing his face and threatening to eat unborn children, Mike Tyson was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
I still remember where I was the first time I saw Mike Tyson hit the canvas.

No, not at the hands of Buster Douglas. I'm referring to when my friend Mike "Buzz" Bartholomew laid out the seemingly unbeatable animated Mike Tyson of "Punch-Out!!" fame.

It was the summer of 1987, in the basement of my Billings, Mont., boyhood home. It felt as though we were witnessing history.

It was a scene played out on Nintendo NES consoles everywhere. Beating Tyson was a victory so satisfying that two decades later, gamers of the time still talk about taking down the champ.

"It took me two months to figure out Tyson's knockout punch, but when I did, it was all over," says Bartholomew, now an IT specialist. Sure, boxing was a much more mainstream sport 20 years ago, but lots of video games came and went ("Ring King," anyone?), so why does Punch-Out!! live on in our collective pop culture memory?

It starts with Kid Dynamite himself.

Round 1: The Ballad of Kid Dynamite and Little Mac

In June 1987, the boxing world was introduced to Little Mac, a 17-year-old, 107-pound pugilist from the mean streets of the Bronx.

Although he looked as clean-cut as Josh Baskin from "Big," Little Mac was a scrappy young comer learning the ropes under the watchful eye of esteemed trainer Doc Louis.

[+] EnlargeLittle Mac, Mike Tyson
NintendoIron Mike was no giant, but he towered over a pint-sized Little Mac.
And the "star uppercut" was born.

In 1987, Tyson was at the center of his baddest-man-on-the-planet mayhem. Dressed in black boots and black trunks, Iron Mike terrified opponents before they even got into the ring. In March, Tyson won the WBA title in a 12-round decision over James "Bonecrusher" Smith with an assist from his reputation for brutality.

"I went to Vegas early, and there was a billboard for the fight in which Tyson towered over me even though I'm 5 inches taller than he is … I let the hype get into my head a little bit," Smith said. "If I jumped on Mike, I would've knocked him out."

That August, Tyson became the youngest undisputed heavyweight champion, beating Tony Tucker in a unanimous decision, running his record to 31-0. Punch-Out!! was timed perfectly to satisfy both a built-in audience of gamers familiar with the arcade version and awe-struck fight fans the world over.

"We were all poor in Brownsville [in Brooklyn], so not everyone could afford a Nintendo, but if you could, that meant a house full of kids coming over to play Punch-Out!!," said heavyweight Shannon Briggs, who grew up in the same neck of the woods as Tyson.

Round 2: Body Blows, Bull Rushes, Tornado Punches and the Don Flamenco Dance

The Punch-Out!! series was the brainchild of Nintendo developer Genyo Takeda. Instead of using the see-through fighters of the arcade version, they decided to make Little Mac, well, little. It gave players the sense that they were the underdog as each fighter got bigger, stronger, meaner and weirder.

"The holy grail of a video game is easy to play, hard to master," said Jeremy Pope, whose Cashmere Productions creates games like Ninjatown for Nintendo's portable system, the DS. "Punch-Out!! nailed it by utilizing a set of mechanics that never changed, having a set of characters with cool backstories and making the gameplay challenging. In grade school, I set up a camcorder and videotaped myself beating Tyson so I could prove it to my buddies."

Essentially, Little Mac knew how to bob, weave, duck, jab, move left and right, and throw an uppercut. Anyone could pick up the skills without the 13-year-old-hopped-up-on-Jolt prowess that would become necessary after the NES died out. Little Mac was the same guy from Glass Joe to Kid Dynamite, which made it egalitarian. However, it took a lot of patience, concentration, persistence and fancy opposable-thumb-work to advance through the ranks, so it was elitist.

"Punch-Out!! has that old-school style of game play, which is all about memorizing the patterns and the crazy punches," said Stephen Totilo, who covers the video game world on MTV's Multiplayer blog. "I remember being out on the playground comparing notes on how to beat King Hippo."

(In case you forgot: Drill the big fella in the noggin, then pound away at his ample gut when his drawers fall down.)

The Punch-Out!! fighters were original in their day, as sports games had never really used narrative techniques to bring the characters to life. Knowing that Doc Louis was a former 1950s champion espousing nuggets of wisdom like "Dancin' like a fly, bite like a mosquito" gave the game unique layers, no matter how much he resembled the dad on Family Matters. Even simple wrinkles such as having Mario referee, or the Louis and Little Mac training montage past the Statue of Liberty, were cool in-the-know touches that livened up to the Punch-Out!! universe, ensuring the game never got bogged down with static figures in a ring.

Let's be honest, though, part of the nostalgic appeal of Punch-Out!! is that it skirts a politically correct line that would be much tougher to cross today. It's not the video game equivalent of "Amos 'n' Andy," but Little Mac's pugilist opponents don't exactly scream "cultural sensitivity," either.

Round 3: Tyson Gets Put Away

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! was a huge hit right out of the box, selling 2 million units at $39 a pop, but by the end of 1989, it was already a collector's item.

[+] EnlargeBuster Douglas vs. Mike Tyson
Reuters/CorbisMike Tyson's world came crashing down at the hands of 42-1 underdog Buster Douglas in 1990.
Thanks to Tyson's legal woes and increasingly troublesome behavior, Nintendo didn't renew his contract, allegedly pulling all the remaining games off the shelves. The company's timing was, once again, impeccable.

Tyson's invincibility crashed down on the Tokyo canvas in February 1990, when a 42-1 underdog named Buster Douglas ended Tyson's unbeaten streak by knocking him out in the 10th round.

Later that year, Nintendo released another Punch-Out!! game with a champion named "Mr. Dream." Although the new champion was just Tyson with Jack Dempsey's skin color, the game didn't have the same impact. The NES wasn't long for the console world, and, suffice it to say, few modern gamers, especially the so-called "Nintendo Dads," reminisce about taking down Mr. Dream.

The fast and hard fall of Tyson has given Punch-Out!! a unique spot in gaming history. Unlike, say, the Madden franchise, there's only one version. And there will be only one. "A Wii version of Punch-Out!! is going to happen, and I am certain Mike Tyson will play no part in it," said Kevin Cassidy, the man behind GoNintendo.com.

Cassidy is correct. Nintendo announced a 2009 Wii version of Punch-Out!!, date to be determined, and Iron Mike is nowhere to be found.

The irony is that the real-life Mike Tyson became a bigger cartoon than the video game version. It's sad but true that the animated 1987 Tyson is a lot more fun than the washed-up fighter of today with drug, alcohol and money problems. Punch-Out!! captured a moment in time, and if there's ever a Hall of Fame for sports video games, it's a first-ballot lock.

"I'm in the new Don King's "Prizefighter," and as I was watching my son play, I was thinking about how Tyson's game was the innovator," Briggs says. "Today, we may be ahead in graphics, but the feeling that you got playing Punch-Out!! was totally unreal. It's amazing."

In the video game world, Kid Dynamite will always be the undisputed champion. "I was 16 and hadn't sealed the deal with a woman yet," Bartholomew says. "I'm going to say, up to that point, it was the biggest moment of my life." Put him away, Buzz. Put him away.

Patrick J. Sauer is a contributing editor at Inc., a senior editor at TheDailyTube.com and a freelancer for a number of publications.