Super Punch-Out does not revolutionize the formula because that element clicks so well and works within such a tight scope that it is hard to apply any change to it; what it does is give it a bright coat of paint, decorate it with new characters, and dare players to climb to the top of the boxing world
Videogames that depict sports have been prominent since the very early days of the industry. Pong, essentially the first game ever to be commercially successful, was – after all – based on tennis. And as time would prove repeatedly from that point onward, the combination simply works: sports and electronic entertainment are a fantastic match. It makes sense in more than one way. For developers, not only do they get to copy formulas that have been tested and approved in real life, but they also benefit from the fact that making these types of games does not demand so much creative or artistic effort, which in turn allows them to focus on gameplay; something that was specially critical during an era when making games was often sailing into uncharted waters. Meanwhile, for players themselves, they get to somehow engage in thrilling activities they have mostly experienced as a passive audience and, of course, squeeze a huge amount of enjoyment out of the competitive nature of sports.
The power of this combination was so notably big when the gaming industry was learning to crawl that even Nintendo itself, which would go down as a company of rather colorful creativity, flooded its first major home console – the NES – with titles of the kind. Within their own walls, they would go on to produce electronic versions of soccer, tennis, volleyball, baseball, golf, ice hockey, pro wrestling, and motorbike racing; additionally, from their close Japanese partners, their system would also get takes on dodge ball and football.
Within that context, Punch-Out could run the risk of being bunched together with those titles to be lazily labeled as an electronic version of boxing; and the reasoning for that conclusion is certainly firm. Gameplay involves two people trying to knock each other down. They are visibly standing on a boxing ring and wearing gloves that are characteristic of the sport. For the most part, only hands can be used and opponents must be hit above the waistline. And a judge is present to issue countdowns, declare victories, and stop the proceedings from turning into utter savagery. Therefore, it is safe to say Punch-Out is a boxing game.
At the same time, however, it totally is not. And that is because while Nintendo and other companies’ efforts to turn sports into games usually led to products that replicated those activities with some degree of realism, Punch-Out sacrifices veracity for fun and creativity. For modern gamers who have grown used to Mario’s wacky takes on racing, golf, tennis, soccer, and many others, the compromise seems obvious. When Punch-Out originally appeared, though, that was not case, but perhaps it is no coincidence that the franchise who pioneered this trade-off is not only the most well-remembered of Nintendo’s early ventures into sports, but also the one that got a bunch of sequels.
Released for the Super Nintendo in 1994, Super Punch-Out is actually the fourth installment of the property, because before hitting the NES in 1987, the series had already been graced with two arcade efforts – which was where it was born. To anyone who plays Super Punch-Out, or any of the other entries, this origin should be particularly obvious or at least felt in some degree, because the simplicity of the franchise’s gameplay, the brevity of its combats, and the steepness of its difficulty curve are very much arcade in spirit. That does not mean, however, Punch-Out fails to earn its place in the context of a home console.
In Super Punch-Out, as it is always the case, players wear the shoes and gloves of Little Mac, a young man from New York City who tries to rise from the bottom of the boxing ladder to the title of world champion. The version of the sport he tackles, though, is slightly different from its real life counterpart because instead of freely roaming the arena while looking for open angles and opportunities to strike, competitors mainly stay locked in place, especially Mac himself, as his rivals have a knack for occasionally bouncing all over the ring when preparing to deliver particularly powerful attacks.
Since he does not move around, the directional pad is entirely mapped to defensive maneuvers. Pressing down causes Mac to duck; pressing left or right makes him dodge to the respective side; pressing up activates a guard that is about face-high; and pressing nothing at all leaves the character in his standard position, with his gloves blocking blows aimed at his torso. Alone, those five defensive moves speak volumes about the game. For starters, they reveal the cleverness of its simplicity: since Mac does not walk, Nintendo gets to assign a big assortment of distinct evasive actions (five of them) to straightforward inputs in the directional pad. Secondly, they show that in Punch-Out success is tied to defense.
Sure, Mac will be able to land a few hits in each of his rivals if he simply punches away. But doing so will cause him to be beaten to a pulp by even the weakest of the game’s boxers, as they are programmed to block and counter most carelessly thrown punches. In all cases, their moments of greatest vulnerability, when they will not hit back and when players will be able to safely deliver a sequence of successful hits, are the seconds following a precise evasion by Mac. Consequently, before they deal damage, gamers will have to learn how to dodge or block with accuracy, and therein lies the gameplay meat of Punch-Out.
Effectively, every boxer Mac faces is part puzzle and part rhythmical challenge, which makes the franchise as much a member of these two gaming genres as it is of the sports niche. Because of that nature, players will have to memorize the moves of their rivals, know how to anticipate them by learning which cues relate to which attacks, and figure out the proper evasive move to apply in each situation. Initially, the task is relatively simple: the first boxers Mac faces will announce their attacks via obvious tells; they will be slow to transition between animation and punch; most defensive maneuvers, if used timely, will lead to a successful evasion; when rivals are vulnerable to hits, any type of punch will connect; their arsenal of moves will be smaller; and their blows will not be extremely damaging.
As the game progresses, though, all those variables are turned up: nearly every move will require a specific type of evasion, cues will be more discreet, the interval between those animations and the attacks diminish, hits will deal more damage, rivals will possess special skills that unleash hurricanes of sequential hits that in turn demand sequential defensive moves, openings to attack become briefer, and some punches will simply not land. For example, if a rival’s failed attack ends with their head tilting to one side at a certain height, players will have to press the correct buttons so that Mac uses the appropriate punch, as Y corresponds to his left hand and B to the right one, while pressing up on the directional pad throws face-high jabs and not pressing it causes the character to perform torso-high blows.
It is by all means an uphill battle, and with each boxer the learning process inevitably involves being punched on the face multiple times until one gets their pattern down. And although as Mac’s journey to the top advances players will surely get better, that does not mean there will be a point when beating a competitor will be easier; since Super Punch-Out has an extremely polished difficulty curve, getting skilled enough to clear one obstacle will only indicate Mac is sufficiently good to start being punched by the next one.
On its own, the rhythmical gameplay of Punch-Out already displays plenty of arcade characteristics, but that nature is especially clear in its structure. Mainly, the game is divided into four progressively harder circuits (Minor, Major, World, and Special), each one housing four boxers. In order to win the respective belts, Mac must make his way through the four rivals of the circuit without losing all his lives. Differently from what happens in the NES version, though, players cannot win by decision in Super Punch-Out; in other words, if Mac is unable to knockout his opponent within the three minutes allotted for every combat, he will be defeated. If they run out of continues, players will be kicked back to the opening screen and be forced to start the circuit from scratch.
Just like an arcade game that is dying to hook players into a loop of failure and retrial so that coins keep pouring in, Super Punch-Out uses that structure to be simultaneously brutal and addictive. To modern home console standards, going back to the very first fight of a circuit after losing to the fourth and final boxer may be too much, especially when one takes into account that the harder the duels get, the more learning – and failing – will be necessary to overcome an opponent. As such, every time Mac falls for good to the circuit’s champion, he will have to go through three battles again just to get another shot at hopefully figuring out how to beat that guy. It is certainly not a scenario that is appealing to everyone. But to those who give it a try and like it, it is positively irresistible for a number of reasons.
Firstly, since they only take three minutes at most, battles are very short so the progress that is lost is never too much. Secondly, since there are only four circuits and sixteen boxers, Super Punch-Out is arcade and old-school in how it squeezes value out of difficulty and repeated attempts; a strategy that is obviously not universally appealing, but that is valid. Thirdly, facing an opponent again is a great opportunity to try to beat them more quickly or earn more points; and besides keeping track of these score and time-related records, therefore giving incentive to those who want to replay the game after they have beaten it, Super Punch-Out also dishes out an extra life for every 50,000 points that are accumulated, which should be an alluring motivation for players who are struggling to clear a circuit to try to be more efficient against boxers they have already figured out.
This efficiency can be achieved not just by finding openings that are not so obvious and require exquisite timing, but also by making good use of what the game calls Knock Out Punch. As Mac’s ultimate ability, it is related to an energy bar that appears on the bottom of the screen: if he hits his rival, it gets slightly filled; if he is hit, it gets slightly depleted. Once it is full, by pressing the A button in various combinations with the directional pad, Mac will unleash either a barrage of punches or a powerful single blow that will deal huge damage to boxers. Early in the game, its usage is not necessary to achieve victory, working as a way to bring down enemies more quickly; later on, though, given openings become rarer and blocks more common, it turns into an essential tool in Mac’s journey to the championship.
All in all, there is not a whole lot about Super Punch-Out that is very different from what was seen in its predecessors: its gameplay, mechanics, and structure come straight out of arcade machines. Due to that, the biggest change brought by this Super Nintendo installment happens to be in the presentation department. Thanks to the system’s more advanced hardware and helped by the fact the action on screen is limited to a small area, the game boasts animations and character models that are an absolute peak for the console. And allied with a slew of fantastic songs and memorable sound effects, these traits feed into what happens to be one of the franchise’s main features: its iconic characters.
Rather than being about punching nameless, faceless, and forgettable guys wearing boxing shorts and gloves, Punch-Out has always been about beating down or being knocked out by characters that are brimming with personality, and the visuals of the Super Nintendo further highlight this particularity that was already somewhat evident on the NES and on arcade machines, as the ridiculous, cartoonish, and colorful nature of every boxer adds a lot of value to each fight.
As it has always been the case with the franchise, Super Punch-Out is not for everyone. The game is very much an arcade experience that happens to be tied to a home console; as such, in comparison to its peers, it can come off to some players as too hard, too simple, or too short. In a way, the title tries to address these problems; the small size of its content, for instance, is countered by difficulty and by the addition of a time attack mode. But ultimately one’s appreciation for the game comes down to how they will look at its traits.
If someone happens to see the difficulty, simplicity, and brief content of Super Punch-Out as flaws, then that means the game is not for them; and that is fine, arcade gameplay is always divisive when brought to consoles. However, if one evaluates those characteristics as being features, then it is impossible to go wrong with this Super Nintendo classic. Super Punch-Out does not revolutionize the formula because that element clicks so well and works within such a tight scope that it is hard to apply any sort of huge change to it. What the game does, instead, is give it a stunningly polished coat of paint, decorate it with a dozen new boxers with unique personalities, and dare players to climb the stairway that leads to the top of the boxing world. It sure is not easy and many will not make it, but as it always happens in great arcade games, the journey is addictive and thrilling.