The Homeric quest I speak of is the 1987 Nintendo Entertainment System classic, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, one of the greatest games ever made, and so brutally difficult as to seem impossible to a gaggle of thoroughly intimidated ten-year-old boys.
|Hell, it's 25 years later and this image still makes my palms sweaty.|
In 1985 Mike Tyson arrived on the scene like only a few athletes can in a generation. For those of you who only know him as a walking punchline, singing off-key in The Hangover and getting stupid tribal tattoos on his face, I'm genuinely sorry that that is your first exposure to Iron Mike.
Because before all the bad investments, before the jail time, before the Cancer known as Don King leeched away any chance he had, Mike Tyson looked for one bright shining moment like he might be the greatest fighter ever. "Ali or Tyson?" was a legitimate question, and it didn't come with any sort of clear-cut winner.
Here's a clip, appropriately titled "Mike Tyson - Destroyer in Prime." Tyson was terrifying in the ring; I cannot imagine being the guy who has to be in there facing him, hoping the audience can't see the adult diaper he put on under his trunks. Nearly two dozen such men never made it out of the first round against Tyson, over his career (of the snippets you see in that clip, some make up almost the whole of each particular fight, even at just a handful of seconds). Grown men who were paid to box for a living would get knocked down by him, then climb back to their feet with fear in their eyes as the ref gave them a standing eight-count. You could see it, plain as day. Don't let him hit me again.
|You wanted no part of this in 1985.|
The point is that Mike Tyson was untouchable in the 80s. And at the height of that, Nintendo released Punch-Out!!, and evidently decided that they were going to do everything in their programming power to replicate the pants-shitting terror of trying to go up against Tyson.
|They were posing for a still photograph, yet the actor playing the other boxer never woke up from the coma.|
|Unless you're a kid who, even as a grown man two decades later, still knows the 007-373-5963 password by heart.|
And after a friend got the game for Christmas in 1987, three of us poured everything we had into it. Nintendo hadn't let us down before. They wouldn't have programmed a game with no ending or no way to reach it. Surely it was possible, right? In this pre-Internet age, where there wasn't a ready source of information to give us the answer, we'd have to find out for ourselves. It was our mission, and our passion. We were going to beat Mike Tyson.
|We were never this confident, however.|
|Stanley from The Office is taller than you even when he's standing outside the ring.|
|"We crashed a million weddings, and we rocked 'em all."|
As for actual boxing rules, you could hammer the buttons to get back up once knocked down, the difficulty of which would vary based on how much damage you'd absorbed in the fight up to that point. Anyone getting knocked down three times within a single round was immediately disqualified via Technical Knockout (TKO), though you could knock a guy down once or twice per round and eventually the damage would accumulate to the point that they (or you, if on the receiving end) couldn't beat a ten-count to get back to their feet. Each fight was a maximum of three rounds, after which the game would (sometimes randomly, I believe) select a winner by judges' decision.
It is nearly impossible to lose to Glass Joe. I say "nearly" because I found out it was possible a few years ago, while incredulously watching it happen after I put the controller in my lady's hands with an excited "Check this out, it's so much fun, and the first guy is just tutorial!" and was then quickly reminded why she doesn't identify as a gamer. It was one of two revelations I had about the game in the last five years; more on that in a bit.
Winning your first fight entitles you to take on German boxer Von Kaiser, at which point I should remind you that this game was made in the 80s, in a time before political correctness. Von Kaiser is simply the first of many times I could make this reminder as we progress through the lineup of boxers in this game, be it from the ethnic stereotyping in their names or appearances. Given some of the characters yet to come, I consider it an admirable show of Nintendo's restraint that Von Kaiser didn't goose-step his way into the ring.
|Wait, Sam Elliot used to be a boxer?|
Upon beating Von Kaiser, the game announces that you can now challenge for the Minor Circuit Championship belt and pits you against the current Minor Circuit champ, Piston Honda, whose anger stems at least in part from his being unable to convince the Minor Circuit to go by a different, less emasculating name.
|The kanji on his headband translate to "Literally ANY other name would be better. Call us Cirque du Soleil if you want."|
In a startling show of almost-getting-it, the developers of the newer, lesser Punch-Out!! sequels have renamed him Piston Hondo, attempting to respect Japanese culture without really understanding what was wrong to begin with.
Honda was the first opponent to mix in proprietary "special" boxing moves unique to one fighter. Occasionally he'd leap back from where you were engaged in fighting him, then he'd bounce back and forth around the ring for a few seconds before lunging back toward you with a ferocious combo that would lay you on the mat if you could neither throw a perfectly timed punch on his re-entry or perfectly block all ten punches until he tired himself out and left himself vulnerable.
My friends and I could recognize how minor an achievement the Minor Circuit championship belt was, and still feel like badasses for accomplishing it. The game did its part, celebrating with a rousing jog through the streets of New York, wearing your best bright pink warmups and chasing Stanley from The Office as he bicycles ahead of you, all to a backdrop of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.
|In today's New York this is described as a hate crime against either the black or gay communities.|
|We would have also accepted "David Schwimmer."|
All courtesy of the arguably the game's biggest break-out star, King Hippo.
|Pictured: Eric "Butterbean" Esch|
First of all, King Hippo enters the ring in a way that always kinda terrified me as a kid. Today it may seem ridiculous to you, but King Hippo was legitimately frightening to go up against in Punch-Out!! if you were still trying to figure out how to beat him. He gets his introduction, stalks out to the center of the ring, and then proceeds to vibrate with an obvious eagerness to cave in your skull, his jaw madly flapping as if he intends to suck the very marrow from your bones once he's tenderized you in the ring.
|A still shot really isn't helping my case here, but this scared the shit out of me.|
You'd be defeated at King Hippo's hands plenty of times, but in those defeats you'd be given your one key clue to beat him, if you were paying attention.
|And it surprisingly isn't "make fun of his complete lack of genitalia."|
Stanley from The Office actually gives spot-on advice for once, with the King Hippo fight, but by this point in the game you're long since inured to his pointless, unrelated comments on how you're doing (wait, so your counsel at the end of that brutal round of pugilism is "JOIN THE NINTENDO FUN CLUB, MAC!"...? You know what, Stanley from The Office, never mind. I'll just train myself), and likely ignored his suggestion to go for Hippo's face to stun him. But on those rare aforementioned cases where you can land a punch on Hippo's face, you then have a split-second while he's stunned, in which to punch him in the stomach.
At which point his shorts will fall down and you can rain blows upon his band-aid-belly as he uses both hands to try to pull his shorts back up.
|I've got you now.|
|It's this level of satisfying.|
|He's the one on the left, surprisingly.|
And then the game gets a bit loopy, even by its own standards. It's been a long time since I played all the way through the game, so I'm having a bit of trouble remembering the order of fights. But the game doesn't help with this confusion since it makes you re-fight certain characters at different points in your ascent through the ranks. Somehow Piston Honda, after being beaten for the Minor Circuit Belt, also fights high in the ranks in the Major Circuit. Don Flamenco is a low-rung fighter in the Major Circuit, but is one of the last fights you have in the World Circuit. I don't know who's the governing body of this boxing association, but-
Oh, right. I guess I should feel lucky that no one's blowing fireballs at me while I box.
So, at two points in the next three fights (?) you encounter a giant Turkish man by the name of Bald Bull...
|"Your punches are like slaps after the ferocity that is Little Mac! Join the Aryan Fun Club!"|
|"Oh god, I hope that little guy kissed his wife before he got in there."|
One can dodge this massive punch and get in a few counter-punches. Or, if one has balls made of brass, one can end the fight right then and there with a perfectly timed punch to the solar plexus of Bald Bull just as he gets close enough to you with his bull rush.
|Which never, ever gets less awesome.|
|Graphics weren't yet sufficiently advanced to show the "JUICY" printed across the ass.|
And then this fool wanders in.
Also, he's oddly pink-skinned while in the ring, which is an affliction no one else in the game suffers.
|Cirrhosis: The Silent, and Pink, Killer|
The last three fights are where the game stops having fun with you, and wants you to stop having fun with it. The gauntlet begins with Mr. Sandman. I'm genuinely surprised that I couldn't come up with an in-game shot of Mr. Sandman where he wasn't smiling, since Mr. Sandman is made of beef and rage.
|To be fair, he is thinking about drowning kittens whenever he smiles.|
And the World Circuit belt holder, your final obstacle on this long and winding road, is Super Macho Man, played here by Vice President Joe Biden.
Not only are his regular punches so fast they're difficult to avoid, but at odd intervals in the fight he will wind up his fist, plant his feet, and SPIN the upper half of his body 360 degrees, swinging his fist into you on each pass, anywhere from three to TWELVE times. You'll never know how many until afterward, so you'd better be prepared to not fuck up at any point during any of them. Oh, but you also have to have the split-second reaction time to recognize the instant he's finished so you can counter-punch in the ridiculously small window of time the game gives you before his defense is back up, and you are guaranteed to miss that window if you inadvertently dodge an extra time beyond the number of times he spun around like a He-Man figure with a broken waist spring.
|My trainer couldn't even believe his eyes.|
Beat this prick, though, and it's onto the main event. The game handles this with lots of pomp and bombast. First, there's the headline from a metropolitan newspaper which, from the looks of things, is carrying on despite firing all of its layout and writing staff.
|I like how someone made a token attempt at text at the bottom before just giving up and reverting to nonsense symbols.|
|You'll have plenty of dream time in the eternal sleep.|
I've beaten a lot of games in my life. Some were quite difficult. Usually, besting a game once will help make it easier to do again later. Eventually you'll be able to sit down and blast through a game you once found absurdly difficult, because of simple pattern recognition and quick reflexes.
None of this is true of fighting Mike Tyson. It might be the hardest "final boss fight" in any game I've played.
For one thing, the first minute and a half of the first round is a minefield. You are helpless. Mike swings at you randomly, telegraphing his punches in only the tiniest manner. Any time he connects, you go down. Mind you, the three-knockdown rule still applies. This was set up as a simulacrum of most real fights against Mike Tyson, in that only the most fortunate will last more than thirty seconds.
|Good night, sweet prince.|
|It originally read "START TRAINING, MAKE A COMEBACK FROM THE VERY BEGINNING OF THE GAME!" but there were too many suicides.|
Turns out that's not true. I never saw it first-hand, but it looks like this:
I still have no idea how to make it happen, though, as I seemed to have the upper hand numerous times when the bell sounded at the end of Round 3 in my many attempts to beat Tyson, but always managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
I DID, however, know that you couldn't KO Tyson. You had to take him via TKO, which meant knocking him down three times within a single round. The first round was impossible, as that brutal opening half I described for you excludes any chance to mount an offensive of your own.
But damage accumulates, such that you can wear a guy down to almost-knocked-down and then let the round end, so that one or two punches at the top of the next round will put him down and give you a headstart for its remainder. It was the only method I knew of to stop Iron Mike.
So, armed with the faulty belief that I couldn't win by decision, I set out to beat Mike Tyson by weakening him in the first two rounds and then laying it on thick in Round 3.
I failed. Then I failed again. Then again.
You can cut and paste the previous line as many times as you'd like; you'll probably still have a conservative estimate for the number of times Mike Tyson forced Little Mac into early retirement.
I'd lost so many times to Iron Mike that it almost snuck up on me, how this time I might just have a shot. I'd sailed through the first round and matched blows with him throughout Round 2, setting him up so that my very first landed punch of Round 3 put him on his back. Midway through the round I got into a nice groove and knocked him down a second time.
Suddenly I was very aware of the temperature of my skin. There's over a minute left in the fight. I could do this. I CAN do this. Holy shit, stay cool, stay calm, just keep doing what you're doing...
Three minutes per round seemed like an eternity against Mike Tyson most times; now it was as constricting as a noose. I was fighting that clock as much as the unbeatable gladiator standing before me. I couldn't come this close and lose another decision, could I? Could my controller withstand the might with which I would be tempted to lob it?
I landed the final punch at the 2:57 mark of Round 3. Tyson stumbled backward and fell to the mat. I let out a huge, pressurized scream of disbelief and joy. I yelled my sister's name; she was in the bathroom at the time, and later said that was very fortunate, since my sudden and incredibly loud shriek would have made her shit herself anyway.
"!!!OH MY GOD I BEAT MIKE TYSON I DID IT I BEAT MIKE TYSON!!!" is just an excerpt of the euphoria which filled the living room over the next few seconds as I fully realized what had happened. Iron Mike wasn't going to jump up for one last surprise go, like the killer in a slasher movie. I'd done it. Mario was in the ring, declaring the fight over.
|Whoever uploaded this pic did it with one fewer second to spare than I had. Nerve-wracking, but what a thrill.|
|It's no "I want to eat his children, praise be to Allah," but what is?|
Although I guess I CAN'T actually say "I could sit down and play Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! right now," because things went south for Mike Tyson not too long after this game released, so Nintendo opted not to renew the endorsement deal with him when it expired, lest they be associated with a guy about to very publicly stand trial for some pretty ugly crimes. The thing is, the game itself was still immensely popular, so they couldn't just let it go out of print. So, for subsequent printings of the game, Nintendo shoved this facsimile out to retail.
|Is that ref just gonna let that dude hit that guy Mike Tyson put in a coma earlier?|
|I'm supposed to be intimidated by this asshole?|
|"...uh, never mind. 'Minor Circuit' will do just fine."|
Thus I retired from boxing shortly thereafter, content that I'd climbed the mountain while it was still worth climbing, and spent my days in the park with a hot pink jogging outfit and and old friend.
|And a rape whistle.|