Friday, May 11, 2012

My Syntax is Impetuous, My Diction is Impregnable

None of my friends had done it.  I hadn't heard a secondhand account from someone claiming to have done it.  I was half-convinced that it just couldn't be done.  The mountain was too high.  Human reflexes just can't handle what was being asked of them.

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.
Let me back up just a little bit and give you some context.

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.
Pay particular attention to the gentleman at the 7:12 mark in that linked clip.  Boxers are hardly lacking in confidence, and aren't really known for making post-fight statements like that.

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.
And it wasn't just Tyson.  The game's progression was built on the idea of you entering the boxing world as a diminutive nobody and fighting your way up to be able to challenge Tyson for the world championship belt.  Standing in your way were a murderer's row of fighters with different styles and tells which demanded instantaneous precision in order to survive.  You had to fight all of them just to earn the privilege of having Tyson pound you into meatloaf.

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.
And we were going to do that as a tiny man named, I kid you not, Little Mac.  Perhaps his parents knew that he would only grow up to be half the height, at best, of the men he'd one day fight in the ring. But Little Mac is nothing if not committed, and with Stanley from The Office by his side, he set out on the path to Tyson.
Stanley from The Office is taller than you even when he's standing outside the ring.
And that path began in ignominy, against a man with a professional record of 1-99, who goes by the name Owen Wilson Glass Joe.
"We crashed a million weddings, and we rocked 'em all."
Glass Joe exists as a sort of tutorial on how to play the game.  The A button throws a body punch with your right hand, the B button does so with your left.  Moving left and right on the control cross makes Little Mac dodge from side to side. Pressing up on the cross while punching makes you throw punches to the face instead of the body.  Pressing down blocks incoming punches and supposedly made Little Mac duck if timed right, though in all my years of play I never got it to work in a satisfactory manner, always somehow ducking right into a punch to the face. So, from this sentence on, that facet of the controls is disavowed.

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?
Von Kaiser was dispatched easily enough, as the game was still luring you in at that point.  It had the good sense not to show its true sadism up front.  You had time to appreciate the little details, like the fact that Mario was moonlighting from his job saving Princess Peach again and again to serve as referee to Little Mac's climb up the boxing ranks.

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.
Now listed as the Minor Circuit champion, you were thrust into the Major Circuit as the newest challenger, and the first boxer in your way was Don Flamenco, played here by Adam Sandler.
We would have also accepted "David Schwimmer."
If his name wasn't a big-enough tip off, Flamenco enters the ring dancing, with a rose in his mouth. No, that's not a joke.  Luckily, Flamenco himself is a joke once you know the secret to beating him, allowing you to mop the floor with him in less than one round.  Which is good, because next up was the first point in the game where my friends and I got completely stuck, and with no Internet to consult, we just had to bang our heads against it until we figured it out.

All courtesy of the arguably the game's biggest break-out star, King Hippo.
Pictured: Eric "Butterbean" Esch
King Hippo is an amusing pushover, again, once you know how to beat him. Until that breakthrough, though, you will suffer and scream and fight the urge to throw your controller across the room.

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.
What then followed was an embarrassing display of King Hippo fucking you up while you throw ineffective, constantly-blocked punches, only occasionally managing to land a shot to his face, which only resulted in another crazed hammer-swing of one of his beef-slab arms.

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."
King Hippo would throw his arms up in celebration upon beating you, at which point his shorts would fall down.  Also, there was the conspicuous X shape of two band-aids over his belly button.


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.
Land enough blows to his stomach in this way and he'll lose his balance, tripping over his own shorts and falling to the mat, from which he can't extricate himself to get up.  Every time you knock King Hippo down, the fight is over.  Mario counts to ten and you're declared the winner by KO.

It's this level of satisfying.
We all felt like geniuses after besting King Hippo, sheltered for those last few seconds before the game unleashed Great Tiger on us and ruined our evenings for awhile.

He's the one on the left, surprisingly.
Great Tiger fights a lot like Von Kaiser did, only much faster and evidently utilizing some sort of East Indian magic which allows him to teleport around the ring in a split-second.  No matter how many times you fight him, your blood will still run cold when Great Tiger hops two steps back from you, crouches, and begins to phase out of reality for an insane series of punches interspersed with his whirling around you like a cyclone. Yet it is a mere hint of the split-second timing you'll need to exhibit in later fights.

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...

...who is evidently the result of some sort of love-which-dare-not-speak-its-name weekend between Charles Barkley and that big Nazi who Indiana Jones fought under a helicopter that one time.
"Your punches are like slaps after the ferocity that is Little Mac! Join the Aryan Fun Club!"
Bald Bull is so tall he obstructs your view of the stats displayed across the top of the screen when he makes his ring entrance.  He makes quite an impression.  He also makes a number of depressions in your general maxillofacial area, owing largely to his boxing glove being the size of your torso.

"Oh god, I hope that little guy kissed his wife before he got in there."
Bald Bull's special move, beyond simply bludgeoning you into wet giblets with his normal punches, is to run back to the far ropes, crouch, wait an agonizing few seconds while you silently piss yourself, then charge the length of the ring to throw an uppercut that would realistically send a man Little Mac's size into low-oxygen atmosphere, if not orbit.

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.
The first time you beat Bald Bull, you are crowned the Major Circuit title holder, and treated to another jog through Central Park in your pink onesie.
Graphics weren't yet sufficiently advanced to show the "JUICY" printed across the ass.
Then you make your way through the World Circuit, which is the final belt you need in order to challenge Mike Tyson.  I'll spare you the blow-by-blow of your inscrutable rematches against Piston Honda, Don Flamenco and Bald Bull other than to ensure you that each learned new moves since losing to Little Mac earlier in their careers, so they aren't just the same fights again.

And then this fool wanders in.
In the original version of the game, this Russian boxer was named Vodka Drunkenski.  Nintendo realized such a thing wouldn't fly for the American version of the game, so they redubbed him Soda Popinski and conspicuously drew the word "POP" on his ubiquitous bottle.  Never mind that he acts drunk throughout the match and that all of his between-round taunting comments are oblique references to how shitfaced he is.
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
Ever the clever kids, we rationalized this as his being cold from living in Russia and practicing boxing outdoors, rather than the obvious alcohol-accelerated vitamin deficiency it is.

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.
Mr. Sandman is the same size as Bald Bull, only much faster.  His special move is humanly impossible; within a single frame of animation he goes from standing with his arms in front of his face defensively, to already having uppercut you into the lights hanging over the ring, in any one of the four instant uppercuts he throws, alternating left-right-left-right in an attempt to separate you from your shoes like a cartoon character.  He is a magnificent bastard, and even as an adult I lose to Mr. Sandman as regularly as I beat him.

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.
This asshole has the same body type as Soda Popinski but with the usual giant boost in speed AND a special move so unfair that I'm not ashamed to admit that many of my childhood matches against him ended with me in tears.

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.

Utterly infuriating.
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.
Then a unique title card to announce your imminent demise:

You'll have plenty of dream time in the eternal sleep.
And there's no cartoonish intro dance for Iron Mike.  We cut to the ring, Mike walks to center, and Mario yells "FIGHT!" from a fallout shelter several counties away.  And every sphincter in your body clenches.

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.
And then the cruelty of the situation hits you, when you use one of your Continues and are sent back several rungs on the ladder, having to RE-FIGHT Super Macho Man, Mr. Sandman, and (I think) Don Flamenco again just to get back to Tyson.  And if you've already done that, and used all of your Continues?  Well, then, get used to this screen, which you'll see a lot through your scarlet rage.

It originally read "START TRAINING, MAKE A COMEBACK FROM THE VERY BEGINNING OF THE GAME!" but there were too many suicides.
Now, I said earlier that I learned something else about this game in the last few years, and it is that you actually CAN beat Mike Tyson by decision, if you were to somehow go three whole rounds with him.  I'd managed to last three rounds on a few occasions, but I lost every decision, and some kid at school swore that the game was designed to where you COULDN'T beat Tyson by decision. If it went to the judges' scorecards, you lost every time.

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.
Once I calmed down enough to stop shrieking and running around in circles, I saw that Iron Mike himself was thanking me in a way I was still too young and innocent to see as an incredibly creepy thing to say to someone.

It's no "I want to eat his children, praise be to Allah," but what is?
And it never got any easier.  I could sit down and play Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! right now and instantly fall back into the old patterns, knocking out the whole roster on my way up to the Mr. Sandman/Super Macho Man combo at least, then shove my way back to Iron Mike, only to get my ass handed to me in 22 seconds or something equally embarrassing.  No amount of knowing the patterns will guarantee your success.  It's truly one of my top gaming achievements, the two or three times I've been able to beat him in my life.

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?
They removed all references to Mike Tyson, instead subtly changing his in-game features and lightening his skin and re-dubbing him Mr. Dream, which was exactly as stupid as it sounds.

I'm supposed to be intimidated by this asshole?
He had all the same moves as Mike Tyson, but now it was just insulting to lose to him over and over, because it wasn't him. It just wasn't the same.  Even as a guy named Little Mac, I knew I was being disrespected, and that just didn't seem fitting for the simultaneous Minor Circuit, Major Circuit, and World Circuit champion.  This wasn't Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, but rather just Sweaty Men Rhythmically Pounding Each Other.
"...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.

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