Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 38, Punch-Out!! (series)

Nintendo nailed the Punch-Out!! formula decades ago, and the few tweaks it's received since have only improved this slice of arcade goodness.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Punch-Out!! is a wonderful example of how simple gameplay does not mean “easy” gameplay, or that “simple” lacks challenge or a feeling of progress or reward. Punch-Out!!, across its various console iterations, is played with a directional pad, two face buttons, and the occasional press of the start button (or the “-” stand-in for the Select button, in the case of its Wii entry). Within the few button presses and actions allowed by that limited selection, though, is an extreme amount of depth, depth that it’s required to master in order to make it through Punch-Out!!. It’s not as simple as punching often or avoiding being hit: timing, memorization, quick-thinking, and figuring out the puzzle of each fight from the context clues presented are all necessary, too. You can’t force your way through any iteration of Punch-Out!!, no matter how much you might want to try.

Punch-Out!! is also a wonderful example of how well a rock-solid gameplay foundation can persist through time. The NES version of Punch-Out!!, released in both Japan and North America in 1987, is bare bones in terms of modern amenities, sure, but if there were never another Punch-Out!! game following it, this is right around where it would have sat on this list. It’s mostly static screens in between bouts, and that one song — sorry, that one amazing song — and then the fights. The fights! That’s where Punch-Out!! is played out, and it’s where it shines through despite the fact it’s now over 30 years old.

“Old” doesn’t have to mean, bad, and I certainly do not mean to imply it. This is a retro video game newsletter, after all. Obviously, though, sometimes there is progress in a given genre or series that makes the limitations of hardware and development of the past apparent in a way that can make these past experiences less enjoyable than some of their more modern counterparts. This is not meaningfully the case with Punch-Out!!, which was originally a series of arcade games before it received its first console release on the Famicom/NES. I cannot speak to how much time you’ve spent with arcade games vs. console games in your life, but I often find it easier to return to arcade games as old as I am than some of their peers in the console realm (the Arcade Archives series Hamster is working on… well, my wishlist is ever-expanding, let’s say that). It makes a bit of sense, considering how much more technologically advanced arcade cabinets seemed compared to their console cousins — there are plenty of NES-era shoot em ups in the arcades that look more like SNES-era games, for instance — and how the design philosophy needed to create a game that would interest potential players again and again and again and again, or else the cabinet wouldn’t make money and the game would be a failure, lends itself to creating games that could persist beyond their moment in time.

I don’t want to generalize too much here, and please do not interpret this as meaning that old, non-arcade games simply do not age well, but it makes sense to me that an arcade game like Donkey Kong or Galaga or Cybattler or Punch-Out!! can persist through time as highly engaging and rewarding in a way that like, StarTropics did not, because of the different design philosophies and goals of the teams setting out to make those experiences. No disrespect meant to StarTropics, of course, but it’s no Punch-Out!!, in large part because it was never Punch-Out!!, but also because in the intervening years it shows its age and limitations of the era far more than the game you’re reading about today.

In the arcade games, you played as a green wireframe boxer, meant to represent you as you stood there jabbing away at foes. For the NES version of Punch-Out!!, though, Little Mac was introduced. He’s as small as he is for a design purpose, to ensure that your opponent and all of their various tics are in full view of the player at all time. Mac has gotten less little with time, but the name stuck, so even though he’s extremely jacked in Super Smash Bros., he’s still Little.

Seeing your opponents and how they act is vital. Punch-Out!! isn’t meant to be a boxing sim or a fighting game, where you’re trying to overpower your opponent. It’s an arcade game, through and through, in every sense that word can mean. Each fight has a rhythm to it, each fight is something of a puzzle to be put together. Maybe your opponent pauses before unleashing an uppercut on your right side, your sign to prepare to dodge the incoming blow by shifting left, and then counter with your own punches. Maybe you have to dodge backwards, because someone is coming at you with both hands at once. Maybe your opponent jumps back themselves, preparing to launch a flurry of strikes you cannot dodge, but you have to counter with the right kind of punch at the exact right second. And maybe some flash photography from the top right portion of the crowd tells you exactly when it is you should be countering that attack, too.

Remembering how you have to react and then successfully reacting that way are the keys to making your way through Punch-Out!!. Within fights themselves, the way your opponents act will change. Say, for the first minute of a round, they might act a certain way, but then they’ll start to utilize some kind of powerful attack that you need to dodge or counter. Sometimes it isn’t an “or” and you need to figure out which is the strategy that will work in this particular moment: guess wrong, and you’ll hit the mat. The important thing, regardless of whether you succeeded or failed, is that you now know how you need to react. And you have to keep that memory somewhere you can easily access it and utilize its information going forward.

If you do not enjoy failing in video games, Punch-Out!! is not for you. It is a game built on failure, on repeated failure, even. It is designed to be mastered through repeated plays, to be played patiently, to create a Punch-Out!!-specific set of muscle memories that allow you to understand what the game is and how it is to be played. You can get through the first few fights without playing Punch-Out!! the way it is meant to be played, but eventually, you’ll need to adapt, and stop treating it so much like it’s “just” a boxing game. You’ll come to understand in a hurry that you can’t just pummel your later opponents like you did Glass Joe: the systems of Punch-Out!! won’t allow it, for one, as Mac will run out of hearts and be unable to punch again until he can catch his breath, but also because you’ll never learn how to break through the defenses of any fighter if you just sit there flailing away the entire time.

You need to allow your opponents space to fail, too: it is through causing them to miss with their punches, or figuring out just when to counter their attacks, that you solve the problem of taking down men much, much larger and stronger than Mac. The first and most obvious time the game lets you see this is how it works is against King Hippo, who has a large bandage on his stomach and can’t keep his trunks from falling down to reveal it. The fighters you take on before Hippo, though, all have their own little quirks, and you’ll find them if you look. You don’t need to keep hitting Glass Joe repeatedly, you know: he can be defeated in one hit, if you know when and where to land it.

Some of the later boxers take more endurance, and you’ll be on the defensive far more often than on the offensive. It’s for this reason that it’s even more vital that you learn the ins and outs of finding weak spots, as it’s the only way you’ll be able to defeat these tougher opponents in the time allotted to you. There are specific punches at specific times that will net you a star, and a star can be deployed to unleash Mac’s most powerful uppercut. These do not whittle down your enemy’s health, like standard punches, but instead melt the bar: when faced with winning in a set amount of time, in a scenario where your opponents can harm you more than you can harm them otherwise, making judge’s decisions in your favor an unreliable route forward, mastering the health-melting punches are vital.

To earn those stars to throw those punches, though, you have to discover a weak point and capitalize on it: think countering with a gut punch to someone with a weak stomach, or avoiding a special attack by countering at the exact right second. And then, when your opponent is dizzy after, I don’t know, you dodge and uppercut and then punch them in the head while they’re off-balance, you send them to the mat with your one-button special punch before their lights come back on. Sometimes, that’s enough to end a fight on its own. Other times, you need to manage a few of those big knockdowns, so it’s vital to earn and hang onto stars. If you get hit, you lose a star, and you can only hold three at a time, so save up, but don’t overdo it and end up losing them through an overabundance of caution.

Super Punch-Out!! on the SNES is a port of the arcade game of the same name, and it uses a fairly different system for boxing and the matches themselves than the original(s). While highly enjoyable in its own right, it’s never grabbed me the same way the NES version of Punch-Out!! did, even though it is more from my era given NES Punch-Out!! is one year younger than I am. So it made a lot of sense to me that, when the Wii received a Punch-Out!! reboot developed by Next Level Games, that it would be based more on its better-known predecessor, the one that saw two releases: Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, and Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream. Iron Mike was just a little bit more expensive to license the name of by the time that initial agreement was up than when he was still a comparatively unknown up-and-comer, so Mr. Dream was born for later productions of Punch-Out!! cartridges.

The Wii version of Punch-Out!! retains everything that made the older releases work, with no significant changes to the gameplay. There’s just less subtlety, which, for a series so heavily invested in stereotypes in the boxing ring, is saying something. It is more clear when you do something effective than it ever was, thanks to additional animations and sound effects. It is more obvious that you can only be knocked down three times in a round before you are knocked out for good, because that information is tracked on screen instead of just in your head. It is more obvious that this particular punch just won you the fight, because there are special defeat animations for your opponents now. There is also an exhibition mode that lets you practice against specific fighters, so you can master the fights outside of the championship journey without further blemishing your record, or just replay fights without having to start up a whole new game. It’s all very satisfying, and further tightens up an experience that was already incredibly tight without those tweaks. Still, they’re welcome, as is the graphical overhaul that retains the style of the original, but with a much more fluid, wonderfully animated, and modern look and feel to it all.

Seriously, check out the video embedded above of the fight against Mr. Sandman for a sense of how gorgeous it all still looks 12 years later. Also, that one song has horns now, and is even better than the original because of it:

Nintendo has roots in the arcade space, but you rarely ever see those roots in the present. It makes sense, in a way: they exited the arcade space, as far as being the sole developer of their own games, around the same time as the release of Super Mario Bros., so the arcade legacy and continued influence of those designs didn’t permeate their 90s or aughts runs like it did for, say, Sega, which remains in arcades to this day, well beyond their time in the console space. Punch-Out!!, though, like with Donkey Kong, like with Excitebike, is pure arcade, and as alluded to, I feel it’s part of why those games still hold up in the present. In the case of Donkey Kong, massive improvements that blended the arcade sensibilities with console platforming resulted in hits like Donkey Kong ‘94 (number 60 in these rankings), and left no place for the likes of the original on this list otherwise. And an expanded and updated iteration of Excitebike, World Rally (no. 94), released for WiiWare, excuses you from ever feeling the need to boot up the original unless you really want to see and hear those 8-bit tracks.

With Punch-Out!!, though, there has been no tremendous leap forward that made the original (home console release) less enjoyable or less necessary. While the Wii version looks and plays better, it was never necessary: it is simply Punch-Out!!, if Nintendo had stuck in the arcade space for decades and created the same concept in 2009 instead of 1983. And that’s all it had to be, because they got it right 30-plus years ago, in a way that can still connect with those experiencing it for the first time today. It’s so much more than just dodging and punching, and the depth of the experience shines through whether it’s your first or fiftieth time trying to send Dream face down so you can hoist up that world title.

The original Punch-Out!! is on the NES Classic, as well as the Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console services, and Nintendo Switch Online. Super Punch-Out!! is available in the same spaces, except on the SNES Classic rather than the NES one, of course. The aforementioned Arcade Archives series on the Switch has the arcade Punch-Out!! titles, and you can either find a secondhand Wii edition of Punch-Out!! without it being too expensive, or you can spend $20 to get it on the Wii U eShop. There is no shortage of ways to experience any of the Punch-Out!! games, which is something of a rarity for Nintendo, and one you should embrace. The NES Punch-Out!! plays as well today as it did in 1987, so if that’s all you can get your hands on, then you should still consider yourself lucky. Get working on that muscle memory, as you’ll need it.

This newsletter is free for anyone to read, but if you’d like to support my ability to continue writing, you can become a Patreon supporter.