Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! = Shadow of the Colossus

Because we are boys, my brother Drew and I spent much of our childhoods whaling on each other for amusement. In retrospect, our thirst for novel methods of of pain-infliction was downright polymorphous. Aside from schoolbus classics like Slaps and Lumberjack, we would do stuff like crawl into cardboard boxes and have the other pummel the box with elbow drops and body splashes. Pro Wrestling furnished a lot of material-- not only a suite of devastating maneuvers to try out (the ddt, the perfect-plex, the swinging neck breaker) but also a plethora of characters to inhabit.

All this gives some insight into why we were reenacting Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! on the sofa. In our defense, were spent ninety percent of 1988 in-character anyway-- at the beach, in the car, anywhere. (Popples, ocean waves, and neighbors would often round out the cast by taking on the meaty roles of Piston Honda and Don Flamenco.) My six-year-old brother was performing Bald Bull's signature crouching-bounce down the length of the sofa, and I was ready with my best nine-year-old right hook on the far end. We had gone through this routine dozens of times before without a serious injury, but this time I hit him square above the right eye. Drew goes down, and his face turns the brightest shade of deep-beet-red I've ever seen. He starts wailing. I think I saw blood. At this point, I freak out and run as fast as I could to the neighbors' house in order to get my parents. Luckily everything one turned out OK. There was talk of stitches, but a bandaid did the trick. No hard feelings either, since I felt visibly wretched for causing any real harm. I think there is still a small gap in his eyebrow where I left a tiny scar.

I think Punch-Out!! is a truly unique game. In the 8-bit era most games had very simple mechanics. Take your classic side-scrolling adventure. You could jump, and attack horizontally. If you were lucky, you had a boomerang. That was it. Unlike the modern design path laid out by Zelda, the majority of 8-bit games didn't introduce new mechanics and abilities as you played through. The way the games' designers injected more challenge and variety into the game way by varying the enemy types. Whether it was Metroid, Contra, Castlevania or Mega Man, the chief way the designers kept up the challenge was by throwing a consistently lethal mix of novel enemy behaviors at you. (The sinusoid menace of Castlevania's Medusa heads has been a bête noire of mine, going on fifteen years now.) The truth about these games is that no measure of reflex ability would get you though. The only path to victory was memorizing all the patterns and learning the script by heart-- where to stand, when to jump, when to shoot. The 8-bit classic was the schoolmistress of the most cruel drama class imaginable, but her demands were few: hit your marks, watch your cues, and you will survive.

This went double for boss encounters. If the behavior was the basic unit of challenge, then the way to apportion more challenge at the end of the level was by throwing (roughly) four new behaviors at the player. Boss battles always tested your uptake of your opponents' attack patterns-- whether you could read the cues that indicated a particular kind of attack, learn the safe spots on the screen for each routine, memorize the best times to get a few shots off. Modest puzzle-ish elements were also de rigeur; you commonly needed to decode some facet of your antagonist's routine before they would consent to being damaged.

Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! was less a boxing simulation than a ludicrously inventive re-imagination of boss-battle gameplay. Punch Out is the quintessence of gaming as pattern-recognition. Given a few simple mechanics-- a dodge, and a punch-- Punch Out dispensed with the regular combat and set you against a series of escalatingly difficult bosses. The cue-reading and attack-memorizing and punch-timing were made into the main pivot of the gameplay. (You even saw puzzle-like elements in your battle with King Hippo. No damaging him until you find a way to knock his pants off) It was all about knowing how to distinguish Soda Popinski's wink from his nudge, if you get my drift. Despite the fact that the basic fighting strategy always boiled down to dodge-counterpunch, the game was satisfyingly deep because each new boxer required you to rework your fighting technique from scratch. (I spent a year losing to Von Kaiser until I realized that you could not beat him by repeatedly hitting him in the face without dodging. My six-year old self hadn't quite made the leap that what is good for Glass Joe might not be good for Von Kaiser.)

Which brings us to Shadow of the Colossus. If pressed, I would probably say that SoC is my favorite game of all time. But I was wrong to think that it invented the boss-battle game. That honor belongs to Punch Out!!

1 comment:

Brian O'Blivion said...

Punch-Out was the sh!t back then. There was a rumor going around back then that there was a cheat code that would cause someone to come out of the crowd during the Tyson match and shoot him dead. Easter Egg or Urban Legend?