What is it about Punch-Out!!, really, that keeps me at it? I've been trying for the sake of an article to finish the gold cartridge Punch-Out!! for the better part of a week now, having crushed the first two of the game's three circuits with little trouble, but find myself now kind of stuck in the six-boxer final gauntlet: Rematches with Piston Honda, Bald Bull, Dan Flamenco, the annoyance of Soda Popinski, the frustrating Mr. Sandman, and SUPER MACHO MAN (he is macho). All I wanna do is see the ending the hard way, see if it's any different from the Mike Tyson version. But there it waits, burgering my Little Mac to make its meals.
It's interesting though in that—much unlike other games of this era, these "Nintendo Hard" titles that usually put up frustrating and extreme roadblocks—Punch-Out!! is a game that rarely serves you up a plateful of beat-ass in the same place repeatedly. Sometimes you can be steamrolling over a dead easy fool then get caught offguard with a single misanticipated punch, take the shot, lose your timing, eat the next one, and go to the mat, then slam the buttons to get up and miss the timing on the very next punch, heading down again, and from there it's pretty much over. It can happen that fast! Other times you'll cruise through opponents that had been sluggin' ya raw for your last several attempts, dodging every punch and returning fire so routinely that it almost seems boring.
Playing through this game with the aim on finishing it though, and finishing it on real hardware, legit-like, with just my password and my determination, has helped me to really understand the things that make this game special. One of them is definitely the aforementioned element of anything-can-happen-ness. No matter when you take your shot at the circuit, you never feel like you're going to lose it in the same place or the same time—every run is different. Another thing I love is that this game just has satisfying Crunch. When you stuff Mr. Sandman a good one right to the gut, the sound effect snaps in a way that makes you say "yeah." It feels like turning a key and unlocking a door, only when the door unlocks a bunch of castles all explode at once. Part of that feeling is the sound, part of it is the way the animations really Chunk it when you score a nice punch, the way their heads kinda snap back, that perfect combination of surprise and defeat.
One thing that continually surprises me is that despite the game being pretty much a sort of Simon says pattern recognition and memorization-type game, the boxers you go up against still have that sort of craftsman trick of feeling alive in some way, one that very few games, even today, pull off. I know that if I punch Glass Joe with the same set of punches and in the same ways each time, exactly the same thing is going to happen. But sometimes, you vary your routine just a little, or you're a bit delayed or early on a particular punch, and they change their routines a bit. Not enough to frustrate you, not enough to think "oh well this guy is just acting at random," just just enough to make you feel like they have that spark, like Bald Bull really remembers your last fight and now he's gonna trick you with his new set of Bull Charge hops. I know I can't just swing at them any time and expect to score hits—I gotta wait for their whiffs and take the openings. But then every now and then I'll feel The Whimsy, toss a shot out just cause, and it'll connect! Boy that feels good, especially when you get a star and then you can BRRR BRRR BRRR FWUNK let that start button rip a nice hot uppercut.
I also love when it feels like you're pushing the boundaries of the hardware simply by being awesome. There are certain sections of fights where if you dodge a punch off to the side, then push back toward the center fast enough and start your punching, you'll go into a sort of hyper-mode, a sped-up version of your normal punching, and the sounds even speed up too like you're playing a record on the higher speed. The game never tells you about these sort of things, and if you're just playing it's hard to ever know what triggers them, so they kinda sit there in the background to surprise you with their ZOW every now and then.
I suppose it's a combination of all those things that prevents me from just giving up, or laming my way through it with some emulator save states or interweb strategies. It taps my feeling of determination in a way that other games usually do solely through the abject terror and frustration receptors in my brain, and it feels good to know that no matter when I go up against it, it's probably not going to turn out exactly the same way. And one of these days, one day soon, I will be the Super Macho Man, the most macho of mans! It will be super.