Consoles I Have Known

Jennifer Daniel for The Morning News

The Most Competitive Man Alive

Recounting lessons from a first Nintendo, particularly as taught by the highs and lows of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.

I’ve never been much of a team player. My two seasons of Little League baseball were a coerced exercise in normalization. Putting me on a baseball diamond was like enrolling one’s swishy teenager in a Christian “ex-gay” reorientation camp; like those kids, my time in Little League left me feeling more alienated, and pretty gay. I was furious that I had no say in choosing my teammates but was expected to work with them, without dissent, toward a common goal. Most games I sat in left field (yes, sat) in my perfectly clean baseball spats, waiting for the game to end. As I grew older, the only sport I found compatible with my personality was tennis. Comfortably distanced from any kind of physical contact by a net, my job was simple: Place the ball where my opponent wasn’t. It’s hard to think of a better sport for passive-aggressives.

It didn’t take me long to realize organized sports were definitely not an option for friendly competition, and neither were board games and playing cards—or, as I prefer to call them, “things old people do while awaiting death’s sweet release.” I didn’t have the attention span required for Dungeons & Dragons, either, even though it was de rigeur among my close circle of pale, slightly anemic friends. My boredom would regularly sabotage our weekend dungeon crawls, as I insisted on swinging my entry-level mace at everything I met. A mysterious door? “I smite it with my mace.” Rats scurrying around the dungeon floor? “I smite them with my mace.” This would continue (“I smite the suckling pig with my mace”) until my restlessness smote my patience and I abandoned the hex-map-covered table to search for cookies.

Contra won multiple awards in our home, most notably for Most Game Controllers Thrown Down in Frustration and/or Anger, and Most Original Homophobic Insults.

I was not the kind of nerd who enjoyed an afternoon spent rolling dice to determine the outcome of a confrontation with an unfriendly gelatinous cube, but I was exactly the kind of nerd who could enjoy an afternoon of Q*Bert. I am not sure why video games were such a fascination for me. Maybe it was their very clear, almost tangible objectives—clear away those dots, reach that flagpole, decapitate him/her—or their cool detachment from the physical humiliations I associated with certain real-world sports. Mostly, though, I think video games calmed my ADHD-riddled brain. Those few intermittent hours of gameplay were the only time my attention felt completely undivided. Every time I picked up a joystick or dropped a quarter into Crazy Kong—the Donkey Kong knock-off I played obsessively at the convenience store in my neighborhood—it was as if my brain was announcing, “Quiet down, everyone. This princess isn’t going to save herself, you know.” Gaming awakened my appreciation for competition, and I pursued it with the prideful enthusiasm of the fattest, drunkest, loudest, and most shirtless sports fan in the world.

In the summer of 1987, my brother Dan and I pooled our allowances to purchase a Nintendo Entertainment System from Duane’s Toyland, a joyless, cement-floored warehouse. Video games were stocked in a converted basement level, where they were presented with all the whiz-bang charm of an unauthorized mobile pager dealership, or an inner-city free clinic.

We endured, and instantly fell in love with our new NES, which we were permitted to hook up to a color television set. It quickly became the centerpiece of our refinished basement, which my parents had recently adorned with several Garfield posters. (Each featured Garfield at rest, his expression dripping with feline sarcasm as he shared puzzling adages like, “Show me a good mouser, and I’ll show you a cat with bad breath.”)

It might have been the evolution from abstract forms to representational ones—it was certainly easier to become emotionally invested in a game like Tecmo Bowl, with “real” teams, playbooks, and a proper football field, than Atari’s version of football, which looked like a bunch of flickering moths resting on a sheet of graph paper—but the NES really encouraged and rewarded competition. While playing Nintendo’s Pro Wrestling, I learned the frustration of helplessly watching my face being eaten two or three times in a row by the Amazon, a competitor who was half-man/half-piranha/all-irritating and, not coincidentally, my brother’s wrestler of choice. Contra, a side-scrolling shooter featuring a shirtless Rambo-inspired protagonist, created a tremendous amount of discontent in our home all due, ironically, to its co-operative play mode. In theory, co-op play should have been team-building, but the game was designed with several insidious features. For one, weapon power-ups, essential to survival, were absolutely not created equal and a mercenary attitude would often get the best of us: One player would stretch for the most powerful upgrade, the Spray Gun, while leaving his teammate gimped with the incredible-sounding but obviously inferior Laser—a thick, slow-moving stream of light that dribbled out of your rifle’s enlarged prostate. On later levels, where players were required to advance vertically by firing and jumping from ledge to ledge, one teammate’s impatience would leave the other player suddenly somersaulting and screaming into a black void from which there was no return.

Contra won multiple awards in our home, most notably for Most Game Controllers Thrown Down in Frustration and/or Anger, and Most Original Homophobic Insults, Followed by a Socked Toe Stretching Out and Smashing the Reset Button, Followed by a Very Dramatic Exit.

Double Dribble, a title I still can’t invoke without unconsciously affecting the game’s own computerized voice that played over the start screen, was (and remains) the only two-player sports game my brother and I could ever agree on, and we played together constantly. By chance, we we each separately discovered Double Dribble’s highly exploitable glitches. Thanks to a few missed lines of code and some lazy quality-assurance employees, the game had a couple of sweet spots—areas on the court where you simply could not miss a shot. These sweet spots made it much easier to hit when shooting to the left basket and, as a result, every time my brother and I set up Double Dribble, without admitting a thing to each other, we tried desperately to guarantee we were the one holding that Player 1 game controller. It was like one of those old mystery movies where a pair of drinks are brought out, with one poisoned, and two characters attempt to distract each other as they scramble to switch the glasses around, time and time again, before toasting to their health/death.

The “shoot left” strategy served me well during my freshman year of college, where we lorded our Double Dribble skills over each other in place of more adult values, like wealth, intelligence, or sexual prowess. My floor mates and I spent countless hours around the NES and I slowly grew comfortable in eight-bit competition, and even started to enjoy team sports, providing the team was Double Dribble’s Chicago Ox, or the Boston Frogs. Being challenged was fun, and social, although that year my greatest sports challenge was one I had to face alone. I don’t remember when it appeared, or how, but one day I walked into John Walker’s dorm room—the official home of the NES on our floor—and he was playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. I sat down to observe, and I was forever changed.

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out is the most perfect one-player sports video game, if not the greatest video game ever created. What is remarkable about the game is its timelessness, and yet it couldn’t have been created today. For one, Mike Tyson has lately devolved into some crazy, unlovable character from Street Fighter III; with his criminal record, face tattoo, and taste for gibberish and human flesh, he is suddenly no more realistic than the face-chomping Amazon from Nintendo’s Pro Wrestling.

As one might expect from a boxer like Tyson—even a cartoon version, in pixelated sockless shoes—he did not exactly lie down in the ring.

Punch-Out was an unmistakable product of the Reagan/Bush era, a boxing game where you, a tiny white person named Little Mac by his Catholic forebears, traveled around the world, meeting members of every major ethnicity, all who were two or three times your size—a fact that did nothing to discourage you from punching every last one of those foreigners in the face and belly until they surrendered or could no longer regain consciousness. After sending a clear message to the people of Germany, Spain, Turkey, and other points East, you were sent back home to the U.S.A. to punch out Mike Tyson—an athlete who, in a more realistic universe, might generously wait a full 15 seconds before punching a hole directly through Little Mac’s chest, killing everyone in the first three rows of the venue, at which point the bell would ring, and Tyson would probably fly home and rape a tiger or whatever else it was he did to keep himself so scary.

Little Mac and I slowly worked our way up, quickly deconstructing and mastering the patterns of Minor and Major Circuit boxers. There was no way to save one’s progress, which meant each game you were required to fight the entire roster of boxers on the way to Tyson, and as my skills improved I began to regard my entry-level fights against Glass Joe and King Hippo a bit insulting. Some of the later boxers gave me some serious trouble, though, most notably Philadelphia’s own Mr. Sandman, but soon I was ready for Tyson.

As one might expect from a boxer like Tyson—even a cartoon version, in pixelated sockless shoes—he did not exactly lie down in the ring. In fact, during our first match, he treated my face and body with the same respect reserved for nearly all of his early competitors—that is to say, none. He punched my little face hard, repeatedly, and I barely lasted a round. It was so quick I laughed. Soon, though, I was going the distance, losing decisions. John Walker, the owner of the game and the console, began studying my progress, making notes like my own corner man. After days of this, my reflexes finally matched my understanding of Tyson’s offensive patterns, and I put him down. John Walker jumped to his feet. In a few quick moments, Tyson went down again. As Tyson stumbled to his feet in a dramatic two-frame animation, Walker and I exchanged a look indicating we were about to share something very special. With just a few seconds left in the three-round match, I sidestepped an uppercut, popped Tyson once in the belly, then cashed in my energy-boost star. I tapped the “start” button on my controller and Little Mac leaped a full two feet in the air to land an uppercut that laid Tyson out for the third time in one round—T.K.O.

John and I stood up and hugged each other, because what else could we do? Soon, everyone heard about my victory. On more than one occasion I was even asked (boldly, I think) to replicate the fight myself, or take over for someone else who was stuck at Tyson. I always obliged, of course; that’s just what you do when you’re the greatest athlete in the world.