Monday, June 3, 2013

Depressing Lessons From Punch-Out!!

I remember the first time I watched a real boxing match on television.  I was very disappointed that it wasn't like Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (A game so intense that it requires two exclamation points in the title.)  Why are the opponents roughly the same size and weight?  Where's the outlandish, stereotypical costumes?  Why don't I hear pew-wew-weeewwwww pew-wew-weeewwwww when somebody gets knocked down?  This sucks!  I'm going upstairs to play Nintendo.

I spent a lot of time playing Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, later sold simply as Punch-Out!! when Nintendo didn't renew Tyson's contract due to his loss of status in the boxing world (which was most likely caused by anxiety about a confrontation with The Fresh Prince).  I was pretty horrible when I first borrowed the game from a kid down the street whom I never returned it to.  I couldn't even beat Piston Honda.  But just like Little Mac, the game's height-challenged protagonist, I got better and started overcoming the odds.  I beat Honda, wondered why a fighter as lame as Don Flamenco was in a higher circuit than Honda, got stuck on Great Tiger until I realized how easy it was to block his magic punches, and went on to fight Bald Bull, who beat me to a pulp every damn time.

Whether I realized it or not at the time, I learned some important (and depressing) lessons about life as Bald Bull laughed and mocked the now brain-damaged Little Mac.  So, thank you Punch-Out!! for teaching me lessons such as...

People Don't Care About You

Yes, it feels good when, in your debut fight, you destroy Glass Joe in the first round.  The bell rings, Mario (who apparently has to take on odd jobs such as boxing referee since he makes no money rescuing the friggin' Princess over and over) raises your hand in victory, and the four rows of people watching the fight roar and snap pictures.  What a rush!!  Bring on Von Kaiser!!  I'll knock his ass out, too!!

Down goes Von Kaiser.  Down goes Piston Honda.  Don Flamenco is a joke.  Even King Hippo is no match for Little Mac and his 'star punch'!!  And with each win the crowd roars and takes more photographs.  It's good to be champ.  It's good to have the people on your side.  But what happens the first time you lose a bout?  The same exact thing.  The crowd roars.  They take pictures.  Only this time they're roaring for Bald Bull or Soda Popinski (I did make it to Popinski once or twice in my youth).  Where's the disappointment from fans who came to cheer on Mac?  Where's the crying little boys who just saw their hero get his face punched in?  Why is nobody pelting the ring with garbage and quarter-full cups of beer after taking a few a seconds to think about how outrageous it is that Little Mac had to fight somebody that's like three frickin' times his size?

The crowd doesn't care.  They don't have idols or heroes.  They don't even have favorites.  Sure, they cheered Mac on when he was victorious, but clearly they just paid the admission price to see two dudes pound the shit out of each other.  They're not even bothered by the fact that they just watched a seven-foot-tall hulking mass of steroids punch what appears to be a seven-year-old kid to death.  They're not even concerned that the kid had some kind of illness that made him turn pink and green when he was winded.  Barbarians!!  Savages!!

Looking at this phenomenon through the eyes of a disillusioned adult, it's impossible not to notice that the four rows of fight fans mirrors our society.  How we love to build up hot celebrities like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, or David Hasselhoff, only to yank the rug out from under their feet, turn them into punch-lines, and laugh and mock as they become trapped in downward spirals that ruin their careers and destroy their lives.  Just like the crowd gleefully taking pictures as the puddle formerly known as Little Mac oozed out of the ring (you never actually see him get up again after he loses in the game), the masses are there to snap pics of the latest celebrity-turned-trainwreck oozing out of a night club or embarrassing himself or herself in a public setting.

Just like the crowd cheered on Little Mac while he was a hot, young talent KOing and TKOing his way up the ranks only to cheer just as much when he got obliterated in the ring, society cheers on and roots for celebrities and public figures, only to rabidly enjoy their eventual falls from grace.

What does this say about our culture?  I'm not sure I want to even think about it right now, but I do know another depressing truth I learned from my Nintendo boxing career...

There's Always Somebody Better Than You

It's true.  You know it is.  Yeah, maybe your parents told you that if you worked hard enough you could be the best at whatever it is you wanted to do.  But there's always somebody faster, stronger, smarter, or (more realistically) with way more money than you.  These people won't hesitate to punch the crap out of you (figuratively or literally, depending on what activity you're engaging in) and take your place.  And even if you do manage to become the best of the best, how long can it last?  Nobody stays on top forever.  Not Mike Tyson.  Not Michael Jordan.  Not even Justin Bieber.

I learned this lesson the hard way with Punch-Out!!  And by "the hard way" I mean "the throwing your Nintendo controller in frustration way".  It doesn't matter how much Little Mac trains.  No matter how many times he goes for a run in his pink jogging suit; no matter how much encouragement he gets from his trainer, Carl Winslow; no matter how many opponents he defeats by learning their patterns; somebody is eventually going to beat him.  Be it Bald Bull, Sandman, Super Macho Man, or even Mike Tyson, some seven-and-a-half foot tall bastard with a rage-boner is going to brutalize Mac, leaving him looking like the Elephant Man, and forcing him to try and start working his way up again.

Imagine my horror when, as an adult, I played Punch-Out!! and finally defeated Bald Bull, only to learn that you have to fight him again.  And he's even more of an aggressive asshole the second time.    Now imagine my horror when, as an adult, I realized that even if you overcome the odds, even if you rise through the proverbial ranks, life itself from time to time will become that seven-and-a-half foot tall bastard with a rage-boner.  And it will beat you until you're pink and green, knock you on your ass, and laugh at you.

I'm not saying you shouldn't keep trying.  Little Mac doesn't give up boxing to lead a quiet life stocking shelves or working in accounts receivable, he continues to put on the gloves and give it a go, even though Sandman keeps driving his fist down Mac's throat.  What I am saying, though, is be prepared to feel pink and green.  Be prepared to get battered by the faster, stronger, smarter, and wealthier.  Be prepared to get KO'd or TKO'd by the universe, because even if you're technically the best, you'll still learn the lesson that...

Life Isn't Fair

We all know this one, right?  As a child you think you can do anything, be anything you want to be, as long as you have that go get 'em attitude.  As a teenager you think the world sucks, that it's full of injustice, and that it doesn't matter how hard you try.  Briefly, in your late teens or early twenties, you think that you were wrong as an angst-ridden teen; we live in a world full of opportunities, and all you have to do is grab one!!  Then you get a crappy job, a crappy apartment, and a stack of bills that can be seen from outer space and life is back to sucking again.  Ho-hum!!  Why didn't anybody warn me?

But somebody, or something rather, did try to warn us.  It was Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!  While your parents and teachers were telling you that anybody could grow up to be President or an astronaut someday, Punch-Out!! was screaming, "Your elders are lying!!  Life isn't fair!!  Try to beat this game to find out for yourself!!"  I should have trusted you, 8-bit video game cartridge.

When I played the game, not every fight ended with one of the boxers being knocked out (or knocked down three times within the same round).  Sometimes I'd go three rounds with my opponent, and the ref or some unseen judges would declare a winner.  When this happened, 98% of the time it was the computer player who was awarded the victory.  It felt unfair; it seemed to me like I landed more punches and knocked the other guy down more times.  But I rolled with it.  After all, I didn't know much about boxing, so maybe there was more to it than that (because Punch-Out!! is an extremely realistic boxing simulator that adheres to genuine rules and regulations of the sport).

Playing the game again as a 'grown-up' that still plays regular Nintendo on a regular basis, I could smell the stink of bullshit when my opponent's hand was raised in victory.  Recently, I decided to kill some time before leaving for work by playing Punch-Out!!  Being a bit rusty, I was only able to make it to Bald Bull, much like my attempts as a kid.  He didn't knock me out, though.  We went three rounds.  He knocked me down two times, and I knocked him down five or six.  I landed about half-a-zillion punches, whereas he landed maybe fifteen.  Shouldn't Little Mac have been declared the winner based on these numbers?  Not to mention that Bald Bull ran out the clock at the end of each round by doing his bull charge move over and over again, like the asshole that he is.  Yet Mario raised his hand, and Bald Bull had the gall to bust a gut laughing as if he'd actually earned the victory.

Okay, so maybe you're not convinced that the game is biased towards the computer-controlled players. Perhaps the judges were more impressed that he knocked me down twice with only fifteen punches while I hit him half-a-zillion times and couldn't pull out a win.  I suppose that viewpoint is valid, but what about this:  A few years ago I played the game, and I was really in the zone.  I smacked the hell out of each and every opponent, rose through the ranks leaving broken and bruised bodies in my wake, and earned a fight with the champ himself, Mike Tyson.  He's fast.  He's tough.  He's brutal!!  Yet I dodged every punch he threw at me.  He didn't hit me once.  I hit him once.  Yep, that's it.  I landed one punch on his shit-eating-grin.  Still though, that's one punch landed by Little Mac, zero punches landed by Big Mike.  "I'll definitely be awarded the victory!" I foolishly thought.  Ding!  The final round ended.  And... Mario, mustachioed shithead that he is, promptly raised Tyson's hand.  What the fuck!?  One punch to no punches.  I dodged everything he dished out, he didn't dodge everything I dished out. Granted, it was probably the lamest boxing match in history, but still, how is he declared the winner?

Because life isn't fair.  Get over it, Little Mac.

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