NYT Mini Crossword for Friday, November 13, 2015

Constructor: Joel Fagliano

Relative Difficulty: Medium

Word of the Day: DON (4D: Draper of "Mad Men")

Don Flamenco made two appearances on the 1987 Nintendo Entertainment System game Mike Tysons Punch Out, first as the initial opponent in the Major Circuit and later as #2 ranked opponent in the World Circuit. Don Flamenco has also appeared in a Topps trading card series. The music played at the beginning of a match with him is an excerpt from the Overture of Bizet's opera Carmen.

Flamenco is known for also being the fighter for whom it can take the shortest time to knockout, at 15 seconds, though this only works the first time the player faces Don Flamenco. The first Don Flamenco, like Von Kaiser, can be knocked out by alternating left and right punches to the face until he falls down. Like Piston Hondo and Mr. Sandman, he can dodge your uppercuts if attempted at an inappropriate time (e.g. when he is not throwing a punch) (The Punch-Out!! Wiki)

 Where did the rose go??

Where did the rose go??

You guys mind if today's entire post is about Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!?  No? Great!!

It always blows my mind the level of 4th-dimensional thinking it obviously took to successfully translate Punch-Out!! to the NES. Genyo Takeda and his team made some profoundly sagacious decisions in the  course of adapting the landmark arcade title for a home console that was, let's face it, not even remotely equipped to reproduce the original's dazzling visuals. It's a testament to their insight that they not only succeeded, but did so to such an extent that the arcade version is barely even remembered today.

By 1987, Nintendo was the undisputed king of the home console markets in both Japan and the United States, and the Family Computer and its architecture were intimately well-understood by developers. Whereas in 1983, at the system's birth, most Famicom games had been single-screen affairs with a but handful of small sprites, almost no music, and very few sound effects (and a game like Punch Out!! would have been impossible), 1987 was a whole different beast. The intervening years had witnessed a sea change in the evolution of how NES cartridges were structured in terms of both their code and their physical architecture. This evolution both coincided with and fed into the concurrent evolution of game design, gradually effecting the coalescence of our various primordial conceptions of video games, including their ontology, their teleology, and the codification of genres.

 Does the Fun Club pay for reconstructive facial surgery?

Does the Fun Club pay for reconstructive facial surgery?

 A slew of programming tricks, cartridge expansions and other technical wizardry discovered over the course of the console's nascent years helped to expand the capabilities of the modest machine, and by 1987 these were standard components in the arsenal of every designer. Hence the enormous, lushly detailed, fully-animated sprites of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, each one oozing with personality (Bald Bull's infuriating pig-cackle and Super Macho Man's grandstanding nipples come to mind). Thus, the game's ample set dressing and vast panoply of foes, each with its own set of tactics and weaknesses to be learned. And hence the game's brilliant sound design, which makes economical usage of the A203 chip's limited channels to create a moving tableau of music and sound effects that feels improbably realistic.

 Ugh. Why did I post this?

Ugh. Why did I post this?

Of particular interest is the fact that many of the game's most memorable sound effects occur not on the DPCM channel as one might expect (the DPCM is for the most part relegated to the "crowd noise" samples), but on the two pulse wave channels. That demented slide whistle-esque sound Glass Joe makes as he careens back and forth across the canvas after being K.O.'ed, while immensely satisfying, bears absolutely no relation to any real-world sound effect, and yet somehow it feels right on a visceral level. It's so effective that no amount of fourth wall-bending advice on the part of your trainer ("Join the Nintendo Fun Club today, Mac!") could ever serve to break the spell and extricate you from the real-ish-ism of the game world.

All of these technical marvels would make Mike Tyson's Punch Out, if placed side by side with any of the Famicom's launch titles, appear as if it belonged to an entirely different, next-gen console. And yet, there it is. No engineer in her right mind in 1983 would have thought such wonders possible on the dinky little machine originally designed for the sole purpose of emulating three-fourths of Donkey Kong.

But more important than any of this is the phenomenal insight that Punch-Out!!'s porting team had, which was that for the game to work on a home console, it would need to be subtly but drastically different underneath the cosmetic hood of its shared pugilistic setting. As many a reviewer has written previously, the NES version of Punch-Out!! is something of a Trojan horse: a puzzle game dressed in the trappings of a sports title, having much more in common with something like Tetris than it does with Urban Champion or Ring King. For each opponent you are required to learn their particular patterns and 'tells', and then calmly react with cold, computational logic. Of course there is still a timing element, but by and large learning the algorithms is the key element that needs to be grasped to be successful in Punch-Out!!. Add to this the blissfully responsive controls and the entirely equitable application of randomness (RNG occasionally determines which part of his algorithm your opponent will go into, but the tell, appropriate response and outcome are always predictable, to the extent that is apparently possible to beat the game blindfolded), and you have a nearly flawless game.

Ultimately, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! is the kind of game that reminds us in no uncertain terms that video games are art.

And, it's fun!