It’s theme week at SB Nation, and this time we’re headed for the virtual world: video games. Over the course of the week, Pats Pulpit and the other blogs in the network are devoted to the best and the bizarre when it comes to gaming. We’ll continue today by taking a look at an all-time rivalry.
As Patriots fans, we’ve all likely participated in our fair share of GOAT debates. And although Tommy B has made it very, very difficult to take up the stance that anyone but Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, there will always be detractors. They’ll cite the era Brady played in, or the system, or Belichick, or whatever number of feeble excuses to make the case for Joe Montana or Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning, and more recently, Patrick Mahomes as the greatest QB ever. The GOAT debate is ultimately a futile discussion, as everyone has their own opinion and is sticking to it, but that’s not going to stop folks from going to the mat over who they think is the best ever anytime soon.
And by no means is the GOAT debate limited to sports; everything from athletes to movies to music to the best public place to let one rip has helped us all pass the time at one point or another, and the answers remain as varied and diverse as humanity itself.
(And for the record...for me, it’s Brady, Rocky, The Doors, and on a crowded escalator...but ask 100 different people, and you’ll likely get 100 different answers.)
Since it’s Video Game Week here at SBNation, I thought I’d take a moment to share some Alec Shane history with my readers, both veterans and rookies alike, and give you a bit of background on how one video game in particular was ultimately the genesis of my Patriots Fandom.
When in comes to GOAT video games, if I objectively step back and look at the field as a whole - the evolution of gaming and how much it’s integrated itself into the global conversation and the birth of e-sports and the legitimacy of video games as a lifestyle and all that good stuff - I have to admit that the conversation starts and stops at Tetris. When it comes to universality, replayability, impact on the conversation as a whole, staying power, and contribution to getting everyone, from 8 to 80, invested in video games, you’d be hard pressed to find a more influential game than Tetris. No matter how advanced things get, no matter how close to reality these simulations are, no matter how many Grand Theft Autos or Halos or Resident Evils or Assassin’s Creeds they make, setting those Z blocks, L blocks, T blocks, Square blocks in line as we all wait patiently for that skinny piece to show up so we can get a Tetris will always reign supreme.
However, while I’m able to acknowledge and appreciate Tetris as the greatest video game of all time - the GVGOAT, as media hack and hot-take master Rob Parker would call it as he makes his case for Shaq Fu as the best game - for me personally, I have to take a moment to acknowledge another video game that stands alone on my own personal pantheon of all-time greats. In 1987, when I was just six years old and spending more time than I care to admit trying - and failing - to beat Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo partnered with the baddest man on the planet to bring the world Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!, and my life was never the same.
I’m not exactly sure what the age of the average Pats Pulpit reader is, but I think we can all be safely divided into three groups - those who were adults when video games hit the scene, those who grew up alongside the evolution of video games, and those for whom video games have always existed, much like the internet or cell phones. And as someone in that second group, whose first ever system was an Intellivision II and was in my early 20s when the last system I ever got, Playstation II, took the world by storm, I can definitively say that, in spite of all of the Street Fighter IIs and Final Fantasy VIIs and MarioKarts and Halos of the world, Punch Out is the greatest video game that I have ever played.
And, in a weird, roundabout way, it’s the reason that I’m a Patriots fan.
I’d like to hope that everyone reading this is familiar with the game; you play as Little Mac, a scrappy young fighter working is way through the World Boxing Association with nothing more than his speedy fists and the sage advice of his coach, known only as Doc. Standing between Little Mac and eternal glory are a series of...I’ll go ahead and call them “colorful”... opponents in three different circuits, all building towards the Dream Fight between Mac and Iron Mike himself, where his Dynamite Punches can drop you with a single hit and unless you know the code (007 373 5963. I didn’t even need to look that up), you’re in for hour after hour of frustration as you try in vain to take down Tyson. Every single opponent in Punch Out was a completely over-the-top stereotype of some kind, from cowardly Frenchman Glass Joe to dancing Spaniard Don Flamenco to Venice Beach muscleman Super Macho Man...but as a game, it was just perfect. It let us little guys feel like giants for a few minutes each day as we ducked and dodged, countered and star-punched, and timed it just right so that we could hit Bald Bull right in the gut as he came at us with his Bull Charge. And for little Alec Shane, controller in hand as he worked his way through the circuit, it represented the first time that I really felt like I was accomplishing something. It may sound stupid, equating advancing in a video game with actual human accomplishment, but when you’re six or seven years old and your teachers considered days in which you didn’t eat paste a huge win, who’s to tell you otherwise? When I took out Piston Honda to claim the Minor Circuit Belt for the first time, I was on top of the world.
Until I got to King Hippo.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that goddam King Hippo would end up becoming a defining character in my life. He was simply unbeatable for me - a big, fat, defensive dynamo that I just couldn’t get past. This was before the internet, before walkthroughs and cheat codes and strategy guides, and for the life of me I just couldn’t get figure out how to beat him. King Hippo was the cause of multiple tantrums, crying fits, damage to our basement, and suspensions of my Nintendo privileges “until I calmed down,” and I distinctly remember writing a strongly worded letter to the Nintendo corporation demanding they answer for themselves; how dare they put an unbeatable character in a video game? What sick pleasure do they derive from it?
But then, one morning before getting on the bus that would take me to 1st grade, King Hippo cranked back to smack me with one of those punches that used to send me hurling the controller clear across the room, and I pressed up+A, which caused Little Mac to let a sharp left jab fly right into Hippo’s mouth when he was wide open and unprotected. Just like that, the big man was stunned. His pants fell down. His belly button, covered up by a cross-bandage, was ripe for the taking.
I had figured it out. Hippo was going down.
Every time he reared back for that punch, I countered. I clocked him with a series of lefts and rights to the belly that left him reeling. The tables had turned, and I was on the offensive. It didn’t take long after that to drop the big man, and once he went down, he wasn’t getting up.
I took King Hippo out like a boss. And I have never lost to him since.
It would still be a while before I got the timing right to take out the rest of my opponents, Great Tiger and Mr. Sandman and of course Mike Tyson, but I eventually got there. I beat that game and became the WBA champ. It was the first video game I ever beat. There were numerous others since then, but nothing will ever top, for me at least, the feeling I got when I finally slipped Mike Tyson’s punch and knocked him down for the third time, earning me the TKO and the win. It seems so stupid to look back on being six or seven years old and attributing winning at a video game to some kind of life-defining moment...but if I’m honest with myself, I need to give Punch Out! its due as a seminal element of my childhood.
But it goes far beyond simply beating a video game for me. During that time, two very distinct things happened to yours truly. One was that, because of that game, I started taking a legitimate interest in actual boxing; whether I thought watching actual fighters duke it out on the USA Network on Monday and Saturday nights would actually help me beat Soda Popinski I’ll never know for sure, but I can definitively say that I became a boxing fan because of that game. And then, when my dad saw how much I enjoyed combat sports, he rented me a VHS tape called The Karate Kid, starring Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, and Pat Morita, which I watched exactly five times in 24 hours before it was due back to the video store. I rented The Karate Kid for four straight weeks, and watched it at least three times per rental, before my parents finally relented and signed me up for the martial arts classes that took place in a small room in the corner of the local gymnastics school.
I wanted to be Daniel LaRusso. I wanted to be Little Mac. I wanted to be all of that and more. I punched, kicked, and yelled myself hoarse during that first class - and over 30 years later, I’m still at it. I never looked back. And as insane as it may sound, if King Hippo had ended up getting the better of me, I likely never would have chosen this particular path.
Not only that, on one of my very first days in the dojang, I saw a fellow white belt walk into class wearing a New England Patriots hat. I was technically already a Patriots fan at that point; I remembered watching, and rooting for, the Patriots in the Super Bowl a few years prior, an absolute embarrassment at the hands of the 1985 Bears, but hadn’t thought too much about the Pats since then. After all, how many diehard seven-year-old football fans are there? But I remember that Patriots hat, and I remember the other Patriots fans in my martial arts class, and I remember watching the Patriots lose to the Bills 16-14 in the fall of 1988 to, for whatever reason, cement my allegiance to this football team. The Pats went 9-7 that year and almost all of their games were all blacked out because they didn’t come close to selling out Foxboro stadium, thus forcing my dad and I to catch the highlights on ESPN later at night...but I was hooked. I had just fallen in love with anything that involved people hitting each other, and even all these years later, I still love it all.
Is there a direct correlation between Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! and me being a Patriots fan? Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows what would have gone down had things played out differently. But I do know this: Punch Out is, for me, the greatest video game of all time and you’re never going to be able to get me to change my mind. Sure, the graphics were shoddy. The controls were barely adequate. They ran into legal issues down the line and had to replace Tyson’s character with some schlub named Mr. Dream at one point. But that game was just amazing. It was the perfect game, in an age where games had to be fun because they couldn’t compensate with pixels and AI. And it was awesome.
I watch Patriots games now and I see these ads for the video games that are currently out and I’m completely blown away by how advanced things are in this day and age. I think back to those days as a child, pressing a directional pad and two buttons in the right pattern to try and take out Von Kaiser and feel like a king, if only for a few minutes. And I can just hope that all of you gamers, whoever you are out there, have the kind of connection between these games and what I have with Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!. Who knows; maybe some of you out there discovered the Patriots though Madden or Tecmo Bowl or John Elway’s Football. However we all got here, we’re all here, and we aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
I currently have Tetris downloaded onto my phone. I don’t really like it, to be honest, as you can’t really play the right way with a touch screen. And there are different variations of Punch Out available for my devices as well - but I’ve never played any of them. I’d like to remember Punch Out the way that it was - and plus, I know that if I were to fire up that game now, I’d probably get my ass handed to me and end up tossing the phone across the room and crack the screen and upset the dog. But I’ll always have those hours spent in my basement, thumbs blistered and raw, trying to help Little Mac achieve his dream of a championship.
Although I have to admit, the six championships the Patriots have won since then all ring a little bit sweeter.