Punching Out is a collection of short stories about fighters after all the fight has gone out of them. Based on the 1987 Nintendo game Punch Out, these stories catch up with the characters from the game 30 years later on.
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It’s silly, really. There are so many things to write, so many new stories to tell and here I’ve gone and written a collection of short stories about the characters in an old video game.
Lately, I have to find excuses to do things that don’t involve work. I always feel like I’m running out of time, and tomorrow, if I stop writing, the world will be no less for it. I’m not lamenting. It’s just an important reminder that I have work to do. I have to do the writing, the making. Or I will be the only thing unmade.
Life is full of unfinished things. Half-eaten sandwiches, baseboards left off in rooms, dust bunnies under beds. Good ideas started like a flash fire fade out in a wisp of smoke.
Childhood is like that. You go from one thing to the next, racing outdoors and indoors. There is never enough time. I feel like I’ve been spending a good deal of my adult life just trying to catch up.
All to say: 30 years after it was made, one afternoon I sat down, cross-legged on the floor, and played Punch Out on my Nintendo.
(First there was some blowing on the cartridge and wiggling it around in the system.)
It was not a game I played much as a kid. I had never trained, as I did with some, playing it over and over until I could beat it blindfolded and hogtied. I would muddle through the easy fights and usually smack into the brick wall that was Mr. Sandman. Sometimes I got lucky and made it all the way to Kid Dynamite. Iron Mike. Mike Tyson. One punch was all it took. He’d drop me and I’d drop the controller. Go outside and play.
I never beat the game.
Fast forward to 2017. I’m living one street away from where I grew up. I have a new colour of hair creeping into my beard that I’m trying to call “really” blond. I think about the past a lot as I try to figure out this present and future thing. And I’ve been trying for a while now to put that down on paper into some form of coherent thought.
But back to the game. Punch Out. Nintendo. Because I can’t do anything that doesn’t involve work, I’m calling playing these sessions “research.” I’ve been researching for hours.
The thing is, it’s a good game. A really good game. Yes, it’s a sports game. You punch, block and duck. That’s it. There’s not much more to it. But at its heart, it’s not a boxing game at all, it’s a puzzle. Each fighter is a new iteration. They must be studied through repeated failure. You have to understand the patterns, the rhythms, the unique mechanisms before you can apply the cipher. Each puzzle has an optimal solution, but can be beaten in a number of ways. The early puzzles can be stumbled through, the later ones demand exact execution.
I found out two things through my research:
1. I wanted to beat the game.
2. I wanted document the experience of re-encountering the past as an adult. I thought there was a story to tell a story about the dangers inherent in nostalgia: words like “tradition” and “history” are pitfalls that prevent evolution. The past is seldom the way we left it.
But, mostly, I just wanted to beat the game.
For every match played, each fight that I won, I would write a story about the person who lost. I wanted to explore the reverberations of loss in the lives of people who build their existence based only on victory. In the process, I would be revisiting these 11 fighters (12 if you count Mike Tyson’s alter-ego/replacement: Mr. Dream) 30 years on. What have they been up to? Where have their lives taken them? What are the repercussions of their violence?
I’d pair those stories with a portrait depicting each character from the game. I chose Lite-Brite as the medium. This was another kind of wish fulfillment: I never owned a Lite-Brite when we were growing up. There was something about the rough images that suggested the 8-bit world of the game. I liked the way those little points of saturated colour seemed to float in the abyss of outer space. It made the portraits seem like little constellations.
I grew up in a fairly non-traditional household. I was home-schooled until my teen years, eating tofu baloney before it was cool. My parents encouraged free play time. So my days were spent in an imaginary world, created with my brother. I was not heavily shaped by entrenched boundaries of the masculine and the feminine.
Inescapably, boxing is emblazoned with masculinity. It’s a sport about beating another human being into submission. It’s distilled violence. It’s full of legends and myths and awful truths and horrifying injuries. For every hero there’s a monster. For every triumph, there’s a tragic story.
I was interested in unspooling the men in this 8-bit video game. Their stories last for moments only, as one by one they are beaten by the player. They emasculate each other with taunts, but nowhere are women represented in the game. The characters come from many cultural backgrounds and countries, but they are diminished to anthem and stereotype. The depictions are certainly dated, if not dangerous.
For all that deconstruction and serious literary-mindedness, I also just thought it was really funny to be writing stories about video game characters: placing them in situations they were never intended for, and giving them a metaphysic that would seem ridiculous in an 8-bit world.
But I had a problem: I couldn’t beat the game. I was ready to write the final story, but I had failed to do the thing I set out to do. Again and again, I reached the same threshold. But I couldn’t beat Mike Tyson.
I’ll come back later, I thought. I’ll take another week. Week turned into weeks. I played casually. I played religiously. I played until my thumbs sweat blood. But there he’d be, Mike—in all his pre-incarceration, pre-tattoo, pre-ear chomping glory—standing over me, flexing his bicep and winking. I couldn’t beat him.
I started to doubt. I wasn’t getting any younger. My reactions had slowed since I was a child. I had studied and trained: I knew exactly what I had to do. I’d figured out the puzzle, but my body couldn’t input the code.
And I couldn’t write. For whatever reason, I couldn’t see my way through the final story of the collection. I couldn’t finish the story without finishing the game.
I was failing on two fronts.
And then I won.
I beat it in an empty house at night. I had spent two hours fighting Mike Tyson over and over again. Just one more time, again and again. And then, finally, I did something right. Or I didn’t do something wrong. It just happened.
There was no fanfare, or crash of thunder. I did make some sort of ‘whoopie’ sound I think. Then it was over. The game didn’t care that I’d beaten it. Thousands, maybe millions of people had done it before me.
So, what did it all add up to? Sixteen short stories. Twelve thousand words. Punching Out is a series of stories about the characters from an old video game. It’s a work about failure. Failure after failure, piling up, until you get one little win. In that moment, none of the losses matter. You’re a champ. Then there’s the next moment, and there’s all that time spent. And more ahead.
Nostalgia, for me, is no longer about trying to crawl back into the past. Retreading ground can seem like a silly effort sometimes. Child’s play. But it’s become a method of preserving the promise of the present. A way to hold oneself accountable. A way to not leave anyone behind.