Frank Castle is dead. However, the message has yet to reach his body, and so it continues to twitch. Who can say what it might do before it stops moving?
-Frank Castle, The Punisher: Year One
There is still nothing like playing a video game with a fellow human being right beside you. The Black Humor Mage and I recently played through Capcom’s arcade classic, The Punisher, and we traded jokes and badinage, came up with ridiculous Brooklyn accents for Castle and Fury (who by the end of the game sounded more like Albert the Alpha Nerd), and daydreamed about streaming together since we were obviously so, so hilarious. Red and Black, that’s what we’d call our streaming channel.
So anyway, we were looking for a great arcade classic to settle into and shut off the gray matter, and what better choice could there be than a mindlessly violent beat ’em up starring a grimacing vigilante and his eyepatch’d pal? The Punisher it was, thanks to MAME, but who is this literary icon?
Ever flying kick someone in the face so hard they burst into blue flames?
The Punisher, for those not in the know, is much less daydreamy and optimistic than we were with Red and Black. Take Batman and make him a murderer… and that’s about it. Frank Castle lost his family to gunmen, so he took up the gun himself and became judge, jury, and executioner. That’s perfect material for a beat ’em up, a genre where the only objective is typically “walk to the right and beat everything in your way to death”. It’s not an ambitious genre, but then again, neither is the Punisher an ambitious character. It’s a match made in the smokey alleyways of the 1980’s!
I have never once read a Punisher comic book (or seen a Punisher movie) so I can only assume that this is the typical Dolph Lundgren tale: walk to the right and destroy everything in your way to death. Joined by straight man, Nick Fury, who plays the voice of reason to Castle’s voice of annihilation, The Punisher is a two-player punch-fest from start to finish.
Immediately, one of the few things that sets The Punisher apart from the sea of noise in the beat ’em up genre of the 90’s was the inclusion of firearms as a frequent weapon. In addition to the familiar baseball bat, grenade, or rubber tire, the player can pick up a handgun and actually aim it, fire off a few rounds into any of the thugs or machines or mutants lumbering your way.
The exactness and realism here is unusual for the genre, I think. In trying to come up with other similar examples of shooting weapons in classic beat ’em ups, I thought of games like Alien vs Predator, also put out by Capcom. Only there the fundamental difference is ballistics are associated with special/hyper weapons that are much more infrequent than here where Punisher or Fury can just pick up a gun off the curb.
Considering the Punisher himself doesn’t have much more of a shtick other than wielding guns, it turns out this is both a novel and appropriate gameplay element.
The 8-bit Review
It’s hard for me to describe exactly what it is that tied together the look of Capcom’s games back in the 90’s, but the pixelated ones seemed to me to share a similar color palette. Something about the extreme highlights and plus lots of browns and greens, the reds and blues at their brightest. The Punisher looks like a really washed out game, though. Even the more vivid colors are ugly faded pinks and oranges, as if the whole city and its dirty denizens have their 1980’s themed neon-mob clothes covered in ash. However, this bleached out metropolis is utterly fitting for the Punisher and his prowling grounds, even if the midday graphics aren’t entirely the setting you’d think of for the character.
What is most impressive about this game’s visuals is the character art. Having never read the Punisher’s comic books, I remember that I was still drawn to the game because of the clear comic bookish art style. All the years later after having first encountered it in a neon-lit arcade called Tilt, that appeal is still there. Of course words pop up on the screen when firing a gun, “blam!”. Of course they do. A flash of light highlighting the front of your character when a gun is fired is a nice touch of dynamism, too.
When selecting your character, Castle and Fury’s likenesses splashed gloriously across the screen, complete with heavy shadows just like a comic book. Both Castle and Fury look great during gameplay, as well.
During gameplay, a wild assortment of villains assault the anti-heroes (not sure if Nick is an anti-hero but he does have an eyepatch, aforementioned). These baddies have some fairly interesting sprites, but they’re not as detailed or intricate as some others in that time, around the height of the 16-bit era. Even in the context of yester-Capcom’s pixel art, The Punisher is not the best example of their work. Still, it’s got personality and the stretchy-arm robots fill my bladder with anxiety to this day.
I didn’t find the music or sound design all that impressive, beyond a few tracks. Overall, the soundtrack seems like a hit or miss. The Punisher doesn’t particularly feature Capcom’s characteristic Gothic-sound, nor does it possess the opportunity to, given its urban setting. It might’ve benefited from a soundtrack more along the lines of Streets of Rage but instead it’s full of largely forgettable background swill with only the occasional song striving for the aforementioned flavor from Streets. These are some good examples of the game’s better, more upbeat, less meandery songs:
But then you have some that are more like mindless action game noise:
My take on the game’s audio is best summed up in the howling noise your character makes when performing their special attack. It sounds like “Hey you!” uttered in the most unabashedly garbled, bestial voice ever. Yes of course that’s hyperbole. Doesn’t mean the sound is really pleasant to the ear, anyway. Exaggeration aside, that’s really this game’s biggest issue in the sound department: it’s not all that nice to hear.
As was the fare at the time, this arcade game possessed a simple storyline, really little more than a premise with a resolution.
The vigilante and the agent of SHIELD set out together, or alone, to confront the notorious crime lord, the Kingpin. The Punisher is of course out for blood and Nick Fury is there every step of the way to try to talk him down. “No killing unless we have to,” he says. After a drug bust, a raid, and a hit job, the Punisher finally has a bounty put on his head by Kingpin himself. A motley crew of Daredevil, X-Men, and Spider-Man villains bar his path to the crown jewel, the top of King Building. Everything about this story is set up to include references, however minor, from Marvel comics and provide the anti-hero and the hero with baddies to beat.
What I’m really curious about is Bonebreaker, the tanktaur, yeah that boss that’s half human, half tank. It’s perfectly bizarre and quintessentially comic bookish. I get Bushwacker is a little off the wall as a fleshy shapeshifter… but with Bonebreaker, if he gets sick does he go to the hospital or the mechanic? Does he wait in line at the unemployment office or at the DMV? Once he’s dead, do they bury his body or have it impounded? Or more simply, how does he use the little tank’s room? I have so many questions.
One problem with beat ’em up games is that punching and kicking gets old real fast. Even the odd flying kick, a veritable staple, can’t completely stave off limb-flailing stagnancy. The Punisher benefits from its array of usable weaponry but the playable characters also come with a selection of special attacks and grapples. I recall in Turtles in Time how you could grab an enemy and throw them directly at the screen. That kind of dynamism is preserved here as Castle and Fury can nab opponents and toss them around like ragdolls.
The gameplay has got to be the best part about playing this game. The action moves at a brisk pace so there’s no dead moments where you’re doing nothing but inching forward waiting for the next enemy to appear. Rolls and well-paced vertical movement ensures your characters don’t waste tons of time trying to line up punches and kicks. There are just enough attacks and items to keep the fighting interesting without being so overwhelming as to cause you to forget how to play the game. Further, there aren’t so many fresh game features so as to remove familiarity; The Punisher is fairly similar to other Capcom beat ’em ups from the same time, such as Knights of the Round, Captain Commando, or the Final Fight games.
Given the vim and vigor in the gameplay, it’s somewhat surprising that Castle and Fury have no greatly differentiating features. They essentially play exactly the same with no differences in their reach, strength, or speed, as in other beat ’em ups. At least they couldn’t be more opposed thematically.
If you’ve played one beat ’em up, you’ve played ’em all. Well, that’s not technically or even literally true, though the similarities between the genre’s exemplars are readily apparent. For me, the most inaccessible elements of a classic beat ’em up are the special moves and the grapples. Some games implement real complexity in these contexts, occasionally because there are simply too many options. However, with The Punisher, I felt like the learning curve was just right. You could figure out how to use a weapon pretty much immediately after picking it up and a little experimentation made grapples and throws transparent.
Can we say the difficulty is… punishing?! No, we can’t. One, that’s a gimme pun. Two, this game isn’t really all that hard.
So one of the hardest things about coin-op arcade games like this was running out of money. If you only had a set amount of coins, quarters, tokens then that meant you only had so many continues. Playing the game with MAME means you’ve got access to as many continues as you want. I don’t know that this arcade classic has been compiled into any collection or compilation, but it should be, and maybe a potential Capcom Arcade Classics comp could renew the original’s difficulty by giving you only a limited set of continues. Until then, I have only to report that my black mage comrade and myself didn’t die too frequently. Some of the enemies have tricky attack patterns but Castle and Fury have plenty of health each and there are a multitude of items littering the streets ahead of them.
A port to the Genesis/Mega Drive demonstrated the uniqueness of the original arcade game; the port was neutered, violence, blood, and skimpiness censored, taking the wind right out of a game about a guy who just goes around blowing criminals away. The Punisher is a great comic book game and beat ’em up, but really, you could only name a handful of things at most that set it apart from its contemporaries. Maybe it’s just the nature of its genre, which at the time especially was fairly limited: street brawling or medieval sword-wielding side-scrolling action.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
The Punisher is just plain stupid fun. Of course, that’s not a bad thing. It’s not my favorite beat ’em up but I like it a skosh more than others I’d consider to be a little more average. Where’s your next arcade collection, Capcom? This isn’t the only one of your classics that could stand to see the light of day again.
Aggregated Score: 6.8
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Categories: Game Review