Also Available For: Mega Drive
Frank Castle, Marvel’s resident one-man army, first debuted in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129. Though originally depicted as an assassin with a specific code of honour, the character went on to become one of Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes; thanks to his tragic backstory and unwavering commitment to the permanent eradication of crime, a mission that he fully admits is a never-ending battle that will (and has) result in his death, the Punisher has subsequently seen some success outside of his comic book origins.
Although far from the first videogame to feature the character in a starring role, the arcade version of The Punisher stands a cut above its predecessors thanks to being developed by Capcom and heavily borrowing from classic arcade beat-‘em-ups like Final Fight (Capcom, 1989) and Captain Commando (ibid, 1991). Directed by Noritaka Funamizu, who would go on to be heavily involved in the Street Fighter series (ibid/Various, 1987 to present) The Punisher is notable not only for its classic arcade-style action but also for being the first title in a long and successful partnership between Marvel Comics and Capcom.
After his family is gunned down by mobsters in Central Park, Frank Castle swears revenge and begins a one-man war on crime as the Punisher. Joining forces with Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate (S.H.I.E.L.D.) agent Nick Fury, Frank enacts bloody vengeance on New York’s criminal element, leading to an inevitable clash with the Kingpin of Crime himself, Wilson Fisk!
If you’ve played Final Fight or any one of a slew of sidescrolling, 2D beat-‘em-ups, then you know exactly what The Punisher is all about. If you’re player one, you control the titular Punisher while player two controls Fury but, in either case, you’re tasked with making your way from the left side of the screen to the right through six action-packed stages filled with a variety of mobsters and other scumbags for you to beat the shit out of.
The differences between the two characters are aesthetic, at best; both are capable of punching, jumping, and jump-kicking enemies, grabbing and throwing them when they’re up close, and utilising a slew of weapons to cut down their foes. Pressing punch and jump at the same time will see the two unleash a super move to deal massive damage at the cost of some health and the two are also capable of performing an impressive roll to cover large distances quickly and dash into enemies. The only real difference I noticed between the two is that Fury feels a little faster to control but, whichever character you pick, you’ll be more than capable of taking out anyone that stands in your way.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the Punisher if you didn’t get to shoot some fools and, whenever armed enemies pop up on screen, your character will pull out their pistol and the mayhem will begin. A targeting reticule appears and automatically targets the enemy closest to you and, as you have unlimited ammo, all you have to do is press attack to riddle your victim full of bullets. This comes in handy during encounters with the game’s tougher enemies and in boss battles but can be a little unreliable as a dependable ranged attack as you can’t safely camp out of range and take shots at your enemies since your bullets only travel so far.
Luckily, there are other weapons available to make up for that. Being an arcade game, one of the many objectives you’ll also have is wrecking the game’s large and detailed environments to find bags of cash, gold bars, weapons, and items to not only increase your score, increase your chances at dishing out punishment, but also to restore your health. All the standard goodies are on offer here, from roasted meat dinners to pizza to pudding, and I recommend grabbing them as soon as possible to keep your health bar topped up.
As if the swarms of enemies and large, formidable bosses weren’t enough, you’re also battling against a time limit so it pays to make quick work of your enemies wherever possible. Luckily, you can pick up and throw a variety of objects at your enemies (from arcade machines to barrels), toss them off moving stages, and set up explosive traps to clear them away. Some enemy and boss attacks also seem to damage other enemies, which is helpful if you can set things up in the right way to take advantage of this feature.
Every now and then you’ll also be taken to a bonus stage to mix things up a bit and earn yourself some extra points; here, the Punisher and Fury are pitted against each other to see who can shoot the most barrels under a time limit. At the end of every stage, you’ll also receive a detailed score tally that awards bonus points for how many items you used and your remaining vitality and grenades. Of course, it’s an inevitability that you’ll probably lose all of your lives and be taken to a continue screen where Microchip and fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agents attempt to revive your character; input another coin, though, and you’ll helpfully be dropped right back into the action where you fell to continue on.
Graphics and Sound:
The Punisher is a gorgeous example of classic arcade, beat-‘em-up action. Sprites are large and detailed and, while the Punisher and Fury don’t have idle animations, they do breathe heavily when you leave them standing and Fury is constantly smoking on a cigar, which is a nice touch. Additionally, some enemies will stop and mock you with laughter and there is an incredible amount of detail applied to the game’s sprites to emulate the look of the comic books as closely as possible.
While the game’s music is nothing to shout about (and there are some laughably distorted and grainy voice samples to be heard throughout the game), the sound effects carry a decent amount of kick to them. You’ll also be treated to a few pretty decent cutscenes; still images and text relate the game’s story in the opening, in-game graphics and dialogue (which changes depending on which character you’re playing as) feature as transitions between stages, and large, comic book sound effects pop up onscreen as you attack enemies for extra emphasis.
Stages are pretty standard fare (you’ll fight out in the streets, in a sewer, and, of course, on a moving elevator) but quite large and detailed and full of interesting little touches; there are numerous destructible elements to every stage and all sorts of little things to see in the background to bring some life to the stages, like harmless rats running around in the sewers and a dog tied up on the streets. The game also features a decent amount of blood effects, too (fitting considering the carnage onscreen and the violent nature of the Punisher) but this is taken to the next level when you find you can attack and destroy mobster’s cars, leaving a chargrilled skeleton behind!
Enemies and Bosses:
For the most part, you’ll be punching or gunning down a slew of generic street thugs and mobsters; these guys will attack with punches, grab and hold you, or carry melee weapons which you can retrieve after defeating them. While many enemies can swarm the screen at any one time, you’ll generally not have much of a problem against the usual cannon fodder as you’re more than capable of grabbing them or hurling them into one another.
Very quickly, though, you’ll come up against armed mobsters who can attack from a distance. You’ll also encounter sword-wielding ninjas who teleport all over the place, fly into a whirlwind of blades, send you crashing down to the ground from the top of the screen, and can even deflect your bullets back at you! Faster martial artists can also pose a greater threat but perhaps the game’s most troublesome enemies are the Pretty Boys, cyborgs who can take a licking and keep on ticking, attacking with extendable arms, explosive heads, and continue to be a threat even with their torsos blown off.
Bosses feature a few names that will be familiar to fans of the Punisher; you’ll encounter Bonebreaker (little more than a cannon-wielding, Mohawked punk fused with a tank), Bushwaker (who can transform his limbs into devastating armaments), and even Jigsaw (though, sadly, he’s more of a mini boss and isn’t too indistinguishable from other machine gun-toting enemies).
You’ll also encounter the Kingpin’s laser-spewing Guardroid on a couple of occasions and have to deal with large, but low level, mooks in the game’s early stages. Each boss battle comes with wave-upon-wave of the game’s regular enemies to help whittle down your health and drag the battle out, though you can often find weapons and health-restoring items in the boss arenas and invariably also have access to your gun to help tip the odds in your favour.
Once you reach the Kingpin’s hotel, though, you’ll come face to face with the Kingpin himself. Rendered as a humongous sprite, the Kingpin takes up a good chunk of the screen with his sheer mass and deals devastating damage with just a swipe of his hand to say nothing of his laser-firing cane and…fire breath (…?)….all of which take away a massive chunk of your health. Kingpin is also swarmed with constantly-respawning enemies to distract you and he can hurl you clear across the screen if you get too close but, luckily, he takes damage just like any other boss or enemy and doesn’t appear to have any cheap invincibility frames so you’ll soon be leaving him to crumble alongside his hotel with enough patience and pocket change.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
There are no invincibility or speed/power-ups to be found in The Punisher; instead, you’ll find a variety of different foods to eat to restore your health or gain access to a slew of additional weaponry to exact justice on New York’s criminal scum.
You’ll be wielding the standard beat-‘em-up fare like knives, baseball bats, axes, hammers and pipes but you’ll also get to use throwing stars, boomerangs, M-16 assault rifles, Uzis, fire extinguishers, and even a flamethrower. Every time you pick up a weapon, the amount of uses it has is displayed next to it on the lower left of the screen so you always know how much “ammo” you have left; if you’re running low, you can toss the weapon in a diagonal arc by jumping and pressing attack, leaving you free to switch to a fresh weapon.
The Punisher and Fury can also pick up grenades as they progress through the game’s stages; these are also tallied in the bottom left and are best saved for bosses or to clear the screen of enemies. By jumping and pressing jump and attack, you’ll toss a grenade downwards, which explodes to deal massive damage and help to thin out the herd.
Being a coin-operated, arcade beat-‘em-up, the sole thing to play for is that coveted high score. Aside from that, the game allows for two player simultaneous play, which slightly alters the game’s cutscenes and dialogue and gives you another good reason to play through it.
As far as arcade beat-‘em-ups go, The Punisher is just as iconic and enjoyable as the likes of Final Fight. It doesn’t necessarily add anything new to the genre, or anything you haven’t seen before if you’ve played any of the many beat-‘em-ups released by the likes of Capcom and Konami back in the day, but it shines a little bit thanks to its unique licensing of the Punisher character.
With large, detailed, comic book-like sprites, environments that are full of destructible elements and fun little inclusions, and by fully embracing the larger than life aesthetic and hyper violence of its source material and title character, The Punisher is a great way to spend an hour or so. Fast-paced and action-packed, the game is a joy to play through; the music isn’t very memorable and, while the game is quite short at only six stages, it’s well-paced and well-balanced enough that it never begins as tedious and monotonous as some beat-‘em-ups.
Did you ever play The Punisher out in the wild? Perhaps you are lucky enough to own the Mega Drive port of the game; if so, how do you think it holds up compared to the arcade original? Which character did you prefer to play as? Can you think of a better character to partner up with the Punisher or do you think Nick Fury fit the role nicely enough? What is your favourite beat-‘em-up game? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.