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Games time forgot: The Punisher

1:46 PM on 08.26.2008 // Anthony Burch

What with Castle Crashers coming out tomorrow morning, I thought it might be fun to look back on a game which, while not the deepest beatemup ever made, or even one of the best, holds a special place in my heart which no other Final Fight clone of the era will ever dethrone.

It was the 90's, and I was of appropriate age to be in love with all things Punisher. I hadn't watched the Dolph Lundgren movie (probably for the better, all things considered), or even read the comics, but I knew that I loved the look of a character with a big white skull on his chest, and I loved the idea of a superhero who used guns to take out bad guys. 

I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that most six year old boys at the time shared this viewpoint.

This, of course, made The Punisher arcade game my side-scrolling beatemup of choice. Allowing players to take on the role of either The Punisher or Nick Fury (a character I had literally zero understanding of, but he had an eyepatch and grey temples so he was a badass in my book), The Punisher represents all those things simultaneously sweet, violent, and pseudo-badass of the early-90's Winners Don't Do Drugs era.

Hit the jump for a walk down a corpse-ridden memory lane.

Story:

Uh, The Kingpin is a bad guy and Frank Castle wants to kill him. That's about as complicated as the comics ever get, so why begrudge the game for following suit?

As a quasi-comic-nerd, I actually somewhat enjoy looking at The Punisher arcade game as being representative of the character's portrayal at that point in time. Too late in the character's life cycle to still be original, but not early enough that the character's dark and villainous aspects had yet been explored in, say, Welcome Back Frank or Punisher: The End, the Punisher of the arcade game is a family-friendly fascist: he beats up bad guys and often times shoots them, but there's no blood, no unnerving squeals of pain, and no real theme other than "bad guys are bad and the Punisher punishes them, and that's super-cool."

And it was, to a preteen in the early 90's. The Castle of the videogame was a violent hero without consequence or depth, and the exact sort of badass we all wanted to be at that age. On the other hand, looking at the game now, I can't help but think of the hellishly disturbing climax of Punisher: The End everytime Frank picks up a gun.

But anyway, yeah: when you punch people, "THWACK" and "BAM" onomatopoeias appear in large, friendly letters, and despite the numerous firearms and knives, there's no real blood to speak of. A game of the 90's if there ever was one.

Also, the Punisher makes a hilariously manly grunt noise when you choose him on the character select screen.

 

Gameplay:

The Punisher plays exactly like Final Fight, save for the following gameplay innovations:

-There are guns

Whether it's M16s and flamethrowers Nick and Frank can pick up, or the bizarre, automatic handgun sequences in which both players simply hammer down on the attack button as fast as possible while jiggling the joystick repeatedly to target different enemies, The Punisher seems to take a lot of pride in periodically rewarding the player with the firearms Castle relishes so much in the original comics.

The handgun sequences go by a little too quickly in the videos I've posted, but suffice it to say that at random moments, Frank and Nick pull out their handguns and, totally immobile, must blow away approaching enemies before bizarrely holstering and forgetting about them until the next big sequence. These are satisfying in a water level, breaks-up-the-gameplay sort of way, but one can't help but ask: if these two dudes are carrying handguns throughout the entire game, why don't they use them all the time?

Apart from the handguns, the game occasionally throws some bigger firepower at you. Occasionally dropped from minibosses or wooden crates, the M16s and flamethrowers, while satisfying to look at and to fire, were surprisingly nowhere near as powerful as, say, a thrown combat knife (which basically amounts to a one-hit-kill). Still, the underwhelming lethality of the weapons did nothing to stifle my desire to collect them ahead of whomever was playing the game alongside me: it's a Punisher game, so you'll naturally want to collect guns. Not because it serves the gameplay, but simply because it feels right. Punisher's gotta shoot stuff, so Punisher's gotta get guns.

 

Why you're probably not playing it:

As said above, The Punisher doesn't really add anything to the beatemup genre that dozens of other games don't do infinitely better. If you do play The Punisher, it's because of the license and the vibe,not because it's a terribly deep fighting experience. The guns help, and the fisticuffs are solid, but The Punisher is a character-driven beatemup above all else and therefore doesn't really lend itself to multiple playthroughs, especially not fifteen years after its original release. Still, if you want to see the entire game being played, then just watch all four embedded videos in this post; combined, they make up a complete playthrough of the game.

It goes without saying that, being an arcade title, it's hilariously easy to NOT download for either Mame or, if you want the home console port, the Sega Genesis. If you've never played it before and have little to no interest in The Punisher, then go ahead and skip this one: if you did or do, however, then you might find it interesting to visit this beatemup from a time when the Punisher was as clean-cut a good guy as comic heroes get.

Then, after you beat it, read Punisher: The End and bask in its nihilistic horror.




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