Genre: Beat-‘Em-Up Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom Players: 1-2 Released: 1994
As a former U.S Marine captain with an extensive knowledge of firearms and a glorious record littered with countless awards for heroism, Frank Castle was the ideal soldier. Experienced and skilled in dealing with hostile situations, warfare and hand-to-hand combat, Castle did everything he could to make the world safer place during his tenure with the Marines. But one day, on a picnic in Central Park with his family, he found himself helpless. Fearing that the Castle family were witness to their murderous actions, a gang of mobsters opened fire on them out of panic and brutality. What they didn’t realize at the time was that they were turning an obedient soldier in criminal-killing machine.
There would be no more lazy picnics and peanut butter sandwiches for Frank Castle, for although he survived the shooting, his family didn’t. Forever changed by the events that occurred on that day, Castle began to alter his life, devoting time and effort to his new war: a one-man battle against crime and terrorism. As well as adapting his fighting skills to suit his new mission, he built up an impressive array of weaponry, including his trusty M-16, to hand out punishment to any criminal, swiftly and effectively. His radically different image was completed when he swapped his military clothes for a simple blue shirt adorned with a menacing skull and began to live by one simple rule: if you’re guilty, you’re dead.
This unforgiving view of the city’s criminal life makes the Punisher a relentless hero who devotes the utmost focus and strength to his cause. He’s also an entirely appropriate protagonist for a beat-’em-up game. While other developers fiddle about with the awkward abilities and mutant powers of other Marvel characters, the Punisher’s fierce, determined persona and realistic fighting skills translate easily and perfectly to the genre.
Even the man’s world is a ideal match for the beat-’em-up template, conforming to many of the cliches set by the Final Fights and Double Dragons (many moons ago!). The opening, for instance, takes place in a bar, then moves into the violent streets of New York, where huge stampeding goons and smaller fools attempt to take you out. However, the game does open up to more unique settings: the first level’s encounter with a suit wearing mobster who moves like a fly, for example, takes place aboard a moving city bus. It welcomes some neat set-pieces that are integrated smoothly into the action, too (in one part a black car drives up along side a building, and some trench coat wearing tough guys leap out).
The Punisher also flaunts an element of surprise and unpredictability, shown best by one particular boss encounter. After moving through a building owned by the Kingpin (your enemy), you encounter a line-up of huge bad guys. Now, you may be the Punisher, but these men look like a steel barrier, ready to crush you to a bloody pulp. But… just as you’re ready to fight against them, a laser comes across the screen, incinerating them. Wha…? Before you can think, a GUARDROID strolls into view, announcing that he is programmed by the Kingpin to put an end to your quest! Now this is a real boss!” you’ll think to yourself as the imposing, strangely sleek (in a fiery coat of red paint) mechanical bastard leaps across the screen, smashing and burning you. Beating this robot turns out to be easier than you might think though, with the Punisher’s impressive punching combos and roundhouse kicks putting a fairly large dent in the armour of the cybernetic foe.
Roundhouse kicks and punches aren’t the high-point of the adventure, though. Neither are agile jumps or the speedy flying kicks. Nor the screen clearing sweep kick. Not even the responsive controls or simple, easy to master button layout. No, the real high-point of the fighting is the fantastic grapple attacks you can use to crush your opponents. Throw enemies across the screen; jump up and pound them into the ground; punch them in the stomach — again and again (for a much longer time that the ordinary beat-’em-ups allow). The Punisher provides some devastating and satisfying moves that look extremely impressive and tough. Seeing enemies plunge through glass windows and watching them as they are effortlessly hurled across the screen creates many chaotic scenes of madness as you plough your way through anyone unfortunate enough to stand in your way.
However, this chaos is at the expense of a little intelligence, as many of the enemies in the game are pretty stupid — with the sword wielding ninjas standing as the main exception. The Punisher‘s answer to this is to cram as many enemies as possible into the levels, raising the difficulty level significantly. This tactic normally falls flat on its face, since it can be pretty cheap, yet here it works to good effect, as the fast pace of the game keeps things exciting. And, due to the relative ease of performing moves, fighting the gangs of enemies that rapidly fill the screen is enjoyable and rarely ever frustrating.
Also adding to the interest and energetic atmosphere is The Punisher‘s excessive use of weapons, lots and lots of varied, fierce weapons — from pipes and barrels to chairs and swords. Practically anything can be picked up and smashed over an opponent’s head, even plants from the background (those leaves must be pretty tough!). By far the best weapon, though, is the flamethrower. Yes, you read that right — a flamethrower! Picking up one of these bulky canisters will allow you to set people on fire. It’s incredibly enjoyable to stand there and send enemies flying back across the screen, enveloped in flames! Although the weapon does run out after you’ve use it a certain number of times (the number is shown on screen), as do all of the weapons. This keeps you on your toes and forces you to constantly be on the look out for new weapons, or save them for particularly tough enemies.
One weapon that isn’t limited is your handgun. When a situation arises, you can pull your firearm out and take shots at another armed enemy, plugging away at them (with blood flowing) until they fall over and die, and the red lock-on target makes sure you never miss. Gunning down rows of criminals is, as you’d expect, very pleasurable and a welcome change from the normal hand-to-hand combat, even if it isn’t terribly challenging. Gun-fights crop up in set locations, so you can’t just pull out the gun at any old moment, but their limited appearance is preferable to a game saturated with shooting after shooting.
Visually, The Punisher retains the gritty sense of realism and variety promoted by the gameplay, especially the drab, grey New York scene and the metallic train themed stages. Unfortunately, the colours are drab and plain because this Genesis port can’t handle the range of colours that occupy the locations of the original arcade version — so it feels a lot less interesting and blander in comparison. Music suffers a similar fate, with the compositions sounding subdued when they should be accentuating the action and pounding along with the fast pace of the game.
However, the animation still looks great (although it slows in places), adding a crunch to the game by making the moves look very fluid and painful, even though the sound effects are too weak (especially when compared to Streets of Rage 2’s thuds and crashes). And the Punisher certainly looks the part, with a determined ”I’m going to hunt you down and kick your ass!” stare! Wearing white boots, shadowy blue clothes and various gun holsters, Frank Castle is definitely the hero that you want to play as — his gritted teeth and impressive physique speaking of a no-nonsense attitude that’s very appealing. Which is more than can be said about Nick Fury, the second character (used by a second player or a first player who is stupid enough to select him). I forget the specifics, but I don’t think Fury ages. So it would appear that he’s stuck at fifty for eternity, as his dull brown top and grey hair don’t exactly fill you with fear. Wait, though! He also sports an eye patch! Ha ha! At least we’ve got some humour to go with the seriousness.
Nick Fury’s pathetic presence doesn’t make a difference in the end though; The Punisher is still a frenzied, action packed adventure, exploding with diverse weapons, intense enemy-filled stages, and some of the most crushing grappling moves to appear in a beat-’em-up. This excellent game should serve as an example to other developers of how you put a comic character into a video game and manage to keep his personality intact as well as making the game fun and compelling to play.
SCORE: 9 out of 10
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