Friday, January 29, 2016

Cleansing the Streets: The Punisher (NES/GB)

The Punisher (NES, 1990)

I've always had a soft spot for Marvel's violent vigilante, the Punisher. Part of it is nostalgia, I suppose - he was a favorite of my older brother's when we were growing up. On occasion, my parents would forbid us from reading those violent comics, which also gave the character the unmistakable allure of the forbidden. Remember also that the Punisher starred in no less than three ongoing series and countless minis and one-shots in the early '90s, a popularity that was only below Marvel's X-Men and Spider-Man. What really sold me on the character, though, was when I started collecting comics myself, around 2000, and Garth Ennis had started his magnificent run on the character. Thus the Punisher became my favorite one-note character.

And of course I owned both of these games back then - a pair of shooters for the NES and Game Boy. That same year, a Punisher game was also released for Amiga and home computers - but given how incredibly shoddy it is, it's best if we don't mention it (aside from its only unique feature, Punisher's oft-forgotten Battle-Van). The Punisher on NES, released in 1990, is not what you expect. You might see that LJN rainbow on the cover, and expect a game of the lowest standard imaginable. And you'd be right to do so; LJN published some of the worst games of all time, and certainly some of the worst comic adaptations in the 8- and 16-bit generations (it was later acquired by Acclaim, who treated their Marvel licenses with equal disdain). And then you'd be surprised at the game's quality.


The Punisher plays a lot like the NES version of Operation Wolf, except without a lightgun. Trying to play a lightgun game without a lightgun is a lot like putting a condom on your big toe and - you get the idea. But whereas Operation Wolf was an arcade port (and a shoddy one at that), and meant to be played with a lightgun, The Punisher was built from the ground up to be an exclusive NES game, sans lightgun. The gameplay at its core isn't so different: I guess we could classify it as a rail shooter. The screen automatically scrolls right and enemies pop out of the environment, firing at the screen and waiting to be mowed down.


But because this is a game designed with a controller in mind, there's one key difference: it's not first-person. Rather, the Punisher himself is visible from the waist up. And because aiming crosshairs with a d-pad is substantially slower than using a lightgun, the player can also move the Punisher across the bottom of the screen, dodging (visible) gunfire and grenades from enemies. It's necessary, really - without it, Mr. Castle wouldn't stand a chance of surviving. It gives a much needed layer of complexity to a game (and genre) that would otherwise consist of aiming and shooting.

Taken as such, it's a pretty average game. As a child I could, on average, make it to the 3rd or 4th level (out of 6). But after that, it gets challenging in that old-school, unfair NES way. Because you're not only dealing with mowing down any goon who crosses your path, and dodging their fire; you have to keep an eye on ammo (running out will reduce Punisher to a very slow handgun) and finding powerups. Oh, and avoiding civilians - killing them will knock off half of the Punisher's health.


There's only one civilian in the NES game - a lone dude playing the saxophone (it's the only instance of music in the normal levels) on the city streets. Nope, he doesn't mind that there's a massive shootout right in front of him; he's going to sit on his porch and keep blowing that brass. Which isn't a terrible idea - that civilian crossfire might become an issue - but it gets particularly absurd when you encounter him at the military docks... or in the Kingpin's office building... or down in the sewers. That's not a joke.

That particular head-scratcher aside, the game gets pretty frustrating in later levels, when enemies consist of bouncing ninjas and bulky bazooka goons. Boss fights aren't much better; they mostly amount to a battle of attrition (a healthy stock of grenades is a must), and when the bosses come at you for a little melee action - forget about it. These parts play (or at least look) like a pretty lousy version of Punch-Out! 

What really makes the game unique is the way environments are used. The game uses color and shadow to great effect, especially in the levels on the city streets - they really do capture a level of grime and desolation that is the Punisher's wheelhouse. Sewers and warehouses don't fare as well, mostly ugly browns. Enemy sprites look fine, though the bosses and the Punisher himself are big and well-detailed. What really stands out is the way environments can be destroyed. You can shoot up just about anything in this game, and it will be shown visually. It's an impressive level of detail for an NES game, and in that regard I'm not even sure what other NES games it could be compared to. Shooting up the setting is also where you'll find powerups (ammo, faster guns, grenades, bazooka, health, body armor, extra lives). Naturally you'll need ammo for this; so a big part of the game is knowing and guessing where power-ups are likely to reside, and deciding if it's worth it to use ammo to find them.


The game doesn't have much in the way of Marvel references or fan-service (though you'll be given rather useless hints in the Daily Bugle newspapers). Recognizable villains extend to Jigsaw and the final boss, Kingpin. You might think that the other villains, with names like Hitman and Assassin, are throwaway characters designed for the game, but most of them, as far as I can tell, are genuine characters from the comics. It's pretty difficult for writers to build a compelling rogues' gallery for a 'hero' who is known solely for killing his enemies, so these generic bad guys were the norm in the comics.


While the game gets the visuals right, it is utterly lacking in music. Aside from boss fights, the level select screen, and the 5-second saxophone tune, the only thing you'll hear in the game's somewhat lengthy campaign is the endless sound of gunfire and the occasional explosion. Sure, that increases that feeling of desolation in the city streets, but it also adds tremendously to the game's repetition. The game really feels like a polished version of another game, one in which these shooting segments comprised only half the levels. It's easy to imagine it, a Punisher game alternating between shooting levels and traditional action-platforming levels, with maybe a sidescrolling Battle-Van level thrown in for good measure. That game doesn't exist, though, so we're left with this game, with its single style of gameplay... there's some fun to be had, sure, but it quickly becomes pretty one-note - just like the Punisher himself.

The Punisher: The Ultimate Payback (Game Boy, 1991)

Acclaim, which now owned LJN, released The Punisher: The Ultimate Payback for the Game Boy a year later in 1991. It's a little strange, because it's not a straight port; it's technically not a sequel, or a remake, but it's not wholly a new game either (though both games were developed by Beam Software). Functionally, it plays the same, except it's fully in first-person, with no actual Punisher sprite to be seen. This would be impossible in the NES game, as half the game's difficulty is in managing the bullets flying at the Punisher. Not that the game doesn't compensate - here, enemies don't shoot at you quite as immediately, and very few of them have anything other than standard firearms.


The game's environments are entirely new, taking the Punisher to a military base, the jungle, a cave hideout, and, uh, a shopping mall. Like the NES game, environments are pretty destructible; also like the NES game, it's pretty impressive to watch on the Game Boy, and adds a fun little layer of interaction to what is otherwise a rather average on-rails shooter. There isn't nearly as much frustration as the NES release, but it still becomes an unfair war of attrition in the later levels (though it's thankfully a much shorter game). The smaller screen actually makes it easier and faster to aim at enemies; but it also means you're more prone to shooting the innocent civilians (which again drains your health): a woman shopping at the mall, a man fishing on the docks, and... ducks in a pond. That's not a joke either.


The civilians add a new twist at the end of the first level, when criminals take them hostage. It's a nice little twist that prevents that player from mowing down everything indiscriminately; but it's also, unfortunately, used only in this instance. More mechanics like that (in both the NES and Game Boy) game would have done wonders for the games' repetitive action. When you save a civilian, Spider-Man swoops in to swing them away to safety.


This is the early '90s, of course, when X-Men comics were literally selling in the millions (by comparison, the average X-Men comic today would be lucky to break 100,000), and publishers did anything to boost sales - which definitely included featuring minor cameos boldly on the cover. Maybe that's not entirely fair - this is a sales tactic Stan Lee and co. perfected a long time ago. Regardless, Spider-Man shows up on the cover, and him swinging in to save civilians in a single level is the extent of it. He also features in the cut-scenes before and after the first level - first, asking for the Punisher's help, and then later encouraging him to go hunt down the rest and punish them. Even for a game this is grossly out of character; Marvel's heroes occasionally have, at most, an uneasy alliance with Frank Castle, and they certainly never encourage him like that. But hey, not all those cheap sales-boost cameos in the comics got the characters right, either.


It's hard to say which game is better, since both of them amount to little more than fun little shooting galleries that quickly outstay their welcome. The Game Boy version, unlike its older NES sibling, at least features music. Not just music, that actually plays during the levels, but some really excellent Game Boy chiptunes. And in the end, Frank himself gives us these sage words of wisdom:


All screenshots are my own; NES and Game Boy box art from GameFAQs. 

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