Reviews | Arcade
The Punisher (1993)
By Alex Kierkegaard / August 28, 2006
The Punisher ranks among the coolest beat 'em ups ever made. Grittier than Double Dragon (1987); better-looking than Final Fight (1989); faster than Bare Knuckle (1991), and with more moves, weapons and unbridled destruction than any of them, it's an awesome game that everyone who enjoys a good brawler should seek out and play.
Too bad it never received the attention it deserved. It was released by Capcom during the waning days of the genre, at a time when versus fighters were exploding in popularity, and pushing to the margins anything that even slightly resembled them. As the industry changed gears to respond to the frenzied demand for Street Fighter II sequels and clones, everyone seemed to forget that there is an aspect of a good brawler that a fighting game can never provide: namely, the fun in teaming up with a friend (because these games were always best enjoyed with two players), and taking on scores of enemies, against a backdrop of diverse, thrilling stages.
And so here I am, replaying The Punisher after many years, and finding its excellence bitterly ironic. Why is it, one may ask, that some of the best examples of a genre are released while that genre is declining in popularity? I guess the answer is simpler and more pragmatic than most fans would like it to be. Fewer players means less money to go around for developers; this leads to the worst (or simply less efficient) ones going bust, while intense competition follows among the rest, resulting in fewer but higher-quality titles. Moreover, by the time a genre has started to decline its principles are well-understood, and designers have a whole backlog of great titles to imitate and build on.
This is exactly what Noritaka Funamizu and his team at Capcom have done here. They knew that one of the main problems with brawlers is the limited movelist, which often makes the fighting repetitive, so they gave Frank Castle (and his partner, Nick Fury) more moves than were available to any previous beat 'em up heroes. Apart from two basic combos (it's worth noting that most brawlers only have one), you've got side kicks, jumping kicks, hook kicks, rolls, three kinds of throws, knees for the Punisher and headbutts for Nick Fury, and a move in which you grab an opponent by the legs and swing him around, knocking out all surrounding enemies, before launching him across the screen, hopefully to smash into even more bad guys.
But the martial arts moves are only the beginning. You carry a handgun and grenades, and eventually come across uzis, assault rifles and makeshift flamethrowers, as well as baseball bats, knives, hammers, katanas, wtf battle axes! For christsake there is even a lance in there. In all, this game has as many firearms as dedicated shoot 'em ups (such as Narc or Aliens), and more mêlée weapons than dedicated hack-and-slashers (such as Golden Axe or Warrior Blade).
And that's not all. I'd have a hard time indeed trying to list every item you can pick up and smash your opponents with. Barrels? Cement bags? Potted plants? Fucking slot machines!? Okay, there is only one slot machine right at the beginning of the game, but, seriously, I wouldn't be surprised if kitchen sinks could be activated by a secret dip switch setting.
Between the martial arts moves, the weapons, and the breakable items, you have such a huge range of ways in which to slaughter the hapless bad guys, that I sometimes get hit because I take too long to decide which one to use next. Equally impressive is that all these moves are pulled off with just two buttons, which I believe must be some kind of a record.
The action looks and feels just great. This is in part due to the quality of the animation, which is far beyond what players had been used to up to that point, and comes close to what was seen in the first Street Fighter II games. The headbutts and knees to the chest feel especially catharctic, and throwing enemies around is extremely violent and never gets old -- the throws, in fact, are the best such moves in a brawler. Compared to the fluidness with which Frank Castle and Nick Fury move and attack, the dudes from Final Fight seem as if they suffer from a mild case of ankylosis.
The enemies the game throws at you are also fantastic. The armored, katana-wielding chicks are my favorite ones; crouching low and striking aggressive poses, slashing at you or using whirlwind attacks, or sometimes jumping and clinging to walls like Spider-Man. They are in fact so awesome that I wouldn't mind playing a whole game starring them. And there are so many different enemies (suits with handguns, huge thugs with assault rifles, Mohicaned punks with flamethrowers, and some really tough Inspector Gadget-like robots), that palette swapping is kept to a minimum, and you never feel as if you are beating up the same-old three goons. Some of the bosses appear several times, which is regrettable, but then again in what brawler don't they?
Capcom treated the Punisher licence with the utmost respect. Apart from the obvious effort that has gone into all the art and animation, there are also brief but effective cinematics sprinkled throughout, and nonessential but welcome details abound. Sound effects are occasionally also rendered in visual form, in acknowledgement of the comics medium, and just watch as Frank Castle's face lights up from the glare as he unloads his gun in some goon's face. It's fantastic work, and at times as brutal as the comics, with blood flying all over the place while the Punisher gets busy dealing out Justice (trap a bunch of goons in a corner and hack the shit out of them with the battle axe and you'll see what I mean).
Given that Western comics were never popular in Japan, I find it amusing that a bunch of Japanese guys could treat a Marvel licence so well. Just compare The Punisher with any other Marvel-licensed game published in the US during the late-80s, early-90s period. There is, simply, no comparison. I only regret Frank Castle's in-game face, which has an uncharacteristically evil expression.
Technically, The Punisher is almost without fault, but there is one (all-too-important) thing that keeps me from proclaiming it the best 2D brawler ever. I said that it's grittier than Double Dragon, better-looking than Final Fight, and faster than Bare Knuckle -- and those things it is, but it still fails to create an atmosphere comparable to that of those games.
Part of the reason is the largely forgettable, and at times crappy, score, but the main reason is that the stages are unremarkable. They are the sort of locations where you'd expect the Punisher to go hunting (a bar; the city streets; an underground hideaway), and they get the job done, but they eventually all blend in a brown-greyish, instantly forgettable background. There are exceptions -- such as the night-time attack on the Florida mansion -- and the final stage is a marked improvement, but by then it's just too late.
And yet, there was a great a chance here to create an unforgettable experience. If you can build atmosphere around such vacuous characters as Billy and Jimmy Lee, imagine what you could do with the Punisher! In Double Dragon, you are never quite sure where you'll end up fighting next, or whom. That's how this adventure starts out as well, but after you get through the first three stages you can just feel that the game has no surprises in store for you. And the threadbare plot doesn't even make any sense; Frank Castle sets out to exact revenge on his family's killers, but ends up going after the Kingpin... why exactly?
For a taste of what could have been, consider this scene that occurs at the end of the first stage. You've finally beaten Bruno's eight-foot-tall henchman and he begs for his life, giving you the information you require. And then what does the Punisher do? He executes him in cold blood. I was slightly shocked at that, not because my sensibilities were offended, but because I totally didn't see it coming (but now you certainly will -- that's what you get for reading the review before playing the game).
More moments like this would have worked well to keep my interest up and create that elusive atmosphere, as well as a proper soundtrack by someone like Yuzo Koshiro to keep me company during the long stages. Cameos by such characters as Daredevil or Spider-Man would have helped, and of course real Marvel bad guys for bosses, instead of the unexceptional gang that Capcom came up with (this isn't really a disappointment, because I wasn't expecting much anyway -- bosses in brawlers were never very impressive, though there is no technical reason why this has to be so).
I'll only mention a couple minor annoyances, just in case the more observant players start wondering whether I noticed them.
When you pick up the different firearms you can clearly see the number of remaining bullets on the bottom left corner of the screen. But the handgun works in a different way. The Punisher carries it with him the whole time, but only draws it in certain tough spots (mainly whenever he faces a lot of gun-wielding enemies), and only for a short while. During that time you have unlimited bullets, but you are never quite sure when he'll decide to stop using it.
Now limiting the use of firearms in a brawler is understandable, and is done so as not to unbalance the game, but I can't see why the handgun could not have been treated the same way as the rest of the firearms. In the end, Funamizu-sama, you either decide to give me a gun with unlimited ammo, or you don't. You can't just give it to me but not let me use it how and when I see fit.
It's also debatable whether the game would have worked better with three buttons instead of two. Because of this design choice, a couple of the moves are a bit hard to pull off, or simply look weird. For example, to fire the grenades you first have to press jump, and then, while in the air, press both buttons together. It just looks funny that the Punisher can't simply throw a grenade without jumping first.
And then there's the bonus stage half-way through, where you have to shoot barrels falling from the ceiling, for some reason. It's not bad, but it's over in seconds and ridiculously easy, and there's only one such stage during the whole game. What's the point?
But enough of the minor annoyances: they are just that, minor. When the screen fills with thugs and shit hits the fan nothing can touch this game. So the atmosphere never amounts to much, but in terms of action this stands high above all other 2D brawlers. The huge variety of moves, weapons and enemies help create so many fighting situations that you'll never get bored beating up thugs; and there's just so much to the fighting that I am still discovering new things.
Here's a move I discovered right at the end of the game, while fighting the Kingpin once more, for, um, review purposes. Jump at a wall and press the attack button just as you come into contact with it. You will bounce off with a ceiling-high jumping kick in the opposite direction -- kinda like what Chun Li does in Street Fighter II. Now for which other brawler can you say something similar?