Okay, let's get right to the heart of the matter here. Who's being punished? Criminals, villains and the occasional jazz musician. How are they being punished? With bullets, mostly. And just who is doing all this punishing?
That'll be The Punisher. He's all about punishing things, and Beam Software's 1990 NES shooter The Punisher will provide The Punisher with ample opportunity to mete out all the punishing punishment his stony heart desires, punishingly. You know when you see a word repeated so many times it starts to look artificial, as though it had crawled in from a different language altogether? Yeah, that happened pretty quickly with this one.
If you're not a fan of comic books or the straight-to-DVD movies they sometimes inspire, this is a game about Marvel Comics' angriest vigilante. His name, as you may have guessed, is The Punisher, and he looks like this.
Wait, no he doesn't - I don't think I've ever seen The Punisher looking quite like this before, a giant skull surrounded by fireworks and suspended from a bright pink harness while another head floats serenely above and a barrage of laser fire rains from the sky. It is not, I feel confident in saying, the Punisher's usual look. However much he resembles the cover of a Duran Duran album, The Punisher is Frank Castle, a Vietnam vet whose family are killed in a Mafia hit gone wrong. To deal with this trauma, he starts wearing shirts with a whacking great skull printed on them and shooting any and all criminals he comes across. He's a mixture of Batman, Judge Dredd, Rambo and anyone who harbours a disturbing revenge fantasy, so it's a safe bet that we won't be rounding up villains to offer them counseling and rehabilitation.
First things first, let's select a mission. Our choices are a ninja sitting in an uncomfortable chair, a terrifying hybrid of pizza and man, or a tank. I think I'll start with pizza-face, as that's where my cursor was.
Before each mission, The Punisher offers up a little speech on the task in hand. Who's he talking to? Himself, presumably. He's not the type to have many friends. Our first task is to "scatter Jigsaw's pieces," which I guess means we'll be facing Jigsaw, one of The Punisher's few recurring villains.
Yup, this one's all about the guns. The Punisher is a shooting-gallery type affair, rather like Wild Guns or Cabal. Enemies pop up, you move your crosshair over them and press fire, they're killed by the sudden introduction of high-calibre justice into their bodies. You can also move The Punisher himself left and right along the bottom of the screen to avoid the bullets fired at you, but because he's a big, bulky lad it'll take some practise and will frequently be impossible. Luckily Frank's wearing a nice thick layer of plot armour, and for someone with no superpowers he can absorb quite a few gunshots before he's killed.
The game really couldn't be more simple. Because you're The Punisher and you're as mad as a box of frogs, anyone who you encounter on your trip through the docks is a valid target. There are no innocent civilians to save here, because in The Punisher's eyes no-one is innocent. It's a good job there isn't a stage set in a primary school.
Frank hasn't come to the docks to check out the vibrant fishing industry, of course - he's on his way to prison.
Makes sense: if you're looking for criminals, prisons are your best bet. This is a colourful, completely unguarded prison where every inmate has a gun, but Frank's not interested in the finer points of the correctional system and he treats the whole thing as a glorified carnival game. Enemies pop out at you from all angles - leaning out from darkened corners, dropping down from the ceiling, calmly walking across the screen without a care in the world, like these dopey blue-clad chaps.
They're either supremely brave or incredibly stupid, and you'll be seeing a lot of them as you make your way through the game, strolling onto the killing fields with the nonchalant walk of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo and all the survival instincts of a moth in a lightbulb factory. These guys must be The Punisher's bread-and-butter - in a world where Norse gods, super-powered mutants and planet-eating aliens are forever doing battle, someone has to take care of the regular human criminals who barely know which end of a gun is which. I can't see The Fantastic Four stooping to the level of these common street punks, but The Punisher is just the man for the job and these mooks won't know what hit them. The coroner will, though. It'll say, right there on his report, that bullets hit them.
So, I was travelling through the prison and shooting the bad guys, and it was all very jolly if a little unspectacular. Then I heard a noise. There had been no background music up until this point, but now I could hear a strange, tootling melody. After checking I hadn't become hypnotised by the carnage and started humming to myself, I noticed the source of the music
It was some guy, sitting on the prison floor and playing a saxophone. Before you ask, I have no idea. He doesn't do anything, he just sits there and blows his horn while men drop like flies around him. There doesn't seem to be any reward for letting him live, nor is there one for killing him. Well, not unless you count the noise he makes when he dies - given the limitations of the NES's sound chip, shooting the sax man produces an eerily accurate recreation of the sound of a newly-perforated jazz musician breathing his final breath into a saxophone. Again, I have no idea what's going on with this, but these guys pop up in most stages, always just sitting there and playing the same tune.
Oh good, a situation I can grasp. This is Jigsaw, and he's not happy about The Punisher's reverse prison break. He hops around in the distance, shooting his pink balls at you...
...until he gets bored of gunplay and jumps in close for a spot of fisticuffs. Your fire buttons are changed to a punch and kick for these close-range encounters, but the basic premise is the same - move left and right to avoid Jigsaw's attacks and clobber him when you get an opening. It shouldn't take you long to put him down, and stage one is complete.
I guess Jigsaw won't be a recurring villain any more.
That's the basic flow of The Punisher - you pick a stage, which is split into two areas of normal pop-up target shooting and random blues solos, plus a boss fight. Clear a stage and you're taken back to select another, until you've cleared them all. For my second choice, I went with the man in the chair.
Now I'm on the mean city streets, which are a lot like the docks except with fewer frogmen and more bags of garbage that look like hideous organs excreted from some foul creature beyond man's reckoning. You can see them on the top-right of the screenshot above, and as a rule in The Punisher, if you see something, you should shoot it. This game has an impressively destructible gameworld for a NES title - windows are smashable, walls can be riddled with bulletholes, manhole covers flip over and sacks of rubbish can be blown apart. Many items even have multiple stages of destructibility, and on the whole your ability to wreck everything you see is one of The Punisher's strongest points.
The graphics? Not so much. The developers clearly decided that The Punisher would be a good chance to try out every colour in the NES's palette and in every conceivable combination, and the results sometimes get a little... abstract. Take the screenshot above, for example. What am I looking at here? Twin rivers of purple goo that are flowing around an extremely narrow building while two Coke bottlecaps hover in the sky? The enemy sprites don't fare much better, with most of them being only recognisable as humans because they're moving and firing guns. I mean, look at this guy:
I feel like I should be plugging his face into some obscure and rarely-used computer port as I take the small stack of casino chips he's holding in his gargantuan hand.
I will say that I like the way they drew the angular blue portrait of The Punisher that's used when he gives his pre-level speeches, though. That's got a bit of style to it, at least.
Definitely not stylish is the boss - I know I'm not really one to follow fashion, but I think I can safely say that painting your boxy helicopter neon pink is off-trend at the moment. This is where The Punisher's difficulty took a sudden and frustrating upward swing, which is unsurprising given that you're fighting a helicopter while on foot and out in the open. Nice battle strategy there, Frank.
Your first task is to destroy the rocket launchers under its wings, because those things can wipe out your health in seconds. Then you have to wait for the pilot to open the cockpit and throw a grenade at you so that you can shoot him in the face. No, I don't know why he didn't just fly away either. Maybe he hadn't reached these lessons in his helicopter training yet, and now he never will.
Next up is Colonel Kliegg and his tank, but before you get to him there's another battle through the docks, followed by a shootout in the wood-panelled Valhalla that is... this area. I'm not sure where I'm supposed to be, gunning down criminals in a mystifying mix of a 70's car dealership and a large box depository. At least there's plenty in the background to shoot, and shooting everything you can see in The Punisher is often rewarded with items. Power-ups are hidden behind destructible objects, and they range from health and ammo pick-ups to a faster-firing assault rifle and extra grenades. Yes, your weapons have a finite supply of ammunition, which is unfortunate given that the game exerts a lot of pressure on you to hold down the fire button and spray bullets all over the place like an incontinent elephant. If you run out of bullets, however, the game doesn't end: the punishment for your wastefulness is that your gun fires at a much slower rate until you find some more ammo. Thankfully that doesn't take long, and in general The Punisher is pretty generous when it comes to power-ups.
Here's Kliegg's tank. It's not a very impressive tank to look at, but the rounds it fires can kill you pretty much instantly so, erm, don't get shot? I don't know what else I can say, The Punisher has really boxed me into a corner by taking on a tank with nothing but an uzi. Oh, and a few grenades. you can throw grenades with the other button - the one that isn't "fire," I mean - and instead of going where your crosshair is pointing, they travel directly up the screen from where Frank is standing, killing anything that gets caught in their explosion. You can find a power-up that swaps your grenades for a shoulder-mounted and aimable rocket launcher, which is nice. I could have done with something like that while I was fighting this tank. Instead I just died a lot and, because there's only an absolutely tiny period of invincibility offered to you between lives, I generally died immediately afterwards too. Time to fight something squishy and vulnerable, like a ninja.
A shocking display of intolerance from Frank Castle as he prepares to remove all ninjas from the streets of New York, and I've got the horrible feeling that "ninjas" is a code word for "anyone a bit foreign-looking". If I lived in the same city as Spider-Man I'd keep my sentiments about wanting to get rid of all super-humans to myself, but I think we've already established that The Punisher is nuttier than a performance of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest reenacted by cashews with faces drawn on them.
Hey look, a new background and a new type of enemy! The background is a sewer, which is going to be problematic for anyone in New York who wants to flush their toilets because I shot every single pipe I saw full of holes, and the enemies are ninjas. Not very good ninjas, either - they hop around a lot, but that doesn't make them any harder to kill. If I was part of an ancient clan of mysterious shadow assassins, (and I'm not saying I'm not,) I'd be trying to organise a mass boycott of videogames because 99% of the time they portray ninjas with all the menace of a pyjama-clad man who thinks he can solve any problem by jumping like an idiot.
The boss ninja jumps around a lot, too. Crotch-first, mostly. There's no animation here, he just travels through the air locked in that one position, his curiously oversized legs outstretched like the claws of a grotesque crane-machine from an especially dingy arcade. The prize? The Punisher’s head, firmly nestled between those ninja thighs. I'm sorry, I take it back, can I fight a tank again please?
This boss fight is almost identical to the first fight against Jigsaw, except when the ninja gets close he uses his almost-unavoidable sword attacks to kill you. The disparity in challenge between the stages themselves, which are tough but generous enough with the power-ups to see you through, and these boss fights is a real sour note in a game that's hardly bursting with a rainbow of quality gameplay to start with.
With the ninja dead, I'm down to the last stage. The boss is called The Assassin. I think he might be an assassin.
As I'm near them end, I should probably talk about the gameplay of this revenge-fantasy-stroke-carnival-sideshow blastathon. Or should I? There's not much to say. Move crosshair, pull trigger. You know how it works. It's okay, I suppose - enemies pop up in a wide enough variety of positions to keep things somewhat interesting, the non-boss areas are challenging without being unnecessarily brutal even if it can sometimes be impossible to avoid taking damage. The controls are fine, if a little jittery. That said, I'm currently suffering from a particularly nasty cold so as I sit here, wrapped in a duvet and surrounded by a sea of empty Lemsip packets, I have to wonder how much of that was down to me. On the whole, though, it's a decent shoot-em-up that's hampered by stages that drag on for too long, graphics that occasionally veer into the indecipherable and bosses that snatch away any trace of fun the game might have offered as soon as they appear.
Bosses like this thing, possibly the shittiest-looking robot I have ever seen in a videogame. I don't need to tell you that he's a real pain in the arse to fight, so let's just take another look at this boss and really focus in on how bad it looks. It's wearing bell-bottoms, for chrissakes. Its arms appear to be made of red liquorice rope. The colour and the eye-slot make it look like a Transformer that goes from robot mode to postbox mode. I don't care how many times this thing killed me, (and it did,) it could kill all humans and it'd still be lamer than the lamest Go-Bot and that's not an insult I would throw around lightly.
But wait, there's one final stage left as The Punisher faces off against his most treacherous foe - a giant thumb with a human face! Or, you know, The Kingpin, Marvel Comics' biggest crimelord both in terms of crimes committed and body mass. This is the problem with basing a game around The Punisher, you're never going to finish with a final boss as iconic as The Joker or Doctor Doom or something, you're stuck with The Kingpin who can be a perfectly interesting villain in the comics but he's not really a good fit for a videogame (or aeroplane seats).
For his final speech, The Punisher has broken out into full-on beat poetry mode. Go on, imagine fingers clicking and a double bass being plucked in the background as you read this aloud:
They laugh at the law
From behind office doors.
The Kingpin will learn.
Don't laugh at me!
"That's outta sight, daddy-o!" said the patrons of the coffee shop where Frank Castle was reciting his latest ode. The patrons are then gunned down.
Cold black, red garbage bag,
Machinegun mohawk man.
Shoot a medikit,
Restore your hot-pink soul.
Forget writing about videogames, I'm moving into the lucrative and popular world of online poetry!
Ouch, that was a bit sarcastic even for me.
Obviously this final level is more of the same, the same city streets, the same flickery graphics, the same saxophonist sitting in a doorway while bullets bounce of the brickwork around him. Nothing has changed, and The Punisher has long-since run out of steam. It's just a bit too samey, with very little to the gameplay and certainly not enough to stretch it out over this many stages, but at least it hasn't been overly painful to play.
Here we can see the referee that The Kingpin has brought in to make sure our final battle is all above-board. What? That's actually The Kingpin? I don't believe you, bring him closer so I can get a better look.
Okay, it is The Kingpin, although I'm still not sure why he's dressed like a football referee. Maybe match fixing is his latest criminal enterprise, maybe he volunteers to officiate at matches for local underprivileged kids and The Punisher caught him on the way back, I don't know. What I do know is that this boss fight is just like all the other mano-a-mano battles, except The Kingpin hits a lot harder. I assume this is because he's nine feet tall and built like an oak wardrobe, but whatever the reason you've really got to stay well out of his reach when he comes close because his two-fisted punch will destroy you. Other than that, just avoid his bullets as best you can and throw grenades if you have them.
Before we leave this boss fight, I'd just like to share with you the face The Kingpin makes if you sock him in the jaw.
It's the NES sequel to Punch-Out that we never got!
With crime eradicated, The Punisher is free to engage in his favourite pastime: shooting holes in walls and then standing in those holes whilst looking menacing.
It's not a very rewarding hobby.
The Punisher, then. Easy to sum up as a generic point-and-shoot adventure that would have probably been more fun as a lightgun game, but it's less easy to say whether I enjoyed playing it. It was... okay, I guess? It occupies that spot perfectly equidistant from "fun" "dull" and "frustrating," the spot that makes this game an exercise in blandness but not quite the painful kind, not quite the blandess that makes you want to fall asleep or smash your controller. Give it a go if you really like crosshair-based shooting games, avoid it if you don't.
Of course, if you're really desperate to play a game starring The Punisher, you should try Capcom's arcade beat-em-up of the same name. It's a better game in every regard, unless you're really into shooting innocent saxophone players.