Few phrases are likely to excite me quite as much as "side scrolling beat-em-up", and if you add "by Capcom" at the end of that sentence, well, the only other phrase likely elicit a similar response is "look, all Christina Ricci's clothes fell off," or possibly "Lemon Drizzle Cakes: 1/2 Price!” With that in mind, let's have a look at Capcom's 1993 arcade punchathon, The Punisher.

If you don't know who The Punisher is, he is Marvel Comics' most anti of anti-heroes: Frank Castle, former U.S. Marine and Vietnam (or Gulf War) veteran is having a picnic with his family when they accidentally witness a Mafia execution. The Mob kills Frank's family, he goes BATSHIT CRAZY and becomes, you guessed it, The Punisher, dedicated to taking down crime where ever he finds it, mostly by shooting it. You can't help but feel that the villains could have avoided this turn of events had they not chosen to hold their execution in Central Park in the middle of the afternoon, but even mobsters like green grass and fresh air. The game explains all this during the attract mode in a surprisingly eloquent manner, (although Frank's son looks like a deformed, leering, conjoined twin,) and Frank leaves us with the motto "If you're guilty, you're dead". He is not a believer in rehabilitation, this one.
Coins inserted, the character select screen appears. You can also play as Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., as he appeared in the time before he turned into Samuel L. Jackson, but this is The Punisher, so I'm going to play as The Punisher, goddamnit. Things are off to a good start when, upon being selected, The Punisher lets out a terrifying roar of digitized speech before saying... something. I listened to this something several times, and after about twenty repetitions I came to the conclusion that the garbled noise is him shouting "SAY YOUR PRAYERS." Here's a .wav - see what you think. Personally, I think it's quite beautiful.
The first stage starts in a wonderfully-drawn bar, and it quickly becomes apparent that you can break pretty much everything. Chairs, barrels, arcade machines, the lot, and most of them can be used as weapons, too. The few punks in the bar are quickly dealt with, because Frank's got the moves: the standard punch combo, a grab, an almost Guile-esque flash kick, a room-clearing spin attack and a glorious maneuver straight out of Tecmo World Wrestling where he grabs them by the feet and spins them around. Also, grenades. Frank continues the battle on the streets outside, where the gameplay changes slightly and Frank gets a gun. It's a nice change of pace, even if it does just come down to mashing fire as quickly as possible. After the shootout, The Punisher pursues his target, Bruno the mob boss, onto a school bus. Any American reader might be able to help me out here: do school buses there usually have smiley faces on all the seats? Anyway, Bruno summons his henchman Scully to serve as the level's boss. My first action was to hit him with a baseball bat, which seemed quite effective, so I did it some more. Scully likes to run around a lot, and he's pretty fast for a big lad, but the baseball bat wins through in the end. Frank "interrogates" Scully, gets the information he needs, and then promptly shoots his. The shooting was removed for the (not very good) Megadrive port, unsurprisingly.

A nice little cut-scene of The Punisher swimming up a pool vent precedes stage two, which takes place in the mansion attached to said pool, and as soon as he's out of the water he's being attacked by some sexy ninja ladies who can, rather terrifyingly, contort themselves into crab-like postures and scuttle around after you, making sex-noises when you punch them. If sexy crab ninjas are your fetish, then I suggest you play this: I doubt your needs will be catered for in many other places. Inside the mansion itself its all plush carpets, large staircases and goons with flamethrowers. There's another shooting section, and you are attacked by a guy in a trenchcoat carrying a tommygun who is identified on his health bar as "Cool". This raises a question: how does The Punisher (or any main character in this sort of thing) know what these guys are called? Do they shout out their names as they enter? The alternative, and this is what I choose to believe is true, is that the main character chooses a name for them when he sees them. Hence, Frank sees this guy, thinks he looks cool and therefore names him "Cool." What a wonderful scenario. Either way, you can beat him to death. There are some doors nearby, and upon opening them a grateful woman runs out and gives Frank a hug. He is unmoved by this, and chases Bruno into a bedroom where he (Bruno) is promptly incinerated by a giant robot. Poor Bruno: of all the rooms in the mansion, he has to run into the one with the giant death-bot in it. The Guardroid tells Frank the Kingpin has programmed him to terminate The Punisher: the two giant sunfish in the background look on impassively. The Guardroid gradually breaks apart as you batter him, and there are plenty of weapons lying around with which to do so: axes, swords and, oddly, a boomerang. Soon the robot is exploding all over the place, and you move on to stage three.
Frank spies on some goons at the harbour, and he promises to "Blow them out of the water". Geddit? Harbour, water. Well, he is The Pun-isher. Fighting your way along the docks, you can blow up a car which leaves behind the frame and the gruesome sight of the driver's charred skeleton sitting in the drivers seat, which I thought was a nice touch. The game got a little bit more special for me here when a robot with a human head turned up. His health bar names him as "Pretty Boy" which, if you subscribe to my theory of enemy naming outlined above, says something about The Punisher's mental state. You smack Pretty Boy around, and his head melts, leaving a T-800-style head: beat him some more and he dies, dropping his robot head which can then be picked up and used as a weapon. This is the kind of thing I feel is sadly lacking in videogames now, you know. Oh, and he drops pudding when he dies. Soon you reach the boss, a human torso attached to a tank called BoneBreaker who orders you to "Die in your own blood, baby!", although dying in someone else's blood is probably more The Punisher's style. He looks like he should be licking a knife somewhere in Fist of the North Star, but instead he trundles around firing missiles out of his backside and trying to run you down: this time I used hammer to clobber him.

Between levels three and four, you get to participate in the Street Fighter 2 barrel-smashing minigame. It's pretty much the same, except instead of using Ken's axe kick, you shoot them. It has the same timer, too, which I thought was a nice touch. Stage four takes place in a poppy field in a cave, and then it's all aboard the drug train, a section of the game which affords you the very rare opportunity to beat a man to death with a bag of fertilizer. If anyone knows of any other game in which this is possible, please let me know so I can once again sample the delights of bashing someone's skull in with concentrated horse manure. At the front of the train is probably the most luxurious driver's area ever, kitted out with a suit of armour, a leopard-skin rug and a fireplace, making it 1000% more classy than any house I've ever lived in. Of course, you can wreck it all, and the armour drops a lance that you can use, which is useful because the boss is here too. He's a large fellow called Bushwacker who can turn his arm into a gun; not in a cool Megaman way, but in more of a hideous, fleshy, Tetsuo from Akira manner. I managed to lance him good, though, and the drug train rumbles on toward the next level.
Before the stage starts, the Kingpin appears and restates his desire to see you in a shallow grave. Looking at the picture of him, I think he's supposed to be leaning forward, but he sure does look like he's flying out of the screen at you. The stage starts in a sewer and then moves into a forest, with a whole bunch of enemies after you. The crab-ninjas appear once more, now with the ability to summon tornadoes, a traditional power of the crab people. A kung fu warrior attacks you with nunchakus, and given the plethora of weapons in the game, I assumed he would drop them; sadly, they flashed and disappeared along with their owner, gone far away to wherever things go when they flash and disappear. Some rolling barrels try to crush you, exacting their revenge for the bonus stage. Eventually you reach a log cabin and the boss, Guardroid 2. At first I thought that this was just laziness, but I'll cut Capcom a little slack: it's not as if The Punisher has a huge amount of recurring foes. The battle is pretty much the same, except he's red now, and then he's dead and it's time for the final stage.

The Punisher spies the Kingpin's hotel, points a bazooka at it, and then he's inside the building, a sequence of events I didn't really understand until I figured out he must have fired himself out of the bazooka and into the hotel. Yeah, that's it. Along the plush corridors, all the enemies you've fought before come back and you get to smack them around all over again. I personally made great use of the spinning throw to hit them with their own comrades, a move I never get tired of performing. Scully, the first boss, returns somehow, having recovered from his fatal gunshot wound. Maybe Scully is his surname and they were twins. Once he's dealt with, you climb onto a lift which enemies throw dynamite at you. Anybody scared of lifts should be comforted to know that they are very strong, strong enough to withstand enough explosives to blast the Bismarck out of the ocean and sink it all over again. Once you survive that onslaught, it's time for the final battle with the Kingpin himself. Oh, and about one thousand goons. Kingpin fights rather like an angry girl, all slapping, as well as blowing cigar smoke in your face. Frank must have asthma or something, because that smoke sure does hurt. Looking at the size of Kingpin and the amount he smokes, Frank could probably have defeated him more easily by trapping him on a treadmill until the inevitable massive coronary, but I suppose he wanted to put on a show for the benefit of the other crime lords. He's pretty tough, and quite difficult to hit despite his vast bulk, and you'll probably die a lot. Dying does mean you get to see the rather nice continue screen where a doctor tries to revive Frank as his heartbeat fades; apparently the only thing that can revive him is an endless supply of coins. The Kingpin is eventually done for, and will have to be buried in a piano crate. No time for that now, though, and The Punisher and Nick Fury leap out of the window and destroy the building, killing at least 291 people (seriously, the ending tells you this). Some (again rather eloquent for a mid-nineties arcade game) scrolling text informs us that The Punisher will not rest, and then he and Nick Fury shoot the crap out of the credits.

The Punisher, then. I love it, I really do, as I love most games like this produced by Capcom in the early-to-mid nineties. Akiman was involved, and as always his involvement seems to have added that extra touch of class. The graphics are great, the digitized speech is indecipherable and the gameplay is a little more in-depth than most side-scrolling beat-em-ups of the era, and that's the way it should be. Here's to The Punisher's inclusion in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. See you next time, and remember to SAY YOUR PRAYERS!

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