I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
For the last few months, I’ve found myself in a creative slump in regards to editorials. Nothing’s quite jumped out at me like Sakura Clicker or inspired the flames of my passion like Space Station 13, so I’ve mostly been sitting around in a basement staring at a wall since November. I wondered, what kind of a series could combine both relatively good and heinously bad games with a wide range of subject matter, but still have a unifying theme? Thankfully, inspiration struck.
Licensed games. Sure, intellectual properties have been made into films since the beginning of time, but what about games based on IPs from those same films, comics, TV shows, and whatever else? These games, which fall anywhere between pretty good and migraine-inducing shovelware, deserve a voice. And what better voice than the voice of a man who played the entirety of Spongebob: Battle For Bikini Bottom multiple times and owns a copy of Sneak King?
The questions I’m setting out to answer are simple. Do these games do justice to their source material? Are they good? If they’re bad, are they just bad, or totally heinous? Is there a space in hell reserved for the makers of Garfield Kart? There’s a lot of games and lot of ground to cover. Let’s get started with a blast from the past- The Punisher for NES.
For the uninitiated, The Punisher, aka Frank Castle, is a Marvel Comics character who wears a big-ass skull on his chest and kills criminals. That’s pretty much it. The initial wave of popularity for the violent anti-hero peaked in the late 80s and early 90s, which I suppose is why someone felt the need to rush out the character’s first game appearance in 1990. That someone just happened to be the developer/publisher duo of Beam Software and LJN, best known for the heinous Back to the Future NES game.
So, many would say that’s a strike against Frank already, and I’d be inclined to agree. How do you bounce back from such a bad rep, especially considering LJN has a well-established track record of publishing other quick garbage cash-ins like the infamous Friday the 13th NES game? Beam Software would have to (literally) bring the big guns in order to blow us away with The Punisher’s big gaming debut.
Unfortunately, The Punisher gets less of a running start and more of an uncertain stumble forward. Instead of bothering to ape gameplay mechanics from previous, more successful shooter games like Contra, The Punisher locks Frank into the bottom of the screen and lets you slide him around, ending up as what Wikipedia calls “one of the few” rail shooters for NES. It’s easy to see why- attempting to both dodge bullets and position the crosshairs with just the D-pad is an obtuse, miserable experience.
Speaking of miserable, the game almost completely lacks any kind of a soundtrack. There’s a title theme, and a menu theme that gets re-used for boss fights, and that’s about it. The only sounds that accompany you through the levels are those of gunfire and explosions. Occasionally a bluesy jazz man will spawn and play you a morose 8-bit saxophone tune, but like everything else in the game, you can just blow him to shreds, silencing him for good.
That’s one thing about The Punisher (the character) that The Punisher (the game) gets right. Gameplay consists of you murdering literally everything that moves on screen. There’s no innocent NPCs you lose points for shooting or people you have to rescue or anything like that. Everyone is trying to kill you, so you kill them first. Despite the questionable controls, it feels pretty good to just mow down wave after wave of apparent criminals, some of whom don’t even manage to pull a gun before chomping down a lead sandwich.
Of course, The Punisher’s status as the king of mass slaughter means that he generally doesn’t have a lot of recurring enemies. Although I’m not sure what was going on in the comics world when this game was released, the boss enemies mostly aren’t anyone today’s Punisher fans would recognize unless they were stone-cold “Franksperts.” The two most recognizable faces are pretty prominent ones though. There’s the mutilated Jigsaw, who’s the closest thing Punisher has to a recurring nemesis, and then Kingpin, also known for exchanging blows with Spider-Man and Daredevil. These are less high-profile cameos as opposed to obligations- a Punisher game would feel empty without them.
Even better, all these characters are more or less immediately recognizable because the game looks pretty good. Not great, but good. The Punisher was released near the end of the NES’s lifespan, right on the cusp of the SNES’s arrival and the switch to 16-bit, so it’s nice to see some effort still being put into games for the console. I’m surprised by how much can happen on the screen at once in this game, and I’m equally surprised that Beam Software put some actual effort into the spritework, considering the eye-searing lumpy garishness of Back to the Future. The enemy sprites won’t win any awards, but goddamn, Frank Castle’s back has never looked better.
The Punisher pretty accurately tackles the minimal mythology of its intellectual property and doesn’t try to tone it down for younger ages. I mean, sure, there’s no blood splattering everywhere or anything, but Frank isn’t reduced to brightly colored laser guns and arresting all his enemies a la RoboCop: The Animated Series. The Punisher precludes the later “dial-it-back” bullshit that would lead to the character’s sharp decline in the late 90’s, like the time he became an angel to atone for his past sins. All you’ll find here is full-throttle-but-kind-of-awkward punishing action.
All in all, The Punisher could be a lot better, but it could be a lot worse too. It’s about what I would expect for a quick cash-in on a character with admittedly limited appeal at the height of his initial popularity. It’s fairly entertaining for Frank fans like myself, and maybe those interested in the microgenre of NES rail shooters, but I can’t imagine anyone else will get a whole lot of mileage out of The Punisher. Sure, most people are probably more familiar with The Punisher PS2 title featuring Thomas Jane, but hey- we’ve all gotta start somewhere.