Coin-Op Classics: Capcom’s Awesome 1993 ‘Punisher’ Game
Video games based on comics have always been a pretty risky proposition. For every Arkham City, there are two or three Superman 64s out there making life hard on anyone who just wants to punch out super-villains. That’s why we here at ComicsAlliance believe that the good ones should be celebrated, and why we think that it’s finally time to put the spotlight on one of the most underrated classics in comic book video game history.
That’s right, everybody: Capcom’s The Punisher, in which Frank Castle murders the Kingpin with a medieval battle-axe. Seriously. This game rules.Originally released to arcades in 1993 at the height of popularity for both its title character and the beat-’em-up genre, The Punisher makes the far more well-remembered Spider-Man: Maximum Carnage look like crap by comparison. That’s not a surprise, though: Capcom had pretty much defined beat-’em-ups with Final Fight, in which Metro City’s democratically elected Mayor Haggar addressed the problem of an increasing crime rate by taking his shirt off and suplexing a guy in a wheelchair out of a high-rise window to his death. I’ve long considered Final Fight to be a high point for video games, storytelling and human achievement in general, but when you get right down to it, The Punisher might actually be a better game.
It’s certainly built on the Final Fight formula, but while Frank Castle and Nick Fury (the Player 2 character, inexplicably sporting a super-tight orange sweater) don’t have the individual styles that you get from Guy, Cody and Haggar, the game more than makes up for it by going completely off the deep end with a magic combination of comic book insanity and mind-boggling video game logic. Like, say, punching a phone booth until a roast chicken pops out. That sort of thing.
There are a few differences in translating Frank Castle’s adventures into a different medium, though. The Punisher of the comics tends to spend most of his time shooting people, to the point where there was an entire ten-issue series that did nothing but catalogue and detail his various guns. In the game, Frank will occasionally whip out a pistol and get to shooting…
…but only when his enemies have guns of their own. Apparently, video game Punisher is more the “fair play” sporting type. The rest of the time, he mostly sticks with punching them out, which produces a nice satisfying “KA-BLAM!” burst that pops up whenever he finishes his combo.
Don’t get the idea that the game is short on weaponry, however. In fact, it has more than any other brawler I’ve seen from the era, to the point where it is downright hilarious. While Comic Book Punisher favors firearms, Video Game Punisher is way more into chopping down pastel zoot-suited gangsters with a battle-axe…
Or a warhammer…
Or, in keeping with the medieval thing, just straight up picking up an entire suit of armor and beating criminals into submission with it:
Once the armor’s busted, you can pick up the lance and throw it at people. It’s fantastic.
Incidentally, while I was prepared for the baseball bats, knives and katanas that are staples of the genre, I completely lost it when the battle-axe showed up. Not just because it’s a pretty bizarre weapon to find in the hands of a modern-day Marvel Unviverse thug, but also because it shows up in a truly insane fight that occurs on a school bus:
Seriously, how chill is that driver? Dudes are trying to murder each other with Renaissance Festival souvenirs, and he could not be more calm. That guy is the real hero of this game.
With all those weapons, it should come as no surprise that this game is pretty shockingly violent, especially considering that you could find it at your local Chuck E. Cheese back in the day. I’ve always had it in my head that in games like Final Fight and River City Ransom, you weren’t actually killing the bad guys, just, you know, beating them up. Fighting Back and Cleaning Up The Streets are one thing, but one imagines that Haggar would have a pretty rough time getting elected if he went ahead and murdered the entire Andore family in the span of about six hours.
Here, there’s no ambiguity about it: You are straight up killing these guys, to the point where there’s one level where a car rolls by and explodes, leaving a charred corpse in the driver’s seat on the screen for the duration of a fight:
It is nuts!
Anyway, the real meat of this game is the story. It’s loosely based on the Mike Baron run from the late ’80s, and since that run was itself loosely based on drive-in quality action movies like Class of 1984 and Stone Cold, the end result is pretty amazing. The object of the game is to beat up enough people that you can get to the Kingpin, and along the way, Frank runs into a few completely unexpected Marvel Universe characters. The Reavers and Bushwacker, one of at least two Marvel characters who has the ability to turn his arm into a gross, fleshy gun, show up as level bosses, the latter of which takes place on an underground train that is also some kind of Drugs Factory:
Jigsaw makes an appearance, too, but surprisingly, he’s just a mini-boss on your way to go fight Kingpin, and he’s pretty unrecognizable — he’s just a big dude with a machine gun that you fight on the suspiciously long elevator ride. Because of course there’s a suspiciously long elevator ride.
Also, while there aren’t any cameos to speak of from the wider Marvel Universe, I am almost certain this dude is Iron Fist:
As you might expect from a game that was designed for the arcade economy of getting as many quarters out of the players as possible, the bosses are difficult, but never to the frustratingly cheap extreme that you might expect. Plus, if you die, you are rewarded with a scene that is truly amazing: Microchip frantically performing CPR on the Punisher, who — when you drop in your quarter — gets up and starts shooting his gun in the air like he’s celebrating New Year’s in Alabama.
Eventually, you get to the Kingpin, and the fight is fantastic. There’s a little bit thrown in from the comics, like the laser blaster hidden in his cane that he used to have back in the early Spider-Man days, but I may have missed the issues where his cigars gave him the ability to breathe fire.
And also that one where the Punisher broke into his office, pulled a battle-axe out of the sofa, and killed him with it. And you’d think I’d remember that.
Once the battle’s over, there’s a little epilogue that assures you that the Punisher’s war will go on, and —
Hey, wait a minute. A war against Evel? Man, I’ve had it wrong all these years!
What I’m getting at here is that it’s a great game. Akira “Akiman” Yasuda’s art is in top form, the combat is satisfying, and the truly ridiculous violence of it all fits perfectly with the character. So with Marvel and Capcom on friendly terms these days thanks to the success of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, here’s hoping that this game gets polished off for a release on XBox Live or PlayStation Network. It’s worth it.