What is it with comic book heroes having their families killed and having that trauma inspire them to greatness?
Superman’s planet was destroyed and he became Earth’s protector. Batman saw his parents killed and he grew up to become the Dark Knight, hero of Gotham. Spider-Man lost his parents when he was a child and was directly responsible for the death of his beloved Uncle Ben and he allowed that dramatic event to inspire him into becoming the hero of New York.
Frank Castle’s wife and children were murdered, with he himself left for dead, and he then became a violent vigilante bordering on insanity who tortured and murdered his way through the mafia and… oh. Well, it falls apart a bit with Frank there.
Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, is a good guy.
Ok, his methods leave a lot to be desired and he often fights with other good guys, but he is a good guy. It’s why he’s a popular geek culture figure, from the comics to the movies to the Netflix TV show, and why various different takes on his symbol can be seen on hoodies and t-shirts all over the place. First seen in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 in February 1974 (as an antagonist of the wall-crawler), he has gone on to become one of Marvel’s most popular characters.
With great power comes great responsibility. We all know that. Well, with great popularity comes shoddy video games and, boy, does The Punisher have plenty of those!
In 1990, his gaming debut was in an NES offering simply called The Punisher. A standard on-the-rails shooter that, somehow, failed to use the Zapper gun add-on that was available at the time, gameplay involved you shooting myriad bad guys in fairly similar locations; warehouses, docks, sewers, alleys and the like.
The mechanics of the game were simple enough; shoot everything on screen and move left or right to dodge. It was a little reminiscent of Operation Wolf but far less fun. It even stole that amazing game’s grenade button so you could lob spherical death at groups of bad guys when you fancied. Most enemies looked the same but that didn’t matter when you simply had to kill as many as possible. What’s one punk when you’ve seen forty similar ones already, right? As the game progressed you’d come up against recognisable villains such as the giant Kingpin (who tried to punch you in the head a lot) and would even be expected to takedown tanks and helicopters. For an NES game, it did the job.
Also in 1990, there was an Amiga game that was pretty standard fare but you did get to drive the Punisher’s van so that was always fun.
The Punisher: Ultimate Payback!
Game Boy, 1991
In 1991, the Game Boy saw the release of The Punisher: Ultimate Payback! Played in a first-person view, it’s once again a case of shoot everything that moves. Spider-Man makes an appearance, as do some other Marvel big hitters, and it certainly made a change from playing Tetris in the back of the car on journeys to Ramsgate in the summer. Graphically it’s rather impressive for a Game Boy title, with cut scenes that are actually watchable, and it has a pretty decent soundtrack too.
Talking of going to Ramsgate, above, I would happily spend my summers in the arcades there. Pumping coins into WWF Summerslam or fighting over who got to sit in the cabinet version of Afterburner are strong childhood memories and 1993 saw the release of The Punisher arcade game.
Made by those arcade wizards at Capcom, it took the form of a side-scrolling beat-em-up akin to Double Dragon, Streets Of Rage and Capcom’s Final Fight. Interestingly, for a Punisher game, gunplay was kept to a minimum and it was mostly a case of punching and kicking your way through swarms of generic bad guys until familiar faces such as Jigsaw or Kingpin turned up for a boss fight. Being an arcade game, you could choose to play as Punisher or Nick Fury and this allowed for some co-op play with a friend or a strange kid you didn’t speak to other than a polite nod and a grunt as you went your separate ways.
It was a fantastic arcade brawler. It was fast and frantic and, although it was essentially the same as every other side-scrolling arcade game out there, it was nice to see Marvel characters splattered over the screen.
PS2 / Xbox, 2004
Things start to get serious with 2004’s The Punisher, available on PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Based partly on the movie from the same year, which starred Thomas Jane (who takes on voice duties here) and taking story queues from Garth Ennis’s work with the character in the comic Welcome Back Frank, it’s a third-person shooter that allows the player to get creative and bloody when dealing with the bad guys.
Some very familiar Marvel staples turn up, from Nick Fury, Iron Man and Black Widow to the legendary Russian and even Daredevil’s nemesis Bullseye. Kingpin is there, of course.
This game had some unique methods of killing; you could use guns and knives, of course, but there were opportunities to use some more esoteric methods to torture information out of people, including power drills, a television set (smashed over the head) and even a shark (seriously). It was, in keeping with the character, rather bloody and violent and it was glorious. It was hugely popular at the time, selling over a million copies on release, and for it was a personal favourite.
The Punisher: No Mercy
PlayStation 3, 2009
In 2009, the PlayStation 3 got it to unleash its own version of The Punisher on the world. The Punisher: No Mercy took the previous game and threw it all out of the window and, instead, was an arena-based first-person shooter that took some visual queues from the 2009 Ray Stevenson movie.
Released on the Playstation Network, it was run on the Unreal engine and had shades of Quake and other multiplayer battle games. There was a single-player campaign but it was overlooked for the more frantic multiplayer experience. With poor voice acting and large departure from the great PS2 game, it was a big disappointment.
The Punisher has appeared in other games, too, as either a cameo in a cut-scene or as a playable character. These include several appearances in various Spider-Man games and as an unlockable character in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order (available on Switch and other formats). With modern consoles able to produce amazing games, I think it’s time The Punisher made a comeback to our living rooms and he deserves a balls-to-the-wall video game experience.
“You just point and shoot. There’s no safety…” – Frank Castle
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