Overall Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Whether based on comic book characters, blockbuster movies, television shows, or other medium, license games had a notorious reputation on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. They tended to be of low quality, and were infamous for seeming like they were quickly, shoddily produced just in order to turn a quick profit on a fleetingly popular franchise. Some developers, such as LJN, were even known for specializing in churning out several license games of ill repute, like the comically bad X-Men cartridge or other titles.
However, in late 1990, one of the exceptions was published, after programming work by Beam Software: Punisher, featuring the titular protagonist based on his appearances in Marvel Comics. Punisher is a unique video game that is difficult to plug into a single genre, and actually ends up being very playable, challenging, engaging, and just plain gun-blastingly fun.
The player controls The Punisher, a vigilante superhero who has no qualms with killing people. In fact, his aim is to eradicate crime from the streets, by way of shooting and blowing up every crook and hoodlum in sight, even the occasional ninja, helicopter, tank, nemesis, Jigsaw, door, crate, window, or other target. From the beginning, three initial levels can be chosen, each with three sub-levels to go through, with three other sets of triple stages eventually gained as well.
There may not be another video game on the NES console quite like Punisher, and here is why: The player controls The Punisher character in the foreground, who shoots at characters in the background. The directions used on the directional pad move the cross-hairs cursor all across the screen; but, also, the left and right directions move Punisher himself. This means that the player not only has to aim the weapon to hit the bad guys on the screen, but must also nimbly maneuver Punisher at the same time to avoid incoming rounds. This distinctive blend of high-octane constant adrenaline-pumping action but with constant character awareness and pixel-perfect projectile-dodging creates quite a clip-emptying experience.
Not only can Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher, shoot gangsters and mobsters, but he can also shoot crates, boxes, and other scenery features in order to possibly find icons. Shooting the icon then grants a bonus, such as additional ammo, a new gun that fires at a faster pace, additional health for the health bar, more grenades to use with the B button to inflict lots of damage to a portion of the screen, or other goodies. After each level, the percentage of bad guys killed is tallied up, with enough percentage points granting the player a bonus; for example, killing 95% of the on-screen enemies that appeared gives an extra life, whereas getting 80% will give a boost of health. Every third stage tends to present a boss battle, some of which feature Castle’s enemies from the comic series. There are even hidden bonus rooms to find in some levels, in which bonus items are more commonly prevalent and the player can emerge much stronger and ready for more gun-down carnage.
This is actually a fairly slick-lookin’ game. The developers truly use every inch of the 8-bit palette given to them, as the characters are rendered somewhat large and detailed, the background environments appropriately stick to color themes and lend appropriate atmosphere, the game handles several sprites on-screen with minimal flickering or slowdown issues, and there is even some clever interplay, such as the ninja enemies that blend into the shadows between their leaps across the level, which is a brilliant touch.
The sound is probably the low point of this game, and for two very big reasons: Firstly, because during gameplay, there is no background music; and, secondly, many of the effects, such as the Punisher’s grenade explosions and the gunfire of certain enemies, is understated or rendered at an oddly high pitch. The primary gunfire from the Punisher is satisfying, which is likely the most significant factor, but the title does otherwise leave the player wanting more in the audio department, although the lack of music does give a sort of minimalist focus to the whole affair.
Punisher is a solid game, with plenty of gun-toting action to pass around. The joys of discovering what background elements can be shot, admiring the developer’s cleverness in the enemy design (check out the intentionally skinny guys that are tough to hit in the body and force the player to go for the head), and the distinctive uniqueness of this title all contribute to it possibly being LJN’s finest effort. Regardless of opinions on the ranking of their library, the Punisher is certainly a game worth giving a chance, and worthy of a respectable three and a half stars out of five.