All Out (Pixelated) War
The Punisher: The Ultimate Payback!
As we've touched upon before, The PunisherAn anti-hero who was never meant to be a hero in the same way as the Avengers, the Punisher has taken on his own life in pop-culture, but that doesn't change the troubling qualities to his characterization. is a problematic character. He's a "superhero" whose power is that he kills people. He has a lot of guns, and he uses them, and his idea of justice is street justice. He is not a character you market to kids, this despite Hollywood's multiple attempts at mainstream superhero success (Punisher '89, Punisher '04, and Punisher: War Zone). He is not a hero, he's an anti-hero, and not one you'd think should be marketed towards children.
Now, say what you will about the state of mature games on the NES and Game Boy, but the primary audience at the time for those consoles was certainly grade school kids. Superhero games were nothing new on the NES, but it's different to have SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002. going around knocking out bad guys and the Punisher clearly killing dudes left, right, and center. That is not to say that the Punisher was the only violent video game on the NES, as there were plenty (and plenty of shooters within that set). But when you see The Punisher (or it's Game Boy iteration, The Punisher: The Ultimate Payback!) in action, it's hard to not feel at least a little squiffy about it.
The original NES game was developed by Beam Software and released by LJN, while it's Game Boy iteration was published by Acclaim Entertainment, and both take a similar tack to the material. A bunch of bad guys are running around New York City and the Punisher shows up to lay down his street justice. He does this in a behind-the-back, on-rails shooter while the hordes of dudes show up and you, as the Punisher, have to mow them down. You get an aiming reticule that you move around with the D-pad, and you can fire with the action button. From there, it's mindless killing for as long as you can last.
Although functionally the two games are the same, there are some key differences in the material. To start, the NES game is way longer. As it's an on-rails, scrolling shooter, we can definitively say just how long each game is with little variance. The NES game clocks in at just over an hour of game play, while the Game Boy version has a mere 15 minutes to its length. Why the difference? Well, the NES game is broken up into three major missions, each broken into a series of stages, and each of these scrolling stage are very long. The Game Boy version, meanwhile, gives you only one mission with five stages, and the stages in general are much shorter.
Now, I don't think this makes the Game Boy version inferior, per se. For starters, it's understandable that a game without any kind of save function would be made shorter on the Game Boy. This was a portable system, meant to be played in bursts and an hour-plus game is far too long for that system. But it also tightens the game play as well. The NES game feels very long, especially when most of what you're doing is brainlessly shooting at dudes. An hour of that numbs you pretty hard, but the Game Boy game feels like just the right length to get in, get through, and feel like you had a satisfying experience.
With that said, there is no denying that one of its biggest flaws is that it glorifies killing a bunch of dudes. Both games let the murder flow freely, and even count up how many guys you killed at the end of each stage. You are absolutely encouraged to kill everyone and everything in front of you, and there's no worry about whether you're a good guy or a bad guy (like the comics will often deal with) because you're an action video game hero that just has to kill everyone in front of you to survive.
This, admittedly, is made worse in the Game Boy version. The first stage of that game features cameos from Spider-man where he actively sends the Punisher out to kill dudes at a supermarket and then, later in the stage, Spider-man shows up to assist with civilians while the Punisher is killing guys. Spider-man is an unquestioned hero that doesn't kill. Having him team up, in any way, with the Punisher feels like a violation of his own character while also glorifying the violence of the game as well.
Meanwhile the NES version has its own issues. Namely, it's pretty damn racist. As you're playing through, you'll notice a worrying trend: all the bad guys you're shooting are darker in skin tone. Punisher is white (like, with white pixels for his skin) while all the bad guys use brown and yellow for their skin tones. Yes, I know the NES had a limited color palette, but peach was among those options, so that makes it seem like the darker skin tones were a conscious decision of the designers. This is a white dude shoot minorities left, right, and center. That's not a great look.
Thing is, for an on-rails shooter on the NES, the game play isn't bad (if you can divorce it from all the content around the shooting). It's weird to have a shooting game on the NES that doesn't use the light guy (and, of course, the Game Boy didn't have a light gun attachment at all), but the controls are solid for this kind of "move the cursor" game play. The cursor is fast and responsive in both versions, and the balance is there to keep the action from feeling overwhelming while you're trying to move around and shoot.
Credit to the NES version as well, you can actually move the Punisher around physically to dodge bullets, adding an extra bit of depth to the game play and strategy. The Game Boy doesn't have this, only showing the cursor and no Frank to control, so anyone, on any part of the screen, can shoot and damage you. This is a minor knock against the Game Boy version, but only a minor one. They are both still well balanced in general, so it's really a matter of preference, I'd say, over which version you like more.
With all of that said, to be able to enjoy this game (either version), you have to be able to divorce yourself from a lot of the content within. It's games like this, without any nuance to Frank and his exploits, the carnage he causes and the bodies he piles up, that make him a problematic figure. He's not a good guy, in any context, but a game that glorifies him sends the wrong message to its audience. This game does more damage than good on that front, so for all its solid game play this is still a bad game. The message is as important as the format, and this game fails on its messaging front.