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The Punisher (Arcade) artwork

The Punisher (Arcade) review

"Don't talk to Frank Castle about anger issues. He's a walking one. But then, you would be too if you and your family witnessed a botched mob hit and the hitmen killed your entire family to prevent being ratted out. "

Don't talk to Frank Castle about anger issues. He's a walking one. But then, you would be too if you and your family witnessed a botched mob hit and the hitmen killed your entire family to prevent being ratted out.

Maybe if Frank Castle had died along with his family, there would have been a pat obituary in the paper a few days later, and the multiple homicide could have been chalked up to being in the wrong place at the wrong time - victims of circumstance. But Frank Castle lived. And if you think you can kill an ex-Marine's family and get off scot-free, well, chances are that will probably be the last thought you ever think.

Where Frank Castle ends, the Punisher begins, wearing a tight black suit that can barely contain his titanic frame and lighting the night sky with his pistol. His jagged scowl and short, pointed sentences are a clear sign that he doesn't take injustices committed against himself and others lightly. To this end, he's willing to use any weapon he can find lying about to inflict the pain upon his enemies that they so deserve, whether that weapon is an oil drum, a tire, a flamethrower, a chair, a stick of dynamite, a baseball bat, a lead pipe, a potted plant, a lance, or another person. Compare that to a beat-em-up where all you have to defend yourself for the duration of the game is your own two fists, and all those other wannabes look pretty silly.

However wide your arsenal may become as the game progresses, The Punisher starts out as humbly and predictably as any other beat-em-up - on the mean streets of a stock urban neighborhood. Charged with the task of finding the goons who ruthlessly reduced his idyllic family life to dust in the wind, the game gives no hints from its first level that it will be the work of art it later blossoms into. The most notable battle in it is on a moving school bus with a pug-ugly thug who, if the Punisher can reasonably be assumed to be six feet tall, is twelve feet tall. He is slow, dim-witted, and takes hits about as well as an 8-year-old would hold vodka shots. If you only allow yourself to last through this first level, brother, you're missin' it.

Our hero finally corners his targets in a long hotel corridor. The vengeance is so thick, he can cut a slice from the air with a butter knife and chew on it. Right then, without warning, they are disintegrated by a laser, which is revealed to come from a gigantic robot who has been programmed with one directive: destroy the Punisher. All right, now we're getting somewhere! The robot is no pushover like that goober on the school bus. He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee - a bee with a 500-pound titanium stinger that releases hallucinogens into your bloodstream when it pricks you.

If your cup of quarters was full up to this point, get ready to empty it in the levels to come. The encounter with the android from hell is enough by itself to turn boys into men, but the game only picks up momentum from there. Noticing your unorthodox artillery, enemies start getting wise to your tricks. Psychos with zebra-striped spandex pants and over-gelled mohawks come at you with flamethrowers of their own, and the bullets you fire with such ruthless efficiency that went around start coming around. Plus, in addition to your basic garden-variety thug, ninja babes who also seem to moonlight as contortionists assault you, along with one of the most lethal foes to ever grace a beat-em-up: the lithe, limb-extending nightmare cyborg with the derisive moniker of Pretty Boy. Don't let your guard down, though. He's no limp-wristed nancy boy - a fact that becomes all too evident when he makes his ominous descent from the ceiling, one foot at a time, and throws you around like a dinner plate in a marital spat with human hands attached to an incongruent steel body. It is truly one of the creepier sights to be found in an arcade fighter. A lesser hero would curl into the fetal position in a matter of minutes, and so it quickly becomes apparent why the Punisher must be the one to tackle monstrosities such as these.

The game sends foe after foe at you with next to no mercy, saving generous doses of desirable power-ups like an energy-restoring rack of lamb for the scenes leading up to the game's final battle. This climax, fought against a hippopotamus in Armani more easily referred to as the Kingpin, comes just a scant six levels into the game. It's easy to complain about the game's brevity, but when you consider the wealth of hardcore action it gives you in return, it's rather easy to overlook this fault. Just because the Kingpin is a walking vat of lard doesn't make him a pushover, and the battle with him is one of the more entertaining the game has to offer. There's certainly something to be said for the rush one gets from hefting a 500-pound behemoth over his head and tossing him into an antique table.

Through all the carnage, the game looks absolutely beautiful and never shows a bit of flicker or slowdown. Even with a second player in tow as fellow vigilante Nick Fury, the action is constant and moves at the same breakneck speed. Before playing this game, it would be rather difficult to argue the case that a battle scene against a man whose arm can morph into a Gatling gun and his five scrambling lackeys is art. Once you've seen that eighth wonder and a half-human, half-Sherman tank lunatic blazing around recklessly in cramped confines like trains and warehouses, that task becomes significantly easier. I'm not one to condone violence, but there's nothing saying it can't be pretty.

Best of all is the way that no fist or bullet taken ever feels like a cheap shot. Unlike some beat-em-ups that are particularly notorious for unfair play, here it is as though the game is possessed of a sense of strategy. With all the enemies programmed into preordained positions, the feeling is only intensified, and indeed a judicious player can easily find a method to the madness with enough practice. Slowly but surely, the killing that at first is just incredibly fun soon becomes cold and methodical, and that Grand Theft Auto CD sitting un-spun in your PS2 might as well be a storybook called "Let's All Hold Hands and Smile."

The Punisher is like a loud burp: if it tasted good, it's worth sharing. Few games that involve lots of punching and bullets are as deeply satisfying and worth sharing as this. From the get-go, this is a guy you want to see succeed, if only because he's getting revenge in a way people usually only dream about (though I personally have gone so far as to depict such events in comic strips starring stick figures). The Punisher took the free-for-all side-scrolling brawl to a new level.

As such, since playing it, plain fisticuffs can no longer titillate me. I crave the adrenaline buzz that comes from being dogpiled by seven different malcontents. When people fashion their index finger and thumb into a pretend pistol and point it at me, I reflexively brandish one of my own at frightening speed. I frequently find myself wishing that the sheer amount of testosterone it takes to plant a baseball bat in a ninja chick's skull could be liquefied, bottled, and sold.

But until that day comes, this will have to do. Hey, I'm not complaining.

snowdragon's avatar
Community review by snowdragon (November 24, 2004)

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