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P.O.W.: Prisoners of War (Arcade) artwork

P.O.W.: Prisoners of War (Arcade) review

" I refuse to mince words. P.O.W. Prisoners of War is a game so fucking awful even the genre’s staunchest supporter cannot point to a redeeming snippet. Double Dragon 3 had some kitsch. Mug Smashers had some unintended humor. Even Street Smart – unsurprisingly, another SNK disaster – wasn’t this much of a miserable abomination; it at least had the courtesy to not drag out for this long."

Never before did I care less about seeing a beat ’em up through to the finish. Never before was the thought of replaying a video game just to write about it more revolting.

I refuse to mince words. P.O.W. Prisoners of War is a game so fucking awful even the genre’s staunchest supporter cannot point to a redeeming snippet. Double Dragon 3 had some kitsch. Mug Smashers had some unintended humor. Even Street Smart – unsurprisingly, another SNK disaster – wasn’t this much of a miserable abomination; it at least had the courtesy to not drag out for this long.

Welcome back to a time before programmers realized the genre would be a lot more fun without separate punch and kick buttons. Enjoy your stay. P.O.W. starts with a riddle: in a one cot cell, blue-jumpsuit adorned prisoner Snake – and optionally, the red donning Bart as player two – light a fuse to blow off their celldoor and break free. This poses the following conundrum: just who here is more inept? Their faceless capturers, for allowing such easy access to explosives, or Snake and Bart, who somehow found themselves locked up by these dolts to begin with?

There are a grand total of four enemies – though strategically, they all approach the same – each with about two palette swaps. And when you make the brilliant decision to palette swap army green for fatigue olive, it seems like even less. Some of these men will have guns. By the end, almost all will have knives. Using their fighting fists, kicks and jump kicks – and with some luck, the guns and knives they knock out of opponents’ clutches – Bart and Snake will combat an entire army. But there are also stipulations involved. For instance, if they pick up a gun and use up its ammo, they can’t drop it until someone dutifully kicks them in the face.

Some other rules of war:

1. Opponents calmly take to one-knee to dodge bullets. They randomly break combos, even when pinned against walls.

2. The best strategy for total victory against an entire army is to stand still throwing jabs.

3. Even though the enemy may have scampered off screen, he still may wield his limitless supply of throwing knives. He may still shoot you with an Uzi.

4. Should one of the nameless, lifebar-less opposition be shot off a motorcycle as he attempts a drive by, he’ll die. But seconds later, his motorcycle will spontaneously explode, and that will probably mean curtains for you too.

The shoddy collision detection of hand-to-hand combat borders on ridiculous and enemy tactics show no remorse. Watch as every well-timed punch – tapping the button when your foe is just within reach – knocks him backwards, often onto his ass, so you can’t combo up. Watch a pointless flurry of fists and kicks as the two men struggle to inch within reach again. Beware of every soldier, each capable of springing from a standstill and kicking you in the face, all of them going for it at the same time from different directions just as you climb to your feet. Beware even more should they have knives, as they’ll now leap higher, attempting to stab downward onto your skull with their blades.

When it appears they connect, you’ll take no damage. Only when their ass just clips your forehead will you be pierced.

Consider these scenarios: a helicopter descends in the backdrop – this looks promising! – only to unveil three of the same exact knife-wielding sprite you’ve already been fighting, and will continue to fight, forever. A soldier with a machine gun in a tank pulls up – this is going to be the first boss fight! – only he was merely passing through to drop off five of the same exact fucking knife-wielding guy, again. At one point, in the game’s fourth level, you’ll fight five of the same guy in fatigues. Clear the screen, and another quintuplet appears of the same exact guy. And they all have the health of an Andore.

Give me a fucking break, please. After a certain point, you’re not proving anything.

Meanwhile, even though in their escape the invincible POWs routinely hop down from heights that would cripple all mortal men – a fifty-foot high watchtower in the first stage, a tall torrential waterfall in the third, the rooftop of a warehouse onto concrete in the fourth – they turn up in a body bag after taking four punches. Or three flying kicks to the face. Or a couple of downward stabs. And in customary SNK fashion, just like in Street Smart, foes that are close to death flash red. Because seeing them flash red isn’t completely retarded.

As the adventure progresses, some challengers will be able to maneuver at twice your speed (despite their physical appearance being exactly the same as before). In the last level, so many cowards run on screen only to throw knives, chuck grenades or mash you with their motorcycle before running away it stops feeling like a beat ‘em up for stretches. But it’ll be worth it, when you finally get to the only man that could legitimately be called a boss character in the game.

It’s a bald guy. He has a pistol.

Heaven help us.

Even though this would be the perfect opportunity to finally end any game this shitty, SNK prolongs the torture as Snake radios for help:




From here there’s one last tedious stretch to proceed to the pick-up point and make a hard-earned getaway. There’s set after set of the same exact knife-wielders, the same exact goons in fatigues, the same exact cretins you’ve been fighting for the past hour, over and over and over again.

And suddenly a rescue chopper appears in the background. Two more knife-wielders come out of the woodworking – and by this point casual acquaintances like them have more health to chip away than normal beat ‘em up bosses – but you can see the end in sight. Just two more to go. Almost there.

Only there’s a glitch. One of these final soldiers can get caught in a perpetual evasive roll – with you unable to touch him – rendering himself completely invulnerable. He cannot be killed. The ending is literally directly behind you, an escape helicopter taunting you, and there’s no way to reach it.

Guess how I figured this out.

Fuck Prisoners of War.

drella's avatar
Staff review by Jackie Curtis (June 16, 2008)

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bloomer posted June 28, 2008:

I always really liked this when I put money into in the day. That's because it's too hard and cheap for you to get far enough - when it's costing you your pocket money to play - to realise how repetitively (and cheaply) difficult it is. This still doesn't worry me. I enjoy firing this up on MAME and just not playing very far. The way the guys hunch and punch is a way cool visual. I also love the music.
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drella posted June 28, 2008:

I'd have to agree. The first five minutes I played P.O.W. I didn't think it was that bad -- pretty much the same as any other pre-Final Fight beat 'em up. So at sporadic five minute intervals, it understandably can be kind of fun.

But I think this is true of almost every beat 'em up, barring poor physics and collision detection (so count out Mug Smashers, The Combatribes and a few others). Punching guys in the face those first few minutes will always be the same amount of fun. A few beginning over-the-top scenarios like in The Punisher or C&D stand out, but really each initial level one impression feels the same a lot of times. If I had to choose between five minutes of this or Double Dragon, it'd be close to a draw.

What usually defines the cult classics from the trash -- or at least, the way Fix and I always viewed the genre, which may or may not be correct -- is how much the developers mail it in the rest of the way. Are they still trying? Is this still somewhat beatable and are they still trying to avoid repetition and keep it fun? And the answers here seemed flatly "no." So it's understandable to get some fun out of this title, but you could probably get that same amount out of anything in the genre (and potentially a lot more). That's why I usually just throw away my "is it fun for a quick play" impression. There's no definition there.
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bloomer posted June 28, 2008:

Yes, that is an excellent point about the lack of distinction. For gameplay it's all true. Especially for POW's gameplay. All I can say is that I still like the first 5 mins of POW more than a lot of other beat em ups, heh. It's funny, I never liked Double Dragon, just on an overall aeshetic call. I took one look at the way the people moved and punch and stuff and it didn't draw me to drop my 20 cents in there.

I think TMNT is probably one of the best arcade beatemups for consistently being interesting. I spent a fortune on Final Fight too, but lots of the bosses were total brickwalls for me. I just couldn't afford to spend that much to get to another level. Again, I'd rather replay the opening stretch.
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Masters posted July 03, 2008:

Haha, this is a funny review, well done. It's also gotta have the distinction for most F bombs dropped in a review. ^_^ I don't remember thinking this game was as bad as you see it here, but then, I played something like five minutes of it. I've always loved Taito's Thunder Fox, which has a similar look to it. Have you played that one?
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drella posted July 03, 2008:

Maybe, but if I did I don't remember it too well.
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Masters posted July 03, 2008:

I think it's like POW, only it's fun.
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Felix_Arabia posted July 03, 2008:

Thunder Fox is awesome because it's so stupid. I love how the two dudes rip their shirts off and then whip out their combat knifes to take on a whole army terrorists. One knife swipe kills 3-5 bad guys or something silly like that. And when you fire the rocket launcher and hop aboard a jeep, you drive just as fast as the rocket. Good, campy stuff.
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Masters posted July 04, 2008:

Ha, Thunder Fox IS dumb. But it's actually playable. Gotta love being able to fly that hovercraft thing and play it like a hori shooter, or ride the jetski thing and dodge spiked mines and divers. It's a random stew, but that's a lot better than POW's neverending stream of predictability.

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