When I was a kid renting out NES games from our local gas stations, the place we rented most of our NES games in our hometown, the mere idea of a Punisher game was far too exciting. Without knowing anything about the game (couldn’t really run to the internet back in the early 1990’s) my imagination went wild dreaming of a Contra-eqsue experience, running and gunning down bad guys with large-caliber weapons. Upon turning over the box I saw nothing of the sort that indicted this was a game I wanted; Just a large image of the character in the middle of a play screen, and a description that it was a shooting game. My hopes were crushed and I don’t believe I ever bothered to even try it, which is a shame to my young self really, as he missed out on a pretty good game.
The Punisher NES is an on-rails shooter where as the title character, you move from left to right, mowing down every person shooting back at you, which so happens is a lot of people! At first it’s a little disappointing knowing that developer Beam Software didn’t go for the full on Punisher experience by allowing you to use the NES Zapper, but the way they designed the game actually adds more depth to the simple shooting mechanics.
Controls are easy enough in The Punisher: Move the d-pad around the screen until it lines up with a target, press “A” to shoot and “B” to lob grenades and other explosives. When not holding down the shoot button, the Punisher character will move left and right across the screen, allowing the player to dodge some incoming enemy fire and projectiles, thus increasing your overall chance of survival. Had Beam just made this a simple light gun game, this mechanic would either be nonexistent, or awkwardly controlled with both the gun AND a controller. By adding in simple movement, it adds depth to what could have been a pretty shallow experience (as we’ll see later in another review…).
Levels in The Punisher come in only a few types: dockside, warehouse, sewers, city streets and a prison, but there’s a lot to be uncovered in each of the environments. Shooting out windows, crates and other objects in the stages net items like spare health, body armor (which increases your health meter,) ammo, grenades and extra lives. Scattered in the game are hidden bonus areas as well that will give you extra firepower and chances. Like a lot of LJN games, Spider-Man and the X-Men and the Uncanny X-Men come to mind, you also get the chance to complete the levels in whichever order you wish, though they all more or less play out exactly the same: two shooting stages followed by a boss encounter.
Almost identical to the levels, enemies only come in a few types but they stand out well against the levels as easy targets, with the exception of the puke green colored scuba enemies that are little difficult to see in the water. You’ll want to have your eye trained on the patterns of each type, for at the end of each level your bonus is calculated on how many enemies you took out, and how accurately you did so. Your chance of making it to the end may end by being the difference on whether or not you took out that one jumping ninja or not.
Enemies and levels tend to repeat themselves, but one area that doesn’t is the game’s boss encounters. You’ll test your trigger finger against tanks, helicopters, giant robots and human opponents like Jigsaw and the Kingpin. The bosses are challenging, but not overwhelmingly so, and add much-needed variety to the fun but monotonous shooting stages. Each boss will have a weakness to exploit, like taking out their guns,immobilizing them, or waiting for a pilot to stick their head out. As the fights progress, the tactics of your enemy will change depending on their level of damage, making the boss encounters that much more thrilling.
The gameplay gets another wrinkle in the human boss fights, as they can get up close to The Punisher to inflict damage. When they become this close, your buttons switch from shooting to punching on the “A” button and a kick on the “B” button, almost like a Punisher version of Punch-Out. Though I do appreciate the additional strategy and change-up, the up close fighting often results in you losing a life or a lot of health because the timing on your hits is way less precise than your foe, especially in the final fight with the Kingpin.
From a gameplay standpoint, The Punisher is a tight from a control and difficulty perspective, but the same cannot be said for the production value. As stated above there’s only a few enemy and level types, but there’s also no music to speak of with the exception of boss fights and when there’s a random saxophonist who shows up for no reason whatsoever. Seriously, there’s a guy playing a saxophone while people are shooting all around him…in the sewers?! The only sound that accompanies you throughout the rather long levels is the sound of your gun firing or an explosion or two.
I was hesitant to pick up The Punisher on the NES in my youth, and playing it in my adult years it’s actually not that bad. It’s a shallow but satisfying rail shooter that offers a little bit more depth in its gameplay with the ability to move out-of-the-way of enemy gun fire. In the NES days publisher LJN shoveled a lot of unfairly difficult, controlling throwing inducing licensed games onto store shelves that destroyed many a child hood, but I can say that The Punisher is not among them.