LJN is notorious for coming up with bad games, so when it was time to try The Punisher on the Nintendo Entertainment System, I was just hoping for a playable game. I don’t know if it’s because I lowered my expectations, but what I found was a pleasant surprise. Let’s get into it.
The Punisher is an on-rails shooter developed by Beam Software and published by LJN for the Nintendo Entertainment System. In this game, you take on the role of Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, who is in the middle of a war against criminals. The stages in this game automatically scroll to the right. Different kinds of criminals can appear any time, from all directions. They can walk in from the left or right, drop down from above, or pop out from windows and alleys.
You have a crosshairs icon indicating the spot where you’re aiming, and this is controlled via the D-Pad. However, you also have the Punisher himself onscreen, in the foreground. You can move him to the left or right if you want to dodge enemy fire. You also need to use the D-Pad for this. As you can imagine, it’s impossible to aim one way and move towards the opposite direction. Most of the time, you’re forced to choose between taking a shot or dodging incoming enemy fire.
Shooting objects in the background can sometimes reveal beneficial power ups. One of these is the Daily Bugle newspaper which will give you hints. There are only a few hints, and these will start to cycle through at a certain point. Some will tell you spots to shoot to unlock the Bonus Worlds.
These stages are similar to regular levels, except that there are a lot more power ups to discover. These are good places to load up on ammo and other items.
The Punisher’s Arsenal
Because this is a game for an 8-bit console, The Punisher’s arsenal is limited to a primary and secondary weapon. His default primary weapon is a submachine gun which has a moderate rate of fire. It has an ammo count, but you don’t necessarily run out. Instead, when you are down to one bullet, your submachine gun’s rate of fire drops significantly. It almost feels like it’s a single shot gun, so you should always avoid wasting your ammo.
Sometimes, you’ll find assault rifle power ups. These can be dropped by enemies, or come out of background objects when you shoot at them. This gun has a faster rate of fire and is a big help against bosses and tough enemies. This gun has it’s own ammo clip; you’ll revert to your submachine gun when this runs out of ammo. You can also find ammo clip power ups in the game. These will add ammo to your current gun.
His default secondary weapon are grenades. He tosses these directly forward. They explode on contact and can damage and even kill clusters of enemies. The rocket launcher power up changes this to rockets, which also explode and cause area of effect damage. Rather than going forward, these follow the direction where you are aiming.
At the end of every sub-level, you get a completion summary. Achieving high kill rates can gain you some helpful bonuses. Getting 100% at the end of a sub-level is the only way to get the Super Gun – a more powerful version of the assault rifle. So you should try your best to kill everyone, especially before a boss fight.
The Dreaded Saxophonist
You can’t shoot everyone in this game, though. The Saxophonist is a special character that occasionally appears in all of the game’s stages. He’s not an enemy, so you don’t need to worry about him shooting at you. However, if you accidentally kill him, you’ll lose a big chunk of your health.
You’ll know that the Saxophonist is coming when you hear him play on his musical instrument. There is no music in any of the regular stages, only the sounds of gunfire. So it’s easy to tell if the Saxophonist is just around the corner. Make sure that you do your best to avoid him.
More Power Ups
It’s pretty difficult to avoid taking damage in The Punisher. Thankfully, the game provides enough health refills. These are power ups with the cross icon. It’ll look like a medkit, so you’ll know exactly what it is. These will fill up your health meter significantly.
At the start of every level, you only have half your health meter. To expand this, you need to find the bulletproof vest power up. These will look like a bulletproof vest, and will increase your health meter by 1/8. It also refills some health. In playing this game, I found that in order to succeed, I needed to stay alive in between health refills. I’d consider these to be the most important power ups, except for the Extra Life.
The later stages, especially the final boss fight, can be really brutal. I was only able to beat the game because I found a lot of these Extra Lives during my playthrough. You’ll need to know where these power ups are hidden if you want to beat this game.
I really enjoyed the boss battles in The Punisher. Most of these are based on actual characters from the comic books, although some are quite obscure. I had to look some of them up online to confirm that they’re comic book characters.
These boss battles play similarly to regular stages, except that they take place in static screens. Some of these bosses have two or three phases to them. The Hitman, for example, fights you in a helicopter. After you take out his gun turrets, he’ll start peeking out to toss grenades.
Other bosses will start the battle from a distance, shooting at you in various ways. They can then charge at you up close. During these moments, the game shifts to hand to hand combat. You can dodge their attacks by moving to the left or right, or counter by punching or kicking them. Punches and kicks aren’t as effective as gunfire, so I ended up dodging most of the time.
Visuals, Audio, and Presentation
The quality of the graphics of The Punisher is inconsistent. Sometimes, they look good enough. Enemy sprites have clear detail, so it’s easy to tell them apart. You can also tell what each enemy does by their appearance. Some bosses look good enough, such as Jigsaw and the Kingpin. And the stages do look like the locations they are representing, such as docks and sewers.
But the game also has pretty bad looking graphics. Mr. Kliegg, one of the bosses, fights you in a tank, which looks really bad. The Hitman’s helicopter also looks like it was done on the Atari 2600. The Punisher himself looks okay, but it’s weird to see his pale white face. And his sprite has animations that remind me of Nintendo’s old Game and Watch games. There aren’t even any background graphics in some of the boss battles. All you see is a plain solid color.
The sounds of this game is decent, with good music and good sound effects used for gunfire. However, the sound effects are limited. I wish they added more, like grunts. There aren’t even any sound effects during the close combat sequences, so landing a punch or a kick doesn’t feel satisfying. The worst part about this game’s music is the absence of it in regular stages. There’s simply no music, only the sound of gunfire and the occasional tunes from the Saxophonist.
Finally, I also found the game’s presentation to be quite lacking. Before the start of every stage, you get a monologue from Frank Castle. He gives a quick explanation of why he’s going after the bad guy of that level. I would have preferred it if the developers used comic book illustrations of these bad guys. Maybe even toss in some comic book panels of the criminal activities that they’ve been doing. There’s a cool sequence just before the title screen with Castle shooting out of the darkness, but it’s just one cool moment out of an entire game.
I actually liked playing The Punisher. Again, I don’t know if it’s because I lowered my expectations, knowing that this was from LJN. I think it’s hard to make an on-rails shooter for the NES, due to limitations of the hardware. Despite this, Beam Software and LJN was able to create an on-rails shooter that plays well. However, this game needed a lot of polish in terms of the overall presentation. Too many sections of the game doesn’t look good, and some parts just look plain ugly.
It doesn’t help that this game is the wrong kind of being hard. Because you only have two buttons on the NES controller, it is difficult to fight and dodge at the same time. Without passwords or continues, you’ll need a lot of level memorization in order to beat this game. I had to resort to using the health upgrade cheat just to be able to beat this.
This game would have been more manageable if you didn’t lose all of your health upgrades after each stage. Allowing you to keep some of them (maybe an upgrade for every level completed) would have improved this game’s accessibility. Or maybe add difficulty settings, with easier modes letting you start with a longer health meter.
I wish that LJN didn’t give up on this idea completely. Both this and the Game Boy version had some fun moments. I think that a SNES version would have been better. They could use the additional buttons for more moves, such as dodging or rolling. The Punisher character is tailor made for shooter games. The NES simply wasn’t powerful enough for this game. I did enjoy my time with it though. If you just want to shoot enemies and don’t mind not being able to finish the game, you should give The Punisher a try.