Retro Game Of The Week: The Punisher (Mega Drive, Arcade)

Marvel’s anti-hero The Punisher is a perfect fit for the late 80’s-early-90’s scrolling beat-em-up template, but it’s not an inexpensive game to add to your collection… at all.

In Retro Game Of The Week I pull a game from my collection and write about why it’s important or interesting. Or in some cases, badly dated and rubbish.

The 1990s arcade scene was absolutely dominated by one-on-one fighting games, thanks largely to the impact of Capcom’s Street Fighter II.

What those 2D and 3D combat games replaced in arcades in many cases were the side-scrolling beat-em-ups that had dominated basically since Double Dragon hit the scene in 1987.

There were endless titles that saw you taking to the streets with little more than your fists and just a tad too much testosterone. It was a particular favourite for licensed games of that era too, although not every licence was a totally natural fit.

I mean, I do love the Konami Simpsons Arcade game, but I can’t help but wonder how those planning and brand meetings went down. Lisa Simpson is a noted pacifist, but she’s out there walloping people with her beloved saxophone!

The Marvel superhero based games presented a much more natural fit. Many will gravitate towards Konami’s X-Men game – and it is a classic – but Capcom’s The Punisher also deserves mention.

If you're seeing this side of Frank Castle, you're in a LOT of trouble. Though typically not for very long.
If you’re seeing this side of Frank Castle, you’re in a LOT of trouble. Though typically not for very long.

Frank Castle’s missions of revenge are an ideal match for that basic move-to-the-right-and-punch-folks template, and while it doesn’t have the four-player action of X-Men, in many ways it’s a tighter and more enjoyable experience for being just two player.

That gives you the choice of either The Punisher or Nick Fury… although newer and younger players might be confused as to why Fury looks nothing like Samuel L Jackson. That’s a later revision of the character specifically designed to look like Samuel L Jackson.

Kids, this is what Nick Fury used to look like. He used to smoke a LOT, too. The Samuel L Jackson variant is an upgrade in many ways.
Kids, this is what Nick Fury used to look like. He used to smoke a LOT, too. The Samuel L Jackson variant is an upgrade in many ways.

So when Samuel L Jackson is playing Fury in the MCU, he’s playing a version of the character based on… Samuel L Jackson. Who needs a multiverse when you’ve got recursion like that ready to roll? But I digress.

My version is the Mega Drive conversion, unusually enough the only conversion for home consoles of the time, though this was a 1993 title, well into the era where SF2 really started to dominate gaming discussions – and critically sales.

Is The Punisher a smart game that tells a strong narrative and makes you think deeply about his underlying PTSD, the nature of urban decay and man’s underlying hostility to his fellow man?

Nope. It’s none of those things. This is your classic put-your-brain-in-neutral and just wallop – and sometimes shoot – a nearly endless array of foes, one after the other.

Punch. Kick. It's all in the mind.Though you probably don't want to think what's in Frank Castle's mind.
Punch. Kick. It’s all in the mind.

Though you probably don’t want to think too much about what’s in Frank Castle’s mind.

I do find it slightly amusing and odd that most of the gun weapons in this game have about the same impact as your fists, with foes shaking off gunshot wounds that should logically fell them. I guess that’s cartoon violence for you.

'Tis but a flesh wound.
‘Tis but a flesh wound.

Like many side scrolling beat-em-ups, the Punisher does drag a little in the endgame, because by then you’ve beaten your way through a lot of simple mooks. There’s some nice stage variety for sure, but it’s an absolute weakness of this game model that applies to most entries in this genre.

How to play The Punisher now

The Punisher for Sega Megadrive

So, this is an interesting one. Most arcade games of the era saw releases on just about anything that would take them, but The Punisher only ever got two “home” releases to speak of.

My copy of The Punisher is an ex-video-store-rental copy (kids, ask your parents), so much so that it’s still got a sticker telling me that it’s “$2 overnite” from the “Emerton Liquor Warehouse Video Club” (no, really).

I had to go look, and it appears that at least the booze-selling part of that business was in operation through to at least 2012 , though it’s no longer there. I bought my copy in an entirely different suburb in northern Sydney, so I have no idea how it travelled that way.

Want a copy of the Punisher for that dusty Megadrive you still own? It’ll cost you… and then some.

A quick eBay search finds a few copies, but few going for less than $500 AUD.

While some of those are chancers – there’s one copy with a $2,000 asking price sitting on it, which I suspect will be there for quite some time – but even completed listings run to around $150-$200 for the loose cart, and around $500 as a realistic selling price.

Ouch. I’d better take good care of my copy, then.

The reality for these licenced games is that while the hardware 100% exists for perfect running on any modern console – frankly, anything from the OG PlayStation era could have handled this game – the complex ownership of the code makes that much less likely.

So I was surprised to discover that in one context, it had already been done. There’s an Arcade 1UP cabinet, the not-terribly-well-named Marvel 3-in-1 that includes The Punisher, Marvel Super Heroes and X-Men Children Of The Atom.

Arcade 1UP’s emulation is sometimes a little spotty, though I can’t find too many mentions of The Punisher suffering particularly in this regard in reviews of that particular cabinet.

It looks like this... if you can find one for sale. I couldn't.
It looks like this… if you can find one for sale. I couldn’t. I could only find a few online images of it, frankly.

The only problem there? While the later collection of Marvel vs Capcom Arcade 1UP machines are pretty easy to find on sale in Australia right now, I couldn’t find anywhere still selling the older 3-in-1 cabinet at all. So good luck tracking one down — you’ll need it.

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