One of the best beat ’em ups in the arcade came out in 1993. It had punks, thieves, assassins, and a criminal mastermind rolled into a Marvel-licensed smorgasbord of fisticuffs and exploding furniture, and it was awesome.
Capcom’s sharpened their skills and learned new lessons in the years since 1989’s Final Fight with one of the designers, Akira Yasuda (who also worked on the Street Fighter II series), on board for this game. Since then, they’ve dipped their beat ’em up toes into fantasy with 1991’s The King of Dragons and Knights of the Round. They’ve also dabbed in sci-fi with Captain Commando. N0w, they’re hitting up Marvel for what seemed to be a perfect fit — comic book mayhem merged with arcade action starring The Punisher with Nick Fury as the 2nd player in co-op.
The Punisher was rolled out on an upgraded version of the hardware that ran Final Fight, the CPS-1. The new CP System Dash included a number of features that would eventually make it into the CPS-2 from Q-Sound that generated the fantastic 3D audio for many of Capcom’s arcade hits to the infamous “suicide batteries”. Software piracy wasn’t just limited to PC software; arcades had their fair share of it, too, and developers like Capcom were busy trying to find ways to curb it. These suicide batteries were one of those ways.
Encryption keys were kept in volatile RAM powered by a lithium battery. The keys were needed to decrypt the ROM that contained the game code. If the RAM were disconnected or had lost power, such as through tampering, the keys were lost rendering the hardware virtually useless. The batteries had a lifespan of five to six years and there were instructions on how to replace the battery before it died. If it did, operators had to send the board back to Capcom to revive it and restore the keys.
As for the game itself, it focused as much on story as it did on the action. The attract-mode (the demo screens that play while the game is idling) gave players the capsule background on how Marvel Comics’ Frank Castle became The Punisher, a vigilante dedicated to pursuing justice at any price, after his family was gunned down in the park by a mob of thugs. He survived and is using his military training and know-how to hunt criminals down.
But he’s no Batman — he’s not above breaking bones and shooting criminals dead to get the job done. In the game, a second player can also join him as Nick Fury (or you can play solo as Nick if you start on the 2P side). Fury’s the cigar-smoking leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., a paramilitary group focused on stopping world threats before they get out of control. Sounds like the perfect partnership.
After starting the game, The Punisher (or Nick Fury, though his name’s not quite as catchy on the marquee) then jumps right into the action by dropping the player through a skylight and into a bar filled with cash loot for points and a few easy-peasy thugs to get used to the controls.
There are also a lot of scripted in-game cuts, often with text between the bosses and the heroes (the text also changes slightly if you’re soloing as Nick Fury), and cinematics in between the stages along with a text-heavy ending. Story-wise, The Punisher implemented as much of it as possible without interfering with the action (you could speed through the dialogue) turning it into an arcade comic book.
The great art-style of the game also followed the inked panels of Marvel’s best with plenty of cartoony words accompanying punches, explosions, and many of the actions — but not overwhelmingly so. Just enough to evoke enough of that comics feel to the over-the-top action.
Every scene was packed with mayhem. This was a beat ’em up that didn’t shirk from lobbing trash mobs at the player and having The Punisher or Nick smash two, three, or more at the same time, sending everyone flying back. Sure, it could be repetitive on one level, but when it came to fun factor, it was incredibly satisfying to come off as a human wrecking ball in this game.
Chairs would fly apart, cars could explode, and giant robot bosses would register damage as they were worn down from a repeated beating. The world of The Punisher, all six huge stages of 2D side-scrolling action, was a place nestled deep inside the nightmares of every insurance company.
Dropped weapons had limited uses which wasn’t a problem because there were so many that dropped. Swords, knives, grenades, M-16s, Uzis, flamethrowers, pipes…all of it was for the taking. At certain points within the game, both Frank and Nick could pull their guns out allowing the player to shoot everything in sight before going back to breaking faces the old fashioned way.
The game was also incredibly generous. Continuing kept your score and picked up right where you died leaving it up to whether you had enough tokens, and patience to pick up everything, to try and get a huge score at the very end. The tough bosses, however, could quickly empty your pocket at the same time. Quite a few of them were pretty rough, like the Guardroids, and sometimes they also had help with more trash mobs coming in to get in your face but also to occasionally drop a few weapons once you beat them down.
Unlike Final Fight, The Punisher didn’t get ported to a massive slate of platforms. Instead, it was converted over for the Sega Genesis and released in 1994 (Europe would get it in 1995) — and that was pretty much it. The Genesis version, due to hardware restrictions, featured fewer breakables and animations, but it wasn’t “terrible” — just not quite as fast or as furious as the arcade version was. It also had a bit of censorship to it.
As an example, in the arcade version, Sully, one of the bosses, is grabbed and lifted by The Punisher (or Nick) and interrogated. After he’s done asking the questions, he shoots him as the screen fades to black. In the Genesis port, he’s just thrown out the front window. The female ninjas in the arcade wear one-piece leotard-like suits where in the Genesis version, they’re clothed from the neck down in some kind of jumpsuit.
The Punisher was a near perfect storm of action packed vigilante vengeance featuring Marvel anti-heroes, villains, helpless furniture, and phone booths (Capcom really had it in for phone booths in this game and Final Fight). Today, it regularly appears on beat ’em up lists reminiscing about the greatest ones of all time from the arcade. Even now, the action still holds up as a punchy distraction crammed with the kind of punishing melee focusing more on the fun than on beating down the player.