SNK already had a presence in arcades by the time they decided to dip their toes into the beat ’em up genre in 1988 with P.O.W. (otherwise known as Datsugoku: Prisoners of War in Japan). Instead of scrubbing urban blight with your knuckles, players took on mysterious enemies while escaping from a war camp. It was like playing a beat ’em up based on one of Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action films relying instead on heavily implying who the bad guys were — much like what Konami’s Rush ‘n Attack did with enemies who weren’t totally supposed to be Soviets.
Until they had developed a standard platform with their Neo Geo AVS, SNK followed in the footsteps of their peers in building whatever arcade board was needed at the time for the games they were developing. For example, the so-called “Beast Busters” board would only support two games, both shooters, in ’88 (Mechanized Attack) and ’90 (Beast Busters).
The board that ran P.O.W. was built around Motorola’s 16-bit 68000 CPU with the reliable Zilog Z80 as the sound CPU. The Yamaha YM3812 along with the NEC’s UPD7759 generated the actual sound effects, music, and the limited voice samples. This config was also responsible for a few other titles such as Ikari III in ’89 and SNK’s fighting game, Street Smart, also in the same year as listed over at System 16’s museum of arcade hardware.
P.O.W.’s side scrolling, 2D action kept things simple — two players could join up simultaneously in their escape from an enemy camp and fight their way through four very big stages filled with knife wielding bad guys, pugilists, motorcycles, assault-rifles, and grenade throwers. They could punch, kick, and jump kick. They could also pick up throwing knives and assault rifles with limited ammo to hose down enemies, and that was it.
This was before breakables ejected whole chickens and giant hamburgers for heals, trinkets for points, or a variety of other weapons with which to wage mayhem. Players had a health “bar” made up of four big segments. Getting hit once knocked a segment off. Some attacks, like getting knifed, took half a segment. Others, like getting hit with an exploding grenade, just killed you. Survival was tough, especially with some soldiers that knew how to keep out punch or kicking range.
On the other side of the punch, enemies could range from fragile (one kick sent them flying) to a lot more durable (requiring many hits to make them flash ‘red’ showing that they were close to getting knocked out of the screen). Punches, though fast, weren’t as tough as kicks, either. However, kicks were slower allowing the enemy to dodge those a bit more easily. All of this combined made for a fast moving beat ’em up without a lot of beatings depending on what the game threw at the player. It could also be a tough game because of the instant kills, though players with deep pockets could continue from where they had died sans their score.
There weren’t even boss fights until the last stage. Instead, at certain points and at the end of each, the game unleashes a mob of tough, beret-wearing bad guys, sometimes delivered by chopper, that the players have to try and survive. Tiny cuts in between each stage marked players’ puglistic progress with a dramatic freeze-frame action shot before moving to the climactic end where they are rescued by a chopper they call in.
P.O.W. was ported over to the NES in ’89 and like many arcade hits that came home it had more bits and bobs added to it to expand the game for the living room audience.
It now had a teaser that recast the escape story as a secret mission to take out an enemy HQ by disguising yourself as a prisoner. It also added some new pieces to the gameplay such as being able to enter buildings (such as the huts in the first stage or the APCs in the second stage) that provided special fights with power-ups (like brass knuckles or heals) as the prize. There were also “boss” battles such as fighting a Hind helicopter with grenades that enemies would drop. A continue feature was also added but it was single player all the way.
Later, the arcade game would be revived as part of the SNK Arcade Classics 0 collection (0 because it the titles included were from before SNK’s Neo Geo days). It was released in Japan for the PSP and was apparently planned for the PS2 but was canceled.
P.O.W. was also one of the very few beat ’em ups that the company would create, eventually yielding that genre to competitors like Capcom and Konami who pushed the boundaries with wilder and crazier ideas from Final Fight to Bucky O’ Hare.
SNK’s first beat ’em up also wasn’t a bad debut for what they could do, though it was also a little on the bland side in ticking off a workman-like list of basic staples and sticking mainly to keeping things a little too simple. In comparison, the NES version seemed to be the more interesting of the two if only because of the extras added over that of the arcade version. The only thing missing from it was the two-player option.
Still, teaming up with a buddy to take down an army during the heyday of the arcade scene was still a fun way to spend a few brass tokens in the 80’s, and even when it stuck to basic training, P.O.W. delivered.