November 2017 is a big month for superheroes. Within the span of thirty days came Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, and The Punisher on Netflix. Millions and millions of dollars are tied up in these individual works, and the collective IP value is even higher. But one of these properties in particular has a surprisingly long and valuable history in video games, even despite being, arguably, the most obscure of the list. I’m talking about The Punisher of course. Before, during or after your ridiculous Punisher Netflix binge-watching session, join me for a brief look back at the strange and varied video gaming history of one of Marvel’s most troubled heroes, The Punisher.
The Punisher – 1990 – NES – Beam Software, LJN
Ah, LJN. The rainbow we all know, love, and dread. Licensing in the early 90s was practically the Wild West, especially with comic book properties. LJN was a toy company with all kinds of NES deals, and Marvel was right there in the mix. The interesting thing about LJN games though, was its hiring of international developers from all kinds of places, instead of the usual Japan or United States. The first Punisher game was developed by Beam Software, a team from Australia that would eventually get sucked up by Atari. This Punisher game is known as being one of the small number of rail shooters on the NES. Players controlled Frank Castle in a sort of over the shoulder view, and had to choose between moving side to side, or shooting. It’s generally known as one of the more respectable Marvel NES games, and one of LJN’s few quality releases.
The Punisher – 1990 – MS-DOS – Paragon Software – MicroProse
This one came from MicroProse, publisher of a wide range of early computer games such as the X-COM and Civilization series. It was developed by the short-lived Paragon Software, makers of a handful of Marvel games, and some adaptations of old GDW role-playing games as well. This was certainly an early PC game, largely seeing The Punisher making his way across slow-moving, grid-based maps and solving vague mission objectives with unclear guidance and very little direction. It did use the phrase “Mega-Pimp,” however, so there’s that.
The Punisher: The Ultimate Payback! – 1991 – Game Boy – Acclaim – Krome Studios Melbourne
The early years of the Game Boy featured a lot of brute-forcing NES games onto the handheld hardware, and this handheld Punisher game is no exception. Krome Studios attempted here to adapt the rail shooter style of Beam Software’s NES game, with Acclaim doing the publishing. The ability to move Castle was removed, so it was all about shooting through as fast as possible and collecting power-ups. Spider-Man also made a cameo here, being one of the earliest examples of superheroes crossing over within video games.
The Punisher – 1993 – Arcade – Capcom
Here we go! While the NES and Game Boy game explored, intriguing, uncharted territory in console and handheld space, this is the point where we enter the era of dope Marvel games from legendary Japanese developers. This is when comics were at their worst, therefore licensing comics at their cheapest. That led to houses like Konami and Capcom snapping up rights for nothing, and made magic in the arcade brawler/fighting game realms. The Punisher was actually Capcom’s first Marvel game, leading to the enduring Marvel vs. Capcom series. It’s a brawler, often considered one of the best with its range of weapon options and dope visuals. Unfortunately, it only ever saw a crummy home port on Genesis, with a PlayStation version in the works but ultimately canceled.
The Punisher – 2005 – PS2/Xbox/PC – Volition – THQ
Volition didn’t always just pump out Saints Row and Red Faction games. Back in 2005, over ten years after Capcom’s classic arcade brawler, Frank Castle made his way back to video games during the first superhero movie boom. This was an extremely M-rated action game, with a story drawing from not only the 2004 movie (with Thomas Jane voicing the character in the game) but also some well-known comic stories from around the same time. A lot of the talk around the game spawned from its torture scenes, which pushed the ESRB rating to the limit. Some of the scenes were even rendered in black and white to avoid an Adults-Only rating. While a bit janky, the game was a cult hit of sorts, and maintains its reputation as a rare, good licensed game of its era.
The Punisher: No Mercy – 2009 – PS3 – Zen Studios – Sony Computer Entertainment
This was another weird one, released by Sony as a PlayStation Network-exclusive arena shooter dropped around the same time as the Punisher: War Zone movie. It was developed by Zen Studios, a developer mostly known for its various licensed pinball games. The game went about as well as that introduction would suggest – not very well. It existed as a curiosity emblematic of the time of its release until, like many digital-only titles fueled by licensing deals, it was quietly removed from the PSN after Zen Studio’s Marvel license expired.
These, of course, are not the only games featuring The Punisher. Frank Castle has also appeared in mashup games such as Marvel Heroes (RIP), LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, Marvel Future Fight, and many more. It’s a messy history of games for sure, but full of strange variety and a few hidden gems. He’s a tough character to get right, for sure, and a tough sell for video games. So I applaud those who tried, and even more so those who succeeded in either making good games, or games that tried something unique. Now I want to go play that arcade game again.