The Punisher can be a tricky character to get right. Unlike Marvel’s more straight-laced heroic characters, Frank Castle has no qualms about blowing bad guys away with an assortment of kick-ass weaponry – this trigger-happy approach has seen him butt heads with the likes of Spider-Man and Daredevil over the years, and makes him a more difficult character to market.
While there have been three cinematic attempts to bring Frank to more mainstream recognition, none have been particularly successful: the first, starring the mighty Dolph Lundgren, has its fans, but was met with icy reviews upon its release; the second, released in 2004 and starring Thomas Jane, took much of its influence from Garth Ennis’ 2000 Marvel Knights limited series (collected as Welcome Back, Frank, and well worth a read), but missed the mark despite some real strong points; the last film, released in 2008, was The Punisher: War Zone, which featured a great turn from Ray Stevenson, but failed to garner much love.
However, given the action-packed, less superpower-driven shenanigans he delves into, the Punisher is the ideal star for a video game. He’s starred in a few, and popped up in others, but most of these were from the early 1990s. In 2005, Volition, Inc (known for the Red Faction and Saints Row series) and THQ released a new video game – titled, simply enough, The Punisher – on the PS2, Xbox, and PC.
With a similar feel to the Max Payne games, The Punisher puts players into Frank’s well-worn boots and gives them the tools and the permission to kick all kinds of bad-guy butt with gleeful abandon – and the result is one of the most entertaining, most faithful video game adaptations of a comic book ever made.
From panels to pixels
It’s mad to think that, back in 2005, we were just three years away from a huge cultural shift: in 2008, Iron Man would hit cinemas, and Marvel Comics would become more mainstream than any of us could ever have expected. However, when this video game was released, superheroes and comic books were still somewhat looked down on (Batman Begins appeared a few months after), and so this was a loose tie-in with the Thomas Jane movie: the man himself provided the vocals for Frank (and he does a cracking job, bringing the same wry humor to the role), and the game featured a promotional trailer for the film.
The game’s main influence, though, is Garth Ennis’ 2000 series: the Gnuccis, a brutal crime family led by the loathsome Ma Gnucci, are the central villains. Spacker Dave makes an appearance, as does Joan the Mouse (note: not an actual mouse), and the Russian – a hulking hit-man with a great eye for striped T-shirts – is put to as much good use as in the 2004 movie. The story follows Frank from a New York crackhouse to the Gnucci’s family estate, before taking him to a tropical island, Wilson Fisk’s tower, a Yakuza-run nightclub, and, finally, to a riot-torn Ryker’s Island.
With Jimmy Palmiotti (who has written the character in the past) providing input to the storyline, the game features an authentic Punisher tale, with appearances from characters like Detectives Martin Soap and Molly Van Richtofen (both of whom played prominent roles in Ennis’ Welcome Back, Frank series), Bushwacker, and Jigsaw.
Given that this game was released before ‘shared universes’ became a storytelling technique film studios would become obsessed with, The Punisher embraced the crossover approach that comics do beautifully, putting Frank face-to-face with numerous other Marvel characters: a level set in Stark Industries sees Iron Man turn up to take out some bad guys; Matt Murdock makes a brief, but entirely satisfying cameo; Bullseye and the Kingpin show up; Black Widow helps Frank out in a couple of levels. One awesome stage even allows you to fight side-by-side with Nick Fury (perhaps a nice nod to Capcom’s 1993 arcade beat-em-up, in which Fury featured as a second playable character).
These appearances never feel forced, and help to root Frank firmly in Marvel’s huge universe: these may be par for the course now, but back in 2005, this care and attention to the source material was pretty damn impressive.
Choose your Weapon: Bullets, Blades, or … Sharks?
The Punisher is never short of a few ways to lay waste to a room full of gun-toting goons, and Volition, Inc. made the most of this. Across all levels, Frank can get his hands on plenty of weaponry, including a variety of pistols, shotguns, grenades, machine guns, a rocket launcher, and even a flamethrower. However, improvised weapons are up for grabs too: crowbars, bottles, and – at one point – a TV set.
This helps to ensure the gameplay never becomes stale, even though each level basically requires you to kill scumbags and rescue hostages. However, Frank can interact with enemies and the environment in numerous ways: when up-close to an enemy, Frank can grab them to use as a human shield (which comes in handy at many points), and can also interrogate them for further information.
By choosing this option, a mini-game is triggered – Frank always has four ways to ‘persuade’ bad guys to share: by forcing a gun against their forehead, smashing their face into the ground, throttling them, or punching them, the player needs to “break” the enemy until they tell him what he needs to know. Certain areas provide special fixtures to assist in the process (such as a power drill, an angry rhino, and even a shark, to name just a few) – this ‘torture’ element proved controversial in some regions, even prompting Germany to place it on their official list of media that could “prove harmful to young persons.” Strict!
Certain areas also feature the opportunity for ‘special kills’: Frank can toss bad guys from windows and seal them into a coffin – along with a grenade, of course. In combat, the Punisher can shoot enemies, or kill them close-up (usually with a blade or his fists). The action’s always exciting, giving Frank plenty of room to take cover and dive/roll. With each kill, Frank builds a rage meter – once this is full, he has the chance to enter a frenzy, giving him greater strength and resilience to damage for a short time. In most levels, the player can choose between a stealthier approach or go in all guns blazing.
On release, The Punisher sold more than a million copies and garnered decent reviews. While the game looks a little dated now, the graphics still hold up very nicely, and the gameplay remains as fluid and fast-paced as ever. It’s well worth tracking down, whether you’re a long-term fan of Frank’s or a newbie altogether.
Hopefully, if Marvel and Netflix bring us the Punisher series most of us want, we’ll get to see Frank in video game form again soon.