Have we all been good little geeks girls and boys and finished our Daredevil Season 2 binges? Good. Then you know that Matt Murdock is even more of a bit player this time around than last year. This season, it’s really all about the Punisher, which makes the current gaming climate ripe for a return visit from Marvel’s violent anti-hero.
Naturally, Frank Castle has graced the video game medium before. It’s an industry that was built on virtually shooting and killing stuff and that is what the Punisher does best. The NES and Game Boy each put us in control of the murderous vigilante in third person shooters and Capcom released an awesome beat-em-up into ‘90s arcades that sadly never made it to console form, but the best Punisher game -and one of the best Marvel games ever- came in 2005 for the Xbox and PlayStation 2.
It was a stunning game in a lot of ways and I seriously wonder how it would fare in today’s political environment. A decade doesn’t really seem like that much time, but in this industry, it’s an eternity and a lot had changed in the world of game criticism in that time. The Punisher was one of the most unabashedly brutal and sadistic games of its generation, and also one of the truest to its source material. Its title character is a divisive figure in the Marvel Universe and with his return to the pop culture mainstream now seems like a good time to take a look back at his defining gaming moment.
For the most part, The Punisher is what we’d consider today to be a pretty typical third person action title, complete with the now-cliche plot device of the gameplay taking place as flashbacks as the protagonist is interrogated after being captured by the authorities. But at the time, it was one of only a handful of games that combined bombastic combat with stealth and exploration. Think Splinter Cell meets Max Payne.
Basically, you went into a level and wrecked shop in any way you saw fit using a massive arsenal of tools and techniques. Basic video game stuff, really. But with the story written by psychotic comic book scribe Garth Ennis and voiceover from Thomas Jane (who played Frank in the underrated film a year previous) this was the best possible execution of the concept.
Speaking of executions, that’s what set this game apart from the competition and what would perhaps make it unpalatable in today’s political climate. Remember how everybody freaked out about the torture sequence in Grand Theft Auto V? Well that was downright cute in comparison to this one. The Punisher absolutely excelled in pure sadism as one of the major mechanics was an interrogation minigame where you tortured criminals for information.
Holding their face against a belt sander, strapping them into an electric chair, putting them under a table drill, shoving their face into an aquarium full of piranha fish, and my personal favorite of dangling them off of a dock while a shark circled and attempted to get a free dinner; this is a sparse sampling of the environmental horrors you could contextually inflict on any lone thug unfortunate enough to survive the firefight. And each gruesome death one had a snappy one-liner to go with it. Why tell you when I can show you, though?
To its credit, the player could decide whether to let the informant live if they successfully extracted the intel from them without killing them (and I’m pretty sure you got more points if you did), but I’ll be honest: I wanted to see a dude get his face eaten off by piranha. There was nothing left but his skull. It was disturbingly awesome.
Throw in the requisite Marvel cameos and boss fights and you had a recipe for a memorable comic book video game. The Punisher kind of fell off the pop culture map after that, with the movie sequel being a complete joke and all, but it’s good to have him back in action on Netflix. I imagine it won’t be too long before we get word of him popping up in a new video game.
Taking this concept into an open world environment with a more mature storytelling approach that focuses on the internal struggles of Frank Castle and the inherent wrongness of how he goes about what he does would make for an amazing experience and his appearance in Daredevil sets the stage perfectly for near-future punishment.
It’s kind of funny because remembering back to when I was young the Punisher’s deeds were always deemed admirable. Who cares about judges and juries when you can hop straight to the good part? He was badass and that’s all that mattered back in the day. Like John Wayne slaughtering Native Americans or Clint Eastwood pointing a gun at a black man and telling him to make his day, human rights and exploitation entertainment didn’t really mix. The Punisher game came at just the right time and place to slip under the radar and be maybe the last game to celebrate that kind of gleeful, consequence-free violence to such an extent without much being made of it.
Rest assured that when and if Frank Castle returns to the gaming world, it’ll most likely be as a more nuanced, morally complicated character questioning his own actions and not as the wanton murderer of criminals sawing people in half with tablesaws after he’s broken them just because he can. Whether or not that’s a good thing, I’ll leave up to you to decide for yourself. But regardless of modern social aesthetics, The Punisher was a hell of a game that exceeded expectations and has proven itself to be be of the most memorable comic book games ever made.