How do you solve a problem like Frank Castle, aka the Punisher? I don’t mean the character himself; he’s proven virtually unkillable, in the main Marvel Universe at least. His last big brush with death turned him into Franken-Castle, which was as bizarre as it sounds. No, the problem I’m talking about is how to turn Marvel’s gun-toting, hyper-violent vigilante the Punisher into a video game.
His policy of killing criminals, sometimes torturing them beforehand, is his largest defining characteristic. His rogues’ gallery is tiny because most of his enemies meet a bloody demise. And if that doesn’t come through in a game, is it really a Punisher game?
Take Capcom’s game, a 1993 sidescrolling beat ‘em up in the mold of Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Capcom’s own Captain Commando. Was it a good game? Absolutely. But it would have been just as much fun if you removed the titular character, who spent most of the game punching villains, and left Nick Fury as the only protagonist.
But then in 2005, Volition and THQ developed a game that did the Punisher justice, released on PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PC. The game The Punisher factored in the violence that had become the character’s trademark. It was based in part on Welcome Back, Frank, Garth Ennis’s 12-issue arc that further cemented the Punisher’s bloody reputation. Ennis also co-wrote the game’s story, along with Jimmy Palmiotti, who’d worked as inker on that run.
Talking about the game’s content, Palmiotti boasted there was “Violence … the kind that can be so over the top at times, you will just [soil] your pants. You know the kind. Bodies in wood chippers. Animals attacking. And bodies crushed, cut, shot, and downright exploding everywhere.”
And up until a certain point, that’s absolutely what was in the game. Aside from just gunning down enemies or snapping their necks, there were non-compulsory “special interrogations,” which saw you dragging them over to a clearly marked hotspot, with the aim of getting information out of them.
Sometimes the hotspot in question would be a drill station or furnace, and other times it’d be more organic — a pool of piranhas or a particularly aggrieved rhino. To get the information you’d have to terrify them but not kill them, at which point they’d divulge an armory door code or similar.
Then you could let them go, kill them quickly, or just shove them into whatever murder machine you were using. Frank would sometimes chip in with a blackly comic post-execution wisecrack, such as, “Wasn’t much of a criminal, but he makes good mulch.” But the executions themselves were wonderfully, magnificently brutal.
Describing extended, graphic (albeit virtual) murder as magnificent may raise some eyebrows, but what made these scenes so great was they underlined how absolutely unhinged Frank Castle is. One problem with the Punisher is that he’s been embraced by some — the police and the military in particular — as if he’s something to aspire to.
But it’s not that he’s avenging his wife and children; he’s long past that. Garth Ennis’ stance on the character, which began in PunisherMAX but is slowly leaking into regular Marvel canon, is that Frank Castle always embraced violence. He willingly went back to war, and on the day his family was gunned down he was going to ask for a divorce. Their deaths were all the excuse he needed to begin the rampage he’d been craving.
So when I ended up pushing a bad guy towards a band saw, watching him try — and fail — to brace his feet against the bench, I had to ask myself: “What the hell am I doing?” Yes, I went ahead and killed him, because I am awful, but the game left me feeling a little ashamed for going through with it.
Except… that experience may not mirror that of most Punisher players, because the interrogations / executions featured in the final game ended up being heavily censored. We’re not talking about someone inside THQ putting their foot down, either. When the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), and other certification bodies were shown the game, it became apparent changes were necessary.
The BBFC, for example, still — correctly — rates the game as containing “frequent, bloody violence.” But the version it and most other boards passed had changes made to the executions. When someone was executed in the UK release, the screen would turn black and white and the camera would pull away so that only a fraction of the violence was visible. Meanwhile, the US version of the game reportedly received different cuts.
A lot of players weren’t happy, though this was before Twitter so the outrage was limited to GameFAQs and similar forums. PC and Xbox did get unofficial gore patches, which restored the camera position and removed the black-and-white filter. But if you picked up the release version, you’d discover that Volition’s original violent vision had been severely tempered.
Well, I say Volition’s vision, but it’s not clear whether there were dissenting voices within the company. Rockstar’s 2003 game Manhunt, which featured similarly graphic executions, had proven hugely controversial. And according to ex-Rockstar staffer Jeff Williams, it caused a real stir back at Rockstar HQ too.
But unlike Capcom’s The Punisher, and thanks largely to Ennis and Palmiotti’s writing, 2005’s The Punisher still felt like a Punisher game, with plenty of violent excess. Was it a great game? No, but it was still a reasonably entertaining one. The level where the Punisher bursts out of a coffin to annihilate a whole family of gangsters still lives in my brain.
It also helped that the character was voiced by Thomas Jane, who portrayed the character in the 2004 movie. The game even managed to include enough cameos and references to firmly tie it to the Marvel Universe. If you’re a Punisher fan, or have any kind of interest in cut video game content, it’s worth tracking down a physical copy. (It’s not available on Steam or GOG.)
You certainly have to admire Volition’s confidence that, a year after Manhunt caused such a stir, The Punisher would reach the public in its unaltered, giblet-splattered glory. And given that Disney now owns Marvel, I doubt 2005’s The Punisher is due for a remaster any time soon.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to hose down my saw bench. No reason.