The Punisher: The Ultimate Payback! plays nearly identically to its counterpart on the NES, and in fact comes from the same developer, Beam Software. Unfortunately, it’s missing a lot of what made that game fun. The largest omission being the ability to move The Punisher across the screen to avoid bullets. It’s an understandable omission mind you, as had the character been on the screen he would have taken up the entire real estate given the tiny size of the Game Boy play space. However, by not being able to dodge bullets, it turns the game into a vanilla rail shooter that’s unfairly difficult, as opposed to a challenging but fun experience on the NES.
The Ultimate Payback! compared to the NES game is also a much shorter experience. There’s only five levels that do not have two sections like in the home console games, just a level and a boss, then onto the next level. Missing also are the opportunities to enter bonus areas for additional power-ups, and the option to choose whatever level you want to tackle first.
A highlighted feature on the cover is the addition of Spider-Man in the game, but it’s not something to get excited over. The character shows up in the first boss fight to swing in and save damsels in distress when you shoot their captors, then he points you in the next direction of the next level and that’s it. The character is on the cover of the game, and is a feature that differentiates the game from its NES counterpart. Couldn’t they have gone a little bit farther and say, maybe added Spider-Man as a support power up for other levels in the game? I don’t recall Spider-Man being a character who actively points The Punisher towards his next target as well. Basically, the character is present for a cheap marketing ploy, nothing more, making you wonder why they even went through the trouble of getting the extra license.
Speaking of bosses, they’re way harder in this game as well, I even had several lives sucked away from the first one alone. The boss characters in the NES games had patterns you could somewhat follow to exploit, but going back to the first boss, he just starts shooting at you and you see your power drop with no way to stop it. Later encounters, like the one in level two where you fight a war ship, don’t have any clear marking to where you have to shoot so you basically start emptying bullets until you proceed to the next stage.
If I can give a one up to the Game Boy Punisher game over its NES sibling is that each level has its own soundtrack. My fears for how terrible the NES Punisher game would have turned out came to fruition in The Ultimate Payback!. After giving the NES game a chance, I came away pleasantly surprised over how fairly it was designed. This game however, is an unfair exercise in frustration where the only way to really make progress is with a cheat code. Stick to the NES game, even if you simply MUST have a Punisher game on the go.