The gun-wielding vigilante known as the Punisher is once again in the pop culture spotlight, thanks to his upcoming appearance on the second season of Netflix's Daredevil television show, an appearance that is certain to introduce the character for the first time to a brand new audience.
Considering how brutal the first season of Daredevil was at times, we can only assume Jon Bernthal's Punisher will bring the level of blood, gore and brutality to a whole other level as he seeks to avenge his loved ones by mercilessly killing criminals however he sees fit. That being said, the show will likely have a hard time passing up the sheer level of violence on display in 2005's surprisingly good Punisher video game for Xbox, PlayStation 2 and PC.
It's not easy to get an "Adult Only" rating. For a game to snag the dreaded AO, it must be hyper-violent, feature some incredibly strong language and be more than a little disturbing for the average player. If you want to make certain your game will earn an AO rating, you throw in some sex as well for good measure.
Only a few games in the history of the game industry have ever received such a rating from the ESRB, and the 11-year-old Punisher game was nearly one of them. Though the game eventually released with a more commercially-friendly Mature rating for "Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence and Strong Language," it only received the rating after developer Volition toned the game down ... slightly.
For an idea of what almost earned The Punisher the harshest rating in the industry, one only has to type "Punisher video game" into YouTube. What you'll find are montages of the game's brutal "interrogation" scenes, in which the player can torture criminals into revealing important information before executing them. Whether it's pushing a man into a tank of electric eels while he pitifully mumbles about how he just got married, or burning a man alive in an incinerator, Frank Castle shows no mercy. After each death, the character even adds a witty one-liner to up the ante.
That's just a few of the examples. Criminals are killed by woodchipper, buzzsaw table, curb stomp, nailgun, piano, airplane propeller, rhino, fork lift, fireplace, ceiling fan and many, many more. The list goes on and on, and it's hard not to be impressed by the sheer number of creative ways players can dish out some pretty disturbing punishments. There are more than 100, according to the back of the game's box.
It's gruesome stuff, but Volition managed to snag a M rating by depicting each interrogation scene in black and white and working camera angles. In the U.K. and Australia, Volition was forced to make the camera pan slightly away from the violence just as the criminal is executed, in addition to having the scenes displayed in black and white, in order to receive a similar rating. In Germany, the game can be found on the list of the Federal Department of Media Harmful to Young Persons department's index of video games that cannot be legally sold to minors and that cannot be advertised in any way, shape or form.
The brutality and shock value of the gruesome executions is what The Punisher is mostly remembered for today, but back when it originally released, it was one of the more faithful comic book game adaptations on the market. Sure, it didn't receive many awards for original gameplay. At first glance, you might mistake it for a poor man's version of Max Payne, as the Punisher wades into rooms of baddies' guns blazing. However, the game's story (penned by Punisher comic writer Garth Ennis), solid visuals, competent gameplay and, of course, over-the-top executions made for a rare treat for fans of the Marvel comic character.
In fact, many fans found it to be a great alternative to the less-than-great 2004 film The Punisher, starring Thomas Jane. Both the game and film pulled from Garth Ennis' Punisher comic book storylines, and Jane even lent his voice to the video game version of the character. Whereas the film was hated by critics for being dark and humorless, gamers seemed to enjoy the video game version, which sold more than a million copies and was profitable for Volition. Volition is now most well-known for the Saints Row franchise, which, in the tradition of The Punisher, continues to push the boundaries of the ESRB's Mature rating.
Even if Volition did find ways to tone down the violence for The Punisher, once it was in the wild, fans found a way to restore the game to its "original" form. Uncensored forms of the executions can easily be found on YouTube thanks to PC patches for the game created by players. In that way, The Punisher is more brutal today than it was when it originally released, making it one of the most violent and most faithful comic book games ever created.