To use an incredibly hackneyed way of starting this article, war (huh!): what is it good for? Videogames, that's what: it seems mankind's obsession with armed combat is matched only by our desire for videogames on the subject. Today's game is about war - an undefined, never explained war against a mysterious opponent - but war none-the-less. How do I know this 1988 SNK arcade beat-em-up is about war? Because it's called P.O.W.: Prisoners of War.
I think they added the "Prisoners of War" tagline so that people didn't think the game had the cartoon-sound-effect title POW, although given that this is a game about hitting people it'd still be a viable name. The Japanese version is called Datsugoku or "Prison Break," and your character does indeed start the game trapped in a cell.
Oh look, he's laying down some model train track to pass the time. Our hero is so committed to his 00-gauge hobby that even incarceration in this hellish death camp won't stop the 11:25 to Greenvalley Gorge from arriving on time.
No, not really - that was the fuse for the bomb he's using to blow down the door and escape. I know what you're thinking: where did he hide the explosives and triggering equipment? I also know what a lot of you (if you're anything like me, anyway) will be assuming as the second part of that thought - he hid them up his backside. Now, I know it seems like the obvious place for him to have stashed his little bomb, but you have to take into account the stupidity of the enemy forces who have imprisoned him. They didn't even take his natty headband or his knuckleduster-fitted gloves away from him, so their search policy for new prisoners is slack to say the least. Our commando friend here probably just fashioned the plastic explosive into the shape of a hat and wore them in the prison camp. That kind of ingenuity shows that this guy is the only man for the job.
Alright, I'm out of my cell and the large explosion has somehow alerted the guards to my escape attempt. I know, I'm as shocked as you are. It's pretty obvious what I need to do here, and that's give these enemy soldiers, and all the many thousands more that make up the rest of the game's bad guys, a thorough and brutal ass-kicking.
To go about his clobberin' business, our hero has opted for a three-button control system. One button makes you jump, one makes you punch and the other makes you kick.
Apparently it makes you kick really hard, too - that poor solider is now trapped somewhere in a low Earth orbit.
As well as your basic attacks, you have other moves at your disposal that are activated by pressing the buttons in various combinations. Jump and kick makes you... jump and kick, but not nearly as well as you might think: it's a mostly vertical attack that seems to do little besides set you up to land right in front of an enemy that your soaring kick most assuredly did not hit. Pressing jump and punch makes you attack behind yourself, which might be useful if it wasn't for the fact that every time there's an enemy behind you, there's also one in front of you and whatever direction you choose to attack in is going to result in you getting smacked, so you might as well take the simpler option of using one button to hit the guy ahead of you. Finally, punch and kick performs a move that for a long time I thought was supposed to represent our hero stamping his foot on the floor in frustration but is actually a headbutt. It's got shorter range than a punch and doesn't seem to be any more powerful. I think you can guess how effective it is in combat.
The combat system makes P.O.W. feel a lot like Double Dragon, which is understandable because this game came out before Final Fight appeared and changed the belt-scrolling beat-em-up landscape forever. The other thing you'll notice about the gameplay is that your character is slow. Very, very, slow. Not "lumbering man-mountain" slow but "someone's just injected my legs with a powerful anaesthetic please help" slow. Just moving him from one side of the screen to the other is a chore, (and much better accomplished by hopping everywhere like a deranged, fatigues-wearing rabbit,) and because the enemies are much faster than you you'll often find yourself surrounded by goons and being too slow to avoid their attacks. It's all a bit ponderous and not a little frustrating, so P.O.W. is not off to the best start.
Then I killed a man and took his gun.
That's right you better run! Mad with my new-found power, I wasted most of the ammunition by spraying bullets wildly around the playing area. I hit, like, one guy. The gun, however, represents the first bit of P.O.W. that I could describe as "not pointless and boring" or even "interesting," because you get a choice of attacks when holding it. Pressing kick makes bullets come out of the gun, hooray, always nice to see, but pressing punch makes our hero hit people with the butt of his rifle and therefore allows you to conserve ammo for encounters more deserving of a hail of hot lead. It's a good system. Simple, but allows for a slightly more tactical style of play. Well done, SNK.
You can also pick up knives which, in accordance with the rules of all side-scrolling brawlers, you can only throw at people and not stab them and stab them and stab them until nothing remains but a pile of gurgling red meat. Sorry, where was I? Blacked out for a moment there.
Halfway through the stage, a helicopter drops off a squad of tougher-than-usual beret-wearing troops. They've got knives. If you were wondering, guns are more effective than knives. Someone please send these poor men's berets back to their grieving families for a proper burial.
So, what else is there in the first stage?
Well, there's a ladder, I guess? Our hero could easily have walked past it but his curiosity got the better of him and he just had to climb up there. It's like watching me play any exploration-heavy open-world game ever.
All that's up there is vast swarms of ill-prepared soldiers - seriously, whatever army this is supposed to be can't pose that much of a threat if they've only got one gun between every twelve soldiers - and a helicopter that watches the proceedings but doesn't actually do anything. Goddamn lazy helicopters, think they're so great.
Then our hero just hops off the thirty-foot drop at the other end of this platform he climbed up for no reason. That whole area could have been avoided, and I've got to say that so far P.O.W. has been the kind of game that I would be quite happy to skip large sections of. Maybe a good boss fight is what this game needs to spark it into life? Yeah, that's it, a good, solid boss battle against an outlandishly-dressed, 8-foot-tall genetic freak with a name like Crusher or Samson or, given this game's military theme, General Discomfort - that'd be just the thing to bring P.O.W. to life!
It's a damn shame there isn't one, then. Unless you count fighting a slightly larger group of the same enemy types you've been fighting all bloody level, and you'd better not because that is in no way a boss fight. I know most real-world armies don't generally have a cadre of bizarre-looking elite soldiers on hand for end-goal-guarding purposes, but this is a hell of a time for SNK to be heading down the realism route.
Oh good, that's nice to know. I wouldn't want people to think that escaping from a P.O.W. camp and slaughtering hundreds with a combination of my bare hands and their own weapons could be considered anything other than a success.
Normally I'd try to hold back some mystery about the rest of the game, but I don't think anyone will be surprised to learn that once you've seen stage one you've seen almost all of what P.O.W. has to offer. If variety is the spice of life then P.O.W. is a meal of boiled potatoes with lettuce on the side, and from here on out the only new sights to see will be differently-coloured version of the same bad guys and a few changes of background. Don't get too excited about the new backgrounds, mind you: it's not like you're suddenly going to be fighting your way through a seventeenth-century festival or on top of a space shuttle in flight. No, you'll be seeing all the usual places you might expect to see in a daring prison camp escape attempt, like stage two's slog through the outskirts of another enemy base.
Any interesting new developments in stage two? Well, some of the soldiers have figured out how to duck under my bullets when I shoot at them. At least, I think that's what's going on...
No, wait, I've changed my mind: it's obvious that what's actually happening is that soldier has just seen a penny on the ground and he's kneeling down to grab it. All day long he'll have good luck, and his good luck has begun already because that bullet is clearly travelling right through his head and yet he remains unscathed. He should have taken the fast and relatively painless option of dying via a bullet to the head, because now I have to walk slowly, oh so slowly, over there and smash his face in with the butt of my gun. I will not make it easy for him.
There's also an area where some cranes bob up and down, damaging anyone stupid enough to stand in the way of their ill-defined hitboxes. Yes, the enemy troops are that stupid, and to paraphrase an old British Rail advert you can let the crane take the strain.
And the boss? It's an armoured vehicle of some sort!
A vehicle that drops off the same group of soldiers that you fought at the end of the last stage and then drives away. Normally I wouldn't be super-keen on having to fight a tank with my bare hands but Jesus this game needs something perk it up, and if that something is my character being repeatedly crushed to death under the treads of an APC then that's fine by me. I'm just not that lucky, and so I sulkily beat up these soldiers. I lost several lives in the process from a combination of them trapping me in a barrage of attacks that I couldn't possibly avoid, the player character's ongoing commitment to moving slowly enough to become some kind of sedimentary rock and the fact that I've already stopped caring about this game. I haven't even finished stage two yet!
Okay, now I've finished stage two. I defeated tank soldiers in warehouse, apparently. Yay for me?
At least you get out into the open for the next stage as you enjoy a jolly little hike through the jungle. Some fresh air, wide open spaces, this'll do me the world of good!
Oh, you poor, trusting fool - that was all just a set-up for the inevitable fight-people-in-an-elevator scene. Do staircases just not exist in the universe of arcade beat-em-ups? In this bizarre otherworld, did the methods of moving from one place to a higher place evolve along some "ramps - steeper ramps - elevators" pathway, completely skipping the invention of the step? At least, and this really is the elevator scene's only saving grace, at least you can kick people off the lift and to their death. The fighting system is awkward enough, and it doesn't get any more fun once you're limited to half a screen's worth of space. I found I had a problem with knowing what would happen next, because your foe's reaction to being kicked doesn't seem to follow any discernable pattern. You don't have the usual punch or kick combo here - pressing the button repeatedly just produces the same attack over and over again. So, you're punching an enemy soldier and after a certain amount of hits he falls over, possibly dead or maybe just stunned. How many attacks will it take? I have no idea. It might take two, it might take five, and that means you never know when you'll be getting a moment's respite. In most beat-em-ups you know, for certain, that when you do specific moves or a full attack combo the enemy you're hitting will fall over. You can plan around it, even if you're not consciously aware you're doing so. P.O.W. has none of that, and so it feels like a juddering, badly-paced guess-fest that makes fighting more than one enemy at a time feel like - and pay attention, because this is a technical term - a right pain in the arse.
Also, note that once more the helicopters do nothing other than deposit troops nearby. Shameful.
I may have "won battle," but at what cost? Well, if I was playing this on a real arcade cabinet that took 50p coins I'd be looking to sell my second kidney about now. This is a hard game, and I mean hard in the traditional arcade sense of having enemies that can trap you in looping attack patterns and who do ridiculous amounts of damage. You can see that P.O.W. has a health bar made of four blocks, but I couldn't tell you why because it's not like the game sticks to a sensible system like "one hit = one bar of damage" - sometimes you'll lose half a bar, sometimes you'll lose two, and I can't help but wonder why they didn't just use the normal "bar" style health meter.
Oh, yeah, there's a new stage underway, taking place in the same sort of warehouse-y district as the second one.
"Listen, get this: what if you took a ladder, laid it at an angle like a ramp and joined the rungs up with straight edges? We could revolutionise the way people travel between the floors of their house!"
At least this rooftop section looks quite nice. In fact, the graphics as a whole aren't too shabby, with some fairly detailed backgrounds and spritework that's somewhere just above competent. I particularly like how enemies have different animations for getting hit by different attacks - a punch might cause them to stagger backwards while a kick to the stomach makes them double over. The music is another above-average feature, with the stage two theme in particular being a catchy little number.
Oh look, men on motorcycles. We should salute the bravery of these men, because judging by the way their motorcycles explode at the slightest contact with anything that isn't the rider's backside they must be made from carefully-moulded nitroglycerine.
This looks like trouble for our hero, and while he will undoubtedly take a kicking in this situation it's not as bad as it could be due to one of P.O.W.'s more unusual... I was going to say "features," but I'm not entirely sure it was intentional so I'll go with "things that can happen." You see, sometimes the enemies get bored. They get so bored they just straight-up leave the game. Especially in the later stages, it seems like half the soldiers you come across just don't have the stomach for a fight. They throw a few half-hearted punches at you, maybe take some damage, and then they just walk right off the screen, never to be seen again. Maybe it's to give you a fighting chance, maybe it's a programming tactic to stop the game slowing down when there are too many sprites on screen at once, but it's hard to not take it personally. I'm not good enough to do battle with, am I? You traitorous dogs. We'll see what your boss has to say about this!
Yes, there's an actual boss, with a new sprite and everything oh boy oh boy! He's the bald guy on the right, you know, the only one sensible enough to bring a gun. That's why he's the leader, folks. Sadly he's not much of a challenge, and in an ironic twist of fate I managed to get him trapped in such a way that he repeatedly walked into my waiting boot until he died. During the fight he only fired his gun once: the bullet missed me (I had accidentally done the vertical jump-kick) and hit one of his comrades in the back. That was fun.
Once the boss is dead, our hero is free to use the radio equipment to call his evac chopper, so we must be near the end now.
Yes, what about Final Fantasy VII?
Snake? SNAAAAKE!?! Yup, your hero's name is Snake. He must be one of Solid Snake's other siblings, the one with the really defective genes. Bose-Einstein Condensate Snake, possibly. Whoever Snake really is, his helicopter is on its way and unlike your local taxi service they don't do callbacks so he'd better go and wait outside.
Ah yes, the famous Snake family crawl, I remember it well. Actually, I mostly remember accidentally going into prone mode on Metal Gear Solid 4 a lot and making a fool of myself.
There's a bit more fighting to do, and I suppose I should give P.O.W. some credit for realising that an army doesn't just dissolve into spectral mist and vanish once its leader is dead. Actually, I take that back. P.O.W. gets no credit from me - this has been a tedious journey enlivened only by kicking a few guys off a lift and watching the supposed enemy mastermind participate in a friendly fire incident. I suppose there is a small amount of pleasure to be wrung out of this game, but that is under the very strict proviso that you play it via a method that gives you unlimited credits - if you were playing this on an actual cabinet that you were feeding with real money, or you were playing the NES port, you'd be having substantially less fun.
There's my helicopter, and those two generic soldiers are the only things standing between me and freedom. Does that make them the last boss? I suppose it does. Get back to me in a few days, P.O.W., and I'll have your "Shittiest Final Boss Ever" trophy ready - I just need a while to gather the raw materials for it from the nearest landfill site.
Game over, then. What is the overall impression of P.O.W.: Prisoners of War that I will take away with me, then? Mostly that SNK did not give much of a damn about this one. The whole thing has the feel of the developers angrily shouting "you want a game? Here's your damn game!" while throwing an arcade board at you. There's the framework of a game here, a game that's frustrating and slow, a game that's simply not finished. The lack of bosses, the overly-familiar landscapes, the fact that only three or four enemy types that appear in 99% of the game, the utter uselessness of all helicopters involved - P.O.W. just doesn't have much going for it that hasn't been done better by a thousand other games. If you ever somehow travel back in time to 1988 and can't get back, do yourself a favour and wait for Final Fight instead of playing this. Also please find my mother and tell her to make sure I don't accidentally break the head off my favourite Ghostbusters toy - I was distraught about that for months.