Quick! Name two really influential scrolling brawlers!
No time to listen to your answers, I was looking for Double Dragon and Final Fight.
(Those of you who are smart-arses and said Kung-Fu Master or Renegade or even Karateka, well done but be quiet).
Why these two? Sure, the slowdown is a bit more apparent these days than it was in 1987, but Double Dragon was massively important because of its wide variety of moves and, more importantly, two-player co-op, and Final Fight merely set the genre's template for the next decade. However, between these two monumental releases- from August 1987 to December 1989 (and a little into 1990 too, because of Final Fight's late release)- the genre went through a weird, experimental stage where developers who wanted to get in on the action weren't entirely sure what the hell they were doing. This led to releases like Crime Fighters (four player co-op is better than two, right?), Ninja Gaiden (we mean the arcade version, obviously) and DJ Boy (which, contrary to popular belief, can be completed), all games that, when played nowadays, just feel weird because of the impact Final Fight had on the genre. However, in 1988 SNK had their own stab at it, resulting in P.O.W. - Prisoners of War, which might've stood a chance if not for one thing- SNK suck at making scrolling brawlers. With the exception of Sengoku 3 (which was mostly a Noise Factory gig), their brawlers range from apocalyptically bad (Burning Fight, please no) to somewhat passable (Mutation Nation), so it's nice to see the game that started this fine tradition.
As a duo of prisoners, Codename: Snake (a popular codename in the '80s) and his unnamed clone in co-op mode, you must make your way through four areas, escape from the enemy P.O.W. camp, and disrupt the enemy forces' operation as much as possible with the great communicator, your fists The button set-up is borrowed from Double Dragon- Punch, Kick, Jump- and you also have a back-hand attack (Punch & Jump, a surprisingly powerful attack) and a short-range headbutt (Punch & Kick). Excluding the 'finisher' moves (an uppercut and a high-kick that finish off weakened foes), that's all you've got, so there's no grappling / throws, no desperation attack, nothing particularly fancy (especially when compared to Double Dragon). There's also a paltry selection of weapons (just two) but it does have a notable first for the genre- as well as the by-this-point-obligatory throwing knife (which has no close-range use) you can steal machine-guns from the enemy to use against them. As far as I'm aware, this is the first scrolling brawler with guns, and it's a good thing too because you'll need them- an integral part of making it through to the end is being very careful with the limited ammo you have (a good example is at the end of Stage 2, where you can kill the boss encounter in one burst of machine-gun fire).
However! No amount of interesting additions can save a scrolling brawler if the combat is off, and P.O.W. is better off than some at this time, but it still has a few issues. To start with the positives, while your character moves at a slightly sluggish speed, the pace of the game is a bit nippier than most because enemies usually don't take seven centuries to die- a lot of them can be dispatched with just one swift jump-kick (which is accompanied by a superb bone-crunching sound). If not, a knife to the gut or one machine-gun bullet is enough to get them kissing the dirt. It certainly feels more satisfying than other games of the time, and the combat is less sloppy and loose than some efforts (Crime Fighters!) but it also goes a bit too far in the opposite direction- it's a bit too stiff. It can often feel like a struggle to successfully land an attack except the jump-kick (the punch is very short-range, the kick leaves you very open) without getting smacked in the puss yourself. There's a few tricks you can learn to make things easier, though, like pummelling enemies just as they get up and learning which enemies run off-screen after attacking, and honestly I'd rather have something quite clunky like this over the likes of Crime Fighters and Burning Fight, where the whole thing's so slippery it might as well be on an ice rink. While not a triumph, it feels better than its contemporaries, let's put it like that, and considering the state of the genre at the time, that'll do.
Even so, you can tell that this came from a time where developers weren't sure what to do with the genre, because there's some really weird design quirks at work. Examples include being unable to drop a machine-gun when it's out of ammo (to get your punch, headbutt and back-hand attacks again you have to get knocked to the floor!), enemies taking weapons with them if you kill them too quick (which can really ruin your game plan in certain areas), and enemies often falling off ledges for no reason. The enemy AI in particular is all over the place- sometimes it's super easy to predict and even exploit to your advantage (a fun example is constantly jumping- the enemies will stop dead while you're in the air and only move when you're on the ground, like they're playing What's the Time, Mr. Wolf with you) and other times it's brutal (the running knife soldiers in particular are way faster than you and home in like no-one's business). It's to be expected, really, as the foibles of the genre weren't worked out by anyone at this point in time, least of all SNK...
The main problem I have is that the feeling of satisfaction you get from punching goons in the face disappears after about five minutes- the rest of the game is dull. There's just not enough variety in the most important areas- moves, enemies and even visuals- to keep you interested. While there's a few different enemy sprites, there's also a lot of palette swaps, and they all act like the same guy, with only a few- the running knifer, the blink-and-you'll-miss-it motorcyclist, and the hit-and-run grenade guy- being distinct enough to catch your attention. It makes each stage feel like a massive slog, fighting the same goons over and over, especially since you'll be using the jump kick over and over again as its your most reliable attack (and the best one to conserve ammo with when you have the gun). Even worse, the boss encounters are just large groups of normal enemies, with one exception near the end of the game- there isn't even a big goon, like Abobo or Andore Jr., to impede your progress. It just goes to show the strength of the character design in Double Dragon and Final Fight- each enemy type looks and acts distinctly which keeps you interested, whereas in P.O.W. they might as well all be the same dude. Speaking of graphics, they're pretty dull too- I know the war theme doesn't lend itself well to vibrant colours as seen in SNK stable-mates Psycho Soldier and Bermuda Triangle, but there's nothing to catch your eye here at all (aside from the somewhat bizarre way characters have their eyes bulge open when hurt), and the amount of palette-swaps doesn't help.
It's a real shame, because of all the half-baked scrolling brawlers that came out during this rather odd period, P.O.W. could've been one of the better attempts. I'm not going to lie and say it's not fun for the first few minutes, because by God it is. The brutal sound effects and clunky but satisfying feel of the combat really put it above the likes of Ninja Gaiden and DJ Boy, and the war theme could've been more interesting with a bit of effort. It's the start of an average brawler, but the lack of variety turns it into a grind from the end of the first stage onwards, with the only saving grace being that it's fairly short in theory (only four stages, but boy do they feel long). P.O.W. is so close to being just an average scrolling brawler, but its flaws keep it strictly below-par...
... But at least it's not Burning Fight.
Gotta count your blessings, you know?
For really, really trying its best, P.O.W. - Prisoners of War is awarded...
In a sentence, P.O.W. - Prisoners of War is...
Better than Crime Fighters, but not by much.
And now, it's that time, folks!
First up, a few unused bits and bobs, courtesy of The Cutting Room Floor
There's two graphics that show a possible early title for the game, Battle Arms.
Given the theme of the game, I'd say the final title is more fitting.
There's also three songs in the ROM that you'll never actually hear in-game. The first is the full title screen music- you can hear the first few seconds or so in the game, but the attract demo will soon cut to gameplay and change to whatever music is supposed to be playing in the stage being demonstrated. Listening to the full version (which is at least a minute and a half!) is like listening to one song suddenly being interrupted by another- very odd. There's also an alternate version of the Stage 1 theme with a different melody, and this version was used for the NES game, detailed below, as was an unused Game Over jingle.
Despite starting out on the NES with the Micronics-developed Athena, Ikari Warriors and Victory Road ports (their trademark? Really poor coding), SNK eventually got their act together and started making their own ports... But to call the NES version of P.O.W. a 'port' is a bit of a misnomer. It's not on the same level as Bionic Commando or the PC Engine Märchen Maze, but there's a lot of changes made here, not necessarily for the better. To start with the basics, the controls are shuffled about a bit due to going down from three buttons to two (press both buttons for the jump-kick, tap Punch and back for the back-hand, and wave goodbye to the headbutt) and combat feels a lot tighter- punches stun enemies in place rather than knock them back, you can actually string attacks together reliably, and critically, you drop the machine gun once it's out of ammo. It feels a lot less frustrating, especially since the punch attack isn't nearly as risky.
The levels have also undergone some pretty big changes. For a start, there's a few new sections added (like the exploding chemical vat, and the bits in water where you fight aquanauts) and new optional 'indoor' bits where you fight a small group of enemies to win one of three items- Armour (reduces damage taken and deflects bullets), Life (completely refills your life meter) and Brass Knuckles (massively boosts your attack power). It'd be an interesting addition if clearing out each room didn't take forever, or if you were able to get the items outside these rooms, but whatever. Also new are the honest-to-goodness boss encounters, the first of which- a helicopter- gives you hope that the game will have interesting boos fights, as you have to smack grenade-wielding goons to grab their weapons, then hurl them at the chopper. Aside from a tank, which uses the same principle, the remaining bosses are pretty dull- a fat guy, the pistol dude from the arcade game, and the final soldier who jumps around like he's doing his best Strider impression. The most annoying is the Terminator-like commando who has a shotgun (not fair) and infinite grenades (not fair).
The thing is, the changes don't really do anything to the game- it's still massively dull. The combat is improved, I'll give it that (it feels a bit closer to the NES version of Double Dragon II, really, but with far less moves) but the levels somehow feel even longer than the arcade game (the lack of enemy variety really doesn't help this version). There's also the fact that losing all your lives means you have to start the entire level again, which is doubly maddening because a) there's plenty of instant deaths, and b) the stages are brutally long, so being sent all the way back to the start is just a bit much. The final insult is that, aside from the title screen music and Stage 1 theme, all the music has been replaced, and they're nowhere near as good as the arcade version's tunes.
So, basically, the NES version isn't much better than its forefather. I prefer the arcade version, to be honest.
If you're looking for a straight port, then the game was also included in the oft-delayed SNK Arcade Classics 0 for the PSP (under its Japanese title, Datsugoku - Prisoners of War- interestingly, while there's separate versions of the game in MAME for the US and Japan, the language can actually be changed via dip-switches!), courtesy of G1M2. For the most part, the emulation is accurate (there's a minor graphics glitch that was present in old versions of MAME- the pillar just before you climb the ladder in Stage 1 pops on-screen late) and the only real problem is one inherent to the collection itself- the game will pause to load music which some might find off-putting (I swear my PSP must be on the blink or something because it pauses for a good few seconds whenever it does this).
Finally, there's also the version included in SNK 40th Anniversary Collection for the Switch and PS4.
Not much to say here, as we covered this collection quite extensively over here but with regards to P.O.W. - Prisoners of War specifically, the arcade and console versions are included, both in US and Japanese flavours too. The emulation is better than in SNK Arcade Classics 0, you can rewind and make a single save state, and the Museum has some rare artwork and useful bits of trivia. If you want to play the game at home legally, this is absolutely the way to go, although those who want an arcade stick should either get the PS4 version or get a controller convertor for the Switch. In either case, if you must play P.O.W. at home, this is the way to do it.
To end today's article, P.O.W. - Prisoners of War fanart.
One of my Twitter friends, @supcat is an awesome dude. A real Shock Trooper, you know?
He actually drew fanart of Codename: Snake from this game high-kicking everything he sees.
Including two helicopters. Because fuck helicopters.
Click to embiggen and take in their glory. This is art, sir (based on a late-80s arcade game- the best kind of art)
If I were living a more dangerous life, I'd do a whole feature on SNK's brawlers... But man, I don't hate myself that much. Yet.
Seriously, you have no idea how much Burning Fight blows. Oh well, back to the index, eh?
© Copyright , Ant Cooke