I’ve never really given it much thought but SNK really seemed to love military themed action games in the 80s. It shouldn’t be that surprising considering that particular decade was rife with the stuff like the Rambo series, Commando, Platoon, and who knows how many more. The games were many but they did a good job of varying them up despite the singular themes. In most video games you are a lone soldier out to stop an invading army and rescue prisoners of war. P.O.W. puts you in the shoes of said prisoner as he escapes captivity. The distinction is minor as it still ends up being one man against the world like every game of that era. That doesn’t stop P.O.W.: Prisoners of War from being a cool little gem and a pretty good port of the arcade game minus a few warts.
As a brawler P.O.W. wasn’t the most complicated game in the world. The arcade used a three button setup for punch, kick, and jump. Aside from the basic moves you also had a mean head butt and a back attack to avoid being surrounded. The NES game is limited to two buttons and loses the jump button. Unfortunately it means the controls had to be retooled and something was lost in the process. The jump kick is performed by pressing punch and kick since you can no longer jump. The head butt is gone and the back attack is performed randomly. It’s workable but not the greatest. It is interesting to note that unlike most beat em you can’t throw enemies and its absence is definitely missed.
The basic structure is nearly identical to the coin op however SNK saw fit to add plenty of exclusive content. Each level is littered with side rooms where you can fight to gain power-ups such as brass knuckles to double your attack power, armor for protection and a health refill. It sort of evens out the high difficulty although the game is still cruel. The most substantial addition are actual boss battles to go along with the slightly altered story. In the arcade you only fought against an attack chopper during the conclusion. Here you face each of the leaders of GOON as well as the previously mentioned helicopter and an assault carrier. The last two in particular are pretty cool since you’ll need to pick up dropped grenades to damage them. These additions are extremely cool and make up for some of the game’s failings.
Five stages doesn’t sound like much but P.O.W. is surprisingly long, mostly for the wrong reasons and on top of that is a particularly challenging beast. Each level is about the size of two stages from any other beat em up if you can believe it and filled with optional side rooms you can enter for power-ups. The one thing you have to keep in mind with P.O.W. is that the game is relentless despite the slightly slower pace. As soon as you’ve finished off a group of three enemies 2 or 3 more groups are waiting in the wings. If the average level in say Double Dragon has 15-20 thugs Prisoner of War is skirting closer to 50.
As you can imagine it’s incredibly tedious, especially considering they take so long to die. This is the main reason the game is so long. Your movements are slow and there are an incredible number of cheap hits. I haven’t even mentioned the exploding grenades and lasers that spell instant death. This is a tough one that will take more time your average brawler to complete. And not in a good way.
Like most of SNK’s NES games Prisoners of War looks great. Obviously it can’t match its big brother but they have done a particularly excellent job of adapting retaining its look. The sprites are larger than in most similar games and even with three or four on screen it never slows down. Most of the level additions keep the same tone in terms of art and even the new bosses look great. The soundtrack is similarly excellent; the music is all new specific to this version and a bit more energetic than its arcade counterpart but still fits the game’s tone if you can believe it.
Despite my faults with it I really like P.O.W. Double Dragon 2 is still my favorite beat em up for the system but Prisoners of War is a close second or third. Definitely worth tracking down and another notch in SNK’s belt in terms of their NES arcade conversions.