P.O.W.: Prisoners of War (NES) Review

The Short


– Fun beat-em-up that reminds me a little too much like Double Dragon

– Awesome graphics, especially the backgrounds

– Has the ability to punch backwards, which helps when you get surrounded

– Pick up powerups, weapons, and more


– No two player option like the arcade version

– Second level is obscenely difficult

– Only four levels in total

– Lose all your power-ups on death

– Only two lives per run

– Music is catchy but gets grating

This game was my childhood.

The Long

It’s weird to compare games people played as kids with each other. While most were weened on the beat-em-up styles of Double Dragon or Battletoads, the game my friend owned was this one: P.O.W.: Prisoners of War. It’s strange, as I’ve judged every other beat-em-up since (whether consciously of subconsciously against this original standard, without having touched the game in nearly two decades.

Well, in a recent slew of retro game acquisitions I managed to grab a copy of P.O.W., so twenty odd years later I was able to pop in this cart and see if the game really lived up to my nostalgia. Does it? Well, I know one thing for sure: I’ve had the stage two music stuck in my head for two decades and I just now realized where it was from!

This song isn’t even that good. I don’t get it.

Anyway, P.O.W. is an arcade port of a game SNK made of the same name. I find it ironic they kept the subtitle “Prisoners of War,” seeing as this game is not a two player game, despite what the box art would indicate. You play as Bert (yeah, that’s seriously his name) as he busts out of a prison camp and punches and kicks dudes to victory. Pretty standard beat-em-up fare.

Dragon kick!

The game itself is pretty standard as well. You have a button for punching (which is fast) and a button for kicking (which is slower), and pressing both does a pretty useless air kick. Probably the best feature this game has over others is a back punch; if a guy is behind you and you press back and the punch button, you’ll stay facing but do the most badass looking backhand smack behind you for a hefty amount of damage. Considering one of the biggest threats in games like Double Dragon is getting surrounded, this back punch is a really good way to help ease a bit of that pain.

As you kick and punch your way through guys you have the option of sneaking into the back of buildings or trucks (kind of like Metal Gear) in search of items. There’s only really two: brass knuckles that increase your attack, and a vest that makes you immune to thrown knives. You can also pick up enemy weapons like knives (which he tosses rather than keeps for some stupid reason) and an M16 with limited ammo. The M16 can be both good and bad: it destroys bosses, but makes your melee hit awful.

Knife, meet fist.

Most people will breeze through the first level assuming they aren’t six years old, but most everybody will get stuck on the second level. All powerups disappear when you die, and you only have two lives (you get another every 20,000 points). The first level is a good mix of fairness and difficulty (enemies are never overwhelming), but in level two things get stupid. You have motorcycles that you have to time your jump kicks perfectly with or you lose half your health. You have scuba guys who pop out of the water and require split-second reactions. And you have guys with guns everywhere that don’t drop the guns, which is frustrating in and of itself.

Like most NES SNK games, P.O.W. looks pretty good.

Another minor issue I had was the screen scrolling. It just…doesn’t do it when you need it to. You have to be way too close to the right side of the screen for it to finally scroll, meaning enemies will pop out and cause some cheap hits. If you have fast enough reflexes it won’t be an issue, but it is annoying.

These aside, I really enjoyed playing P.O.W., even now. I’m somewhat jaded against this genre as a whole (it is essentially mindless tedium with difficulty designed to swallow quarters), but P.O.W. did what the best in the genre do: made me feel empowered. Kill dudes feels good, kicking them off the screen and outmaneuvering squads of guys with knives. It’s challenging, but the controls are tight and the action solid. It’s just a huge pity this is a single-player game, because co-op would have made it a classic.

These bikers are still the absolute worst.

Graphically, P.O.W. looks quite good. The sprites are big and well detailed, and the backgrounds are especially gorgeous. There’s often colorful mountains with clouds behind, or lush palm trees with blue skies above. Really, this is a very pretty NES game, and certainly pushes the limitations of the system in terms of art design.

The music is a mixed bag. As mentioned the stage two song was stuck in my head, but relistening they tend to loop much sooner than you’d hope. The songs are all decent, but hardly anything you’ll be putting on your iPod. Still, it’s better than awful noise, which means it’s still head and shoulders above most NES games.

Gonna get all Rambo on this dude.

So does P.O.W. hold up? Well, I’m still frustrated I can’t beat stage two very easily (something that’s hindered me my whole life up to this point), and the game really is just another Double Dragon clone, but despite all that I really think P.O.W. is pretty awesome. It’s fun, looks great, and is a good time waster if you are into beat-em-ups. It’s just a real pity it isn’t two player.

Still, you can grab it for about $5 or less, so if you see it in your local store I’d say give it a shot. For me, this game is so rich with nostalgia it’s hard to present it unbiased. The opening scene where he blows a hole in the wall of his cell is one of my first gaming memories. And the fact it’s held up really makes me happy.

It’s flawed and perhaps derivative, but it certainly still is fun. Three out of five stars. 

And yeah, this is the game that started this meme, so it’s got that going for it.

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

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