Back in the ’90s, there were still frontiers left to explore. It was a decade where anything went, and daring to be creative wasn’t a financial risk. Along with prominent tech boom, one could easily ride the innovative flow and profit off any kooky idea. From Clappers to Jerry Springer, Mortal Kombat to the cockroach simulating Bad Mojo, if you could avert an established trope or push the envelope far enough to upset the status quo, you were a pioneer.
Postal was aversive as hell. Released in 1997, this brutal murder escapade landed at such a precise moment that it diverted from just about everything, taste included. At a time when first-person shooters saturated the market, Postal used an isometric perspective with fixed camera angles; this was nothing new in 1997, but in comparison to your typical FPS it may as well have been. The villains weren’t aliens, ghosts, zombies or psychological manifestations, but a scared populace under assault from you, the player. They didn’t stop moving or disappear when their health hit zero. Instead, they shimmied along the ground, begging to be finished off as they bled out. You had the option of providing them this service or leaving them to suffer. And like most other games, Postal had a quit option, but unlike most other games, it also included a key that triggered the main character’s suicide.
The little amount of story is sparingly covered in the manual. Our unsung hero, known only as Postal Dude, sees a hostile uprising approaching his modest home. Believing his town to be infected by a rage virus, Postal Dude sees no choice but to arm himself and blast his way to the local Air Force base from where the infection supposedly originated.
That would be your typical plot in an action shooting adventure. The problem is the contrast between what Postal Dude perceives and what is actually happening. It’s obvious that Postal Dude is a paranoid psychotic, and the armed citizens are a harried populace struggling to defend themselves. We know the truth, Postal Dude doesn’t, and the only way to win is by mercilessly slaughtering as if he is in the right. The dramatic irony adds a psychological slant to this sort of outing, and it makes Postal Dude a far more interesting character than that emo inbred knockoff Hatred Guy.
The current version of Postal has twenty levels, sixteen from the original game and four more integrated from the Special Delivery expansion pack. Clearing each level requires eliminating a certain percentage of Hostiles, the ones with the guns and bombs. The other half that make up the cannon fodder are the Innocents, unarmed meatbags who happen to be in the worst place at the worst time. Unlike Hostiles, Innocents can be spared if one chooses, though I’ve never met anyone who has; there’s a certain infamous level where a certain marching band is so close together they can tempt even the most angelic pacifist.
This is not a ‘nice’ game. I confess that it feels awkward to to review, hell, even play Postal in such strange times, where mass shootings are frequent and the onscreen carnage is tantamount to a sad reality. Furthermore, prolonged suffering is a huge buzzkill for me; I will deduct from a Final Grade depending on how meanspirtedness affects my enjoyment. Further still, I play games to escape our tarnished, cynical planet. Yet this is a game centered around raising body counts in public places, where the air becomes permeated with moans of the dying. Why, then, am I entertaining it?
First, because it plays so damned well. I don’t remember if the controls were this polished back in the day, or if Good Old Games worked that fine magic of theirs, but control has been tweaked to perfection. Movement and shooting are mapped to WASD and the left mouse button, respectively, while ducking is configured to the F key. This is important because many Hostiles carry rocket launchers, requiring one to move and drop a lot. This control setup makes Postal addictive right from the outset. How can I resist such alluring death candy when I’m moving so smoothly?
Challenge also factors into gameplay. Winning requires tactical planning. Running out in the open like a mindless oaf will get Postal Dude shot up and exploded faster than he can off himself. The best strategy is taking it slow, hiding behind barriers and eliminating threats in small groups. This lengthens the play time, especially in later levels, by turning the maps into enjoyable gauntlets.
Second—God help me, Postal gave me a lot to think about, and not always in a negative way. Dramatic irony is not commonplace in my gaming. I’ve played plenty of murderers, but never ones this delusional and motivated out of raw madness. Kudos to Running with Scissors for putting me in such a precarious position.
If anything, Postal is quintessential ’90s, a watershed moment in a decade long attempt to push boundaries and shock people. The right combination of gameplay and substance drew me into Postal Dude’s twisted, nihilistic little world. Did I feel squeamish? Yes. But did I try being a good boy? No. I killed everyone, and when guilt crept into the forefront I just told myself that weapons or none, the Innocents carried the virus too. If I didn’t stop them then, who would later? Such is the dilemma of Postal Dude.
FINAL GRADE: B