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Pulstar (NeoGeo) artwork

Pulstar (NeoGeo) review


"The legend goes this way: a handful of surly IREM expatriates fled the unimaginative rut they were in to explore greener pastures. They were unhappy with the way R-Type II turned out - it was simply more of the same. They wanted to up the ante, and create their vision of a true follow up to the perennial quarter-muncher. A sort of Super R-Type, to borrow a name. That game is Pulstar."



I will begin, as Hemingway once suggested, with the simplest, truest thing. If you dislike R-Type games, for all their pattern-based, deliberate gameplay, don't bother with Pulstar. Really. You'll become gray before your own eyes due to the stress level the game forces down your throat, as well as the ages you will spend in clearing even three of the eight levels.

This is not to say that the opposite is true. If you thoroughly enjoy IREM's side-scrolling 2D shooter franchise, you will not necessarily enjoy Pulstar. This NeoGeo offering is R-Type to the extreme, in terms of both strengths and weaknesses.

And there is a good reason for this.

The legend goes this way: a handful of surly IREM expatriates fled the unimaginative rut they were in to explore greener pastures. They were unhappy with the way R-Type II turned out - it was simply more of the same. They wanted to up the ante, and create their vision of a true follow up to the perennial quarter-muncher. A sort of Super R-Type, to borrow a name. That game is Pulstar.

And to that end, our programmer friends have succeeded. Pulstar has startling visuals, which are even more incredible in motion. For a shooter, the game is evidence of a powerful creative force at work, and makes almost anything else look generic. The aliens and backgrounds are all typical, but somehow simultaneously unique.

For example, there are always spider-like enemies in shooters, but these fully rendered arachnids scamper across the screen like proof of life onscreen. And though we’ve all seen fiery levels, the realism of the flying incendiary in this game’s fire stage seems to produce real heat on your television screen.

The music is always of a striking quality, and always relevant. You won’t simply forget it’s there, nor will you want it off. It is thunderous at times, and at times appropriately melancholy, like an ongoing requiem for the countless lives you will spend trying to make headway.

So we know Pulstar looks and sounds like R-Type on steroids. But does it play that way? Yes. And is that a good thing? Sometimes.

The meshing of biological and mechanical terrors is alive and well and thriving in Pulstar. Remember those unmoving jaws from R-Type’s level one? Here, they close. The first stage guardian creates a vacuum to seize and amass scrap metal, and like a magnet, pull it to his alien core. You will watch, mouth agape, as he morphs into his true form, the furious orchestration reaching a fever pitch. This is all in the first level alone, which may well be all you’ll get to see!

Your armada-repelling spacecraft is a rip-off of the R-9 from that game, there's no doubt. Even the Force Unit that affixed itself to the front end of the R-9 makes its way into Pulstar, but lest the controversy boil over, this version cannot float free to do damage independently, nor can it be attached to the your ship’s posterior. Also, it earns a new function to fight the clone chatter; you many detonate it as a smart bomb should the action become too hot for you (rest assured that it will, but sacrificing your shield in a game of this lopsided difficulty is never a good plan).

Intense weapons are the order of the day. A pink ring of heat surrounds your ship like some demonic Ferris wheel, rending and burning enemies. A green laser produces currents that ebb and flow like outreaching tentacles. Pulstar does R-Type one better here by allowing a power bar for when you hold the button down and charge, as well as for when you tap the button rapidly, charging with the speed of your button presses. The two charge techniques allow your weapon selection to respond in two very different ways, adding to the sense of strategy. This is a good thing considering having the 'Force Device' static takes away from much of the classic strategy that IREM's classic brought to the table.

R-Type games were fervently criticized by detractors for their call for memorization over reflexes. In truth, the game required both skill sets: the scenario planning, and the finger-flexing spontaneity, but the former was employed in much heavier doses than in previous games of the genre (it can be argued that R-Type created a sub genre of sorts - the thinking shooter).

IREM’s lackluster follow up lacked the original’s personality and tried to make up for it with a repellent difficulty curve that featured far too much of this 'planning'. Painstaking care was necessary to move an inch forward on the screen in R-Type II, and Pulstar has taken that abominable trait and made it worse.

Only the first and second levels play fair. All other missions hurl unforeseen obstacles and enemies in your path, in front of you and behind you, closing off all means of egress. It is the game's way of evilly littering the screen that is its downfall. The demands on the player are far too great, and the slow pace of the thinking man’s shooter 'engine', does not help. At first I cursed the ship, and thought it to be too slow, but it's as slow as it should be in a shooter like this. It's just that everything else moves much too quickly and resolutely.

Still, clearing Pulstar is not out of the question. I barely managed the feat, but that only confirms something telling of the game's quality. Since you need to be a masochistic, perfectionist, stubborn shooter fanatic to see the ending sequence, the game obviously will not appeal to the gaming public at large. Conversely, a game featuring such an incredible, unfair level of difficulty - that all but obscures the extremely engaging, otherworldly sights and sounds - will be something many other hardcore shooter jockeys are looking for. Beating this game will help validate any budding shmupper.

And with that, here is a sound measuring tool: if you can't trounce R-Type, or don't care to put the effort forth that is required to do so, steer clear of Pulstar. If you love R-Type and everything like it, get ready for the hardest, most hardcore thinking shooter you'll ever play.

Rating: 7/10

Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (December 14, 2003)

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