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Review by tankMage (August 2016)
With elements taken from series like Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog, Pulseman showed a lot of promise. The fact that it was created by Game Freak, the developer of Pokèmon (which is evident in the game’s art style), only made this title all the more tantalizing. Unfortunately, the end result is an experience that is above average, but not quite of the caliber I’d hoped it would achieve. This title has an interesting plot (but not much story), beautiful graphics that stand out even in the year 2016 and a hero that boasts some creative abilities. Among all this potential are some oversights that hobbled the final product. It’s not all that surprising that this title languishes in obscurity despite its strengths thanks to uninspired enemies, overly sensitive controls, and a few minor bugs.
A brilliant biologist/computer programmer creates a true artificial intelligence. He soon falls in love with his creation and somehow transports himself into the digital world to be with her. Eventually a creature that can travel freely between both worlds is born of their union. This being, known as Pulseman, possesses not only the power to move between the physical and digital worlds at will, but can also control electricity. Not long after our hero’s birth, a mysterious villain known as Dr. Waruyama also emerges from the cyberverse and goes on a crime spree with the help of his minions, the Galaxy Gang. Of course, Pulseman’s tremendous powers are the only thing that can defeat the Doc, so he sets out to end the Galaxy Gang’s party, because….well, why not?
Setting aside the glaring absurdity of the story, I have to say the overall premise is pretty creative and managed to capture my attention. While there isn’t much dialogue or character development within the game (Pulseman is all about action) the intro scene provides some background and Dr. Waruyama’s occasional heckling adds some spice to the plot. There are some aspects of the story (like the villain’s motives and identity) that go unexplained and are left to speculation, but this may be due to the fact that Game Freak intended to make this title the first installment in a series. Regardless, the plot is fairly unique and at least provides the player with enough hints that they can tie up loose ends with guess work.
This game looks amazing and can even put some modern titles to shame (at least in terms of color and originality) despite the fact that it’s a 2D side scroller made way back in 1994. While the sections of the game that are set in the physical world look fairly nice, it’s the digital world that makes Pulseman stand out. The cyberworld is alive with color and bizarre backgrounds that make it feel like it is in a constant state of motion thanks to animated flashing platforms, backgrounds and cool layering effects.*
Game Freak also threw in some cool details; for instance, Pulseman’s watch, which is displayed on the top left of the screen will change colors depending on how many hits he has taken, is also visible on the character sprite and changes color in accordance with the hero’s current health as well. Speaking of sprites, most of the character sprites are very well designed and seem to be precursors to Game Freak’s popular Pokemon series. Also, Pulsey’s fluid animations have that “triple A” look you’d expect from a high budget title.
Bosses are often quite large and interesting looking, especially the wire-frame VR hand and some of Dr. Waruyama’s incarnations. While the hero and boss sprites are very nicely done, generic enemies tend to be derivative and appear to be lifted from games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man in some cases. Enemies are also repetitive, since you will only see a handful of different foes throughout the game. Even with it’s few aesthetic shortcomings, Pulseman is one of the best examples of 16-bit console graphics out there and really showed off what the Genesis could do.
*People with conditions like epilepsy may want to avoid this game, because of the flashing effects.
I usually complain about controls being loose and unresponsive, but this game has the opposite problem: the button inputs are so sensitive that it can be difficult to control your character. For the most part, the control sensitivity is not an issue and on dry land players may only notice the touchy nature of the controls when falling. Underwater areas are a different story, however, as the rules change somewhat. When falling (er…or sinking) even a slight tap will send Pulseman a few strides to the left or right, which can make certain levels somewhat frustrating since you can easily bump into spikes or an enemy. On top of that, you can’t control the height of jumps underwater, which can be very dangerous. Another irritating aspect of the controls was the need to double tap the D-pad constantly in order to perform the dash move. Oddly enough, the double tap dash seemed to be the one thing that wasn’t super responsive and only seemed to work if timed carefully, which often got me into trouble…go figure. While the controls may be a touch too sensitive, the devs wisely made it possible to remap some of the buttons, which is a useful and often overlooked feature in older games. Overall, the issues affecting play control weren’t severe, but they were noticeable enough to put a damper on the fun.
The music for this game is perhaps a bit dated, since I imagine it sounds like something you would have heard in a Japanese nightclub in the mid nineties, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The Genesis may not have had a 16-bit sound predecessor, but it could produce some really beautiful music in the right hands (the sound chip was designed by Yamaha after all). This game has a wide array of Techno style tracks that are often very creative and add to the rhythm of gameplay. Pulseman also managed to pull off some really unique sound effects that I’ll always associate with the title. This is a rare thing indeed, since many developers seemed content to use stock sound effects on the Genesis. This game even has some digitized voice effects, but they don’t come through very well on 8-bit hardware and I often had to listen closely to understand what was being said.
All in all, this title’s sound effects and music are a real accomplishment on Game Freak’s part. The person who did the music for this game succeeded to tease out the potential of the Genesis’ sound chip; a feat many others failed at or didn’t even undertake. The result is an OST that holds up even to this day and makes the game far more immersive.
Game Freak had a good grasp on what makes for a high quality platformer, but made some amateurish mistakes that were evident in gameplay. Many of these errors are only apparent at certain points in the game, but haunt Pulseman through its entirety in subtle ways. In fact, there’s really only one section of the game where it’s flaws come together in a way that has significant impact on the experience; a water level that requires the player to avoid spikes and foes while sinking to the sea floor, which I touched upon in the user interface section.
The first issue is the classic “leap of faith” problem, which is a situation where you have to jump into a surface that you cannot see because, of the way the screen scrolls. This game has several areas where you have to make such leaps and while you will generally land safely, there’s a few points where you will have to either get lucky or take a damage/loose a life. There’s no way to peek down at what’s below you and it often just comes down to memorizing the stage layout. Fortunately this problem is only a minor issue aside from the stage I mentioned earlier.
Crappy enemy design is another error that keeps this game from being a true classic. Keep in mind that bosses are quite imaginative and well made for the most part, only the standard foes are sub par. Most of the mobs do little else than move around, which would be fine if they were positioned in creative ways, or at least adequately….but they aren’t. In fact mobs are often positioned very poorly, usually just outside of your field of vision and in your way so you can’t avoid being hit when landing a jump or trying to keep up with auto-scrolling areas. Stages usually only have a few foes scattered about and feel rather empty, which is probably a good thing considering how poorly Game Freak implemented them. It would have been nice to have encountered more enemies that shoot things at your or at least jump around (there are a few), because they would have forced players to use the hero’s powers more creatively. A greater variety would have been helpful as well, since there are only about ten types of mobs.
Now that all of this game’s failings have been covered, I go over it’s successes, as far as gameplay goes.
One of the nicest aspects of this title is it’s rich level design. There always seems to be a surprise around every corner, from mazes to rooms filled with wires that the hero can travel along, which coupled with the fast pace at which you can move, ensures that the game does not become terribly repetitive. The fact that players can choose the order in which they beat some of the stages (which doesn’t seem to have a purpose other than making the game feel more open) and each level has it’s own theme, makes this title a rare gem indeed.
Clever boss design is another great component of this game. While some bosses were maybe a bit too easy, almost all of them took some forethought and strategy to defeat and there was often a trick to beating them that had to be discovered through observation. It was interesting to see what this title was going to throw at me at the end of each level and the boss’s made up for the scarcity of imaginative mobs.
The set of special powers possessed by the protagonist also help compensate for this title’s deficiencies. Launching yourself high into the air at a 45° angle with volteccer or firing energy bolts at enemies, along with Pulseman’s ability to run quickly grants this game a sense of momentum. There always seem to be obstacles that break Pulseman’s rythym, but this makes learning the game and how to effectively use the hero’s abilities all the more satisfying since you can blaze through many of its levels if you know what you are doing. The game also does a fair job of forcing the player to use Pulseman’s powers to clear the stages, although, as one would expect, there’s not a lot of innovation, but there are a few pleasant surprises for those who enjoy the creative implementation of special abilities.
A Few More Points About this Game…
There’s several facets of pulseman I left out of the usual categories, because I think they are either a matter of personal taste (more so than the other points I mentioned) or I’m not 100% positive they are part of the common experience.
Firstly, this title is a bit on the short side (only seven stages) which made it brief by the standards of its time, not to mention those of today. Some people may be dismayed by this, while others simply might not care. It could also be argued that this is a good thing, since this game lacks a save feature…
As stated above, this game has no save feature and limited continues. Once again, this aspect of the game may bother some, while others may appreciate it. For my part, I prefer games with save features, since my gaming time is limited to maybe an hour or two a night. At any rate, this issue has been rendered moot for the most part, since the Sega Channel is defunct and you are going to have to play this title on an emulator, which features some form of save state whether it’s the official virtual console or a third party app.
Last, but not least, this game suffers from a bug that can be rather annoying; if certain conditions are fulfilled, your character can fall through the platform you are attempting to land on. I didn’t count this bug against the game much, because I only encountered it once or twice and, according to TAS Speedruns, it only occurs if you hit a certain combination of buttons (which is currently unknown) before touching down. With that in mind, I found the bug quite avoidable if I didn’t push a bunch of buttons and shift directions while in mid air, but it could prove disaterous at times.
I’ve often stated that I hold gameplay above all else when considering what rating I give a title (although the other factors are also weighed), but Pulseman is one of a few exceptions. The level design and general gameplay was just slightly above average; the graphics and music, however are something special. Even the story helped elevate this game to a higher tier, because it was so unusual, despite the fact that it felt incomplete. If you play this game, do it for the strange visual and auditory world it will immerse you in and enjoy the gameplay for what it is: a fairly simple platformer with a few creative twists here and there.
Pulseman is a must play if you like obscure titles with pretty graphics. If you find things like leaps of faith and limited continues frustrating or are attracted to Pulseman, because it’s reminiscent of Mega Man, you may want to consider finding a friend who owns it and trying it out or watching some footage of it before buying it.