Pulstar is a bittersweet title to cover. Although it’s a fine game (better than fine, actually), it may be the last true R-Type style game to appear in arcades; we’ll find out if I’m wrong as I move on, but I was surprised when I first played Pulstar a ways back to find out that such arcade games were still being made as late as 1995. The very nature of the R-Type style is to lack the dazzling speed and visuals of then-modern shoot-em-ups, so one would expect a dwindling audience for such a release.
But even while Pulstar didn’t have the flash of a Cave or Psikyo shoot-em-up, it did have something going for it that traditional R-Type games lacked: pre-rendered 3D sprites and backgrounds. The folks at Aicom couldn’t very well unleash Bullet Hell and still remain true to their design goal, but they could change the feel of the graphics from the old hand-drawn sprites to something decidedly mid-90s: CGI style enemies and designs, much like the earlier game Viewpoint. It makes for a very distinctive looking game, even though I’m still a bigger fan of the older Irem style. The soundtrack, which relies heavily on synth strings and echo-hall effects instead of heavy rock, likewise sets it apart from any of its shoot-em-up peers—but like ambient mood music from a movie, it generally doesn’t make for much enjoyable listening outside the confines of the game.
Playing the game is everything you would hope for from an R-Type homage. You have your pod, an array of weapons to fire from it, and you’ll use them heavily in some of the toughest stages you’re going to face anywhere. Just like its inspiration, this game moves slowly, and that may convince you to let your guard down, but you will quickly learn the error of your ways. By the fourth of the game’s eight (long) stages, I was feeling my years, and by the sixth I was genuinely stressing about survival. (I did not complete the game without continuing. A few times.) Enemies come from all angles and shower you with bullets that move with infuriatingly slowness, leaving you to only feel upset at yourself when you miscalculate the proper safe way to navigate them. You’re also taunted with the option of sacrificing your pod for a super-powerful attack against everyone on the screen. This is the true definition of a desperation move: without the pod to block most incoming fire safely, you’re living on borrowed time trying desperately to find a replacement.
Pulstar is a satisfying, well-designed game. It looks good, sounds good, is longer than R-Type games tend to be, tough as nails, and never goes for unfair deaths. When you lose, it’s your fault, and when you win, you are the king (well, queen considering the game’s pilot is female) of the galaxy.
TAGS: Pulstar Aicom Neo Geo 1990s games