Monday, July 13, 2009

VC look: Pulseman

One of the few games that never reached Western shores during the time of the Genesis was a platformer by the name of Pulseman. Released in 1994 by the guys at Game Freaks(who go on to release a cult hit known as Pokemon) this game has finally reached both the United States in Europe via the Wii's Virtual Console.

The story to Pulseman is rather odd. This is taken from Nintendo's Virtual Console/Wiiware press-release: "When noted 21st-century scientist Doc Yoshimaya fell in love with one of his C-Life artificial-intelligence creations, he uploaded himself into his computer, where her program core merged with his DNA, and half-human/half-C-Life Pulseman was born. Doc Yoshimaya's mind twisted as he emerged back into real life, and he became evil Doc Waruyama." Yeah I don't know what to make of it either. This is part of the reason why I tend to ignore storylines when I look at videogames.

Anyway Pulseman is a unique individual in that he can harness electricity to progress through seven stages that all end with a boss. Each stage is divided into many areas that jump between the "real world" and cyberspace(with the only difference being that cyberspace tends to have trippier backgrounds). Along the way Pulseman will find power-ups in the form of S-balls(get 10 to get a 1up), 1ups(get 1 to get a 1up), healing items(Pulsey dies if he takes three hits or falls in a pit), and Electro-balls(which keeps his Volteccer constantly charged for the entire area).

Without the volteccer Volt-head isn't much of a platformer-hero. He has an impressive jump that is easily controllable, a chop that serves as his main attack, a crouching kick for the handful of enemies that stick close to the ground, and an upwards flying kick for enemies directly above him. However by either running across the ground for a short distance or by performing a dash(double tap either left or right) Volts will gain a burst of energy. This burst can be used with the chop to create a Flash Arrow projectile which is great for killing distant enemies but not much else. By pressing the A button though Pulseman will unleash the Volteccer where he will form into a bolt of pure energy that moves him in an upwards 45 degree angle. After a short distance he will revert back to normal form and he'll have to recharge to use the volteccer again. While volteccing Pulsey can bounce off walls which will also keep the burst charged and thus allow him to travel up through narrow shafts and other similar areas with little trouble.

Aside from bouncing off of the walls the volteccer can also be used to travel across electro-paths. These are designated by a line and the colors on the tips match your current health status(blue, yellow, or red). These can be used to progress and if two are close enough together Pulseman can hop between them. Thankfully the volteccer doesn't need to be charged so you can attach to them as long as you're close enough when you press the A button.

Since our hero is so effective with electricity it's only natural that his biggest weakness is water. Aside from draining his strength so that enemies require more hits, the volteccer and all of its abilities is rendered useless. In fact mere contact with water will stop Pulseman dead in his tracks. It doesn't do any damage but volteccing over a pit only to run into some water is an easy way to die.

The foes that Pulseman faces off against are fairly minimal. Cybernetic frogs, mice, birds, and other such woodland creatures are really not much of a threat. The bosses on the other hand are a different story as they require using Volt-head's powers effectively. Still though one will discover that most of the headaches in this game will come from the levels themselves. There are plenty of pits to fall in, lots of water-based traps(including jerks that home in on you), and one of the stages is actually a bit of a labyrinth where you have to find the right path or you risk repeating the area forever(thankfully it isn't that hard to figure out). All that said though this game really isn't very hard as you can quickly amass a ton of lives and death via taking too many hits is pretty rare.

The star of this game is the level design. While the first stage plays it fairly pedestrian the later stages feature vivid art direction and more importantly an excellent variety of traps and structures that make each stage unique as well as bringing their own challenges to the table. Not only does each new area offer something new but ithey're also well-designed to the point that they don't feel half-baked or out of place. Pulseman's volteccer ability also gives the player a ton of freedom in how they progress through the stages. Whether they use it all the time or sparingly the stages are for the most part suited to support both play-styles(though there are plenty of situations where the volteccer is either needed or can't be used at all). I think this aspect of the level design is exceptionally important since no matter what is going on the player still has full control of Pulseman and his abilities. 

One rare aspect is that this game actually has a well-done scoring system. It's nothing spectacular and there are no in-game rewards for achieving high-scores(though you do get 1ups after a set number of points) but it's certainly competent and gives players something to do after they've managed to beat the game with losing a life or even taking damage. In-between stages there's a bonus round where the player uses the volteccer in an attempt to destroy all of the blocks. It's sort of like Breakout or Arkanoid except it uses the game's mechanics and controls. Unfortunately these get very difficult very quickly but are essential for getting a good score. 

Another great feature of this game is that it has more than enough identity to go around. Unlike most other platformers of the 16-bit era this game isn't trying to be Sonic or Mario. The level design features sharp angles and is intentionally built for usage of the volteccer and so on. It's really unlike anything either of those other games is known for. To add to this Pulseman's abilities are very unique and have some interesting mechanics. His dash for example can also be used to pass through enemies and their attacks as well as cross small gaps. This is especially handy when the ceiling is too low to jump from platform to platform. 

In terms of faults I really didn't find anything noteworthy. I guess if you're the kind of person who feels a platformer should have over 50 stages and be several hours in length you won't like this game. It is a short title but considering it was designed to be played in one sitting and for a high-score it doesn't really matter. Oh sure it's also fairly easy but given the genre that's to be expected. Pulseman gives enough room for the player to try new things that'll make the game more challenging as well as providing entertaining gameplay that'll keep them interested long after they've seen the ending.

All in all I highly recommend this game and platformer fans would do very well to check this one out. Now if only Sega would do something about the lack of a localized Monster World IV...

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