Accessing games never really became an issue by the time the Genesis came out. Most stores understood the popularity of the hobby and stocked as many games as their shelves would allow. Sadly, those games that didn’t either stayed in Japan or got slapped onto an early online service like Sega Channel. Pulseman, one of the best works of Pokémon developer Game Freak, demonstrates the shamefulness of letting fantastic games languish in the obscurity of the import scene or primitive online experiments.
The game doesn’t feel terribly innovative or fresh at a glance, as it plays much like any other of the hundreds of colorful platformers that graced the Super NES and Sega Genesis. You navigate the main character across platforms as you defeated enemies along the way towards the end of the level. But superior, inventive level design (as well as some striking art) gave it an immediate advantage over everything else on the market. The game feels effortless exactly because it’s familiar even as it adds new elements, the exact same quality that keeps people coming back to 2D Mario games.
But it’s the game’s central mechanic of being able to launch and ricochet yourself that truly pushes every aspect of the game to true heights. Reminiscent of the Rocket Knight and Sparkster games, Pulseman can launch himself into enemies and to higher platforms by turning into a ball of energy, bouncing off everything he runs into. Game Freak built the levels around this mechanic, giving each stage not only a greater vertical element than most games, but more complexity in the normal horizontal progression that took the ricochet effect into account as well. Making your way through the levels is truly a joyful experience.
Sadly, few people ever experienced this brand of joy. Though it released as a standard boxed game in Japan, we only saw it as a Sega Channel download. This Internet-based service may have been ahead of its time, but that proved to be a bad thing as far as getting people to participate. Internet connections still lacked the speed and ubiquity necessary for such a service to be the norm. That, coupled with the steep subscription fees, meant that most people never bothered with it. Worse still was the fact that Pulseman released on Sega Channel unlocalized, and though it ends up being a non-issue as far as playability, it was enough to scare even more people away from a game that already had an albatross around its neck.
It’s truly a shame, because Pulseman deserves to be a classic in the same league as Mario and Kirby, two series that Pulseman feels very similar to in that they all staunchly adhere to platformer conventions while simultaneously twisting them with fresh mechanics. Today, it finds itself on the Wii’s Virtual Console, a service much better suited to its times than Sega Channel ever was. Now, free of the baggage that initially doomed it, the world can finally experience this would-be classic properly.
Article by Jeremy Signor
GameSpite Journal 12: Pulseman