The lush pre-rendered visuals of Donkey Kong Country certainly impressed in 1994, so it seemed inevitable that other companies would employ the technique in an attempt to draw admiring glances. So it was that Aicom released Pulstar the following year on Neo Geo. The end results was both visually impressive and lots of fun to play, as well as providing a tough challenge to boot.
Pulstar takes place across eight stages, offering you the rather empowering ability to choose which order you tackle the first four - although this does reduce the opportunity to acquire upgrades going into each consecutive level. If playing two-player, you can even start from different stages as you take alternating turns rather than team up to defeat the enemy menace. Co-operative play would be more enjoyable, but it’s difficult to see how that would work with the level design; often you are forced along a set path and thread your way through gaps that are tight for one ship, never mind two.
Gameplay-wise, there's a real R-Type vibe to some of its enemies. There’s only so many ways something can move in a shmup, so similarities to Irem's classic - which include some familiar-looking backgrounds - in that regard are not particularly surprising. One stage even features a battle with a huge ship. Actually, it's more of a large armoured creature, but much like R-Type you’ll find yourself avoiding fire as you blast bits off and try to avoid being crushed against the scenery.
Your ship has plenty of instantly recognisable abilities too, tapping away to fire quickly or charge up a powerful shot to unleash. Power-ups provide the likes of zinging angled lasers and rockets, while a pod can be collected to provide additional fire power - although here it stays fixed to the front of your ship which limits your options. One feature it does have is the ability to damage enemies en mass when surrounded, which would be useful if it didn't leave your ship vulnerable until you’ve replaced it.
Something else you'll notice as you play Pulstar is just how tough it is. Swarms of enemies fly in from different directions and bullets come at you from all angles, requiring careful maneuvering to avoid and sometimes criss-crossing into a net of death should you wait too long to begin evasive action. You need to stay alert for dangers as your ship moves quite slowly, which in itself can be challenging until you’ve settled into the rhythm of the game.
Some additional difficulty comes from the visuals. Bullets are brightly coloured and easy to follow, but sometimes enemies and objects can blend into the background, with you either noticing them just before you burst into flames or the exact nature of your destruction being unclear. Generally, the art style works well, with a good range of enemies that feature plenty of detail. It’s not particularly noticeable on smaller craft (or your own ship), but the larger hostiles you encounter are very impressive. The game does suffer slowdown should a lot of activity be occurring on screen (and there’s a noticeable pause before your ship explodes), but it’s not particularly off-putting.
Special mention should be made of the superb music that uses a mix of instruments and sounds to provide a memorable little soundtrack. Often adventurous and upbeat, the tracklisting will detour into chilled or mysterious sounding pieces before heading into more otherworldly and ominous ones. The music enhances the onscreen events and a sound test option would have been a welcome inclusion to experience the tracks without having to concentrate on blasting away at things.
As a ACA Neo Geo release, you have unlimited continues to try and clear the game, but this just serves as a way to replay levels until you’ve cracked them. Memorisation is key as you learn which enemies to shoot and when to take then down, the moment to charge up an attack and which dangers are best avoided. Positioning is also important as lines of ships can streak onto screen suddenly, but learning and exploiting these attack patterns offers an exciting if challenging setup.
The mix of attacks and avoidance tactics used makes for enjoyable gameplay, but for many sections of the game there’s little room for improvisation and you’ll find only one way through that pattern of fire as you line up to slip through a tiny passageway. The difficulty can be adjusted in the options menu, but should you have made a wrong move this often just delays the inevitable as encircled attackers slowly close in on you. In a way the boss battles are simpler than the route to them. Though not easy, the dangers (and their patterns) can be seen onscreen and while deaths occur they're often avoiding through a little trial and error.
HAMSTER’s usual Hi Score mode is also included, giving you just the one credit to try and clear the game as well as the five minute Caravan mode. As always these provide enjoyable alternative challenges as you focus on pushing up your score to improve your placing on new online leaderboards.
Slower paced than many shmups, Pulstar is still fun to play through as you avoid enemy attacks, take shots at your attackers and look for an opportunity to unleash a charged attack. Despite some elements blending into the background on occasion and moments of slowdown, the visuals in the game are well done. The music is great and enhances the experience greatly. A detachable pod would be a good option to add some choice to how you tackle the challenge and too often you must rely on memorisation to get through the dangers, but nevertheless Pulstar remains an tough yet enjoyable retro offering.