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‘Pulstar ACA NEOGEO’ Review – Kiss Your Thumbs Good-Bye

As I’ve said more than a few times in the past, the NEOGEO was generally known for a couple of genres more than anything else. Fighting games, of course. And thanks to Metal Slug and to a lesser extent Shock Troopers, it’s also known for run-and-gun action. It’s just how things shook out given the developer talent and arcade zeitgeist of the era. But since it was mainly arcade hardware, it did have its fair share of shoot-em-ups. When pressed to list the best of the bunch on the console, a few names tend to come up. Blazing Star. Aero Fighters 2. Viewpoint. Twinkle Star Sprites. And this game, Pulstar ($3.99).

Pulstar is technically the predecessor to Blazing Star, even if the naming doesn’t make that connection perfectly clear. Developer Aicom changed its name and ownership between the two games, but there were several shared staff members and Blazing Star did indeed start life as a follow-up to Pulstar. Like Blazing Star, this is a side-scrolling shoot-em-up. It’s a very different animal, however, and I think it’s safe to say that a lot of things about that game were informed by reactions to this one. Don’t assume you’ll enjoy one because you like the other, in other words.

There’s an elephant in this room, so let’s name it first. This game is pretty obviously inspired by R-Type, and not by a little. I’ve heard some people whisper legends that Pulstar was developed by ex-Irem people who were dissatisfied with R-Type II‘s direction, but I can’t find anything to support that. Aicom was kicking around at least as far back as 1987, the year R-Type released. There’s no shared staff at all as far as I can tell. No, I think the simplest answer here is probably the true one: the folks at Aicom were as impressed by R-Type as the rest of us, and wanted to take a crack at making their own spin on it.

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Thus, we end up with a relatively slow-paced shooter with a heavy emphasis on memorization for survival, biomechanical organisms everywhere, a chargeable shot, and a protective bit power-up that can block shots and damage enemies. Some parts of stages and bosses pay heavy homage to R-Type, too. It’s also difficult in the same way as R-Type, with a checkpoint-based respawn system that means you’ll have to practice, practice, and practice some more if you want to make any progress at all. The margin of error for much of the game is razor-thin, and completion is certainly not for the faint of heart. There are eight lengthy stages to play through in order to reach the ending, and I’d be awfully surprised if most people made it even halfway through.

It’s probably no surprise, but I don’t think Pulstar is as good as R-Type in almost any respect. I don’t even think it’s as good as R-Type II, though it’s closer. I could try to really break it down into granular detail, but it really does come down to two main points. First, the level designs and enemy patterns are pretty obnoxious. R-Type needed a fair bit of accumulated knowledge to survive, but those with quick reflexes would spend far fewer coins to make it through than those who brute-forced it. Reflexes won’t really help you much in Pulstar. It throws things at you that you can’t possibly avoid without knowing about them ahead of time, and it does it a lot.

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The other thing that hurts it by comparison is how its power-up bit works. Unlike in R-Type, you can’t launch or move the bit. It attaches to the front of your ship and that’s that. It’s very useful, necessary even, for blocking enemy shots, and it makes a nice cow-catcher for weaker enemies. But a lot of the fun of the bit in R-Type came from its versatility. You could fling it and have it act as an independent unit. You could attach it to the rear of your ship to guard your backside. And yes, you could park it on the front much like how Pulstar‘s bit works. Without those extra actions, the bit in this game feels like a slightly glorified shield and little more.

There are a couple of abilities you have access to in Pulstar that you wouldn’t see in R-Type. For the bit’s part, you can launch it as a screen-clearing bomb in a pinch. It can be handy to save your skin, but your chances of surviving bit-less in the aftermath aren’t great. You’ll have to memorize when power-ups are coming up if you want to get the most use out of this ability. While you can charge your shot (again this is necessary for survival a lot of the time), the meter goes both ways in this game. Tap the button rapidly (or use the rapid-fire ability that comes stock in Hamster’s Arcade Archives) and you’ll eventually get a different sort of powered-up shot. You can also find various power-ups, but again many of them mirror the ones seen in R-Type, all the way down to the bouncy lasers.

This is all probably making me sound like I’m really down on Pulstar. I think it’s pretty good, actually. I don’t like it as much as R-Type or Blazing Star, but a game can fall short of those and still be really great. Pulstar has some really great qualities to it. The presentation is outstanding, among the very best on the NEOGEO hardware. It uses pre-rendered graphics, which is usually a kiss of death as far as aging well, the usage here surprisingly holds up. There are many moments in the game that really struck me with how nice they looked, and not just by the standards of 1995. The soundtrack, by the talented Harumi Fujita (Bionic Commando, Mega Man 3) and Yasuaki Fujita (Final Fight, Breath of Fire), is fantastic. A good shooter needs a great soundtrack, and Pulstar fortunately has one.

The controls are solid, and there are certainly worse games to bite from than R-Type in general. Some of the bosses are incredible to behold, with multiple stages to deal with that keep upping the ante every time you think you have things in hand. Pulstar‘s take on the battleship stage from R-Type is quite a behemoth to wrestle with. A fully powered-up ship feels empowering in the way you want to see in a shooter like this, and even if you die and lose all your power-ups you generally still have a chance to recover. As teeth-shatteringly hard as the game is, it never feels impossible. Often highly improbable, but it’s that slim chance you can make it this time that fuels games like this.

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And now we’ve reached the portion of the review where I repeat most of the things I’ve said in other ACA NEOGEO reviews. You can play with touch controls or use an external controller, and it controls well enough either way. You get the same extra modes as usual, with a Score Attack and Caravan Mode available. You can also choose between the Japanese and Overseas version of the game. There are tons of options here, and the ability to save and load your state will certainly be of use. The emulation is on-point, but you probably don’t need me to tell you that. It’s a good way to enjoy this game, though serious players will want to make sure they have a good controller to help them go the distance.

While I still prefer Blazing Star and Aero Fighters 2, Pulstar is probably my third-favorite conventional shoot-em-up in the NEOGEO library. It was one I was hoping would hit mobile back in the day when its follow-up made the hop, and so I am very happy to see it here now. As long as you don’t mind your shooters being hard as nails, you’ll likely get plenty of value out of this release.