I am a simple person. I see an anime girl drawn in a slick 90s artstyle and the contents of my wallet are all yours, regardless of the game attached to that art. Well, some research would have come in handy in today’s case, as Pulstar is an SNK-developed space shooter that has nothing to do with anime, unless you count the female protagonist who is only seen on the Game Over screen.
Then again, that’s probably the screen you’ll spend the most time on anyway.
Pulstar is a fairly dull game. Originally released for the Neo Geo and arcades, its gameplay is comparable to that of a similar side-scrolling shooter from the late 80s at best. You have a bulky ship to move around, power-ups to grab, and you fire a laser that can be charged by holding down a button. That’s it. Just fly through the stages and shoot generic space monsters.
While the gameplay may be simplistic, the game itself is anything but. Your ship makes for a large target and any hit from anything will instantly take it down. Bullets, touching an enemy, hitting an inch of the scenery, all of it will instantly cause the ship to explode. The game is fairly kind with its checkpoints so you never have to replay too much, but the bits you will be replaying may take dozens of tries to get right.
Pulstar is one of those games obsessed with difficulty and mostly creates this by flooding the screen with enemies. Already in the second of its eight levels you’ll have to dodge and shoot your way through gauntlets of foes and projectiles. The framerate dips and freezes under the weight of everything the game throws at you and it will gleefully trick you, such as by making enemies suddenly appear behind you without warning. This turns the game from an exciting space shooter into a game where you repeat the same 2 minutes of content over and over again until you’ve successfully memorized it and reached the next portion.
It’s not a process I enjoyed much and this made every stage feel like a grind to get through, especially when it took a while to get back to the action after a checkpoint. Pulstar also doesn’t offer anything to make the challenge worth sitting through. The enemies are generic and boring, which mirrors the equally bog-standard levels you play through. There is no in-game story to work through and its once-impressive CGI cutscenes have aged poorly.
The port to PC is also very lacking, with a finicky options menu and several unskippable splashcreens that play each time the game is booted and a new game started. So, unless you have an actual Neo Geo collection to complete, Pulstar is not a game I’d recommend for anybody but the most fervent fans of side-scrolling shooters.