For those of us privileged souls who grew up in the 8 and 16-bit eras, a large majority of our gaming experiences were spent jumping on platforms. Sometimes it was with a gun, sometimes it was with stupid looking shoes and catch-phrases (I’m looking at you, Bubsy), but most of the time if you closed your eyes and picked an NES cart at random, it was going to involve some sort of jumping-related activity.
Today’s lesson is about a very specific sub-genre of those games: the momentum-based platformer (I’m gonna call them MBP’s. Because I’m lazy!). Basically, and keep in mind I’m totally making this up as I type this, an MBP is a game that revolves around a momentum-based mechanic to navigate through the levels. Simple, right?
Sonic, of course, was the granddaddy of this sub-genre. You start in the Green Hill Zone, go really really fast through some loop-de-loops, and fly towards the exit. And it’s fun! You go fast! But if you play past the first couple of levels you’ll see the game start to degenerate into a collection of slippery jumping puzzles with ramps. If you play further into the series, you’ll see it start to turn into utter crap.
Some better examples were Bionic Commando, Rocket Knight Adventures, and Ristar. All of those games had fun mechanics and, more importantly, solid controls. You could make your way through a stage with relative ease if you were skilled, and you didn’t have to worry about being flung through a tube at a wall of spikes if you weren’t.
Pulseman tends more towards that second group, even if it isn’t perfect. In Pulseman, you play as…well, Pulseman. You’re a smart reader, you can figure that one out. Like Rocket Knight Adventures, you build up power and hurdle in whatever direction you choose until you come to rest. By running fast or double-tapping to perform a quick dash, you can build up static and either use it to launch yourself, neatly blowing up anything in your way, or fire a ball of lightning. Unlike Rocket Knight Adventures, you don’t stop when you launch yourself unless one of three things happens:
1. You cancel it.
2. You haven’t hit a wall in 3 seconds.
3. You hit spikes, or a pit, or something ouchy that isn’t an enemy.
At first, you’ll think you can just launch up to the ceiling and bounce your way to the end like a screw-attacking Samus on a heavy cocaine dose, and you’d be right…for the first level. Try the same strategy after that, and get ready to kiss the bottom of some very inviting bottomless pits.
As any good MBP does, Pulseman builds the entire game around its mechanics, and doesn’t try to shoehorn them in later. Even though these don’t always work (*cough* see picture *cough*),
they work most of the time, and they’re a nice departure from jump, coins, jump, spikes, boss, oh hey, this level has springs in it!, repeat. A BIG part of the reason why these mechanics are so fun to play around with is where you get to play with them. The levels Game Freak (yes they didn’t just make Pokemon, no there isn’t a hidden Pikapuffthing in here, move along) designed are breathtaking for a Genesis game; hell, they’re breathtaking for any game. Everything’s based on a sort of TV-themed, Vectorman-style motif, only with a whole lot more color and movement. Instead of sighing your way through yet another lava or desert or water-themed level, you get crazy, Technicolor computer forests and besieged broadcast stations. Even the boring old ice level starts as a bland, lazy Ice Climbers-esque bore-fest, only to quickly change pace into this:
And if you get annoyed with a level? (you will…this game’s not easy) You get the good old Mega Man-style level select, along with a brilliant feature I’ve never seen in another game: if you reach the boss on a stage and get a game over, you can go right back to the boss. Why a single other game hasn’t picked up on the fact that I don’t want to have to trudge through disappearing platform hell just to fight Cheapo the Teleporting Magician Boss for the fifth time astounds me to this day.
Let me sum this up for you lazier readers. Good MBPs are all about one thing: feel. Once you get the muscle memory and the controls down, you stop having to think and start, just…moving through the game. You see a platform, or a far-off item, and you don’t have to wonder what secret tile you need to find to get there, you just bounce off some walls and grab it. Pulseman is one of those games. Grab a copy. You’ll be glad you did.