The Game Before Game Freak Was Famous
Companies like Game Freak are often widely known for their single greatest achievement. After all, players often associate a successful game franchise to a singular developer; Elder Scrolls by Bethesda, Resident Evil by Capcom, and so on. We often forget that developers can have more diverse portfolios and IPs than meets the eye, even in the wake of a successful franchises that have become global phenomena.
Game Freak is very similar to this; of course we know about their early history with Satoshi Tajiri leading the way to his passion project, Pokemon. Yet many seemed surprised that Game Freak released two games commercially this year: the giant success that is Pokemon Sword and Shield, and the quaint RPG Little Town Hero. What's ironic is that Little Town Hero is the first non-Pokemon game by Game Freak since 2015, when James Turner directed the development of the digital-only Tembo The Badass Elephant for Sega.
Game Freak constantly releases smaller titles outside of Pokemon, but perhaps their last big title goes all the way back to 1994, before lightning strikes for them with the ironically named Pulseman. This Japanese exclusive platformer is one of the last major projects worked on by Game Freak before they became international superstars, and surprisingly, it is a game that few talk about as well. Pulseman is an interesting conversation piece as it is the transitional piece of Game Freak’s history as a developer, being the last physical console game released by the company until Lets Go! Pikachu and Eevee in 2018.
The Early Years of Game Freak
Game Freak’s early history is well documented: the struggles of finding financial support for Tajiri’s dream project in what will become Pokémon, the rejected pitches by Nintendo that would lead to a mentorship with Shigeru Miyamoto, and the hiring of Game Freak to make smaller games, from Yoshi to Mario & Wario for the company. Game Freak was also looking into branching out beyond Nintendo, making games for Sega and Sony between 1991 and 1994. Their Sony title, Smart Ball, would see some major success on the Super Nintendo, while Pulesman would be their Sega title exclusive to Sega Mega Drive.
Pulseman was directed by Ken Sugimori, who would go on to be the most well-renowned designer and character artist for the Pokemon franchise, and Tajiri, which at this time was spearheading multiple projects as director for the burgeoning studio. Not only dealing with the struggles of developing Pokemon Red and Green, the company also nearly went bankrupt several times, and Tajiri would refuse to take a salary to try and keep the studio afloat. Many of their early games became proving grounds to help secure funding for Pokemon. Their collaborations with Nintendo on the two spin-off titles were trials by fire that gave Nintendo the confidence that Game Freak can deliver on a larger title.
Pulseman helped this as well. In 1994, it was the most up to date, polished title Game Freak had created. Sugimori had the idea for Pulseman, originally titled Spark, based on sentai superhero stories mixed in with manga-styled melodrama. The narrative is actually quite adult. Set in the 21st century, a scientist named Yoshiyama creates an artificial intelligence known as C-Life, but quickly falls in love with her. In a strange twist, he uploads himself into her computer core, and “made love” to C-Life by mixing his DNA with her program core. The results were Pulseman, a half-human, half C-Life boy with the powers to manipulate electricity.
The crux of the games plot is Pulseman fighting off Yoshiyama, who became corrupted inside the machine, turning himself into the supervillain Doc Waruyama. Waruyama then creates the Galaxy Gang, a group of C-Life beings who are able to manifest in the human world, who begin spreading cyber-terrorism across the planet. It is up to Pulseman to defeat the Galaxy Gang and his own father to free the world.
To do this, Pulseman has several powers at his disposal. The first is the ability to travel through electric wires, which were often used to get around areas in a given level quickly. Pulseman also could enter and exit normal appliances like TVs and arcade games to progress through the levels, attack enemies with electric projectiles, and charge himself up while moving and dashing. All of these abilities pale in comparison to Pulseman’s signature ability, Volt Tackle.
The Power of the Volt Tackle
Volt Tackle today is known as Pikachu’s key move in the Pokémon franchise, but in Pulseman, the Volt Tackle is not only your most powerful attack, it is a good way to platform across levels. The attack has Pulseman turn into a giant ball of electricity that shoots upwards at a 45 degree angle. If it hits an enemy, it has a chance of destroying them, but if it hits a solid surface, it allows Pulseman to ricochet off of it. The Volt Tackle can also end manually or whenever Pulseman runs outs of energy, so there is a bit of risk and reward tied into the mechanic as well. With a bit of practice and some skill, players can avoid world hazards with ease, and tackle the games seven levels and boss battles with great precision.
The games design actually reflects Pulseman’s abilities, requiring an understanding of the Volt Tackle and when and where to dash, jump, and fight to get ahead. A lot of the latter half of the stages are sprawling mazes with these mechanics in mind, and the amount of polish put on top of the presentation was impressive, to say the least.
Visually, the designs by Sugimori and Tajiri are top notch, invoking the typical shonen-manga style that gives Pulseman character. The art style is also complimented by an excellent sound design by Junichi Masuda. This was Masuda’s fifth game score, and within it you can hear the beginnings of what would become staple compositions often found in the Pokemon franchise. Most notable is Neo-Tokyo, the first level in the game, containing a few hints of the classic Pokemon battle theme within it.
The Past, Present, and Future of Game Freak
Despite being a polished game, Pulseman was just a moderate success when it was released. The reviews at the time were middling at best, and the game was often compared as an inferior hybrid to other platformers at the time, most notably Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man. Pulseman would also be another small success in sales for Game Freak, which is possibly one of the reasons it was never released outside of Japan, at least physically. There have been only two instances where the game was made available in North America; the first was back in the 1990s with Sega’s Sega Channel, an early online service that would be able to rotate Pulseman, along with other games, in and out of playability.
The Sega Channel, for a long time, was the only way to play Pulseman without importing it, until 2009 when the game was released on the Wii Virtual Console. Here the game received more favorable reviews, scoring an average of 7 to 8/10 scores from IGN, Eurogamer, and Nintendo Life. To date, the now discontinued Wii Virtual Console is the last place to get Pulseman for international release.
What Pulseman represents is the transitional period for Game Freak. It was a console-specific action platformer where many major players at Game Freak, from Sugimori to Tajiri to Matsuda, show off their capabilities as developers, designers, and composers. We see in Pulseman a bit of Game Freak's past and their future, all rolled into one electric ball. For all the hardships Game Freak had in 1994, you would never notice it as Pulseman is arguably their most polished game in their early days, and a forgotten gem in the platforming genre that is worthy of being remembered.