Way back in 1994, in my early years of collecting video arcade games, a “friend of a friend” offered me a machine. I had never heard of this particular game before, but it was 100% free, and I’m a big fan of free stuff. The cabinet was in excellent cosmetic shape, and fully complete. Once powered on, the marquee glowed, and I could hear the game playing, but the image on the monitor was smashed into a bright vertical line straight down the center of the screen. I tried everything my limited technical knowledge could come up with to “widen” the picture on the screen, but I had no success in making the game playable.
After a few months, I sold several project machines to another collector, and the free machine with the collapsed monitor image went on its way.
I now know that a cap kit should have fixed the problem, (or failing all else, an outright monitor replacement), but at the time, I didn’t know about cap kits, and it was several years before I was introduced to the internet with its vast knowledge base. I now wish I had kept it, because I haven’t seen another game like that one on any warehouse raid or arcade auction since. So, in tribute to that machine that briefly resided in my collection many moons ago, it shall earn the title of this issue’s Lost Arcade Classic… Gremlin/Sega’s 1981 release Pulsar.
Pulsar players are tasked with driving a tank through a constantly changing labyrinth, in order to retrieve keys to unlock a door leading to the next level. The first screen starts off with two different colored keys, and two corresponding numbered and color-coded locks on the door. It’s as simple as matching a given key to the same colored lock to unlock it. To visually assist the player further, the tank changes color to that of the key it is holding, making it quite possibly the first military vehicle with chameleon-like abilities. The number of keys and lock “sets” increases by one for each successive level reached, up to a maximum of five. Unlocking locks awards 50 points multiplied by the number of the screen you are on. So, opening a lock on level four is worth 200 points.
Of course, Pulsar wouldn’t be much of a challenge if there were no antagonists dogging the player’s every move, so the game readily throws a variety of enemies your way. You know, to mix it up. These villains take the form of abstract shapes like stars, interconnected circles, and helixes. These baddies are felled with one blast from your tank, but as expected, they will shoot back. Destroying these foes award 100 points a piece, and extra fuel. As your fuel slowly dwindles during each level, blasting enemies is the only way to replenish your fuel supply, preventing the loss of a reserve tank.
Now, there is one specific opponent that is practically the “boss” of this game, the very enemy this game is named for… the pulsar itself. This bizarre creature is a large, red, molecule-shaped entity that takes multiple shots to destroy. Once you pump about five or six bullets into the pulsar, it splatters, and six regular sized foes emerge from its defeated form, each of which can be destroyed for more points and fuel. Make “task completion” your motto in regards to the pulsar, because if you only shoot it a couple of times, then turn and run, its speed will increase dramatically, and it will stalk you relentlessly.
Consecutively destroying two of the smaller enemies of the same color awards double points. Interestingly, these adversaries are NOT deadly to the touch. Your tank will simply bump up against them, and yes, this includes the pulsar. However, the pulsar is wide enough that it can block your progress through a corridor unless destroyed.
On a side note, the text on the attract mode contains an unusual statement. The enemies are described as DEFENDERS. Yes, Pulsar’s attract mode identifies the antagonists of the game as defenders, which is a very positive term for those that are standing in the way of achieving your goals. Could it actually be possible that the player represents the intruder, disturbing the Pulsar’s metallic maze realm, when it wants to live in peace? Furthermore, has this happened enough times in the past, so that the Pulsar actually NEEDS to have defenders now? Hmmmm… For that matter, what is Pac-Man’s motivation for eating those dots? Are they HIS TO EAT, or do they belong to the ghosts, whom are just safeguarding what is rightfully theirs from a ravenous intruder? I need to stop this line of thought before I get to the love triangle of Mario, Pauline, and Donkey Kong.
Anyway, back to Pulsar. While it’s true that the titular character is an oversized pulsating amoeba of energy, it also has a unique special control over the labyrinth it inhabits. Every few seconds, one wall shifts to block off a passageway, and concurrently, another wall retracts, to open up a previously obscured path. This can create odd situations in which one area of the maze is rendered completely inaccessible. If that happens, you can only wait until the walls shift again, and hope that opens up the labyrinth once more.
As if the shifting walls weren’t enough, the maze also features electric force fields that zap across hallways for a few seconds at a time. The fields are only deadly if they happen to zap your tank as it crosses THROUGH them, admittedly a rare occurrence. Typically, the field appears for a few seconds, during which you can safely bump up against it, but it must disappear before you can progress.
A level is completed once all keys and locks have been matched up, whether or not all the defenders have been destroyed. The door to the next labyrinth then opens, and the tank automatically drives through. A bonus is awarded based on how much fuel is left in your tank. Unlocking locks in numerical order is preferable as it results in a double fuel bonus.
Therefore, a good strategy is to go for the numerical order bonus, shooting defenders minimally in self-defense as the game progresses. Once you have the final key, you should then destroy the remaining defenders, including the Pulsar and all of its component parts. Doing so pumps up your fuel tank, allowing you to collect massive double fuel bonus points upon unlocking the final lock and completing the level.
Later levels feature faster shifting walls, increased electric fields, and quicker defenders. Reaching the fourth screen, which features five key and lock sets, is quite an achievement.
One of Pulsar’s unique features is that it notes your rank in relation to that of other players. You begin with a rank of thirty (and a score of zero), and as your score increases, so does your rank. Or maybe I should say that the rank number decreases the higher your score climbs, and a rank score of 1 means you’ve achieved the highest score on the machine.
Pulsar’s sound effects are simple, but effective. A very creepy ambience is created via a background “heartbeat”, which, when coupled with the echoing “clang” of the shifting walls, draws the player into the audio equivalent of a metallic dungeon of horrors. The rest of the sounds are standard bleeps and zaps, although the fanfare that plays during the fuel bonus is the same as the “B-O-N-U-S” countdown from Gremlin/Sega’s 1980 classic Carnival.
Pulsar is clearly a maze game, but it has a very different feel than its contemporaries. While other shoot-em-up maze games like Tutankham, Targ and Eyes feature characters that fit exactly within the corridors, the characters in Pulsar are tiny – less than half the width of the maze hallways. This means that both your tank (and the enemies) can dodge bullets WITHIN the same corridor in which they’ve been fired upon.
You don’t have to race toward an intersection and turn down another hallway to dodge a bullet in Pulsar, you can simply move to the side within the hallway you presently occupy.
But this increased maneuverability negatively affects the fluidity of the tank. Unlike Pac-Man or the tank level in Tron, you can’t tilt the joystick a split second before reaching an intersection, and then quickly zip around the corner. Pulsar requires you to tilt the joystick when the tank is actually in the intersection, as moving too early will cause you to smack into a wall. As a result, Pulsar’s joystick movements tend to be more abrupt when compared to other classic maze games.
Pulsar is housed in Gremlin/Sega’s typical early 80s cabinet. Other games such as Frogger, Astro Fighter, and the aforementioned Carnival, shipped in this same cabinet, and were offered in both woodgrain and white color schemes. However, the few Pulsar machines I’ve seen have all been woodgrain models, and the owner’s manual does not mention a white cabinet option.
Overall, the cabinet sports a minimal amount of artwork. However, the marquee features a truly awesome image of the pulsar as a disembodied, electrical red and black face, which is being zapped by a humanoid figure bearing a strong resemblance to Marvel Comics’ iconic Silver Surfer. This human is clutching an oversized key, indicating that he is meant to represent the player. Except the player in the game is clearly a tank, not a metallic human!
This reminds me of the story behind the art on Atari’s Tempest. The side art on that classic machine features wonderfully detailed demonic creatures, but the images displayed on the screen are abstract electrical shapes because the machine’s vector monitor couldn’t display convincing demons to match the cabinet art. Perhaps the Gremlin/Sega programmers faced a similar hurdle. Maybe the plan always was to have the player control a human in the maze, then after the marquee art was designed, it was determined that the hardware couldn’t display a decent looking humanoid, so they changed him to a tank at the last minute. In the words of Led Zeppelin: “It makes me wonder”.
So the next time life makes you feel like you are wandering aimlessly around a shifting metallic labyrinth,(and who among us HASN’T had that feeling?), watch out for those walls and force fields that try to sidetrack you, bring the fight to your abstract antagonists, and keep an eye out for your own “friendly tank”. He could just be the very locksmith you need, to allow you to proceed safely through the halls of the museum of the Lost Arcade Classic.