RELEASE DATE: 02/23/91 (JP)
ALSO ON: Nothing. Pop Breaker is a Game Gear exclusive.
Take a look at the Pop Breaker cover art again. Here, I’ll even include it so you don’t have to scroll up.
What kind of genre do you think this belongs to? Keeping in mind that Pop Breaker never saw release outside of Japan. Let’s break it down a bit: there’s an optimistic young woman, all suited up and ready to roll in her… spaceship? Race car? Hard to say. That green alien space cruiser probably spells trouble, but the light blue skies – along with the lead protagonist’s sunny attitude – seem to indicate good times are ahead.
Visual novel, shoot-em-up, and racing are the three genres that come directly to mind, based solely on the cover. But if you answered “puzzle,” you’ve either already played Pop Breaker or you’re a cheater, somehow.
Yes, Pop Breaker is a puzzle game, despite being labeled a shoot-em-up on both GameFAQs and on the game’s description in Sega Retro (to be fair, the latter does also label it a puzzle game). There are shoot-em-up elements, I suppose. You control a clunky spaceship (the protagonist’s vehicle actually looks like a spaceship in-game), you can collect weapon upgrades, and you do shoot things.
This is not a puzzle/shoot-em-up hybrid by any means. The shoot-em-up elements are all contained within design boundaries that the shmup genre lacks. Each of the game’s levels are large, scrolling one-screen affairs (the levels scroll because they’re too big for the Game Gear’s tiny screen) that you must navigate in a particular way. Precariously placed turrets launch deadly orbs and/or flames. Tiny mines explode as soon as your bulky ship touches them. Bumpers tilted in different angles direct yours and the enemies’ shots. There are no quick movements, no sudden bursts of action. Pop Breaker is a methodical puzzle experience through and through.
Your main mission in each level is to destroy a single green machine. The machine fires when you fire, and its attack is faster than your attack, which means you need to be quick to move out of the way. Otherwise, the machine is lifeless, void of any personality. You could stand in front of it and taunt it all day if you want. As long as you don’t shoot it while you’re touching it, you’ll be fine. (Also, the green machines are not the foreboding green ships from the main cover. In fact, in my time with the game, I did not see a single one of those green ships, which just adds to the cover’s “what’s going on here?” appeal).
Pop Breaker, like the green machines you’re tasked with destroying, has very little personality of its own, save for the red-haired protagonist. Developers Microcabin were so proud of her, they stuck her on the cover, on the title screen, and in between each level (Inter Mission!). Was she a character featured in other Microcabin games? Let me know in the comments, you scholars of obscure knowledge. While you don’t see her in-game whatsoever, her presence conveys that there’s a “real” person behind all this pop-breaking. These are not just some meaningless exercises for a spunky cadet-in-training. Or if they are, at least she’s hopeful about where her career as a Pop Breaker is headed.
In the end, Pop Breaker is a worthwhile distraction for the Game Gear. The game’s environments aren’t particularly deep or challenging, but they are engaging; I played it for a couple hours nonstop, so there’s clearly something here. Despite enjoying my time with it, and despite the fact that the entire game is in English, I’m not surprised it wasn’t brought to the West, as it probably would have sold peanuts. But if you have an afternoon and you’re partial to obscure Game Gear games, you could do worse than Pop Breaker.