Sunsoft was one of the major third-party developers of the NES era, and Blaster Master was arguably the company’s most enduring hit, spawning quite a series of spin-offs, sequels, and remakes, very certainly including the much-maligned Fester’s Quest. Sunsoft declined rapidly after the third generation came to a close, however, and, while the company still exists today, its last release of any significance was 2003’s Clock Tower 3. Blaster Master Zero, a comprehensive reimagining of the 1988 original, was licensed out to the Japanese action-platformer specialists at Inti Creates, who have attempted to recreate the magic of the NES original while simultaneously bringing the gameplay into the modern era. Well, that was the plan, anyhow; so did it work?
Any discussion of Blaster Master has to begin with the story. The original game had one of the most notorious localizations of the NES days — in Japanese, it was released as Chô Wakusei Senki Metafight (超惑星戦記メタファイト if Wikipedia is to be believed), and had an entirely bog-standard anime plotline about an evil space empire and a noble hero named Kane Gardner fighting to free the planet Sophia III using his super-zoot space tank. Since anime was largely unknown in the west at the time, and Sunsoft’s American division was concerned that the audience would find this offputting, the storyline became… well, somewhat different. Kane Gardner was renamed Jason Frudnick, and instead of being a space warrior fighting an evil galactic tyrant, he was a teenager whose pet frog, Fred, accidentally hopped onto a crate of radioactive waste that was just, like, lying in the backyard one day, and then dove down a big hole into the center of the world. Jason followed him down, found a super-zoot space tank called "Sophia the 3rd," and then had to save Fred from the Plutonium Boss.
With such a disparity in storylines, one cannot but wonder which direction Inti Creates would choose to go in for the remake. In truth, they’ve taken the comedy third option, and fused the two storylines together. So now space hero Jason Frudnick discovers a mysterious frog-like creature and decides to call it "Fred." Fred escapes from the lab, and Jason has to track him down using the magical Fred-tracker built into his super-zoot space tank called "Sophia III," while just incidentally helping to save the future from the evil space empire. Oh, and did I forget to mention they added a love interest? Because they added a love interest and really awkward writing.
You think I’ve cherry-picked some awful dialogue, don’t you. Well, I mean, you’re not wrong, but the rest of it’s just about as bad. The writing is uniformly terrible the whole way through the game, which is probably fine, since there isn’t much of it and it just ends up being funny. I honestly can’t decide if it’s a good thing or a bad that there are no outrageous hams reading that meatwitted dialogue.
Leaving the word bits aside, we confront the gameplay. At its heart, this is still Blaster Master — the core concepts remain unchanged from 1988. Play begins in large, Metroid-alike side-view caverns in which Jason and Sophia III run and jump and shoot at giant aliens. I mean that all quite literally: both Jason and Sophia can jump. Nothing is more NES than a tank that can jump. I don’t even mean that it jumps like in a Knight Rider sense, where you get going real fast and fire your hydraulic bouncers or whatever and fling the car through the air; no, it jumps just like Mario. Jason on his own is quite helpless in these side-view sections; his gun has very limited range and takes many hits to kill any of the mobs, they hit him really hard, and his jumps are feeble, so the game definitely encourages you to stay with Sophia whenever possible. There are some places Jason can only reach on foot, though, so you will spend part of your time roaming around, and therein lies the game’s greatest weakness: the Jason-only platforming sections are insufferable due to the game’s extreme fall damage. If Jason falls more than about three times his height, he gets hurt. More than five and he dies instantly. Jason is small, meaning that entirely rudimentary jumps can lead to instant death. To make matters worse, the game frequently insists on difficult Jason platforming, including not just max-length jumps but multiple suicide leaps toward ladders you have to catch in mid-air. Generally the designers are sensible enough to include checkpoints directly before any truly obnoxious instant-death platforming, but it’s still an irritation.
Of course, any Mario game worth its salt has precision platforming with instant death as the reward for failure, so what makes it so annoying here? To be sure, the extremely punishing fall damage is part of it, but the rest is the stiff controls. They play pretty faithfully to the NES game, meaning that Jason moves a lot more slowly than you expect him to, and that Sophia has quite a bit of inertia. In the latter case it’s no big deal; the game’s first room has a series of easy jumps specifically designed to accustom you to the rather floaty tank controls, and there’s never an occasion where missing a jump will lead to a reload. The Jason sections are just the opposite; there’s little practice available, and virtually no situation in which failure isn’t punished harshly.
The major innovation that Blaster Master brought to the table originally was the "dungeon" sections, and there are even more of them this time around than there were before. In these sections, Jason explores in a three-quarter, Zelda-like view, with movement in all directions (and no jumping or godforsaken fall damage). Jason’s gun can be powered up by collecting weapon pickups, and getting hit powers it back down. Unlike in the original Blaster Master, gun powerups aren’t a linear set of improvements; instead, each level is a different weapon with different attributes, and it’s possible to switch among them freely. It’s not always best to use the top-level gun; some weapons are better in certain circumstances, and in some cases can even impact the environment. Any icy floors, for instance, can be thawed out with the flamethrower. It’s an interesting conceit, but one that isn’t really very deeply explored; it ends up more of a curiosity than anything else.
Most of the game’s bosses are fought in this mode. The bosses themselves are large and varied, and the fights are interesting, but they all have one thing in common: they’re very, very easy. There are some boss fights that are, in fact, so easy that they can be beaten before the boss even has a chance to act. That’s a bit absurd, and quite a departure from the source material; in the original Blaster Master, the boss fights were outrageously hard to the point that one almost had to exploit the grenade bug to beat them. That is surely not the case in Zero, which is just as well, since there’s no grenade bug to exploit this time around.
The controls are stiff and the movement slow in the top-down mode, which is accurate to the original, but seems very unusual to those of us accustomed to more modern shooters. Once you get used to it, though, it’s actually quite interesting; the slow movement makes Blaster Master Zero less a game about fast reflexes and more a game about strategic positioning and thinking ahead. You need to be anticipating what the mobs are going to do, because if you wait for it to happen, it’s too late; you’ll never be able to dodge quickly enough. This is not the sort of gameplay one expects in a top-down shooter, but it’s engaging.
The environments are excellent, paying homage to the original sprites and backgrounds but not merely recreating them. It’s recognizably Blaster Master all the way down to Sophia’s famous aspirin wheels, but with quite a bit more flourish and some effects the NES would have given its right arm for. The game also appears to be paying homage to other famous NES games, sometimes in anxiety-provoking ways.
Anybody who appreciates 8-bit-esque pixel art will like the look of this game, and anybody who appreciates 8-bit-esque chiptunes will enjoy the soundtrack. They’re definitely in the upper echelon of retro work, but don’t deviate from the source material enough to disrupt the NEStalgia for those so inclined. The levels are structured broadly the same way as the original NES levels, but with quite a bit more content (and a few new tricks, to be sure), and the original’s limited continues have been left in the dustbin of video game history in favor of a modern checkpoint and save system. There are far more dungeons and bosses, more powerups, and more (than zero) dialogue cutscenes. It’s not clear that the latter really brings anything to the table (far too many dialogue sequences consist of Jason and Eve saying "that’s odd, Fred’s signal isn’t coming from this level anymore"), and the dialogues are unskippable, but they can be advanced pretty quickly by mashing A. So there’s that.
On the negative side, as previously mentioned, the game is extremely easy apart from the frustrating suicide leaps. This problem only compounds as the game continues, since Jason accumulates more health, more special weapons, and the absurdly overpowered Energy Guard, which prevents his gun from being powered down when he gets hit. The other major negative about Blaster Master Zero is that the controls are very touchy; the game has eight-directional movement, which is pretty standard, but is a challenge when played with the joy-cons and their disconnected directional buttons. A proper d-pad would probably mitigate this, but those without a pro controller are limited to the suboptimal d-buttons or the highly suboptimal analogue stick. It is, in fact, so easy to press entirely the wrong d-buttons in the middle of combat, and the buttons are so sensitive, that one can frequently find oneself going in entirely the wrong direction. Navigate the narrow ledges with care!
In addition to its regular play modes, Blaster Master Zero has a silly multiplayer mode in which player 2 controls an invincible aiming reticule and can blast at the mobs and shoot health pickups for Jason’s benefit. Needless to say, this makes an already-easy game even easier, which is a bit silly. There are also downloadable characters from other indie titles, each of whom brings his own signature playstyle into the world of Blaster Master Zero. So far, there are characters available from Azure Striker Gunvolt, Gal Gun, and Shantae, with Shovel Knight coming in the near future. These are fun little additions (and cheap — only two bucks each), but aren’t really fundamental game-changers, given that they don’t alter Sophia’s abilities in any way.
In the end, Blaster Master Zero is a pretty good retro action-platformer. Like the original, it remains a curious hybrid of Metroid and Zelda, and can easily hold your attention for eight hours or so if you like this sort of thing. It ain’t perfect, but the flaws aren’t overwhelming, and for the price it’s hard to complain too much. Three and one-half Plutonium Boss Hairs are yours, Jason Frudnick!