Blaster Master is, in my opinion, one of the very best examples of early “Metroidvania” style gaming. So much so, infact, that I actually prefer it to the revered progenitor of the genre, the NES version of Metroid. While much of this may be childhood nostalgia, the game felt so expansive in comparison to its contemporaries, and its great graphics were bolstered by one of my favorite 8-bit soundtracks. Still, when I heard that Inti Creates had acquired the rights to the game and were planning to reboot it I was a bit concerned. Inti Creates themselves have quite the pedigree, including games such as Azure Striker Gunvolt and the Megaman Zero series, but even that could not quell my trepidation. Blaster Master as a series has received many sequels and reimaginings, ranging from Blaster Master 2 on the Sega Genesis to Blaster Master Overdrive on the Wii, and the quality on these titles always fell somewhere between disappointed and disaster. Is Blaser Master Zero the game that will finally buck this trend?
So what’s this about?
Blaster Master Zero is a remake of the NES title Blaster Master, and it sticks pretty close to the formula that made the original game a classic. The story riffs slightly on the North American version of the game, as you take control of Jason Frudnick, a young robotic engineer who chases a frog down a hole and discovers a hostile subterranean ecosystem below. Oh, and he also finds a battle tank by the name of SOPHIA III. In this version of the tale, Jason is pursuing the frog creature (whom he named Fred) as he is an important experiment, and not because it is his beloved pet as in the first title. The game’s action is split into two parts, the first being side-scrolling sections where you explore the game’s various zones in SOPHIA III. Upgrades can be found for the tank that allow you to backtrack and explore otherwise unreachable areas. The second part of the game involves leaving SOPHIA III and exploring caverns and other structures on foot as Jason. This is done in a top-down, isometric view, and Jason is also upgradable… but to a much lesser degree. This is also the section of the game in which the vast majority of the boss fights will take place.
What does it do right?
Blaster Master Zero does the retro remake right. It may actually be my favorite 8-bit redo since Metroid: Zero Mission. One thing that stood out to me was just how close the level layout was compared to the original, especially in area one. It’s not one-to-one, but if you have played the first Blaster Master as much as I have you will undoubtedly know your way around the map without a second thought. If I thought a particular cave entrance or structure would be in a certain place – it usually was. While this game does an exceptional job of maintaining the integrity of the original title, it is the modern updates they applied to the formula that truly makes it stand out.
Zero is much more story intensive than the first game, but the narrative is still secondary to the exploration and gameplay. The plot is doled out mostly through text boxes and never feels intrusive, but it is prevalent enough that players will actually know why they are going through a particular zone in this version of the game. The graphics have also been given a nice coat of paint, especially in the top-down sections. Everything is still sprite based, and the sprites remain relatively similar in size to their 8-bit counterparts, but the environments, enemies, and Jason himself all look much more detailed and colorful. Some areas are almost entirely unrecognizable, when I first entered area 2, for instance, I was shocked at how different it was. It is a drab gray in the original, and I always assumed it was supposed to be some sort of castle area. In Zero it is the remains of the residential area, and the difference that makes in the experience of clearing the level is immense.
The biggest differences in the game are generally in control and “quality of life.” Small things added, such as renewable ammo, quick changing of special ammo while in tank mode, and actual save spots on the map make a world of difference. On top of that, the actual controls are much, much, more modern feeling. Jason can now aim in eight directions as opposed to four, and SOPHIA III can shoot at a 45 degree angle in addition to being able to shoot horizontally and vertically. Both are welcome changes.
Blaster Master Zero is more content-filled than the NES title as well, and this leads to the game feeling more focused and makes exploration more rewarding. The game has many new bosses and powerups, and many of these are located in caverns/structures/dungeons that housed little of importance in the first game. The design, as a result, is just tighter and less wasteful overall.
But is it Good?
This game is good, it may even be great in the context of the type of game it is. I had a few nitpicks when it came to the gameplay. For example, I would have loved twin stick control for Jason. Perhaps it would have made things too easy, but I am sure Inti Creates could have balanced it out. Speaking of difficulty, I also feel that having the story guide your path, along with the new power-ups and save points, may have made the game a bit too easy. I am an old hat when it comes to these sort of games, though, so it might just be a personal issue. I am also a bit torn on SOPHIA III not getting any real graphic update. The tank’s look is iconic, and it fits fine in the game world, it just seems odd to me that with most other sprites (including Jason) getting an upgrade she would remain relatively untouched. Like I said, it’s a minor issue.
The final verdict
If you’re a fan of old school game design, you should buy this game. If you’re a fan of the Blaster Master series, you should buy this game. If you like exploration based platformers or overhead dungeon exploration…. Yup, you should buy this game. It’s a very solid remake that should make both fans of the original and newcomers alike happy.