Blaster Master is a cult classic of the NES era. It never quite reached the immense popularity of Castlevania or Mega Man, but it was a memorable game. Originally released as the mouthful of a name "Super Planetary War Records Metafight" in Japan, it was localized with a more lighthearted plot for its North American release. The game was memorable for its shifting viewpoints and difficult gameplay. Over the years, no attempt to revive Blaster Master had much success. Blaster Master Zero, developed by Mega Man 9 and 10 developers Inti Creates, is the first attempt in quite some time. As the name suggests, it's an attempt to return the franchise to its roots, and it's an unqualified success.
Set on a postapocalyptic Earth, Blaster Master Zero is a fusion of the original Metafight and the Americanized Blaster Master. Jason is a gifted researcher who discovers a frog-like organism that he names Fred. One day, Fred escapes, and while Jason is chasing him down, he discovers an abandoned battle tank named Sophia and a lost girl named Eve. Jason and Eve work together to figure out what's causing the mutations that threaten the world. The plot is somewhat more dramatic than the original but adheres to its lighthearted frog-finding roots.
The basic gameplay in Blaster Master Zero is similar to Metroidvania lite. It's not quite a free-open exploration, but it's not entirely linear, either. Sophia the tank begins with a handful of abilities but gains more as you progress. She starts with a cannon and the ability to jump, and she gains the power to scale walls, hover, swim and more. The game design is such that each of these abilities leads you to the next plot area, and there's only minimal backtracking. Once you backtrack or get a new ability, it allows you to search for hidden upgrades that are entirely optional but unlock new combat or exploration abilities. You'll eventually have to get every power in the game to unlock the final stage.
It's not quite up to the sense of exploration that comes with an actual Metroidvania title, but it feels good and gives the game a solid sense of progression. There's just enough backtracking, so you get a sense of how much Sophia improves in a short time. Levels that took a half-hour to get through the first time can be zoomed through in under a minute once you have the correct combination of powers.
While the bulk of your time in the game is spent in Sophia, there are times when Jason goes on foot to explore areas that Sophia can't reach, such as small tunnels or caves. Some of these caves are played in the same 2-D plane, but others change to an isometric viewpoint, so you don't have the ability to jump.
The most interesting element of the top-down segments is how your weapon power-ups work. Jason has a gun that powers up with collected energy. Each power-up changes the available weapons rather than its power. One upgrade increases the range, two upgrades let you choose a penetrating laser, three upgrades a machine gun, and so on. At the max level, you get an incredible powerful wave beam that tears through entire rooms of enemies. The upgrades are temporary, and taking damage reduces your energy by one level, so you only maintain maximum power if you avoid getting hit. An early upgrade gives you a recharging shield that soaks one shot every so often.
I didn't find the gun energy system to be a fun gameplay mechanic. It never feels like a trade-off, and it feels like a harsh punishment for bad players. If you have an easy time with the game, then you'll have an even easier time because you can tear through entire rooms with the wave beam. If you're bad at dodging, however, it compounds the problem by giving you weaker weapons. The shield helps a lot by giving players a little leeway without losing their weaponry, but I would've rather had permanent weapons.
The on-foot dungeons are fun, if slightly repetitive. Unlike Sophia, there are no meaningful upgrades for Jason. He gets a couple of new grenade types, but they don't change the gameplay much. Combine that with the gun energy system, and you see almost everything the game has to offer by the end of the first world. I was rarely excited for anything between getting out of Sophia and reaching the dungeon boss battle. Some of the dungeons try to mix things up with puzzles or stealth segments, but I found them to be rather unengaging.
Fortunately, the fast-paced boss fights are a highlight of the game. They're exciting, and each one is different. They're not all hits, but I was always glad when a new boss popped up. They make some clever use of the mechanics. My favorite is a brutish and seemingly invincible boss who requires you to find a way to bring Sophia into range so you can use your new laser cannon. The on-foot bosses tend to test your dodging skills and can range from swarms of regular foes to giant mutant monsters.
The biggest problem with exploration in Blaster Master Zero comes during the rare moments when you're exploring the 2-D segments. On foot, Jason is fragile. The fall damage in Blaster Master Zero is excessive enough that you can fall and die instantly from choosing to jump instead of walking off an edge between platforms. The only times I died in the game were when I took what seemed like a perfectly reasonable leap and ended up losing all of my health. Once you get a feel for it, it's easy to avoid death by never taking any risky leaps, but it's annoying that it's even a concern.
For all of the nagging complaints I have about the on-foot dungeons, they're still fun. Almost all of Blaster Master Zero is fun. It's an incredibly solid update to the NES classic. There's just enough nostalgia to be memorable, but it's also just modern enough to be fun. I never felt like I struggled or fought with the game, and my complaints were minor nagging issues.
It's not a very long game. If you finish everything, including the true ending, it'll take a total of five hours. Finishing that unlocks Unlimited mode, which lets you replay the game with a beefed-up Sophia from the outset. Blaster Master Zero is a good value given its relatively cheap price tag of $10.
Even the visuals are a great update of the NES classic. It has a solid 8-bit art style and captures the feel of the Nintendo classic without compromising strong visual design. It's old-school in all the right ways, as one would expect from the developer. The soundtrack is similarly excellent, containing remixes of classic songs and some new tunes that are charming and properly evocative of the style of the original Blaster Master. All in all, it's a great example of how to make an NES game that still looks good in modern times.
Blaster Master Zero is what a nostalgic game update should be. It isn't bogged down in the past, and it doesn't lose what makes the original game so memorable and fun. It's not quite a masterpiece, but it's a ton of fun to play. Whether you're getting a new upgrade or battling a brutal mutant, it's a well-paced and enjoyable experience. Fans of the franchise should be delighted, and those who have never played the original Blaster Master will find Zero a much better place to start.
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