Blaster Master Zero: Retro, Reimagined

Blaster Master Zero for Nintendo Switch and 3DS is an interesting game in more ways than one.

Not only is it a loving remake of a very fondly regarded title from back in the NES era, it also incorporates elements of the Famicom game that was heavily reimagined to become Blaster Master. On top of that, it even acknowledges elements of the Worlds of Power novelisation of Blaster Master — which, in itself was something of an interesting curiosity in that it was later retconned into being “canonical” so far as the rest of the series is concerned.

None of this is required to appreciate the fact that Blaster Master Zero is a great game, mind you, but delve a little deeper into the lore and you find out all sorts of fascinating things.

Let’s look at the history of Blaster Master to better understand what Zero is doing, then, beginning with that Famicom original.

Developed by Tokai Engineering and Sunsoft and released in June of 1988, Chou Wakusei Senki – Metafight (Super Planetary War Records – Metafight) told the story of the planet of Sophia III, which was under attack by the forces of the Invem Dark Star Cluster, led by the evil Goez. As a last ditch effort to save the planet, Dr Jennifer Cornet developed a fearsome mobile battle tank known as the Metal Attacker (codename Nora), and enlisted the young prodigy Kane Gardner to pilot it.

Metafight’s gameplay formed an early example of what we now know to be “Metroidvania”: the combination of platform action gameplay and a relatively “open” world gated by the necessity to have certain abilities to progress in specific directions. The subgenre was still quite young and unrefined; the original Metroid had provided one of the first examples of this type of game two years previously, and Castlevania II followed a year later, eschewing the linear progression of its predecessor in favour of more freeform exploration and adventure.

Metafight added a couple of interesting elements to the mix, however. As well as the side-scrolling platforming that unfolded as you drove the Metal Attacker around the various stages, you could also hop out of the super-tank and proceed on foot; indeed, this was necessary at a number of points in order to fit through passageways too narrow for the vehicle to fit through. And getting out of the tank served another purpose, too: it allowed you to enter the various “dungeons” scattered around the levels, at which point the game switched to a top-down perspective as Kane explored these facilities armed with his upgradable gun, collected various items to enhance the Metal Attacker and fought some fearsome bosses.

Metafight was localised as Blaster Master in November of 1988, with a significant amount of changes to its back story — the reasoning being that the original anime-style storyline wouldn’t prove popular with the American youth. (How wrong that assumption would prove to be!)

Now the game unfolded on Earth, and the hero of the piece was a young man named Jason who had a pet frog named Fred. One day, Fred escaped and hopped out into the garden, where there was inexplicably a big radioactive chest. Said chest caused Fred to expand to an enormous size and fall into a big hole in the ground, at which point Jason thought an appropriate thing to do would be to jump in after him. He subsequently discovered that, conveniently, there was a kick-ass looking tank called Sophia III at the bottom of the hole, so he decided to hop in and pilot it in an effort to battle the Plutonium Boss and his radioactive material-chomping minions.

As ridiculous as the story is, it was this bizarre take on things that would come to be regarded as “canonical” in terms of the series as a whole, thanks in part to the game’s strong performance in the West and also to its novelisation as part of the Worlds of Power series by Peter Lerangis in 1990. Interestingly, Metafight didn’t feature any in-game storytelling, with its entire narrative appearing in the manual, while Blaster Master added an intro sequence that helped to contextualise what was going on. Even if said context made very little sense.

Blaster Master Zero takes a few liberties with the original Blaster Master’s narrative as a base for its story, and adds numerous apparent references to Metafight, leading some to suggest that Blaster Master Zero is actually a “stealth sequel” of sorts to the Famicom original. Indeed, the name of the final boss on the route to the true ending suggests that the true villains of the piece are the very same as those in Metafight.

Perhaps most notable in this regard is the addition of Eve, who was nowhere to be seen in the original NES release of Blaster Master and was only introduced as a secondary character in Lerangis’ novelisation. In Zero, her visual design is intended to be an homage to Dr Jennifer Cornet (seen on Metafight’s cover art), and one scene informs us she was created by a “Dr Jennifer Gardner”, a combination of the two main characters’ names from the original Metafight and quite possibly the same person, now married to the original protagonist. In Zero, Eve acts as a supporting character, appearing in both cutscenes and optional conversations to offer advice and narrative context to what is going on.

The basic setup for the game has been changed somewhat, too. Now unfolding several hundred years after Earth suffered an ice age, driving humanity underground, protagonist Jason is recast as a young, brilliant scientist helping with the efforts to restore the planet’s surface to its former glory. He stumbles across Fred, a type of creature he had never seen before, and takes him home to study. Fred subsequently escapes and, rather than simply growing to an enormous size and falling down a hole as in the original, apparently summons a wormhole, which in turn leads Jason to Sophia III.

Okay, it’s still mildly ridiculous, but makes a bit more sense than the original, particularly once Jason discovers an unconscious Eve and things start to fall into place a little more. And, through a combination of optional conversations with Eve and the plot that gradually unfolds as you progress through the game, the whole thing is given a much greater sense of coherence and meaning than its original incarnation.

Narrative aspects aside, Blaster Master Zero is remarkably true to its original NES incarnation, with some notable upgrades. The visuals are still authentically 8-bit in style, but have had a slight face-lift to be a little more in line with the capabilities of the PC Engine/Turbografx 16, particularly in the newly added final stage on the path to the “true” ending. Parallax backgrounds have been added, the game runs at a consistently smooth, slick frame rate and, of course, glitches such as the NES’ notorious sprite flicker have been completely eliminated. Oddly, the game doesn’t quite fit the entire screen width in either handheld or docked mode on Switch; this is presumably related to the different resolution and size of the 3DS’ screen, and is hardly a major issue; you probably wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t pointed it out, in which case I am very sorry indeed for ruining your evening.

The music sounds great, sticking to a “chiptune” style rather than attempting to overly modernise the classic tunes. The overall effect has a somewhat thicker, fuller texture than the NES original, however, and occasionally uses synthesised tones that wouldn’t have been possible using the NES sound chip; this again brings the PC Engine/Turbografx 16 to mind or perhaps, at a push, the enhanced sound found in the Famicom releases of titles such as Castlevania III. Series fans will be pleased to hear that the core themes for each area are the same as in the original game; in some cases they’ve been remixed or had their overall style tweaked a little, but they’re still all recognisable.

Gameplay-wise, things unfold remarkably similarly to the NES original. The game is immensely solid and enjoyable to play, with tight, responsive controls and plenty of audio-visual (and, on Switch, tactile) feedback making it clear to understand what is going on. Level design is excellent and intuitive, encouraging you to try things out for yourself and come back later if you find yourself hitting an apparent dead end; the helpful auto-map function is a godsend for finding things you might have missed, and absolutely essential if you’re going for the true ending.

If anything, the game is perhaps a little easy right up until the final stage of the true route — primarily thanks to the fact that Zero adds frequent save points and infinite lives compared to the NES original’s demand you beat it in a single sitting. Beating the game does, however, unlock a much more difficult “Destroyer Mode” to allow those seeking a bit more of a challenge to test their skills, and DLC allows you to play through the whole game (sans story) with other characters including Inti’s own Ekoro and Gunvolt as well as Western indie favourites Shantae and Shovel Knight, each of whom handle somewhat differently and, rather pleasingly, each cause the Sophia III to have a different paint job.

The fact the game is relatively easy to complete doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, mind, as its core components are very satisfying. Sophia III has a pleasing sense of “weight” to it in the platforming sections and it’s fun getting to grips with the various abilities you unlock over time such as hovering and travelling underwater. And the big boomy cannon. I love the big boomy cannon.

The top-down dungeon exploration sequences, meanwhile, allow you to equip yourself with a variety of interesting weapons, each of which are useful in various circumstances if you decide to try and be creative. Jason’s gun begins as something of a pea-shooter and can be upgraded by collecting items — with each of the previous levels remaining selectable — but also downgrades by a level when taking damage as in the NES original. Each of the “levels” of the gun is effectively a completely different weapon, with options ranging from a short-range shotgun to flamethrowers, lightning guns and rapid-fire machine guns. And while the top-level “wave” setting on Jason’s gun is seemingly the best, since it fires through walls and covers a huge area, in true Inti Creates tradition each of the game’s bosses is particularly weak to a specific weapon, with the aforementioned Destroyer Mode making this very important to take advantage of.

Jason also unlocks a variety of subweapons to use in the top-down sections, one of which allows you to fire Sophia III’s big boomy cannon from outside the dungeon in order to cause untold devastation. Did I mention how much I love the big boomy cannon?

The dungeon sequences are where the DLC characters particularly shine, as they each have a static loadout of weapons rather than Jason’s multi-mode gun. Ekoro, for example, fires arrows from her twin pistols but can also charge up a larger shot that fires through walls, and her special weapons include her “Ekoro Kiiiick!” from the final boss battle of her route in Gal*Gun Double Peace as well as a “love grenade” that deals direct damage if it hits something, but also temporarily stuns everything in the room. Shantae, meanwhile, can initially only attack enemies in melee range with her hair, which completely changes up how you have to approach certain situations. For those who enjoy the game and want more, the DLC characters are a good investment to increase its overall longevity.

Whether or not you’re an existing fan of Blaster Master — or indeed its array of much lesser-known follow-ups and spin-offs, the scope of which is a little beyond what we’re concerned with today — you’ll find Blaster Master Zero to be an absolute delight to play.

It’s “retro-style” done right: an authentically nostalgic audio-visual aesthetic, combined with modern-day refinements in control and quality-of-life… as well as a much more satisfying sense of narrative context and characterisation, for those who care about such things.

It’s just a shame it doesn’t have a physical release. I’d love to have this on my shelf rather than just on my Switch dashboard. How about it, Inti…?


More about Blaster Master Zero

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