Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya is an extremely talented developer with a keen eye for what made older games truly enduring.
His most well-known work Cave Story is quite rightly held up as a shining example of the open-structure 2D platformer done right — and thanks to its numerous rereleases over the years, can be played on a wide variety of systems.
But don’t sleep on Kero Blaster, a very different but equally magnificent love letter to classic old-school gameplay that, like Cave Story, can now be enjoyed on a variety of different platforms, including Windows PC, iOS devices, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.
Kero Blaster first appeared in 2014 and was Pixel’s first major new gaming project since Cave Story, which originally released in 2004. It was originally intended to release in 2013, but was delayed at the last second; the version that eventually hit digital store shelves was subsequently updated with a new, harder “Zangyou” game mode in 2015, and this is the version that made its way to PS4 and Switch.
What would eventually become Kero Blaster was originally revealed in early 2013 at the Japanese indie gaming meetup known as BitSummit. At this point it was known as Gero Blaster, after the Japanese onomatopoeia for a frog ribbiting — ゲロゲロ (gero gero) — and based loosely on a comic Pixel had drawn back in college that featured himself as a frog and his girlfriend as a cat.
Pixel was unhappy with the game, though, so despite being close to completion, he scrapped almost everything he had done, changed the entire premise of the game and rebuilt it completely. He even changed the name slightly to Kero Blaster (ケロケロ — kero kero — also being Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a frog makes) to distinguish it from the original project.
Notably, at this point Pixel decided that despite his previous creation being legendary for being a top-quality game developed by just one person, he wanted some help with this one.
“It’s difficult to remain motivated,” he said in conversation with Destructoid back in 2014. “I’ve had many days where I couldn’t get motivated and I’ve ended up wasting a whole day. But this time, when I finally decided to remake the game, I wasn’t working alone, so for that half a year, I was able to make a significant amount of progress.”
Pixel had met a woman named Kiyoko Kawanaka at a business incubator in Kyoto, and it transpired that she was skilled in both level design and production. He brought her on board to assist with Kero Blaster, leaving the level designs to her while he concentrated on the programming aspect.
“When I worked alone,” he explained, “I would waste a day on a bug that I couldn’t figure out that by the evening, I would feel depressed about the current condition of the game. But by giving a part of the game to another person, I was able to focus on smaller parts while the stages in the game were steadily being created. This way, I didn’t really have to worry about losing motivation.”
It worked out well; Kero Blaster is a slick and polished game that, while quite different from Cave Story in terms of execution and structure, deserves to be held in equally high regard.
In Kero Blaster, you take control of an unnamed frog who works for Cat & Frog, a company that makes and manages teleporters. Said teleporters have become infested with strange black creatures, it seems, so it’s up to Frog — who, we’re led to believe, works in “custodial sciences” — to travel out to the various C&F sites to try and sort out the problem.
This unfolds as a linear, side-scrolling run-and-gun game in which Frog must make his way from one end of the level to the other, collecting coins along the way, perhaps defeating a boss at the halfway point and definitely one at the end point.
Frog begins with a “peashooter” gun, which has limited range but fires reasonably quickly. The coins can be used at special C&F-branded “bubbles” that appear in the stages to purchase upgrades for his weaponry and increases to his maximum life. Completing a level typically unlocks a new ability, be it a new weapon (which can subsequently be upgraded) or the double jump-enabling jetpack.
The weapons are enjoyably varied. The peashooter upgrades to a much longer range repeater and then a powerful laser, and over the course of the game Frog will acquire a “wave” gun which becomes a spread shot, a “bubble” gun whose projectiles roll along the floor or float upwards in water; and a flamethrower that makes short work of icy enemies. Each upgrade is more than just a power increase, too; the appearance of the projectiles changes, the sound of firing often changes and sometimes additional functionality is added.
Being a game very much designed in the old-school mould, Kero Blaster makes use of a lives system. Unlike other games that deliberately attempt to recapture a “retro” feel — the outstanding Freedom Planet is a good example — these actually have significant meaning here, since although losing one life just puts you back to the start of the “room” you’re in, losing all your lives puts you right back to the start of the whole stage you’re on. And later stages in particular are rather long!
It’s not all bad news, though; you keep all your weapon upgrades and all the coins you acquired when you continue, so if you’re really struggling with part of the game you can effectively “grind” until you’re able to upgrade your weapons to make it through more easily. On top of that, if you at least made it to a stage’s midboss and successfully defeated it, that midboss will no longer be present on subsequent attempts. It’s a nice balance between old-school punishing and modern accessibility, providing you with a suitable sense of accomplishment for clearing a tricky stage while giving struggling players a bit of a helping hand.
The stages themselves are relatively straightforward but well-designed, providing a good feeling of Frog’s journey through the various environments, and presenting more than a few interesting surprises along the way. And the boss fights are a particular highlight, demonstrating an excellent understanding of classic, sequence-based battles that are all about recognising attack patterns, avoiding them successfully and then unleashing your full force in suitable openings.
One thing worth noting about Kero Blaster is that, much like Cave Story, the game carries a genuinely unsettling, disturbing atmosphere throughout despite superficially appearing to be as cute as a button. In particular, the gradual decline of Frog’s boss at C&F is utterly horrifying to witness over the course of the first few levels, and the mysterious black creatures that have caused this whole mess are the kind of creepy that would make you hesitant to go back into your bathroom ever again if you happened to catch a glimpse of one darting down the plughole.
This side of things is something that Pixel is extremely good at, and it makes his games highly memorable. Enemies are simultaneously cute and vaguely horrific, and the whole thing is infused with a delicious sense of slight, hard to describe but nonetheless very present discomfort that is quite unlike the work of any other developer out there.
And it’s kind of incredible that this atmosphere has been achieved with a visual aesthetic that occupies a space somewhere between late-era Atari 2600 and early NES, blended subtly with more modern techniques such as parallax scrolling and animated backdrops. The music, too, composed using Pixel’s own pxtone tool, strikes a great balance between sounding authentically retro in terms of the individual sounds used, but featuring the complexity and depth of more modern compositions.
Kero Blaster is a game of juxtapositions, then: the juxtaposition between modern and retro; the juxtaposition between cute and horrifying; and, of course, the juxtaposition between Kero Blaster itself and its illustrious predecessor Cave Story.
While not nearly as well-known as its sibling, Kero Blaster absolutely deserves to be held in equal regard. It’s a masterclass in how to apply the lessons of modern game design to the distinctive aesthetics of retro — and just a fabulous run-and-gun game in its own right, too.
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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