As a kid, you're often stuck with whatever those around you are gracious enough to offer. When I was young, I was obsessed with my Nintendo, even though I didn't receive it until well after its heyday, when all my friends were enjoying their Genesis and Super Nintendo consoles. I had about 30 games or so for the NES, and while most of them were enjoyable at the time, some just don't hold up to today's standards. We weren't necessarily buying the best games. My parents couldn't spare much money for games, so it was just whatever was cheap and available locally. The NES has numerous classics, but not every game I remember fondly is among that list, and many of the games that I now consider great are ones that I did not have the privilege to play as a youngster. Luckily, Blaster Master
falls into the category of great games that I was fortunate enough to play then and can still enjoy now. I remember finding it at a used game store near my grandmother's house and instantly being drawn to the rhyming of the title and distinctive case artwork featuring a grotesque monster. It was reasonably priced enough for my dad to consider it, and after briefly testing it on the store's console, a sale was made. These days getting a new game means as little as bringing home the groceries, but as a child, getting my hands on the cartridge felt like getting powered up.
The opening cutscene of the game feels iconic now. We witness a pet frog escape from his young owner's cage and lead the owner into a underground cavern where the young man discovers a suit of armor and a red tank. Determined to go after his frog, he suits up and heads out. While the game never really follows up on this exposition in a satisfying way, it certainly set the stage, and the visuals, while not animated, are good quality for the era, and the haunting arpeggios and stark drums of the background music are unforgettable. It's when you get started playing that the game truly begins to shine, though. There is another brief cutscene to begin the game before your tank blasts off into the first stage. Unlike most games which feature a humanoid avatar, you are instantly driving around in your vehicle, which is equipped from the get-go with a cannon, three subweapons, and a spring-like jump. Functionally, it's largely the same as walking around in most platforming games, but the visual of the tank instantly sets it apart. It is also memorable for how open ended the world seems to be. Clearly, the developers were drawing some influence from Metroid
, but an open world was still an incredibly fresh idea for the time, and the level design remains extremely well done today. There are eight stages altogether, each with its own unique background visuals and obstacles for the player. Some of these are the usual staples of the underwater stage, ice stage, and fire stage, but each stage is evocative, and some, like the sewer stage were original concepts. Besides having distinct visuals, there are great theme songs for each stage, and it truly makes the game a memorable audiovisual experience that holds up today.
In order to combat the various difficulties encountered through these levels, the player must collect a variety of power-ups for the tank, ranging from basic cannon upgrades to innovative skills like hovering and clinging to walls. Where the game begins to differ from Metroid is that the player must leave the tank and enter maze-like overhead stages, which somewhat resemble The Legend of Zelda
mixed with Bomberman
. In these segments, the character has access to a gun that can be upgraded by collecting the right power-up, and a grenade launcher. After getting powered-up, it's necessary to avoid being hit, as each hit downgrades the gun's power level. The overhead dungeons are quite a departure from the regular platforming overworld sections, and while admittedly weaker than the rest of what the game offers, it does help the game keep fresh, switching back and forth between the perspectives. Ammo for the tank's subweapons is plentiful, but to obtain the upgrades you must find a maze with a boss in it. Most stages feature several optional mazes, so finding the correct maze to complete the stage is part of the challenge.
The boss battles are perhaps the most difficult segments of the game. Most of the boss characters seem to be mutated monsters of some sort or other. There are several giant frogs, crabs, jellyfishes, mantises, and a more abstract final boss, which is the monster depicted on the casing. Some of these bosses can easily be killed by pumping them with grenades, but others require more strategy and can be extremely difficult. There is a glitch that can be exploited on certain bosses, involving ongoing grenade damage while the game is paused, but some bosses really require that you fully upgrade the gun and use an obscure strafing technique by holding down the grenade button and rapidly tapping the gun button. As a child, these bosses made the game feel impossible, but they certainly can be beaten if you get through the stages carefully and take care during the battles. Although I appreciate the challenge, I do think the game could be a bit more forgiving in these segments.
Besides the difficult boss battles, the game is also a challenge due to the logic of some of the level designs. Like Metroid,
you must find the entrances to the various stages within the worlds. At first this isn't too hard as the entrance to stage 2 is found in stage 1, and the entrance to stage 3 is found in stage 2, but after this, the game requires a great deal of backtracking. Sometimes, the game uses this to good effect. There is one section of the game that requires the player to traverse the overworld on foot in order to unlock a door that blocks that tank, which is a refreshing puzzle. Other times, though, it seems like the developers were intentionally obscure. The game does give some hints as to where you might be able to use power-ups to find new stages, but they aren't terribly intuitive. The player could easily miss the sections unless he or she covers every inch of the game. The entrance to stage 7 is particularly evasive. It's admirable that the game encourages you to explore, but the rewards begin to diminish as the difficulty increases.
Whether these challenges are a benefit or detriment to the game is largely a matter of opinion. I feel that they help to make the game unique even if they can be frustrating. However, there are other issues that seem like undeniable flaws. Like many games of the time, it features no password or save system. This means that the game has to be completed in one sitting, and considering the 8 stages, that is not a simple task. Once you learn the layouts, you can quickly get through the stages, but it is still frustrating to have to play through the entire game each time you turn it on. Making things worse is that there is a limited number of continues. I have easily reached the final stage without losing a life, but stage 8 is, by far, the hardest of the overworlds, and you can waste all of your continues without even getting to the final boss, who has two forms and is not a pushover. I also feel that there are shortcomings to the controls. It must be said that the overhead dungeons are like a poor man's Zelda
despite the solid level design. From the start, the character's aim is slightly off center as he stiffly holds his gun in his right hand, and as you power-up the gun, it seems like it hits everything except the spot immediately in front of the avatar. It's nice that the graphics show how the character holds the gun, but it seriously hurts the usability of the weapon, making the grenade launcher better in almost every situation except certain bosses. The controls for the vehicle are quite effective and responsive at the beginning of the game, but due to the limitations of the NES, getting power-ups actually makes your vehicle a chore to drive, and by the end, it's almost impossible to even perform a simple horizontal jump, making the already difficult stage 8 almost impassable without abusing the hover feature. I almost wonder if they ran out of time during the production of the game as some simple testing and tweaks could have corrected the issues that occur late in the game.
Despite these technical oversights, Blaster Master
is as much a joy today as it was in my youth. There are so many clever touches to the design, and while it mostly built on innovations from other games, it still stands out from the pack of 8-bit platformers that arose in the wake of Super Mario Bros.
The game is so perfect when it is good that it really makes you wonder what could have been had they been able to spend more time in development or if the original team had been able to develop a sequel. Although Sunsoft published Blaster Master 2
for the Sega Genesis in the 90s, its development was outsourced, and it proved to be an unworthy follow-up. Despite the promise never being completely realized at the time, it is certainly one of the diamonds of the console, and one that I will always come back to every so often. Several games of value have eventually followed. Both Blaster Master: Overdrive
and Blaster Master Zero [ブラスターマスター ゼロ]
attempt to remake this original game, and they are particularly worth a look to anyone who enjoys this Nintendo original, but solid efforts were also made for the Game Boy Color
and, believe it or not, the PlayStation