I’ve had my eye on Blaster Master ever since it was shown off a few months back at the summer CES. Its vibrant graphics and unique setting made it stand out from the crowd, but visuals alone don’t make a good game. The proof is in the play control, so it wasn’t until I got my hands on the finalized Game Pak and spent a few days with it that I knew this was something truly special. The developers at Sunsoft have outdone themselves by creating a captivating world filled with secret caverns, fun upgrades, and huge monstrosities waiting patiently for their chance to utterly destroy you. And kill you they will – this game is difficult! Don’t let that deter you from giving this one a go or you’ll end up missing out on one of the best games of the year.
Not since Metroid released over a year ago have I been so creeped out by a game’s world. In Blaster Master you play as a young man named Jason. His pet frog, Fred, has gotten loose and jumped down a huge sinkhole in the backyard. He must mean a lot to Jason, because he doesn’t even think twice before leaping down after his amphibious friend. This hole in the ground has revealed a secret underground labyrinth world that’s begging to be explored. Luckily Jason won’t have to hoof it on foot since a shiny new tank-like vehicle is there for the taking. It’ll be up to you to navigate the subterranean landscape, littered with pitfalls and enemies to retrieve your lost friend.
Blaster Master is split into two distinct zones of play. Much of the exploration is done inside your tank via a sidescrolling perspective. This vehicle is highly capable and features impeccable controls. You can easily jump over holes and shoot bullets left and right. You can also press up on the control pad to fire above at the flying enemies. It can’t be overstated just how well the tank handles. You’ll be able to perform precise jumps and the vehicle responds accordingly, with no slippery afterthoughts like in some games. On top of the traditional cannon, you’ll be able to collect power-up special weapons, which include the Homing Missile (great for hitting moving enemies), Thunder Break (a lightning bolt that eliminates foes below you), and a Multi Warhead Missile that fires three powerful shots instead of just one. Your tank is powerful, but not invincible, so you’ll have to be careful to avoid enemy fire and try to survive the hazards throughout the game’s massive 8 levels. Killed monsters will sometimes leave behind power capsules, which will restore your health.
As you explore the various areas you’ll come across small caves and doors that the tank can’t fit into. You’ll need to exit out of the tank, meaning you’ll be super vulnerable to the enemies that are much bigger than you. Once you enter the door the game’s perspective changes to an overhead one and your character is represented much bigger on the screen. Here the game plays out more like The Legend of Zelda, where you move from room to room destroying enemies and avoiding traps and spikes. Your main gun can be upgraded several times, each giving you a more powerful blast than the last. If you get hit by enemy fire or other hazards your gun will drop a level as well. In addition to the guns you have unlimited grenades at your disposal to deliver a bigger blast. These come in handy with some of the bosses you’ll encounter, which are quite devious and will take some memorization of patterns to destroy. Some of them take up a big portion of the screen, so you’ll have to be on your toes to avoid getting hit.
Both modes of play (inside and outside the vehicle) are really fun to play and it’s a genius way to keep the gameplay fresh and exciting. I particularly enjoyed the exploration aspect of the game while inside the tank. Unlike most games, the various stages are connected in such a way that you’ll often have to go back through them after you find a specific power or weapon. For example, some doors and passages won’t be accessible in the first area of the game without the ability to fly. After you defeat the third stage boss you’ll earn the Hover power-up, which allows your tank’s wheels to rotate down, becoming jet thrusters that will lift you high up in the air. This constant sense of progression and finding new gadgets for the vehicle (like grip wheels to climb walls and the ability to turn into a submarine to explore underwater) really helped cement this game as one of my favorites of the year. By the end of the game I was so much stronger and capable than I was at the start and that’s a great feeling.
The one problem with Blaster Master is that it’s incredibly difficult. I can’t count how many times I hit my controller in frustration. Part of the problem is the game doesn’t offer a password system, which means you have to complete this rather long adventure in one sitting. To make matters worse, you only have five continues, so if you make some early-game mistakes and burn through them, you’re probably better off just resetting the game and starting over from scratch. The last level is deviously difficult and the end boss is a huge pain. Don’t feel bad using a NES Advantage for turbo because it can definitely help eradicate some of the pain. If you enjoy hard games, this one’s for you!
This game looks fantastic and it’s one of the most detailed NES titles yet. The sprites have some of the best animation on the system. The amount of work that had to go into the tank to get it to look as good as it does must have been massive. Minute attention to detail in the tank is impressive, especially when you begin to notice the small animations when you aim up (the wheels actually contract) and when you jump the vehicle responds like you think it should. Standard enemies are mostly grey and not that memorable, but the bosses are large and look fantastic. With 8 stages to explore there are plenty of unique backgrounds and scenery to enjoy along the way. Keep in mind the developers had to draw Jason multiple times – in the opening cutscene, a tiny sprite when standing outside his vehicle, and again when playing in the overhead perspective. So many games take shortcuts to avoid having to draw sprites multiple times, but extra care was taken here and it shows.
Those of you that have read my reviews in the past know that I’m a huge fan of video game music, and I really pay attention to the soundtracks in my games. Audio has just as big of an impact as the graphics for me, and so bad music can really ruin my experience. Thankfully Blaster Master features glorious tunes – some of the best so far on the NES! The game starts off somewhat mellow with an introductory cinema scene, but soon you’re inside the tank and the stage 1 music kicks in and you’re off! The drums are fantastic and it really is the perfect track to play on the first level. It’s energetic and it really makes you believe you’re off on some grand adventure. Each of the levels has its own aural flair and while some are better than others (hello, stage 5 – you glorious piece of instrumentation), as a whole the game just kicks ass. I was already impressed with Sunsoft’s earlier work on Freedom Force, and this game just cements my opinion that they have some of the best sound programmers in the industry.
It’s not very often that a game company manages to release two NES games in a single month where one is absolute garbage (Xenophobe) and the other is magnificently outstanding (Blaster Master), but somehow Sunsoft has done just that. This is by far the best effort put forth by them yet, and I hope the game gets the recognition that it deserves. Had the company went the extra mile and put in a password system or a battery backup I think the game would resonate with a wider audience. As it stands, it will probably appeal most to the hardcore NES gamers out there. It’s a definite contender for game of the year in a year filled with spectacular titles!
Blaster Master Review
Final Thoughts: OUTSTANDING
Blaster Master is an outstanding Game Pak that delivers a thrilling adventure unlike any other on the NES. Yes, the game can be difficult at times, but don’t let that scare you away from one of the best games of the year. It combines exploration with high-octane action, awesome upgrades, and scary bosses. The end result is nothing short of exhilarating.