There is no bond quite like a boy and his frog. This universal bond is what sets the epic story of Blaster Master into motion. Blaster Master is a hybrid game of sorts. It combines platforming, top down run and gun, and Metroid style exploration. It was released in 1988 by Sunsoft to a yawning Japan audience. Later that year, it was released in the USA and went on to become one of the most well thought of games the NES has ever seen.
Does the game still dazzle? Or was the Japan audience right? Hop in your super charged truck and get ready because it is about to get bumpy!
Blaster Master plays like several games combined. As the game opens, you find your self controlling a truck with an epic cannon on top. As any self respecting man named Jason would do, you name your truck SOPHIA the 3rd. I wish I could have met the first couple of SOPHIAs!
SOPHIA has the ability to jump, and fire the cannon (thank God!). The cannon can shoot in the direction you’re facing and up, leaving below you as a blind spot. Progression in the game brings new abilities like climbing walls, a hyper beam, and hovering. In addition to the power ups gained by slaughtering bosses, there are also three special moves available through pick ups. These special moves, such as lightning and heat seeking missiles, are particularly useful to eliminate enemies too small to take out with the cannon. The variety of moves and options provides excitement and motivation to keep exploring. It also gives answers to challenges that may at first seem impossible.
Jason can exit his truck at any time. Doing so makes you vulnerable to attacks and damage. The game utilizes this mechanic to sneak through otherwise inaccessible areas. The water level is a great example of this mechanic in action. SOPHIA, the truck, sinks like a rock when you first enter the water. To progress, Jason is required to swim around and find the upgrade for SOPHIA so that maneuvering through water becomes possible. These thoughtful touches run throughout the levels.
While outside the truck, Jason also can initiate the second play style in Blaster Master, the dungeon. Once Jason enters a dungeon, the view shifts to overhead. Jason how explores Zelda dungeon style. Jason has a gun, awkwardly placed to one side. His gun can be upgraded with pick-ups. As the “gun” meter rises, so does the ability of the gun. It begins as a short range pea shooter. Then it shoot father, then at angles, and finally becomes an overpowered “BFG” blasting through walls and ravaging any unlucky thing in its path. Jason does have a secondary attack, a super powerful, short range grenade. The grenade destroys most enemies in one hit. It also can quickly take down bosses, but at close range you will likely die fast too. A famous glitch though allows for the grenade to hit bosses an unlimited amount without ever risking your health. To perform the glitch, Jason has to throw a grenade on the boss and then quickly pause the game. Leave the game on the pause screen while the damage sound continues and soon enough the boss will be finished. It only works however on select bosses.
Any game in Metroidvania style relies heavily on not only solid game play, but impeccable level design. Levels too similar in style or tone and there is nothing to differentiate the paths. This can also bore players. Leave out the secrets and then there is no motivation to hunt. Blaster Master has eight different zones with drastically different design. The design catches your eye and does not repeat. It helps in finding your path and remembering rooms when returning. Having played this game as a kid there was one sticking point that drove me nuts. Hover is the first item that requires you to go back to previous levels. After searching, and searching, and searching, and searching, I finally tried it at the very beginning of the game. Half of me wanted to praise the genius of hiding secrets at the beginning of the game. The other half of me wanted to punch them in the face for hiding it in such a hard spot. In the end, it is hard not to feel deeply satisfied tracking down that secret. Overall, the level design feels rewarding and well thought out.
Another crucial aspect in a game with backtracking is the music. The 8-bit NES beats will keep you rocking. Rarely can I describe an NES game as creating atmosphere, but that is what Blaster Master achieves with the creepy soundtrack in area 4. The soundtrack embodies a sewer vibe where something is going to jump out of the water at you, a perfect fit for this area. The best tune is the intense boss battle music that kicks off with strobes and alarm tones. The game even nails a wistful warping music when beating a boss and transporting back to the dungeon entrance. All in all, the music of Blaster Master is a perfect match for the game and impressive for the NES era.
Recently, Zelda Breath of the Wild was praised for not holding your hand and doing hours of tutorials. In the NES days this was common, as the manual would explain any pertinent information. The struggle for these games though is often pacing and utilizing these abilities at a reasonable clip for the player to master. Blaster Master is masterful when it comes to pacing. The game scales its abilities and challenges appropriately. The game is challenging, but the player is given the necessary resources to overcome each one. The biggest challenge comes with the NES. Blaster Master has no save points and must be completed in one sitting. This is why this game has eluded me for so many years. Add in a save point, or passwords, and this game could surpass many other games all time. That said, I do believe that it is refreshing in the modern game scene to have a challenge like this to make a player really earn the end. No longer is it a foregone conclusion that the game will be defeated, but an accomplishment for the player.
There are two minor issues to bring up when it comes to Blaster Master. The first is reusing several of its bosses. The bosses are super charged in the second fight. Not a huge issue, but it is nice to see a new challenge. The worst repeat is actually the frog Fred. The biggest change is just the frequency of his attacks and a change in pattern. There is nothing really new or special about the second fight. The other complaint is how badly the frame rate can drop when using your BFG on bosses. At times the whole screen will pause because the gun is too powerful for the NES to handle. Too much power!
With so many moving parts, variety in play, and possible pitfalls, it is incredible to see how Blaster Master puts it all together. Exploration is exciting, nuanced, and challenging. Power ups bring fresh and fun abilities to overcome obstacles. The music is fantastic and keeps you rocking throughout. The game even handles well and feels smooth. It deserves the title cult classic like few video games do. Blaster Master is few minor issues and mainstream success away from being a bonafide classic. Play it if you can get your hands on it. You will not be disappointed. At the very least you will learn frog safety to avoid similar conundrums in your own life.