How Metroidvania is it? Medium Fit. Blaster Master has you collecting power-ups that give you access to new areas, however a good portion of the game is also played in top-down dungeon areas, making it a somewhat unique take on the budding genre.
Primary Challenge: Ranged Combat
Time to beat: ~6 hours
Buy Blaster Master if you like…
- Blaster Master was played on the Wii U using the NES Virtual Console.
▼ Review continues below ▼
Back in the 80s and early 90s, you had the giants like Mega Man, Mario, and Castlevania. Metroid was around, but hadn’t really hit its stride. Nestled just behind all of those was Blaster Master, a much touted “hidden gem” for all those who played it back then. I personally hadn’t heard of it until I hit college where it was brought up in conversation and on the internet. Having finally played it, I can sort of understand both why it’s considered such a classic for many, but also maybe why it never took off like its frankly more accessible competitors.
There wasn’t, and still isn’t, anything quite like Blaster Master. While arguments still continue today about whether The Legend of Zelda series should be counted as part of the Metroidvania genre even if it’s not a 2D Platformer, Blaster Master pulled a meme straight from the future internet and said “Why don’t we have both?” You start out in a powerful tank, traversing the world sidescroller style. At any point you can hop out of your tank and expose your weak human body to the elements, but this allows you to crawl through tight spaces, swim, or access doorways that your tank can’t enter. Through these doorways the perspective shifts, and the game becomes a top down shooter as you wander classic-style dungeon rooms. I could easily see the nostalgia celebrating this unique combination of styles all by itself.
I also have to love the insane setup for the game. You’re sitting around playing with your pet frog when he suddenly hops out of his cage into your backyard, where a GIANT RADIOACTIVE BOX is just chilling. The frog merely touches the box, grows to monstrous size, and jumps down a hole. You follow it and SUDDENLY TANK! So why not? it’s a Saturday right? Let’s get in the tank and go after that frog!
You’re thrust into the first area – a forest zone – with catchy music playing and mutants flying all over the place. Exploring the map is mostly satisfying, with some pretty impressive level design for the time period on display – especially comparing it to its contemporary Metroid. When you get new powers and have to back track, your new abilities provide some handy shortcuts – allowing the designers to provide the exploration aspect while still offering up some challenge your first time through an area. Some zones are a little samey making it a little harder to establish landmarks – and there’s no map unless you get a hold of a copy of the game manual – but this is balanced by areas that show off clever usage of Nintendo’s hardware to present some impressive-for-the-time graphics.
As creative and novel as Blaster Master is, it’s plagued by some of the issues that were common to the era, but were otherwise avoided by the gaming giants I mentioned at the beginning of this review. To start out, there are no continues, passwords or saves, which is kind of rough for any Metroidvania game. This is far less of an issue these days since many methods of playing it – including the Wii U Virtual console which I used – allow for save states, but I can only imagine how rage inducing it would be to play it back in the 80s, or trying to play it the “non-cheater” way. To make matters worse, you’re given a limited number of lives, and if you fail, it’s back to the beginning of the game. Add in instant death if you fall from too far as a human, some downright insane bosses, and some wonky controls, it suddenly becomes much harder to recommend this game to people who aren’t merely game history curious.
The game controls well for the most part, but as you add more abilities and as the developers tried to ramp up the challenge, there starts to be a few places where I found myself fidgeting with the controls (and waiting for my Wii U to load save states) more than I was addressing a good challenge. At a late point in the game your tank gains the ability to cling to walls, which I wish you could either turn it off, or that it could be something that was only active when you were holding down another button (which doesn’t exist on the NES controller.) There are some tight jumps that necessitated that pixel perfect positioning before launching off that I kept failing because the tank decided instead to crawl down the cliff side instead of jumping. Another constant issue throughout both the side scrolling sections and top down portions are enemies spawning where you’re likely going to be unable to dodge them, unless you know exactly what direction to hold beforehand, leading to some unfair damage taken. This is especially annoying in the dungeon sections of the game.
The top down portions of the game feel a
little weak overall, which is unfortunate because all of the game’s
bosses are fought in those areas. You can’t strafe and shoot, so finding
a balance between attacking and dodging can lead to a lot of
non-progress, especially with as tight as some of the dodge patterns
have to be. Bosses also have huge amounts of HP in the end game, along
with the ability to block damage from certain angles or just plain
invincibility periods. You’re also not given any permanent upgrades to
your weapons for the game’s dungeon mode. Instead you get schump style
upgrades that make your basic gun fire different patterns until you max
out to the powerful piercing wave gun. But, each time you get hit you
lose your latest gun upgrade, punishing imperfect play even further, and
really screwing you over at the later parts of the game. Analyzing the
design still leaves me a little confused as to what they were going for
with this, but to sum up my thoughts on it; it’s frustrating. Where
bosses should be a highlight of any game, in Blaster Master it quickly became something I dreaded.
Blaster Master Zero – a total remake of this original NES title – addresses most of the complaints I’ve made here. I will doing a full review of that game, but it is sufficient to say that if the unique features of Blaster Master appeal to you, you’re going to have a much better time playing IntiCreate’s reinterpretation. However, I wouldn’t recommend completely ignoring the original Blaster Master. Sure, the graphics in Blaster Master Zero are fantastic, but that’s only because they could technically do whatever they want with the only limitation being their budget. There’s a certain artistry to the NES game, and its level design and ideas were certainly ahead of its time. Adding a few more buttons to the controller and fixing up some of the more punishing design elements certainly helps. However, if you’re the type who just enjoys seeing something great that the creative pioneer game designers of the 80s had come up with, Blaster Master is a gem worth checking out. Plus, currently if you have a Nintendo Switch and are paying for the online service, you have access to it anyway.
Often, enemies appear in ways that you're not likely to avoid them, otherwise the controls are very good for the era
Otherwise tricky platforming is marred by a lack of buttons on the NES controller, perhaps a little too ahead of its time
Often exploration leads to dangerous dead-ends which can be disheartening with the game's punishing lives system
No puzzles to speak of
Extremely wacky setup thrusts you into the game world - it's entertaining in its own right but definitely not a focus
For the NES era, the graphics are pretty awesome at points, even if the chipset is a little bland in other parts
Very catchy music especially in Zone 1
Once you know where to go there's little to provide a different experience on a subsequent playthrough, aside from regular speedrunning