A SYMBIOTIC ADVENTURE
Blaster Master is both a side-scrolling adventure that has you driving a tank and moving around on foot as a shooter with an overhead perspective. It’s also a tale of two games in both its excellence and terribleness. On one hand it has amazing presentation with its presentation and music, but on the other it has a slew of drawbacks like limited continues, poor level design and rare, but necessary fuel.
CUT SCENE AND PRESENTATION
Let’s start with the good, and that’s ultimately the presentation. It’s one of the few games of its generation to have a great cut scene before the game and when you start it. You’re seen as a boy or a man with a frog. That frog gets out, falls down a pit and you the devoted frog fanatic, dive down the hole to get your frog. You discover a tank and then its seen driving down a cavernous tunnel.
Inside this tunnel is a whole other world broken into sectors. Each sector has a different theme and the art looks great and detailed with some variance to the look of different areas. As these sectors progress, there are giant, labyrinthine rooms with the same themes, which makes them tough to distinguish from one another. Swapping color palettes would have helped, or even something unique in each similar room would have made things more memorable and easy to follow.
FROG TANK NAMED SOPHIA
I’m a bit unclear if your frog turned into a tank after touching radioactive material and leaping down the hole or if you discover the tank and decide to take it for a spin. Your character is seen putting on gear, so maybe he just has a tank and he’s off to catch his giant mutant frog.
Anyway, it’s a frog tank, because you can jump high with it. You can shoot in three directions, left, right and up. Your tank is wide so you can drive over small gaps. Aiming your cannon upward is interesting, because if your tank spans two tiles on a grid, your cannon will fire in the column behind your tank upward. It’s a fun game to play, but the game does everything to hinder the experience.
It’s B to shoot and A to jump like most NES games. The controls feel like a joy and the tank performs well for the most part, but taking damage can affect your jump and control in general. There are times when getting damaged, the tank loses its momentum, making jumping onto platforms into an issue.
ON FOOT IN DUNGEONS
Between driving around, you can also hop out of your tank by pressing the select button. This at the time was mind blowing to be this little man running around able to shoot things. Since you’re just a man in a world of monsters, creatures and gun toting robots, you’re weak. In fact gravity will kill you if you fall far enough. Hopping back in your tank will thankfully restore your health completely.
There are two reasons to leave your tank, the first of which is as a human you can swim faster and upward. The second reason is you’re forced to enter doorways to walk around dungeons in the top down shooter portion of the game. This is only required so you can find and then defeat bosses which will score your tank upgrades and abilities.
I mention find, because there are several doorways in each sector and its up to you to explore each one of these dungeons to find the bosses and defeat them. There are no puzzles here, it’s just gun everything down while looking for items and shooting through destructible blocks.
The overhead shooting is the game’s first major annoyance. Your character is wide, so it’s easy for you to get shot if you’re too slow or close by an enemy that randomly shoots. Because you’re so wide, your character shoots on the right side rather than directly in the center. Imagine holding a gun in your right hand rather than both hands and you’ll understand what I mean. For the most part, shooting along the right side is a detriment as enemies can sneak up on you to the left. You can also use a wall for cover and shoot around it, so there are pros and cons.
Oh but wait, you have a grenades that you can throw straight forward in the middle of the player rather than on the right. This seems like it would be great, but you only hurt something that the grenade connects with. You can overshoot an enemy or undershoot it with its short distance. Exploding next to an enemy doesn’t seem to damage it. You need to hit it dead on like a skee ball
PICK-UPS AND WEAPONS
Throughout the game there are plenty of pickups. For your tank there are first homing missiles. Using them launches the same amount of missiles per enemy on screen. They’re weak, but hey they seek enemies… but the annoying thing is there are some enemies so short that shooting the missiles directly forward will have the missiles comically hovering over the foes, unable to move down to get them. So you’d need to jump and fire them to get them to go down far enough to hit these enemies.
Other than that, you have an electrical current that goes beneath of your tank to fry enemies. This is for anyone that wants to jump over a foes and keep your pace. Then there is a powerful set of triple missiles. Each one of these three weapons has limited ammunition. The homing missiles feel by far the most useful and since it takes a trip to the pause menu to change weapons, there’s rarely a reason to swap what you’re using.
There is plenty of health marked with P icons and that must mean power. Defeating enemies will find you lots of P and this is because you take damage so easily. The game will literally roll you out of a doorway or a gate straight into an enemy or a projectile shooter’s bullets. This feels cheap and it’s an annoyance in a game full of annoyances.
When you’re in a dungeon, you’ll find gun icons. These are to upgrade your short range pistol into a long range pistol, then a gun with swirling shots and even further into a wave gun whose bullets pierce through walls. For upgrades, a lot of these feel like a hindrance. The bullets that swirl means you can hit things to the side of you, but not in front of you as the projectiles will randomly fly left, right or forward. The wave beam is useless, because its too wide and will often hit walls or bypass enemies until its upgraded enough to go through walls. Blinking guns and P will give you several of what you’ve collected.
THE BIGGER PROBLEM
Here’s the bigger problem with the weapons, taking damage when in a dungeon will lose you a weapon power. There are plenty of enemies that get on your left where it’s just easier to walk through them than risk taking damage from a spiked floor or falling to your death in a pool of water. Oh but wait, even in the early going there are other foes that have exorbitant amounts of health or circling projectiles that make it easy to take a hit.
Bosses are a giant pain, literally giants. Their attack patterns are wild and varied. It’s easy to take damage and on foot, your character is so stiff that it’s tough to dodge while shooting. There’s no diagonal movement. Most of these giant foes have weak spots, but beyond well placed bullets and grenades, your bullets are useless and make an irritating sound that they’re ineffective. Grenades really do feel useless, unless you get to a point where you know the distance and with a lot of moving parts and complex attack angles its tough to stay safe and do damage.
You’ll face a giant brain with swirling orbs, before you face some sort of crab orb with two pincers attached to long arms that will block your shots. After that it’s a relatively tame series of moving machines that have different attack patterns, but their movement is predictable enough to make them the easiest boss in the game. Then comes a giant frog, making me wonder if that’s your giant frog and you finally need to put him down.
ABILITIES TO UNLOCK THE WORLD
Defeating bosses will give you new abilities. You’ll just have them and you won’t be notified or anything. At least pressing start to view the menu will reveal the abilities you do have. Like most adventures, getting abilities will let you progress further.
These abilities are a bit bland, hyper beam doubles the damage of your tank’s shot, crusher will let you shoot through specific walls that are only found in the second sector, hover will let you hover when you press the A button in mid-air. Then you have a lackluster key. Wow a key to get to the next area. A turbo swim for Sophia is found in the underwater fifth sector. Beyond that you will get the ability to cling to walls, and then ceilings in the sector after that.
There’s a giant catch to hover, its limited of course, and it burns away quickly. That’s understandable, but finding fuel for the hover is rare and mostly can be found from hanging enemies. There are random places that seem to infinitely throw flying enemies at you. These are a nice place to collect hover fuel as well at the risk of having to face swift enemies with a wave pattern. Other than that, you can find H collectables in the dungeons.
HOVER FUEL IS RARE IN A GAME FULL OF TRAPS
Getting to the fourth sector is a painful and slow process. It’s slow getting enough H collectables to have a full tank of hover. From there, you’ll need to hover to a series of several high platforms with blinking H pick-ups to greatly replenish your hover. The real problem is the enemies that will jump off these platforms and hit you. Taking a hit will send you plummeting and the hover burns away so quickly that you’ll have to replenish it all if you want to make it to that next sector.
That brings another serious problem, the fact there are enemy traps everywhere in the game. If an area looks safe at the top or bottom of the screen because there are no enemies, it can surprise you when you pan the screen a bit more and poof there’s an enemy revealed. Mines are frequent when traveling down and enemies that cling to the ceiling are frequent when you go up. The game turns into a blend of remembering where the time costly traps are and just plowing through other traps.
Another down side is how short the invulnerability is from taking damage. Some enemies move the same speed that you do, so they can keep hitting you if you’re too dumb to just jump over them, but taking damage affects your jumps. It feels like just another annoyance that might go unnoticed in any other game.
DANGEROUS AND DIVERSE FOES
Enemies are everywhere in this hostile world and they all feel like a threat due to their health. Several enemies take four shots to defeat, even with your upgraded hyper beam. Foes will charge at you and stay on you as mentioned before. Others will shoot fast bullets at random while others have a set pattern of three with a pause between. Another enemy will drop four cluster bombs from its trash can like design. A turret hangs from the ceiling and sputters out bullets at random distances and directions. Underwater turbo snails charge at you. Wall walkers climb walls and ceilings, but jet toward you once you’re in line with them. Mounted wall turrets fire lasers at you that always seem to hit if you try charging past the beam. There are so much more and it makes for a great and diverse gambit of foes.
In a grand adventure that spans a lot of territory, there are no warps, there are no passwords or saves. There are only a limited number of lives and continues. Once you’re out of continues, that’s a real game over. You will need to start again from the beginning. You’re not even warned how many continues you have, which might confuse someone into thinking there are infinite continues, but no.
There needs to be some sort of easy mode with unlimited continues for this game. I understand that it’s hard because that’s the era, but other games made use of passwords, continues and saves. It makes a tough game that much more brutal. Sure I could play again now that I know where everything is and get faster or more efficient, but as someone who grew up playing Blaster Master, this isn’t a game that you get better or more efficient. This is a game that will wear you down until you don’t want to play anymore.
On the plus side, the soundtrack is quite energizing and excellent. That’s what makes this a great game, despite being such a terrible annoyance. It was the soundtrack that kept me going to churn the butter of progress that is every bit of dull and wasted exploration in Blaster Master.
ROMANTICIZING THE PAST
I remember this game being stupidly annoying thirty years ago, and it was stupidly annoying when I played through it to this day. It wasn’t fun like Zelda to play through it after remembering nothing. The fun didn’t last five minutes before it turned into a monotony of similar rooms in a marble laden sector two and a sewer themed fourth sector. Falling into enemy traps, having to explore dungeons to find dead end after dead end and having to grind the same dungeon numerous times in and out for a single H to get a full tank of hover fuel. Blaster Master is a brutal and dull game that I hope to remember not to play again rather than getting suckered in from its amazing presentation.