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Blaster Master Zero (Switch) artwork

Blaster Master Zero (Switch) review

"Not quite the masterful remake we were hoping for"

Blaster Master on the NES deserved to be better than what it was. It's considered a cult classic and certainly has enough style and flair, but ultimately it ends up better being appreciated than actually played. It's simply too long and too difficult for a game with no saving options, there are a few flawed level design choices, and the top-down segments had some issues too. But the idea was certainly cool, which naturally means this is the ideal type of game to remake. Well, it may have taken 30 years, but that remake is finally here.

The style I referenced comes from the fact that, quite frankly, there's no real game like it. Much of the game plays like a sidescroller, despite the fact that you are controlling a tank instead of a person. A tank that can jump, maneuver easily, aim its cannon, walk on walls and ceilings, and all sorts of cool tricks. Rather than a linear experience, you explore the levels a la Metroid, but it IS distinct levels rather than one large world. Except you can backtrack if you want (it's only required a couple times). Meanwhile, you're exploring this world to find various caves, at which point you exit your tank and enter into a top-down perspective. These caves can also be maze-like, where you must find your way to the end to grab an upgrade or fight a boss (or likely both). You'll also upgrade your character's blaster from a pitiful little Level 0 pea shooter all the way up to an all powerful Level 8 wave beam. But be careful, as every time you are hit, your blaster level drops by 1, and it's hard to be a blaster master with such a tiny weapon. But grab the upgrades, and then exit the cave back to your awesome little tank. Maybe now you can hover for a short period, or climb up walls, or just have a more powerful shot or more health. Either way, you'll have to make your way through several of these worlds, using your upgrades to progress as is typical. All in order to find your little frog that went missing. Or maybe save the world from ominous aliens. Or maybe fall in love. Or maybe all of them combined.

Along with that unique style comes a game that fixes all of the major flaws of the original. You can save, of course, meaning you no longer have to beat a multi-hour game in one sitting. The challenge has been toned down, so you can make your way through the tank sequences without being knocked about like a pinball and glide through the overhead portion without fear of dying. Speaking of which, the technical limitations of the overhead portion are gone, so broken blocks don't reappear the moment they leave your screen, enemies along the top of the screen can actually be attacked, and slowdown has disappeared. You get an in-game map, so no more getting lost, and the fact that you can backtrack is more clear than the microscopic hints that the original game provided. So if the major flaws were all that was standing in the way of greatness for the NES game, then we should be good, right?

And yet, despite the interest, despite my nostalgia, I still felt it was missing something. As nice as the variety might be, the game just seemed to drag every time you went into a cave and went to the top-down mode. Once you had the wave beam, regular enemies posed no threat to you whatsoever. And while the maps may be long, they are never particularly maze-like or puzzle-ish. In other words, as long as one is nice and cautious, the top-down sections are lacking almost any tension. Likewise, bosses tend to have simple patterns, but a ton of HP. So battles are often less exciting than you might have hoped based on the cool enemy designs. Even worse, some "bosses" are nothing more than dozens upon dozens of normal enemies appearing, which provides no challenge and really just ends up being a chore. In all honesty, by the sixth world or so I was practically dreading having to leave my tank. There simply wasn't enough variety, wasn't enough excitement to keep me fully engaged.

The sidescrolling tank parts are much better, thankfully. Admittedly, while it tries to portray itself as a Metroidvania, with a large map and multiple paths, each individual world is relatively small and easy to find everything. Fortunately, each world is also pretty distinct (much more so than the original game), and often have their own little quirks and mechanics that don't show up anywhere else. The obligatory water world will require you to leave your tank for long segments in order to swim in the currents, and the factory world has some interesting switches to get past some of the pistons in the world. More importantly, there are occasionally bosses in the sidescrolling section too, which ends up being far more interesting than overhead boss fights. Mainly, it's the fact that you can move around more, jump around to dodge, and aren't just firing your overpowered weapon as fast as possible. So whatever the overhead portions lacked, the tank makes up for it.

But, well, is that good enough? Half the game isn't BAD, but does get a bit repetitive with its simplicity and lack of challenge. And the other half is legitimately good, even if nothing particularly novel or mindblowing. The synthesis of the two is likely meant to keep the game fresh and varied, but that justification is lost when one part is clearly better than the other. It's a fundamental flaw that was inevitable with the nature of this game. If you want to keep the design choice of losing blaster levels when you get hit, then it becomes necessary to tone the difficulty down to keep sections from becoming unwinnable without lengthy backtracking. But then it loses some of the fun. But if you get rid of it instead, would it still be Blaster Master? I think so, I think this wasn't a critical element. A different weapon progression system married to Blaster Master's basic overhead approach could still have remained in the spirit of the original while keeping the overhead sections more engaging by adding a little difficulty and perhaps more vaariety in the level design. There are plenty of other changes to the original that one more wouldn't have broken the system. It seems that, in fixing all the major flaws of the original, it just served to reveal one more.

By the way, as an aside, the rumble on this game felt way too loud and distracting. It wasn't a pleasant immersive experience; it felt like a vibrating cell phone on a metal plate. Maybe it was just me, but it was very distracting. Fortunately, you can turn it off, and it doesn't really hurt the game. But if for some reason this is a critical factor in your game-purchasing decisions, well, there you go.

So was I wrong? Was Blaster Master not a flawed classic that could become perfect with a remake? Well, perhaps not perfect, but it's still a decent enough game. If you can accept that the overhead portions will become relatively mindless over time, then by all means pick the game up. It hits all the highs of the original (or at least all the highs the original should have had), and is still a relatively cheap and engaging sidescroller. But it's not the best one on the system, and not the clear classic that I thought it might have been. I'm still glad they made it, still glad I played it, but it's too bad it couldn't be more.


mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (April 27, 2018)

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