"Sure, you could be satisfied in merely completing the game even though in the span of two late-game stages, you plummeted from the elite difficulty level to the lowest (as the Great and Mighty OD did....), but that sort of thing just leaves a bad taste in your mouth."
If you can get through the first few levels, odds are youíll really enjoy Final Blaster (surprisingly, not the final blasting game ever created). A 1990 Namco(t) shooter for the PC Engine, this game does just about everything possible to make a bad first impression, but was able to nearly redeem itself due to a handful of diabolically intricate stages near the end, as well as a few interesting and innovative aspects.
Aspects that (for the most part) werenít on display during the first three levels. Final Blasterís opening stages would be as boring and non-descript as they come -- except most of your weaponry is so utterly pathetic that even the most feeble of foes are easily capable of getting the best of you. Your humble pea-shooter will be no match for the gigantic space ships that waste little time in descending upon you, emitting a couple of shots and vanishing from the fray. And even if you could overcome these foes, all that would accomplish is to leave you vulnerable to attacks from any of the stageís horde of annoying, gnat-like foes -- a motley crew just hoping you get too caught up in destroying the most obvious threats to notice them sneaking up on your vessel until itís too late.
Thatís when youíll likely find the first awesome aspect of this game. By holding down the shooting button for a few seconds, your ship will glow brightly and transform into a phoenix-like shape. Release the button at this point and youíll blast a gigantic, fiery shot powerful enough to obliterate (or severely weaken) most foes. Even better, this attack is capable of passing right through the first enemy it hits, continuing on through any number of unfortunate villains until it departs the screen.
As the game progresses, this attack will prove to be your best friend. If you lose a life, it will be your only effective form of offense until youíve collected a few power-ups. Even when you have a full complement of mini-ships and a maxed-out weapon (the lasers fired by three rotating ďoptionsĒ was my favorite, but you donít have a diverse arsenal, so thatís not saying much), youíll still find the firebird blast to be extraordinarily effective against bosses and any enemy that can absorb more than a few blasts from your standard guns.
As the game progresses, being able to emit those deadly flame shots at a momentís notice becomes crucial. Around when you get to the fourth of Final Blasterís seven levels, it becomes obvious this isnít your standard vertically-scrolling shooter. Normally, these games focus on intense gunfights and fast action -- as this one progresses, youíll begin to find yourself maneuvering down cramped corridors, trusting in your power of memorization to assist you in taking out foes before being overwhelmed. From the fourth stage on, this game begins to feel like R-Type -- but from a different perspective.
The fourth stage appears to be a factory. Robots leap off platforms in the background, only to land on ones directly in front of you. The only way to easily destroy these mechanical baddies is to use the fire shot, as it can pass through barriers (as well as enemies). And youíll want to take them out quickly, as it gets really tough to dodge around platforms and shoot lesser foes when those guys are filling the air with shrapnel.
You have to display inhuman dodging and shooting skills to make it through the fifth stageís base -- especially when confronted by amoeba-like creatures that latch onto your ship, sapping your mobility until you helplessly drift into an obstruction or bullet -- but that doesnít even begin to compare to the brutal sixth stage.
Taking place in a pyramid, this level is one that youíll see in your nightmares! Hieroglyphs fly off walls, while blocks quickly move to crush your ship. Avoid these hazards for what seems an eternity and youíll find yourself forced into combat with a plant-like monstrosity that doesnít know when to call it quits. Attacking in three separate forms, this boss may prove even more challenging than the gameís final encounter.
And the sixth stage may prove to be much more brutal than the final one (a short jaunt through an alien-infested corridor). Or maybe not. In what might be the neatest aspect of Final Blaster, the difficulty of the stages is determined by your performance. Letís say you finish a stage with a powered-up weapon, a couple of ďoptionĒ ships AND didnít lose any lives. Congratulations! You earned the right to play the next stage at a higher level of difficulty (four in total). Then, if (when) you find the new skill level a bit much to handle and expend a life or two before succeeding against the boss, the game will send you back to an easier difficulty to give you a fighting chance against what would have been an even more brutal beat-down.
Itís a neat concept that actually gives this game a good amount of replay value. Now, itís just not good enough to beat stages, you have to beat them AND look good in doing so. Sure, you could be satisfied in merely completing the game even though in the span of two late-game stages, you plummeted from the elite difficulty level to the lowest (as the Great and Mighty OD did....), but that sort of thing just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Sadly, the thought of playing those first three stages might do the same. Itís actually pretty amazing how good Final Blaster is from the fourth stage on when you consider how it starts. The moon-like first level is tough....until you power-up your weapon to a more acceptable level. After that, unless you perish and have to start building up your ship again, things quickly get easy and boring until youíve taken care of the third boss.
Itís sort of a shame, really. On a personal note, I can say Iíd love to pick up this game again and work to improve my performance in order to finish ALL of Final Blasterís stages on the hardest skill level. But I canít, as I simply have no desire to wade through three bland, boring stages as a preface to the ďrealĒ game. Final Blaster could have been a truly special game, but got off to such a slow start that it was nearly over by the time I became enthralled. Iíd still recommend it to shooter fans, as when it gets good, itís great. Just be prepared to be patient, as youíll have to wait a while for that to happen.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (October 06, 2005)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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