Tanks are cool. Frogs are pretty cool too. Radioactivity? Less cool, although I guess getting bitten by a radioactive animal and acquiring the abilities of said animal can be pretty neat. Underground caves? Yeah, you guessed it, cool. Put ’em together and what have you got? No, not bibbity-babbity-boo, it’s today’s Game I Beat In 2014!
Released in 1988 by Sunsoft, Blaster Master is a heavily regionalized version of a game released in Japan as “Chou-Wakusei Senki MetaFight”. MetaFight’s plot involved an evil emperor, and a boy named Kane Gardner using a tank called the Metal Attacker to take back the planet Sophia the 3rd. Blaster Master throws pretty much all of this out the window. In Blaster Master, a guy named Jason has a pet frog named Fred. One day, Fred escapes and comes across a radioactive box that was just lying around near Jason’s residence. Growing instead of developing cancer, Fred disappears down a massive hole, and Jason, trying to reach for Fred, also falls down. At the bottom, he discovers a tank, Sophia the 3rd. Being a manly man, Jason decides the best course of action is to climb into the tank and drive off to rescue Fred.
Obliterating underground meanies and saving your pet frog involves traveling through eight Areas. Your normal NES-era suspects are here–there’s the obligatory sewer level, a water level, and an ice level (Complete with ice physics), to name but a few. The gameplay can best be described as Metroid-like, although this doesn’t quite do it justice. In each Area, you have to find and kill a boss. The boss gives your tank a powerup, which is typically used to access the next area in some way, in addition to just being useful in general (One powerup lets your tank hover for a time, for instance). There are a few twists, though. The game is expansive, as you’ll have to wander around for awhile before finding where the boss actually is in each area, as well as how to get from area to area. This is especially true after Area 3, particularly if you don’t have the manual handy. The other twist is that the game actually encompasses two genres. The first is your Metroid-style platforming, albeit in a tank. There are points where you’ll have to climb out of your tank, though, and enter doors. Here, the perspective changes to something closer to birds-eye view, and it’s in these segments that you’ll do battle with the bosses, armed with a gun and unlimited grenades.
The bosses in this game are strong, especially later on. Bosses 6 and 7 are buffed up palette swaps of bosses 2 and 4, and beating them without some form of advantage (I’m partial to firing my gun as much as I can and thus slowing the game way down) is all but impossible. It only gets harder as you realize that taking damage also weakens your gun.
Blaster Master is also an all-the-way-in-one-long-play game. And I mean long–on your first playthrough, without using maps, you’ll likely need to dedicate an entire day to it. The game gets shorter once you know where to go, of course, just like the original Metroid (In fact, the two games are a similar length once you get them “down”). Nonetheless, some kind of save system could have elevated this game to all-time classic status. For whatever its other flaws were, I’ve never met anyone who said of the original Metroid “You know what I hated about it? The fact I could save my progress and return to it later!”
Despite this, and despite the fact you get limited continues, Blaster Master is still a pretty great game. Or, more accurately, the first 7/8ths of it are great. After you beat the seventh boss, you get a tank powerup called Wall2, which expands upon Wall1 and lets you climb on ceilings. Great, right? Well, sure…except that the way it works causes you to go from floors onto the wall below (In other words, you cling to all sides of a platform instead of just falling off the edge). And Area 8 is set up in such a way that this new quirk in the controls will cause you maximum pain, as you helplessly cling to ledges adjacent to spikes, causing you massive damage. Suffice to say that just saying “forget it” and using speedrun strategies to kamikaze your way through some of these sections also turns out to be your best chance at survival. I haven’t even mentioned the Caterpillar Room of Doom, either. Between the caterpillars and the spikes in this room, you will likely want to throw your system out the window on your first few attempts at it. Indeed, at one point, I noted that I wasn’t sure I had ever played a game that started off so strong and fell apart so completely at the end. Now that I’ve actually beaten it, it’s not quite that terrible, but you will get mad at the Wall2 controls, I promise.
The bad Wall2 controls could be forgiven if the game had a save system, or heck, even unlimited continues, so as to allow you to brute-force your way through Area 8. Blaster Master, however, gives you only 4 continues, with 3 lives per continue, effectively giving you 15 lives to beat the game. Continuing starts you back at the start area you were on; dying otherwise puts you at the nearest door you entered, either in the overworld or the birds-eye view area. Getting through most of the game, only to fall victim to wonky controls due to an alleged powerup and losing four hours of work, is one of the most frustrating gaming experiences I’ve had in recent memory.
What’s not bad in Blaster Master is the soundtrack. In the 8-bit era, seeing the Sunsoft logo on a game guaranteed a quality soundtrack if nothing else, and it’s no different here. My favorite track is probably the Area 7 track, as it’s something I could see pre-Black Album Metallica composing if they had chosen the NES soundchip instead of traditional metal instruments as their canvas. Even the tracks I don’t personally like, like Area 5’s, do a great job of fitting and augmenting the mood of the area.
As mentioned above, the main part of Blaster Master’s challenge comes from the limited continues and not knowing where to go at first. You’ll need to dedicate a solid 4-5 hour chunk of time to get through it the first time–and that presumes you don’t Game Over and lose all that progress midway through. Fortunately, the game is much shorter once you know where to go, and can probably be beaten in 60-90 minutes at that point.
While I still think that the people who call Blaster Master one of the all-time great games never got past Area 7, the fact remains that it’s a lot of fun up to that point, and once you get Wall2, you’re close enough to the end that you may as well persevere and finish the game. Worth noting is that the game was re-released on both the Wii and 3DS Virtual Console, which offer at least a quick save so you can quit and come back where you left off once (The 3DS VC, apparently, offers full-on save states, solving my main issue with the game). Regardless of how you play it, though, it’s worth it without a doubt.