Friday, March 31, 2017

Blaster Master Zero - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

So... what was Inti Creates and Sunsoft's goal when they set out to make Blaster Master Zero? I'm hesitant to call it a "re-imagining" because Zero contains enough new ideas to feel like a fully fledged sequel to the NES classic, but at the same time it rigorously sticks to old layouts, visuals, and enemies. I definitely had a fun time overall—Inti Creates has yet to disappoint me with their (non-Mighty) 2D efforts—but it left me puzzled as to its purpose. I couldn't help but feel that if it had made up its mind on whether it wants to be a sequel or a remake, my adoration for it would soar past what I can only deem as "nostalgic tepidity".

On all fronts, Blaster Master Zero absolutely nails the presentation. Old areas and enemies are lovingly updated into HD, and the new backgrounds, obstacles, and bosses fit in perfectly with the old crew. The soundtrack utilizes the classic Sunsoft sample channel from the NES, and while it doesn't hit the astral heights of the original OST, there's a handful of worthy tunes that are excellent additions and always a joy to hear. Sound effects are delightfully crunchy and the animations are both flashy and smooth, especially in regards to SOPHIA's devastating final ability. While I had a lot of fun with Blaster Master Overdrive, it doesn't quite capture the look, feel, or tunes of the franchise as perfectly as Zero does.

Even though I dislike how the game is caught somewhere between a sequel and remake, I do respect the care the Zero team put into recreating each level. A number of areas have been more or less translated directly from their original incarnations (Area 1, 8), while others got considerable gameplay tweaks and face-lifts (Area 2, 4, 6, 7) and a few underwent a complete redesign (Area 3, 5). Every stage feels like it properly honors  its original analog, while at the same time trying to do something a little different or new (like adding conveyor belts to the on-foot segments of Area 3). It's both interesting and surprising to run through each level and see what's different versus what's stayed the same (Level 2 is perhaps the only one that feels too different, due to the completely new setting).

Blaster Master Zero falls flat on its face in regards to difficulty, however. Completing the original is an absolutely brutal endeavor to undertake (even with the pause glitch!), while Zero barely puts up a fight the entire game. This is due more to overarching game design than it is the fault of any particular level; health & ammo pick-ups are plentiful and Jason's fully powered-up rifle is insanely strong (rapid fire? Check. Wide shot? Check. Pierces walls? Check.) Limited continues are discarded in favor of a generous checkpoint system, and the game embraces modern Metroidvania design, letting you collate a number of health-ups and shiny new weapons to steamroll through foes with. The lack of difficulty isn't necessarily an egregious mark of shame the game bears, but it is disappointing to play something with Blaster Master in the name when it doesn't bite back—at least chew on my arm a little bit!

The level design feels like a bit of missed opportunity, too. I liked the numerous gimmicks added to the on-foot sections, but the design often doesn't go far enough to make gameplay interesting. For instance, the rising goo section of Area 2 is a cool obstacle but at no point does it feel like it meshes with the gameplay to offer an interesting combat puzzle—most of the time you simply wait for the goo to recede and trudge forward. The same thing happens with the rushing water segments in Area 4 and the moving lifts in Area 5; the game is packed with a whole lot of waiting that gives you absolutely nothing to do but wait. The in-vehicle stages thankfully fair somewhat better in this regard, though your armaments are still strong enough to neutralize most of the enemy placement. The two levels I enjoyed the most were Area 6 and 7, the former for its awesome crystal-ejecting proximity mines that destroy fragile footing, and the latter for its tricky stealth segments, rewarding you for patient play but allowing you to sprint to the next screen should you get caught.

It's cool stuff like that that I wish I saw more of: designs and additions not beholden to the blueprints of the original stages. Blaster Master Zero could've handily stood on its own merits but since it attaches so much of itself to the NES title, I feel like comparisons are unfortunately inevitable. Had your arsenal been powered down to force you to switch weapons more, the level design made meaner to punish sloppy play, and the stages taken on drastically different themes to make the game feel inspired by the original instead of eager to please it, this could've easily stood shoulder to shoulder with the first. Perhaps the Zero shouldn't have aimed to bank so hard on nostalgia or perhaps the game simply needed to include a hard mode—either way, it certainly feels like it's lacking something.

Blaster Master Zero is unquestionably a game for Blaster Master fans. It respects its source of inspiration while building on its foundation, delivering a fun, varied, and solid experience. And yet it really doesn't show much ambition until the very end, content to lay back and stack the firepower in the player's favor, as if its ultimate goal was to bring in new fans. If doing so means that we'll get a sequel I'll retroactively consider this a blessing, but for a game that was supposed to be my dream-team combination (Inti Creates and Sunsoft? YES PLEASE), I can't help but expect just a teeny, tiny bit better from Blaster Master Zero. Maybe someday I'll do a "no power-up" challenge and discover some glittering gold that wasn't there before.

Images obtained from:,,,

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