After twenty years, I return to the top-down shooting, vehicle platforming world of Blaster Master.
This one hits me right in the childhood. When I was a little kid (starting around the age of six or seven), every Friday night I would go with my parents to our local mom-n-pop video store (known then as “Olney Video”, named after the small Maryland town we lived in.) I would be allowed to rent 2-3 movies, or 1-2 video games (movies were only 50 cents a night, and video games were 75.) A large portion of the NES and SNES games I played in my youth came from that store, but I ended up renting some titles multiple times. Not necessarily because I hadn’t beaten them, but because I loved them that much. Blaster Master was one of those titles.
Aside from having one of the most infectious soundtracks in the entire NES library, Blaster Master combines vehicular combat, platforming, top-down shooting, and exploration. While there are other NES games that combined various genres (the most notable being Guardian Legend’s mashup of top-down exploration and bullet-hell levels), none achieved it with the grace and style that Blaster Master brought to the table.
The vehicle and platforming sections take place from a sidescrolling perspective, as you navigate the tank SOPHIA The 3RD through a variety of obstacles and enemies. Occasionally, you’ll be forced to disembark your tank by hitting the “select” button, which pops open a hatch and lets your pilot squeeze through tight passages or climb ladders. This mechanic is a predecessor to the one seen in the classic SNES titles Cybernator and Metal Warriors (the latter being one of my favorite SNES games of all time.) Aside from small passages and ladders, there are certain doors that can only be opened once you’re outside your tank…and that’s where the top-down shooting comes in.
While the most immediate comparison that may come to mind is Legend of Zelda, the only thing shared is the viewpoint. The top-down portions of Blaster Master feel wholly unique, despite any inspiration they take from earlier games. The bright colors, the huge size of your player, the wild randomness of the “dungeon” layouts…it not only looks unique, but “feels” unique as well, a perfect blend of difficulty and fun.
On second thought, the balance between difficulty, accessibility, and fun is almost perfect throughout the game, rather than just during the top-down sections. Platforming is challenging due to the number of timed jumps required, however the tight controls leave this entirely up to player skill. If you die, it’s entirely your fault, rather than any difficulty in directing your on-screen avatar. I’ve heard some folks complaining about the lack of “traction” when landing (i.e. the tank slides a tiny bit when you land), but I personally love it…I have a tendency to quickly flick the d-pad in the opposite direction when I land, so the slightly slippery landings work out well for me. While there are one or two enemies that are nigh impossible to hit due to their height, almost everything in the game can be taken out with your tank’s main cannon. It’d be nice if you could shoot diagonally, but because of the way enemies in the game move, having three directions (left, right, straight up) is sufficient.
For what it’s worth, the top-down segments will test your patience, but they’re not impossibly hard…I’d put them at two steps below “controller smashing” difficulty.
Blaster Master’s gameplay and music aren’t the only things that have aged well: the visuals still have a distinct punch to them. You’d be hard-pressed to find a similarly-impactful look in any other title on the NES. The amount of detail expressed here, despite the basic color palette and abstract enemies, is impressive. Most impressive of all is the animation given to the tank you pilot…I’m not sure I’d call it the smoothest animation on the NES, but it’s damn close. Unfortunately, slowdown occasionally rears its ugly head, as the meager NES hardware tries its hardest to keep up with everything happening on screen. Luckily, for nostalgia’s sake, this slowdown is still present in the Wii Virtual Console version, so if you’re looking for an authentic Blaster Master experience, the Wii will provide it for you.
So, after more than twenty years since I originally played it, I’m happy to say that Blaster Master holds up to the lofty nostalgia assigned to it. I highly recommend you spend 500 Wii points, and pick it up on the virtual console. You’ll be amazed at how much fun you can still have with this one.