It’s time for another look at what the 25YL gaming department is playing this week. Plus, our indie spotlight falls on Blaster Master Zero, a soft reboot of the franchise that originated on the NES.
Sean Coughlan’s Indie Game of the Week: Blaster Master Zero
This week I finished Blaster Master Zero for the Nintendo Switch. It was one of the first indie games I’d downloaded from the eShop when I bought my Switch a few years ago. I’d heard good things about it but for whatever reason I never actually got around to playing it. Thanks to the Switch’s UI (which only shows the most recent game icons), it was pushed down the order and forgotten about. Happily, the game’s recent debut on PS4 reminded me of its existence, so now seemed as good a time as ever to give it a shot.
The game is something of a remake of the original Blaster Master for the NES—a Sunsoft game which I’ve had very little experience with, other than a quick go on the NES Online app. Developed by the talented folks at Inti Creates (a studio born from ex-Capcom employees), the game lovingly recreates the original with gorgeous modern pixel-art, new and remixed music, improved controls and plenty of quality-of-life improvements.
Despite its upgrades, the game still feels authentically retro, at least in terms of its immediate gameplay. Just like the original, there are three distinct aspects to the gameplay. Each stage begins with the main character Jason piloting his futuristic tank: SOPHIA III. Here the player must explore the open 2D-side-scrolling environment whilst platforming and shooting down enemies. SOPHIA can shoot forward, up, and diagonally up, and can change direction rapidly allowing for a satisfying feeling of control. The level layouts feel almost reminiscent of Metroid with plenty of verticality and a mix of open areas and narrow corridors. There’s even a few enemies that feel oddly familiar—they’ll put you in mind of not only Metroid but Mega Man too.
The player can press a button to have Jason disembark. Once outside, (the comparatively tiny) Jason can shoot a pistol, jump, climb ladders and operate switches. Littered around the map are caves which are too small for SOPHIA to enter and these are the main reason to have Jason disembark. Sometimes they are easily accessible but other times they will involve some platforming. Care must be taken though as Jason is more vulnerable to enemy attacks and can be killed from falling from too great a height.
Once inside the cave the action switches to an overhead perspective where (the now huge) Jason must navigate a series of rooms filled with enemies and hazards. Here, he can shoot his gun in all 8 directions as well as use sub-weapons such as grenades. Each cave’s layout feels a bit like a mini Legend of Zelda dungeon. Some serve only as a means to stock up health and ammo, but most contain a map of the area or an upgrade of some kind—either for Jason or SOPHIA. These include more powerful main weapons, additional sub weapons, and enhancements to allow SOPHIA to further progress the map.
Most of these upgrades are guarded by a ‘mutant’ boss. There’s a huge array of upgrades to obtain, and so the game is, naturally, chock full of boss fights. Not only are they plentiful, but they’re impressively varied too—at least in terms of design and attack patterns. The way to beat them tends to always boil down to ‘shoot until dead and avoid projectiles’ but there is some strategy to be had from weapon selection. It’s not quite Mega Man in that regard but the right tool can certainly speed up the process.
As SOPHIA gains upgrades to help with traversal, the game starts to unveil itself as a Metroidvania-lite. The ability to move freely underwater, hover for a brief time, destroy blocks, and climb walls, all need to be unlocked to explore the 8 stages fully. That being said, the progression in the game is fairly linear, and backtracking is needed sparingly (hence the ‘lite’). There’s little opportunity to feel lost too as the map is incredibly generous—always helpfully marking out the next important location.
This hand-holding is somewhat indicative of the easy-going nature of the game in general. There are no lives or continues to worry about. Dying will merely respawn you at the most recent save point, or cave entrance. There are save points immediately before each boss too, but even so, I managed to beat many on my first attempt. There’s little to get frustrated about, but in turn there’s little to feel accomplishment from. At times it definitely felt like I was just going through the motions.
To combat this the game does a fairly good job of varying up the gameplay in each stage. One has you using SOPHIA’s tracks to power conveyer belts connected to gates, another has you freezing water to create new paths, another focuses on stealthily avoiding enemy searchlights. For the most part, every game mechanic is a joy to experience and successfully keeps the game feeling fresh. The only exception is a slow, underwater stage which almost kills the game’s momentum entirely. Almost.
Blaster Master Zero takes around 8-9 hours to complete, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to put a smile on the face of anyone who enjoys 8-bit era action games. I’ve thrown around titles such as Metroid, Mega Man, and Legend of Zelda throughout this review and it’s hard not to think of Blaster Master Zero as a bit of a greatest hits of the NES era. It doesn’t excel in any one area, but the overall package is certainly an enjoyable one, and it’s backed up by some great chiptunes and gorgeously colourful pixel-art.
To put it another way—it’s a bit of a jack-of-all-trades and a (blaster) master of zero.
I was never a fan of the original Blaster Master, although that opening where Jason loses his frog, Fred, falls in a toxic waste ditch that is seemingly in his backyard, and finds the SOPHIA III, was always amusing to me. Plus, that little tune that started up as SOPH took off to start the game was catchy as all hell.
However, I love Blaster Master Zero. I completely agree that the game is pretty easy. The original NES game used to frustrate me, especially in the boss fights were you had to shoot them a ridiculous amount of times to kill them (unless you exploited a little cheat involving the pause button). In Zero, everything is just a little bit easier. You won’t be very frustrated, but sometimes you just want to just spend time in a game’s world, and this is certainly the case here.
I would go on about the game, but I’d just be mirroring your sentiments, Sean. However, I will say Inti Creates is one of the best indie publishers out there right now with the Gunvolt, Shantae, Mega Man Zero and ZX games. Plus, they all seem to have a “shared universe” as I noticed Blaster Master and Gunvolt themed items when I played Shantae 1/2 Genie Hero recently.
I’d also like to briefly sing praises to Inti Creates. They are pretty much always guaranteed to deliver a quality product, and I’m a pretty big fan of their Azure Striker Gunvolt series in particular. They’re fast paced action platformers in the vein of Mega Man but with a unique combat system that involves “tagging” enemies and using those tags to deal boosted damage with your lightning abilities.The second game shook things up with a second playable character that involved dashing all around the air to tag enemies, and that was a blast as well.
Anyways, this week I bounced around a bit with what I was playing, with the first game being Gravity Rush Remastered on the PS4. I’ve heard quite a bit about it and know that it’s one of Sony’s less popular franchises due to its offbeat nature and the fact that it started its life on their ill-fated Vita. The game for me has been a huge mixed bag. On the one hand, the core concept of shifting gravity’s polarity on a whim is awesome, and moving through the world does indeed feel great. It’s also funny how the main character Kat sort of just…falls limply through whatever direction you happen to shift gravity towards rather than flies like a super hero. She also has a super cool sliding ability where she just sort of surfs along the ground, knocking everything out of the way and flying through the air if you gain enough speed pre-jump.
On the other hand, everything else about the game’s execution is rather clumsy. The many challenges, which can range from races to combat, can be frustrating, as the core mechanics work very well when out in the game’s open world, but precise movement becomes incredibly tricky and there can be moments when you get caught up on a piece of scenery or the camera is thrown completely out of whack, which in turn leads to you just getting mad. Or me getting mad in this case. Kat is a charming protagonist, with an easy going air and upbeat attitude about her, which does help me stay invested, but the story is all over the place, jammed with subplots, and the world development is rather sparse. I guess that’s to be expected from a game that started life as a handheld title.
The other game I played a bit of is the 2017 PlatinumGames hit NieR: Automata. I’ll admit that I have yet to play the first NieR, which I know is considered one of the biggest cult classics of the last generation. I know it has a reputation for being an extremely unorthodox and weird title, and I can definitely see the unorthodox element in Automata. I played up through the first boss fight, and yep, it’s made by Platinum, all right. The game’s perspective shifts seamlessly between a top down brawler, a side scrolling shooter with melee elements, and a classic 3D action game like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. The combat is relentlessly fast paced, but precise. It’s the kind of combat that Platinum has built their name and reputation on, and the perspective shifts are a nice touch that keeps the pace up. The story is intriguing, too, with you playing as an android named 2B who is on a mission to recover another android. The world has ended and there are only machines, including the massive first boss, which is basically a gigantic transformer with saw blades for hands. I only played about an hour, but color me intrigued for how the rest of it plays out.
I have Gravity Rush for the Vita (and now that I’ve located a charger I can actually play it!), and I also have Gravity Rush 2 for the PS4. I’ve played about an hour or so of GR2 and I have to say, Collin, it sounds like the problems with the first game carry over to the sequel…maybe.
I don’t want to blame the game just yet because I am no longer the best video gamer, but I too found myself getting stuck while trying to manipulate gravity. It could very well be my own gameplay, and my need to spend more time in the game’s world, which is gorgeous. The visuals are a cross between the Borderlands cel-shaded style and a Triple-A JRPG, which I both happen to personally love.
I’ve read that the sequel (once I progress further) actually has three different styles of gravity, with one being the original style from the first game. I think the whole gravity aspect is turning some people off the game, but I do agree that Kat is a winning protagonist, the game is very pretty to look at, and I bet if I hunkered down and simply “got good” I’d grow to love it more.
However, there’s no time for that right now as…
A Very Special Edition of We’re Just Playing
Next week, we are proud to announce a special edition of our weekly roundup of games trending in our personal zeitgeist where we all play the same game, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2! Yep, we’re all pretty excited about the latest game from (again) Inti Creates. We’ll all be playing the sequel and giving it four mini-reviews (along with picking our favorite character).
We can’t wait to play as the new (and old) characters and see if the crew at Inti Creates does it again.