Games got away with some ridiculous plots back in the day. Yellow circles eating dots and running from ghosts in a maze makes defending against the approach of horizontally reciprocating aliens seem normal. And, I won’t get started on the all-too familiar subject of everybody’s favorite mushroom-eating plumber who repeatedly saves a princess from some sort of fire-breathing turtle beast.
So no game concept should really be all that surprising. In fact, a boy’s frog escaping into the back yard where it grows huge after drinking from the family’s radioactive waste container (as we all have in our yards) and proceeding to dig a hole into an enormous underground maze where the boy finds a hover tank and promptly forgets about his frog and decides to suit up and start shooting robots seems pretty normal, all things considered.
Seriously, I wish I could get paid to write stuff like that. How does a story like that actually make it through the works? Doesn’t the producer have to hear the concept and say “Yes, I am willing to risk money on the assumption that people will want to play this game”? Granted, we did play the game—and it was amazing. But, that’s a different story.
Rather, that’s exactly this story! This review is about Blaster Master, which is one of the most challenging games I can remember playing. Based on the quarter-eating game design strategy of old, Blaster Master owned a good portion of my childhood. Being fairly long for an NES game, and requiring a good amount of knowledge of level layout and boss strategy, it has a great number of hours of play for the first-time player, especially considering that it lacks any method for resuming play. There’s no saving and no passwords, so whenever you run out of lives or your mom tells you to turn off the game and go to bed, you have to start from the beginning again.
Yet, there’s a certain charm to the game that forces you to keep playing. The controls are smooth, and the level design is clean while still managing to challenge the first-time player. The designers managed to implement the fundamental exploration and advancement scheme that Metroid had, without appearing in any obvious way as a Metroid clone.
And, if you press start within the first few seconds of turning on the game, you get to skip the ridiculous story video and just start playing.
Aside from the enemies, which are all the same gray color and sometimes difficult to identify, the graphics are pretty amazing for the NES. The maps are incredibly detailed, and the level design itself is well thought out and easy on the eyes. The large-sized sprites used when you’re exploring outside the tank are also well drawn, or at least easier to figure out than the small sprites used during the side-scrolling portions of the game. Some of the bosses are pretty wild, too, although I guess it can’t get any worse than the basic concept of the story.
The music, surprisingly for an NES game, was all good. Granted that there’s not a lot of it, but the sheer fact that a game was released without the requisite ear-splitting track is worthy of note. There’s some good use of variations on a theme without becoming repetitive, which also added a level of cohesion to the soundtrack.
Another oddity is that the controls are actually good. It’s almost as if the designers played the game before shipping it, and put some thought into how the game should feel. The result was very smooth and even gameplay, where you won’t find yourself cursing the controller or waking up your parents while yelling about how that wasn’t the direction you told it to go.
All together, the game is extremely well thought out, especially for a game of its era. While there is no single part that is unique to the game, it’s certainly an interesting combination of side-scrolling and top-down dungeon exploration, being an early game to abandon levels for an open-world design. I suppose that the charm of the game is not in its concept, but in its execution. It certainly isn’t in its story, at least.
I suppose that the one drawback the game has is its length. Without passwords or save points, considering the length of the game, it’s difficult to find the time to sit down and play through it, even if you know the levels and bosses by heart. In an otherwise excellent game, the complaint of length isn’t that the game becomes boring, but simply that it’s difficult for the casual player to ever finish.
The point is, Blaster Master somehow manages to be an excellent game, despite apparently being about a boy chasing after his radioactively enhanced frog—which seems to be entirely forgotten after the introduction ends, unless you listen to some players who suggest that the end boss is somehow intended to be aforementioned frog. I never quite believed that story, personally. I also never really understood why the main character’s hair color changes at the end of the game. I guess it must be a really bad case of helmet hair. Either that, or the localization crew missed a spot.
Speaking of missing a spot, I hope I didn’t leave any dangling prepositions in this one. I’m too lazy to go back and check.