"A Return 29 Years in the Making": Blaster Master Zero Review
Having just begun to sift through my brain about it, I don’t know if there’s been a retro reboot in recent years that would be as difficult to sell as a concept than Blaster Master. The NES original by Sunsoft is a classic for all the reasons that both the company and the system are remembered so fondly. In the case of the former, novel yet successful game mechanics and a killer soundtrack in spite of decidedly underwhelming hardware was everything expected of Sunsoft’s games on the NES. For the system itself, Blaster Master was one of the biggest games to prove that third-party developers could tangle with Nintendo’s originals in terms of deep and varied experiences that would keep gaming in general on a constant path forward.
The majority of the above paragraph would pass as a decent write up for Blaster Master. The original game for the NES. When it came to franchising it, however, things didn’t look quite the same as it did for series like Mega Man or Castlevania. Sunsoft never put too much stock into Blaster Master as a series: counting an obscure Game Boy title reskinned from the RoboWarrior franchise, a divisive Sega Genesis sequel, and a few decent-at-best reboots for the Game Boy Color, Playstation, and Wii eShop, the series didn’t leave much of a legacy for developer Inti Creates to latch onto when attempting to resurrect the series yet again.
But perhaps that’s why Blaster Master Zero has worked out so well; the desire to create a new Blaster Master game clearly didn’t come from a desire to latch onto any kind of enduring popularity or easily translated and rehashed gameplay mechanics -- it was truly a labor of love on the part of the developers, and the fact that the inspiration really only needs to come from one place, the NES original, makes it feel as though development was truly focused as well. The forest-y first area from the first area will be the same introduction players find upon firing up Blaster Master Zero, albeit with a much more mature story, and serves up about 65% of the new game’s “remake” areas, with the rest of the levels being mostly changed-up versions inspired by the original, naturally filled with many familiar enemies and bosses. It’s in this way that Blaster Master Zero continues a really solid trend that has arisen from more recent “remakes” such as the PS4 Ratchet & Clank title -- taking you someplace that’s familiar, but allowing you to play the way you’d like to remember your older games, instead of the unforgiving exercises in trial-and-error real NES (or early PS2) games actually were.
One of the less-obvious hurdles that Blaster Master Zero would face in appeasing a newer audience, perhaps that hasn’t played the originals so much, is that the things that made the original so special aren’t so special anymore, like the skill with which it blended top-down shooting sections with 2D platforming action, and its expansive, nonlinear maps. Retro-styled games like Retro City Rampage or Cave Story are beloved for those reasons and more, including charm and story, that simply being big and multifaceted are basically expected of any game in the same vein. I don’t think that Blaster Master Zero ever truly extends itself beyond those expectations, but it still deserves major credit for delivering what feels like the 16/32-bit follow-up the series always deserved. It's Blaster Master with more of everything -- more weapons, more dungeons, more colors, more abilities.
It's a shame that for all the variety and options in all the other areas that the environments themselves aren't too spectacular. Expansive, yes, and with some quality puzzles, but also the weakest aspect of the game graphically, and requiring various degrees of backtracking, which I personally find off-putting. In fact, the game often progresses very easily, simply requiring the player to go wherever they haven't been to to fill out wherever they haven't been to, which makes the idea of doing exactly the opposite further from one’s mind (unless I’ve been specifically told to do so, backtracking to a place I’ve already been is the last thing I will usually try in a game).
The heart of Blaster Master Zero, though, is the cycle of fighting your way to the next dungeon in your tank, SOPHIA, figuring out how to get in, and fighting to the end to your next prize, usually through a boss fight, and that cycle is delightfully rewarding. Piloting SOPHIA is buttery smooth and responsive while fighting on foot with your pilot, Jason, feels touchy, but still fun as the quirks of the level designs are far more present and exciting in the on-foot dungeon areas than they are in the side-scrolling sections. Both gameplay styles, however, offer up a buffet of exciting weapons, and the ever-present promise of more, which makes the overall game extremely tough to put down, even if it was only fired up in the first place as a break from Breath of the Wild.
The formula that creates that addicting and exciting feeling of adventure is the same one that originally made Blaster Master’s contemporaries in the Metroid and Zelda franchises so popular, and Inti Creates has successfully recreated it in Blaster Master Zero the same way it likely would have with a proper SNES follow-up from the original team. It has the music, fun factor, control, and individuality of the original with a healthy addition of modern know-how to make it work even better, and it all comes together into a game that's not only retro and exciting but like the game it's based on, right at home on a Nintendo console. At only $9.99, it’s both a worthy and safe investment, as well as a welcome addition to the Switch’s early library (and the 3DS’s robust indie scene). It’s the first title in my Switch library besides Breath of the Wild, and a huge first step for Nintendo’s own array of indie games that they’ve invested in for the Switch.