Blaster Master Zero review: Blast from the past
Blaster Master Zero isn’t a revolutionary remake but it’s still a fantastic choice if you’re looking for something to play on the Switch for a reasonable asking price.
Until now, my memories of 1988’s Blaster Master (created before I was born) were an early haze of watching my brother shoot pellets at various mutants from a subterranean tank. There was also something about a frog. Despite the foggy (or froggy) memories, I was still excited to see Blaster Master pop up on the Nindies Showcase reveal for the Switch. This excitement was half fuelled by nostalgia and half reassurance that I would have something to burn through once I was finally finished with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
As with the original, Blaster Master’s story is pretty straightforward: Boy meets frog, boy follows frog into an underground labyrinth, boy meets girl, boy and girl fight waves of mutants with the help of a powerful all-terrain tank. Okay, so maybe it's not quite straightforward but it’s a skeletal narrative that’s there to give some reason behind all the mutant culling. This is almost exactly the same as the original with the exception of Eve, who has been retconned in to fit with the story’s canon that developed in the games that followed the original.
Unlike the more recent Wonder Boy remake on Switch, Blaster Master Zero’s art closely resembles the original’s retro 8-bit style, though there a few improvements like parallax scrolling (where the background moves over the screen slower than the foreground) that make Zero feel more contemporary.
The cutscenes, while few and far between, also feel more modern, with characters looking like they’ve been pulled from an anime, which is a marked improvement for main character Jason, whose original design was painfully forgettable. Not that character design mean much once you’re in the meat of the game. From there you’re either constrained to the cockpit of your amphibious tank Sophia III or masked by your pilot’s helmet.
Exploration through Blaster Master Zero’s connected worlds is standard Metroidvania fare. It's filled with 2D sidescrolling with verticality and blocked pathways that are accessible with upgrades rewarded from felling major bosses.
Environments aren’t anything to write home to your pet frog about but there are certain areas that require you to alter the ground before you proceed, such as freezing the ground to create solid traversable sections.
Jason’s top-down isometric sections offer short, relieving departures from Sophia III’s gameplay but they are restricted to small cave expeditions that don’t advance you through the world. Again, the level design in these small side alleys doesn't totally reinvent itself every world. However, like Sophia’s levels, there are some tricky environmental puzzles, like a sewer that’s flushed in regular intervals, resetting enemies and knocking you back with its torrent, that are enough to keep you on your toes.
There is the option to hotfoot it as Jason in Sophia III’s side-scrolling sections but our human protagonist will crumble from the slightest knock or fall. Seriously, heights aren’t really Jason’s thing. Though sometimes leaving the sanctuary of your sturdy tank is required, even if it’s simply to crawl through a tunnel and flick a switch or take down a tinier enemy that Sophia’s rockets glide straight over. I’ve seen reports of players getting stuck, unable to make their way back to the tank. Thankfully. this didn’t happen during our playthrough but it would be absolutely maddening if it did.
Playing as Jason in the side-scrolling sections is sluggish but that’s somewhat the point; the aim is to get out, do what you need to do and hop back in the tank as soon as possible. Though, I feel like they could’ve given Jason a little extra oomph later in the game, especially considering he’s rigged out with an arsenal of weapons and special attacks when he enters a cave but has to get by with a BB gun when he’s not.
Though, that would likely lead to making things easier for the player, which Blaster Master Zero definitely doesn’t need. The game as a whole isn’t a total cakewalk but many of its bosses can be taken with breathtaking ease. One example is a boss room that floods with smaller enemies, which would be a problem if I had to take each enemy down individually with my standard pellet gun, but not when I have an arc lightning attack that chains damage to absolutely every enemy in the room. This particular battle was over about as soon as it started, leaving me asking “is that seriously it?”.
There are a handful of meatier boss battles to get the blood pumping but I would have been more taken if there were a stronger difficulty curve as things progressed. There’s also a really fun, blaring alert that shoots across the screen as you enter a boss room: “CAUTION: Super Dark Lord Mutant Zombie Thing”. The screen flashes an alarming red and the Switch JoyCons vibrate aggressively. It’s what I imagine operating a jackhammer feels like. I even managed to wake someone sleeping next to me at one stage. For me, that was a strong reminder that Nintendo needs to add an intensity scale for the HD rumble in the quick settings. I digress, however, because that’s a Switch problem, not a problem with Blaster Master Zero.
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