My second successful amphibian rescue of the summer! What an odd trend.
This is, of course, Sunsoft’s legendary Blaster Master from 1988 and let me tell you, it is one remarkable experience. There’s so much going on here for an 8-bit action game that I hardly know where to start.
How about with the famously goofy story? Jason Frudnick is your typical high school kid with a pet frog named Fred. One day, Fred leaps out of his tank and hops out into the back yard, with Jason giving chase. Fred winds up landing on a box of radioactive materials that just happens to be laying around in the yard for some reason and instantly grows into a giant mutant frog before promptly dropping down a huge hole in the ground nearby. You with me so far? Jason continues the chase by leaping down the hole after Fred. At the bottom, he discovers a futuristic battle tank that he decides to use to combat the hoards of mutants who inhabit the subterranean world and rescue Fred from the clutches of their leader, the evil Plutonium Boss.
Yeah, even for an old NES game, this is some high silliness. There’s a reason for this, sort of. Blaster Master started out in Japan as “Super Planetary War Records: Metafight.” The plot was very anime-inspired and involved an alien warlord invading the peaceful planet Sophia III and a lone warrior named Kane repelling the invasion. For whatever reason, Metafight sold extremely poorly in Japan, so Sunsoft decided to change the story completely for the international release and we got Jason and Fred instead. Ironically, the game sold like hotcakes here, so Sunsoft opted to ditch the Metafight idea completely and make the frog-centered plot the official series canon in all regions going forward. Even the corny novelization released as part of the “Worlds of Power” series is considered official lore, which frankly blows my mind.
But on to the game! Blaster Master is a hybrid of two gameplay styles: You get side scrolling platform action with elements of exploration and backtracking (similar to Metroid) interspersed with overhead run-and-gun action stages where you navigate mazes searching for each level’s boss and defeating it in order to earn the tank upgrades you need to continue your quest. There are eight interconnected levels total, each with its own unique music and visual style. The overhead dungeon levels all play out with Jason on foot, while the side-view sectons mostly have you piloting the tank. I say “mostly” because you can exit the tank at any time by pressing the select button, but you’ll rarely want to since Jason is much weaker and less mobile on foot. More on this later, though.
In terms of graphics and sound, Blaster Master was the absolute state of the art on the NES in 1988. Backgrounds and characters are extremely well-drawn, with the boss monsters in particular being some of the largest and most well-detailed ever realized on the console at the time. Sound effects are all on-point and the music flat-out rocks and can be heroic, sinister, and even heavy at times. If you want to know what speed metal sounds like played on an NES sound chip, check out level seven’s theme and throw up those horns.
If I had to describe Blaster Master’s gameplay in one word, it would be “intense.” This is a long game and will probably take an average player roughly three to four hours to complete, but only if that player already knows what they’re doing and where to go. If you factor in time needed to learn the controls, explore the levels, and practice fighting some of the trickier bosses, that time can triple at least. And there is no way to save your progress in this game. No passwords, no save files, no nothing. Did I mention the limited lives with no way to earn more? Lose them all and it’s game over. It took me a total of three five hour play sessions to finally complete the game, although the first two didn’t end because I ran out of lives, but rather because I ran out of time. I’m too old to stay up past midnight on a work night gaming these days. Needless to say, the combination of a long, complex game, no saving, limited lives, and tough opposition means that you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time. You need to be thorough and cautious, carefully clearing out enemies from each level without taking too much damage on your way to the boss. In fact, damage is doubly deadly in the overhead stages, where each hit taken depletes both Jason’s health and weapon power. Just a few hits from common foes can degrade your gun from a screen clearing laser tsunami to a puny peashooter in a matter of seconds, and power-ups that restore weapon energy are much rarer than ones that restore health. It’s been said that this makes Blaster Master a game that gets harder and harder the more you do poorly at it. My advice? Take it slow and take every enemy seriously. If you’re rushing in this game, you’re probably also losing at it.
Another factor that keeps this game consistently tense is how the developers deftly use psychological conditioning to keep you outside your comfort zone. One example of this is level five, the underground sea. Having beaten the first half of the game, the player naturally begins to feel confident, only to be confronted with a lengthy section where the fragile Jason is forced to leave the safety of his tank to swim through narrow underwater passages swarming with enemies. You don’t know how long you’ll be stuck away from the safety of your armored vehicle and you feel extremely vulnerable as a result. Another example is the wall climbing upgrades that you acquire in levels six and seven. Both allow you to navigate to new areas, but they also change the way your tank controls drastically, as it now clings to almost any surface and you have to completely relearn how the platforming works after having mastered one style of movement for over 80% of the game. You can bet the final two levels are filled with deadly traps designed to prey on your instinctive reliance on the old controls. Again, the player’s confidence is expertly built up and then strategically undermined. If your palms weren’t sweating before these twists are introduced, they sure will be after.
Blaster Master is not a game for the impatient or the easily frustrated. It’s unashamedly tough and demands practice, dedication, and serious focus from players. It’s a high pressure experience by design and under no circumstances should the player sabotage that by abusing glitches and emulator save states if they want the full effect. If you love a good challenge and are willing to invest the time, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most riveting action gaming of the 8-bit era.
Do it for your boy Fred. I’m sure he’d do the same for you, if frogs could drive tanks.
(Originally written 6/18/2017)