The NES was long out of production when I bought one as a student in 2003 or so. I’d played the standbys of course, on friends’ systems or in stores, but didn’t have a machine of my own until it was comfortably in the realm of retro. Being British, my childhood nostalgia is rooted in the home computer, in Sensible Software and the Bitmap Brothers, over the Sunsofts of the world.

That means Blaster Master Zero is my first encounter with the series. In fact, given the lukewarm commercial reception the game received in Japan, it’s the first encounter with Blaster Master for most outside of the US.

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So, for the uninformed then. Blaster Master Zero, much as its predecessor, concerns itself with a scientific child prodigy looking for a frog, chancing upon an armoured personnel carrier with a gigantic cannon of death, and for some reason thinking it would make the perfect tool for the job. Weird, but as it happens a ton of mutants stand in your way so it all makes sense (at any rate, the story was always purposefully tongue in cheek and slapped into the western localization of the original after the Japanese release was much more along the lines of ‘dunno, here’s a gun, blow stuff up’).

Blaster Master was sold as a hybrid of genres, as driving around in your tank took on a side scrolling non linear platform approach, while there were top down sections that had you wander around and explore on foot. In practice, the platforming was widely loved while the top down shooting was at best a bland affair and at worst an abysmal, cheaply difficult mess.

IntiCreates might well have been forgiven, then, for taking the former aspect and expunging the latter. BM0 though pitches for presentational authenticity for better or for worse. The art style has been retained from the NES, to the point that things look believably 8 bit, though with some more vibrant colours and extra layers of parallax scrolling that likely couldn’t have been done originally. Also present are those top down sections, and much like most nostalgic complaints about the original, these are the weakest parts of the game.

It’s not for the reasons you might think however. This isn’t a game of frustration, not ‘Nintendo hard’. If anything, BM0’s top down sections are set permanently to ‘Millenial easy’. With the pea shooter you start off with, you have to be careful when picking your way through, especially as analogue controls are shunned, and it’s difficult to aim in a diagonal when using the Switch’s awkward face button ‘DPad’. Upgrades to your weapons are in fairly short supply, and taking damage reduces your firepower right down.

This guy is nowhere near as tough as he looks.

This guy is nowhere near as tough as he looks.

For some reason though, by the second stage, gun upgrades are plentiful, and you retain weapon power as long as you don’t take two hits in succession. This means for the most part you’ll have the most powerful blaster, a wide shot that does heavy damage and even shoots through walls. It makes comically short work of everything, including bosses. An underwater section midway through the game does a great job of teasing the appearance of a massive monster with an armoured carapace that makes it indestructible from the front. Unless that is, you have the best gun, which you will. A gun that shoots through the beast’s armour and means the fight’s over before the monster can even attack.

Soon, the top down sections feel like busy work, a chore to get through in order to get new parts for your tank. It’s in the driving sections that the game wins out. It’s not exactly a full blown Metroidvania in approach thanks to its very discrete sections that require very little backtracking even to completely unveil the map. It is however a satisfying romp, where it’s fun to uncover new parts of each landscape. Here too, the premise of being a fragile ordinary guy in an extraordinary vehicle pays off. On the rare occasions you have to leave your vehicle while still in these side scrolling areas, you are small, slow and easily killed by bullets or even a fall (the latter opening the game up to a couple of abysmally frustrating leaps of faith, but we’ll let that slide).

It’s fun exploring these ever more maze like caverns and blasting mutants, though one can’t help but shake the feeling that it all feels a bit old, and not just out of chasing authenticity. Its hints toward freedom and exploring for abilities to backtrack to prior areas with are rarely left as any more than teases, making the game feel like a proto Metroidvania of sorts. It’s as if this BM0 has been lingering in a Sunsoft warehouse for 30 years, a game that would have been adored for its boldness then but feels a bit conservative now.

Blaster Master Zero ultimately doesn’t seem to have been produced with quite enough confidence. Doubling down on the automotive sections could have produced a memorable non linear platformer but top down sections dilute the experience. A tough top down game with more graceful movement and twin stick aiming could have forgotten the flaws of the original, but instead difficulty is neutered completely when on foot. There’s plenty to like in Blaster Master Zero, but without much of a bold hook this time by, it’s unlikely to garner a new cult audience, instead preaching to the same ’80s choir.

KAIJU VERDICT
2/4 Pops: Decent. There might be problems that mount up and prevent it from being a top tier game, or it might not do enough to quite make it stand out, but a 2 can still be an enjoyable experience that the curious should try.
Switch version tested.
Japanese version of Blaster Master Zero has full English support.

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Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)