“You take the blue pill; the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill; you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
-Morpheus, The Matrix
Blaster Master Zero is the prime 21st century example of a 20th century 8-bit throwback that’s both visually accurate yet ultimately mark-missing. It seems that many developers don’t realize what made the games of the NES special was not merely their pixelated graphics about which many of us feel so nostalgic. Rather, it’s that tangible sensation in gameplay and the grueling challenge which recalls to mind why the 8-bit era was so great.
Blaster Master Zero encompasses the modern, self-important egotism of graphics while still trying to be a retro game, missing a few of the things that really made retro games unique.
Now all that isn’t to say that Blaster Master Zero isn’t a worthy recreation. Developer Intel Creates has done a spot on job at re-envisioning the 1988 Blaster Master, a game I know only by reputation. At face value, BMZ looks the part. It’s far more convincingly 8-bit than many other remakes and reboots trying to aim for the same aesthetic. It spares us all the bells and whistles like over-reliance on parallax scrolling, animated textures, or smuggled 3D elements which would only serve to take you out of the experience. I felt transported back to the days of the NES with the opening cutscene describing the premise in pixelated detail.
The game takes place in the far future of planet Earth, where apocalyptic war has ruined the ecosystem and plunged the world into an ice age. Humankind has migrated underground, building massive infrastructures in the hope of one day restoring the planet. As humans near the completion of their restorative project, a comet falls from the skies.Jason Frudnick is a young robotics expert. He discovers a new life-form one day, a strange frog. He names it Fred and performs research on it. When Fred escapes, Jason chases his new pet down a mysterious hole to another world. In a huge cave underground, Jason discovers a massive tank named SOPHIA III which responds to his arrival. Jason mounts the armored vehicle to traverse the underworld in search of his lost frog.
Along the way, he uncovers the nature of a parasite-like infection of mutants within the planet, as well as a young girl named Eve with a mysterious tie to the SOPHIA III. There are many unanswered questions but we must remember that this is essentially an action title and not no RPG.
Once the slideshow ends and the game begins, I quickly began to suspect I was playing a contemporary game and not a vintage one. Blaster Master Zero departs from the 8-bit era that it so meticulously emulates visually in terms of its lack of challenge. This stems from two things: the weapons system and save points.
The game allows you to play as both Jason and the SOPHIA III separately (more on that shtick below), with collectible power-ups for the tank taking center stage. However, Jason himself has a set of weapons and accessories as well. His system works differently, though. By collecting pink power-up items, he can raise his “weapons bar”, allowing access to more powerful, specialized weapons. Instead of being stuck with his regular, short-ranged blaster, you can achieve flame, wave, piercing, and auto-fire weaponry. Neat!
That’s not the problem. When you’re damaged enough, Jason’s “weapns bar” depletes. Therefore, if you want to maintain access to his sophisticated arsenal, you have to keep up his health. This is a piece of cake because health items are plentiful, as in hiding under nearly every rock, and because several of his weapons can pass through walls, allowing you to obliterate enemies from across the screen, long before they have a chance to hit you. Spamming his wave weapon (the final tier weapon) carried me through virtually the entire game. Add to that Jason’s ability to fire diagonally, which almost all enemies cannot do, and you’re pretty much unstoppable. Even bosses fall prey to mashing the fire button pretty quickly.
Then there are the save points. Comparing footage (again, I haven’t played the first Blaster Master), there are checkpoints present in Zero which weren’t there in the original. A lot of them. Considering there are no lives, and therefore no game overs, this makes the game exceptionally easy with an infinite amount of attempts you can make to get through tough situations. Of course dying toward the end of a level and having to start all over again is frustrating, but that’s the kind of experience the NES offered, generally speaking. Here, you can muscle through the game without the need to really memorize mazes, exploit boss patterns, refine pitch perfect timing or any of the other things you had to do in games 25 years ago.
Some might mark this as progress. I would agree to some extent. Video games have come a long way, which is one of the most fascinating aspects of their history, and streamlining the experience is one of the perks of modernity. I’m not going to claim that retro games are objectively the best kind of games out there. I think there’s samples from all eras that are truly wonderful.
That being said, Blaster Master Zero is a remake of an NES game that goes to great lengths to appear like an NES game. Underneath the disguise, though, it’s just a lizard changing colors. It seems to exist merely to appeal to those who remember the era it evokes, but only at a cursory glance. It might look like an ancient classic but it is really, well, I hesitate to call it an “imposter”. It’s a pretender, at the very least.
One thing which Zero does do exceptionally well is embracing variety and exploration in its platforming gameplay. It takes cues from a few predecessors, so I’d lovingly label it “Mega Metroid”. I was irresistibly drawn to comparisons with the classic Mega Man and Metroid games.
As a metroidvania-style game there’s an emphasis on non-linear gameplay, backtracking, searching for optional gear which were all very engaging. The multiple areas in which Jason’s battle is fought aren’t huge or particularly disorienting so it’s easy enough to grab all the items you need before moving on to the next area, ensuring you won’t need to backtrack at all, if you’re clever. Utilizing the SOPHIA III’s power ups in unique ways also makes for some fun experimentation with enemies and environments.
That’s the exploration and now for the variety, which is what put the first Blaster Master on the map. Like its ancestor, Zero allows players to exit the SOPHIA III as Jason. Jason is far more vulnerable while outside his vehicle, with only a meager blaster to defend himself. He’ll die instantly if falling from practically any height. However, he can enter crawlspaces too small for his tank and enter sub-dungeons to procure new equipment, power-ups, and maps.
This is where Zero becomes mindblowing. It’s a side-scroller with the SOPHIA III, but then it becomes a top-down game when playing as Jason in the sub-dungeons. Constantly switching between these two styles of gameplay kept the experience fresh right up to the end. It was always interesting to find some new upgrade for the tank and then rush back to try it out to find more areas you couldn’t access before so that Jason can find more upgrades. It’s a win-win and kept the game from getting too boring.
This little quirk alone makes me want to hunt down the original game and play it for myself! Blaster Master Zero whet my appetite.
The 8-bit Review
Good luck finding a modern 8-bit game that more closely resembles a classic NES title. Good frickin’ luck because Blaster Master Zero rocks the 8-bit era masterfully. Yeah, there’s no sprite flicker, thank God, but they captured the look of an NES game right down to the sense of the limited color palette. Even the downright ugliness of some 8-bit games is present here in backgrounds that are atrocious to look at. I love it! The picture below is one of a few examples where layering made for some interesting effects: underwater with the shadows of fish swimming above and the refracted light piercing the surface above that.
And as mentioned, there’s barely any modern fiddling to get in the way. You’ll almost have the sense that this game could’ve run on an actual NES, if the imagery wasn’t so refined in its anachronistic appeal.
In addition, Zero incorporates ominous cutscenes with full-fledged images of characters talking and interacting. This is a welcome implementation, as far as I’m concerned. One of the things which initially drew me to this game was the cover art. It’s got that mech-action anime feel with sharp-looking characters. These are translated into pixel form and they look great. Notably, they’re far better than the characters as they appeared in the original…
Yeah, much better.
Fans of the relentless pace of 80’s rock influenced music will find a lot to love in the evocative 8-bit soundtrack in Blaster Master Zero. That scratchy snare sound is unmistakable. It sounds as if it’s playing on the NES with its limited chiptune ability.
I can’t imagine what the temptation must’ve been like to update the tunes from the first Blaster Master with full orchestra, something we’re now used to in just about every game. Keeping that limited sound range was worth doing, though, as it really sells the final experience. It really sounds like the kind of music they just don’t have in games any more and it shot the nostalgia-meter right to maximum for me.
These aren’t the catchiest tunes in the world but they go a long way in making Blaster Master Zero feel like a true retro game.
I liked the gameplay variations between side-scrolling and top-down perspective. Both Jason and SOPHIA can utilize enough power-ups and upgrades to adapt to nearly any situation. The SOPHIA III even has a sub-weapon that can shoot straight down, made especially for those pesky worms slithering about beneath you. Not all of these weapons and sub-weapons are truly useful, though. I’ve no doubt that you’ll soon find a few of your favorites and then proceed to clear the whole game using just an over-powered handful of them. There was never any necessity which truly demanded me to switch between weapons Mega Man style in order to succeed, and it’s a shame that a lot of the arsenal seems to go to waste because there’s no tailored situation to use a lot of it in.
Two massively essential gameplay elements make the game enjoyable to play, much more enjoyable than I presume it would be had they not been there. On the Nintendo Switch version (I can’t speak to the 3DS version), you can hold one of the shoulder buttons to lock Jason’s perspective in sub-dungeons, allowing you to strafe with ease or attack diagonally without having to focus on realigning yourself for every shot. The other shoulder button allows Jason to swap weapons via a handy sub-menu. That solves cumbersome main menu access.
I should also mention that there’s a co-op multiplayer mode. I was quite surprised by this, considering the nature of Zero’s gameplay. I’m usually skeptical of co-op side-scrollers, as well. Luckily, the multiplayer feature in Zero isn’t very invasion at all. A second player can jump in (easily, thanks to the Joy-Con) and control a mobile crosshair representing the SOPHIA III’s cannon, providing extra firepower.
Considering the game opens with a long cutscene, I thought that story would be important to BMZ. This doesn’t turn out to be the case. A lot of the sci-fi elements go mostly unexplained. Even after completing the game’s two endings, I still don’t understand the true nature of black-hole-creating Fred the frog or who Eve is supposed to be or what the importance of the SOPHIA III is.
Though Zero adds more cosmic elements and changes up a few beats from the original, I’m not sure that simply adding these changes in was the best choice if their net result was confusion.
What I can piece together is this, and be forewarned that this means SPOILERS. If you’d like, you can Ctrl+f Accessibility to skip ahead to the next section.
I presume the comet from the intro is what brought this alien mutagen to planet Earth which corrupted the underground world and populated it with the enemies that Jason faces. I feel like there must’ve been a translation error somewhere since not all the opponents our hero faces are indeed mutants. Some of them aren’t even biological, and some are metaphysical. All of this is underground, by the way, in the ruined, ancient facilities left behind by the humans who migrated beneath the surface during the ice age.
Eve, the girl Jason befriends, was sent from another world to stop the mutagen and retrieve the SOPHIA III (I think) and then at the end she tries to leave Jason and the planet in the tank in order to protect the world. She ends up being corrupted by the mutagen inside the vehicle, which is where the bad ending stops, and in the good ending Jason goes after her in the SOPHIA ZERO to rescue her. The two of them share some tender words and are about to confess their love for one another as the game ends with them staring out at the starry sky.
I tried pondering some subtext based on the characters’ names at one point. Jason and Sophia are both Greek names so I thought perhaps there was something there. Ιασων has to do with healing in the Greek language and I couldn’t help but think of Jason, leader of the Argonauts, as well. Σοφία means skill, knowledge, and the personification of wisdom. Together, the hero and his skillful wisdom, an ancient tank, bring life back to the earth, with Eve, the biblical first woman, saved from corruption. I can’t help but think of their representing future generations at the end, the two of them sitting atop the SOPHIA ZERO as a foundation for their affection.
Now, there aren’t really any huge aspirations in terms of Zero’s storytelling, and several elements are pretty cheesy, like hunting down the “Mutant Lord” for a final face-off. After finding Fred, the protagonists seem to just come up with another final goal off the cuff. But really, can you blame Zero? Or are you at fault for expecting more? Don’t look for the equivalent of a sci-fi movie in a 1980’s throwback action game.
Jumping right into the action without checking out the How to Play section, you’re left to figure out exactly what’s what and so on. Just the way I like it. However, it isn’t very clear what all the power-ups and upgrades do. There’s a large degree of playing around with button inputs and armaments that went on with my playthrough. Even after seeking out the tutorial page, there were still a few things evading my understanding. I think it comes down to the concept of Jason’s weapons system being depleted by damage being non-intuitive.
It appears as if they “dumbed down” Zero compared to the original. Was it simplified for audiences who have a shorter attention span or was it simplified on the presumption that audiences have a shorter attention span? When the hardest thing is jumping to climb a ladder, which is seriously the one thing that killed me the most in this game, then you know you’ve missed capturing the spirit of the 8-bit era. To make the perhaps unfair comparison with another very similar game I played alongside Zero, Shovel Knight is a game which looks the part and plays the part of an 8-bit title, complete with massive, frustrating, addicting difficulty.
We’ve seen many games like Zero which attempt to relive the glory days of gaming but few of them even come close to the visual emulation present in this game. In terms of gameplay, we’ve seen a lot of side-scrollers and a lot of top-down perspective action titles, but few games which actually blend the two modes together.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Blaster Master Zero is the second game I completed on the Nintendo Switch and I think that system is perfect for this kind of game, one which I picked up and put down on a whim at any time of day. It was both big enough for a television screen and small enough to feel like a handheld game.
As a fan of science fiction, I found the world that Zero presents to be intriguing. It’s one which could be better explored. The gameplay elements were fun, though I would’ve added a dash ability for Jason and collectible upgrades for his weapons as well. Blaster Master Zero may not be the best modern 8-bit game but I do want more. Considering the original game spawned some sequels and spin-offs, maybe “more” isn’t too far away.
SEE YOU MASTER BLASTING COWBOY …
Aggregated Score: 6.1