A Boy and His Frog: A Blaster Master Zero Review

Blaster Master is Saturday mornings.

The moment I play it I’m taken back to a time of watching the Smurfs, eating Cap’n Crunch and enjoying the day in a comfy pair of pajamas. It’s a carefree time I honestly wish I could get back. I get to hearken back to it every now and again through my own children’s eyes, but reality sinks in and eventually adulthood takes over.

The funny thing about Blaster Master is that, even though I had fun with it and obviously have fond memories of it, I was also pretty terrible at it. Honestly, I don’t think I ever made it past the first area. There’s something to be said for it having an arbitrary difficulty curve by design, but really I just didn’t have the gumption to stick it out. My parents probably wouldn’t appreciate me leaving the NES on to save my spot, anyways and besides it had to go back to the video store by Monday.

Blaster Master Zero isn’t just a remake or reimagining of Sunsoft’s seminal classic; it’s a redemption. Not for the game itself, but for me. It was created in a fashion that not only evokes the emotional beats of the original, but in a way that makes it possible for everyone to enjoy thanks to a more welcoming design that comes with decades of iteration. To drive the point home, I may or may not have audibly whooped and pumped my arm just because I got to level 2.

The game opens to a not-so-subtle nod to the original game; a young roboticist follows a frog into a hidden alcove and stumbles into a wondrous underground world and explores it via a jumping tank with the keys apparently still in the ignition. Things are fleshed out this time, with the opening cut scenes mentioning an ice age in which humanity builds a bio-dome to survive that our protagonist Jason Frudnick re-discovered millennia later because he lost his magical frog. It’s an interesting amalgamation of the American translations boy-saves-frog plot, the militaristic sci-fi story of the Japanese version and even a smidge of goofiness from F.X. Nine’s Worlds of Power book adaptation from the height of Nintendomania.

It doesn’t have much of an impact on the game as a whole, more of a means to an end like most game plots were back in the day. It tows the line between being serious and being goofy. Not meaningful enough to be the impetus of progress, but not obtrusive in any manner, either. Rather, Blaster Master Zero works better from a mechanical perspective, but that doesn’t mean a few themes don’t permeate that to make the game endearing beyond a purely game play driven positive qualities.

Even though the game takes place within a desolate and abandoned underground habitat, it has a vibrancy to its post-apocalyptic scenery. There are blue skies above rundown habitations, the shadows of sea-life above you in submersed laboratories and flowing grass on the ground in the opening forest area. It’s a subtle reminder that a world without man is still a world. There isn’t toxic fallout; there’s life. In this sense, Blaster Master Zero has this odd, peaceful isolation to it as you explore a place where people haven’t existed for generations.

Which is then promptly broken up when you meet Eve.

The sense of segregation never truly goes away, but the lonesomeness of your journey is assuaged with your new companion. Other than doing the plot-driven tracking for you, Eve doesn’t have a whole lot of function in-game. However, you can chat with her when you are in Sophia III (the tank); doing so sheds a little bit of light on Jason and Eve’s personalities or are informative as far as new gear goes, but it’s all frivolous but flavorful. Which is great; rare is the opportunity to do character building, especially in an exploratory platforming game. Personally, I just liked the break and seeing them sitting beside each other in Sophia III, which even gives the tank itself a bit of a personality and feel like a safe area in an otherwise dangerous place.

While being given an opportunity to have characters you can care about are great, it would mean nothing if the game they starred in wasn’t so damn fun. There’s something weirdly empowering about tooling around in a hopping juggernaut in a mutant-infested world. It’s driven home by the fact that at any point Jason can hop out and tackle things on his own if you wanted to. While there’s a time and place for that, those moments in between exiting the vehicle and entering alcoves are harrowing because a few hits will end your itty bitty hero. Even a fall bigger than a few spans will kill you off if you’re not careful about it. Sophia III isn’t just your means of traversal; it’s your haven.

While inside the various caverns, laboratories and installations, the game transitions into a top-down view as Jason finds a new piece of kit or gate-opening boss within. In the original Blaster Master this was a nice change of pace, but in the end it was just as distressing as being outside Sophia III. In Zero, Jason is so empowered to the point where, if you can keep your health and weapon gauge high, you can blast your way through any situation. Whereas in the original game you could power up your weapon by grabbing the appropriate power-up, here the game not only does that but changes the functionality with each level up. You get shields, wave beams, wall-piercing rounds and flamethrowers that you can switch between and use as situations dictate. At first I just kept to the highest leveled gun, but later tuned in to the fact that they all have their uses for different enemies. It’s far more robust and involving than I initially thought and makes for a deeper experience in the end.

However important these solo excursions are, they aren’t as entertaining as exploring the world inside your tank. Blaster Master Zero as a whole feels like a transitionary evolution between level progression-based platformers and Metroidvanias. Each new area is distinct and you need to fight a huge boss in order to net the next piece of kit you need to move on. You’re essentially going from point A to point B and knowing where to go next is pointed out to you rather than being organic. What makes the game open is that you can plumb the depths of each area and find other cubbyholes and grottoes to fill out your arsenal. It’s not essential (unless you want the true ending, as I discovered the hard way), but definitely worth your while. It makes you a veritable badass and makes the game on the whole more manageable. Perhaps it’s not as eye-opening today, but when you realize it’s based on something made over twenty years ago, you tend to appreciate the design decision a little bit more.

Blaster Master Zero is Saturday mornings.

It’s sitting in your pajamas, playing co-operatively with your son in your basement, taking down the final mutant that’s been terrorizing the Earth from within. It’s a moment of respite in this world of adulthood I find myself in, a few moments of being without obligation and just enjoying the moment.

I wish I could go back in time and tell my ten-year-old self that we got up to that mysterious outcropping at the beginning of the game, to see what was behind that monster-gated door and get to play a new version of Blaster Master where the game entrusts you with the skills, gear and quality of life additions that make it possible. After the initial shock that we’re still playing video games at almost forty wears oold, I’d like to think he’d be impressed.

I know I sure am.

Developed by: Inti Creates

Published by: Sunsoft

Played on: Nintendo Switch

Release Date: March 9th, 2017