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Blaster Master: A brilliant if flawed platformer adventure game

In the fall of '88, Blaster Master launched Sunsoft into video-gaming greatness. Infamous for its brutal difficulty and lack of a save or password system, Blaster Master nevertheless is well crafted, innovative, and very fun.

Blaster Master is a Metroidvania game in which you control a futuristic tank named Sophia III. It has the ability to jump and controls smoothly. This smoothness is reflected in the multiple sprites that depict it, complete with moving wheels. It even springs a little when it impacts the ground after each jump!

The game world is divided into eight areas connected by doors. Part of the fun (and frustration) is finding the next area. Each area has a boss that, when defeated, yields a needed upgrade for Sophia III, such as wall-climbing, hovering (which has its own "H" meter, refilled by enemy drops), becoming a submarine, and sticking to the ceiling. In some cases, backtracking is required. For instance, once Sophia III acquires the ability to hover, you must return to the first screen of the game and ascend to area 4. Each area has its own look and feel, which contributes greatly to the overall quality of the game. The underwater area is noteworthy because the tank's operator, a boy named Jason, must exit the tank and swim, forcing him to tangle with enemy divers! 

The manual contains several useful maps. 

This brings us to the game's central gimmick: pressing SELECT causes Jason to hop out of Sophia III and proceed on foot. He looks tiny by comparison and is armed with a pathetic "pea shooter." When he enters a human-sized door, the game switches perspective from side-scrolling to overhead. Now everything is on a human scale, and the enemies are more vulnerable to Jason's attack. These sections are relatively small and maze-like. Most of them are unremarkable and exist only to serve as a source of power-ups. All of the game's eight bosses are also encountered in overhead segments. It's a missed opportunity that there are no boss battles while driving Sophia III.

There are three sub-weapons for the tank: homing missiles, a spread shot ("multi warhead missiles"), and a downward lightning attack ("thunder break"). The lightning attack is useful for removing enemies below Sophia's turret line or when descending platforms. The homing missiles are the most useful: with each button press, Sophia launches a missile at each on-screen enemy.

Jason can also upgrade his gun (indicated by "G" drops). Each upgrade makes the gun a little stronger: a meter goes to eight. At its maximum it unleashes an unstoppable wave that can quickly destroy any enemy, even if it's behind a wall. It's extremely satisfying to get the gun to full charge. Unfortunately—and this is the worst part of the game other than the lack of a save system—every time Jason is hit by an enemy, he loses one gun power. As a result you often must enter Jason areas, where the "G"s are found, to try to rebuild it. This can become a chore. I tired of grinding turret guns and droids and cracking open rocks. As an added frustration, Jason holds his gun slightly to his right, which can produce situations where it is hard to hit an enemy. Jason also has a grenade attack (press A instead of B). It does more damage and thus can be effective against bosses. However, it's short range. I prefer to power up the gun and shoot from a safe distance.

The bosses in Blaster Master are far bigger than what was normally possible on NES hardware thanks to a clever programming trick (which causes the environment to become all black)! Most of the boss fights are fair. The final boss can be cheesed by standing in the right spot (similar to some other NES games). I found Hard Shell from area 4 to be a pain in the neck. It's a huge crab that rapid-fires bubbles. If you don't have the gun at a high level, it's hard to dodge them all, especially as it shoots faster the more damage it takes. The many bubbles cause slowdown, which helps you to dodge! Some of the game's bosses can be defeated by using the "pause trick" (also found in other NES games) whereby a shot keeps doing damage if you repeately pause and unpause the game while it's in contact with the boss.

Regrettably, Sunsoft, when porting the game to the U.S., added an arbitrary continue limit. Despite the game's large size (almost as big as Metroid), after four continues, you have to start over! They did this because of the American video-rental market, to prevent players from beating the game during a single rental, which might discourage them from buying it! The game, as great as it is, is not so great that it's enjoyable to keep replaying the early areas every time you turn it on. It's because of nonsense like this that I am grateful for save states. And save states overcome the fact that the game has no save or password system. It's incomprehensible to me how Sunsoft thought the game was short enough not to need one. It would be like if Metroid didn't have a password system! Many were the 80's kids who left our NES on overnight so we could keep playing Blaster Master, Adventure Island, or Super Mario Bros. 3.

For American audiences Sunsoft also created an opening cutscene. In it Jason's pet frog escapes, is exposed to nuclear waste (which someone left lying around), and jumps down a mysterious hole in the ground. Jason follows him only to discover the tank, Sophia III. This makes no sense, especially since the game world (originally an alien planet named Sophia III!) bears little resemblance to Earth. Yet it fits perfectly with 80's video games. Sunsoft took the story idea from the fact that one of the bosses is a mutant frog.

Blaster Master is a great game held back by a few design flaws. It can be tough to play nowadays, especially because Blaster Master Zero exists. Blaster Master Zero is a top-to-bottom remake of Blaster Master that improves upon the original in every way (similar to Metroid: Zero Mission). Areas are larger, Sophia has an expanded, redesigned upgrade system, the gun upgrade system is overhauled, and there are new subweapons, gimmicks, save stations, overworld bosses for Sophia III to face, health upgrades, maps, cut-scenes and hokey dialogue, and a ninth area for people who 100% the game. It's an amazing remake and retro game, comparable to Cave Story, Shovel Knight, and Axiom Verge. It's so good it makes it harder to enjoy the original.

Still, by NES standards, Blaster Master is great, even if imperfect. The visuals and music tracks are textbook 8-bit goodness. It's a game I never owned, but I wish I had (a friend had a copy)! I would put it on my shortlist for best NES games. Blaster Master got a sequel for the Game Boy as well as one for the Game Boy Color, both of which I look forward to trying soon.

Grade: B+

Linked Reviews
"One of the true gems to come out of the 8-bit era of gaming."
— Corbie Dillard, Nintendo Life, 9/10

"The challenge is quite high and can cause frustration until the early levels become second nature, but the game is absolutely fantastic and worth the time investment."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library, 4.5/5

"It holds a dear place in the hearts of many NES fans, but Blaster Master Zero largely moots it by overhauling the weapon degradation system. Look beyond this balancing flaw, however, and you have the biggest and best structure in Metroidvania yet seen on NES."
— Jeremy Parish, NES Works 

"Blaster Master presents its deviously challenging mixture of side-scrolling platforming, shooting, and overhead dungeon exploration with action taking place in and outside of the cockpit."
— IGN, #22 of Top 100

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