Blaster Master Zero Review: Tanks for the Memories

The Nintendo Entertainment System was my first foray into real gaming. Granted, I played a lot of Atari and Intellivision back when I was a young ‘un, but the NES was a huge part of my childhood, and helped shape me into the gamer that I am today.

As a young hardcore gamer (did that term exist back in the day?), one of the things I loved doing was signing up for video game magazines. At Doc Lewis’s behest, I joined the Nintendo Fun Club. When I would get my allowance, I would head over to the local Woolworth and pick up the newest GamePro magazine. And yes, I was a subscriber to the short-lived Sunsoft Game Time News. I loved reading about their newest games, learning tips and tricks, and bugging my mom for $5.00 to order that Xenophobe T-shirt (I never did get it, though). One of the games that always piqued my interest in the Sunsoft newsletter was Blaster Master. It looked like a fun game, with lots of action and adventure.

Unfortunately, my only experience with the title was renting it once at the local movie rental shop. While it was a somewhat fun experience, I was pretty much lost and didn’t know what to do. I also never played it again, because I was knee deep in Mega Man, The Legend of Zelda, and Dragon Warrior. But I always regretted that decision, because Blaster Master has a reputation as one of the great games from the NES era. Well, fate as smiled upon me, as now I am able to play a new Blaster Master… and I don’t even have to hook up my old system!

Platforms: 3DS, Switch (Version Played)
Publisher: Inti Creates
Developer: Inti Creates
Genre: Retro Run-and-Gun
Release Date: March 9, 2017
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Blaster Master Zero is, at its core, a reboot of the original game. However, developer Inti Creates expanded upon the game’s universe and fleshed out the story.

In the not-so-distant future, a second ice age has taken over Earth. Facing extinction, the human race tunneled deep beneath the surface and built massive underground cities. Once the age passed, humanity came back up, abandoning their subterranean cities. Many years later, scientist Jason discovered a frog-like creature that had yet to be studied. He names the creature Fred and tries to learn everything he can about it. One day, Fred escapes the lab and jumps into a mysterious vortex. Jason follows Fred into the portal, and quickly finds himself in the underground city deserted all those years ago. As he searches for his missing amphibious acquaintance, he finds that the cities are now overrun with mutant monsters. Fortunately, he also happens upon SOPHIA III, a mysterious tank with the ability to track down Fred. And so, Jason pilots the tank and continues his search.

Throughout his adventure, Jason meets other characters and discovers why the mutants have shown up… but I won’t spoil that here. The story is captivating, and the action is broken up by conversations and Jason’s inner monologues. Every time Jason discovers a new area, gamers are given some information on the area through his observations. It’s a good way to let us know about the levels without taking us away from the story.

Gameplay is twofold: a majority of the game is spent in 2D, side-scrolling fashion. While driving in SOPHIA III, you explore each area to find new powerups. The game has a distinct MetroidVania feel to it, where certain areas are only accessible once you find the corresponding powerup. Jason can also exit the tank at any time in order to traverse the areas that offer a much tighter squeeze. While you’re battling mutants and discovering new areas, you’ll also find entrances to dungeons. Only Jason can enter these dungeons, and once he does, the gameplay takes a major turn.

Once you go inside, the camera shifts from a side view to a top-down view. Think of it as Contra outside the dungeons, and StarTropics within. During the dungeon levels, you’ll fight bosses, which in turn earn you more powerups. While playing as Jason, you’ll have both a health meter and a gun meter. Obviously, when your health is depleted, you die. But at the same time, you can upgrade your gun to different types of shots. These range from a rapid-fire machine gun and flame thrower to a wave blaster and an electric ball that causes damage to all enemies on the screen. If Jason gets hurt by a monster, both his health and gun power decrease, and he loses one of the gun’s different abilities. If it goes down low enough, he’ll be left with a single-fire pistol. So it’s best to level up your gun in these dungeons, especially when you square off against the bosses.

And boy are there a lot of bosses in this game. Almost every dungeon has its own boss battle, and each one is original and creative. You’ll battle everything from wave after wave of common enemies to giant mutant freaks that take up almost the whole screen. Every battle also requires on-the-fly thinking, as certain guns work better against certain bosses. Fighting a boss in a frozen dungeon? Better break out that flamethrower. When you do discover which weapon works best, it’s so satisfying to see that health bar take a huge hit. And once you win the battle and the boss perishes in a multitude of explosions, you can really feel it in the JoyCon’s HD Rumble. The location of the explosions during the boss’ death animations corresponded to the location on the controller. When I saw an explosion on the top right of the boss, I felt it on the top of the right JoyCon. It’s a cool feature that really does draw you into the game.

The graphics and music are gloriously 8-bit. Blaster Master Zero looks just like an NES game from the 80s, and the music’s techno beats are undeniably catchy. There isn’t a whole lot of variety to the music, but the tracks are enjoyable. The game can be played in both TV and handheld mode, and supports the Switch Pro Controller through a recent patch. Blaster Master Zero also features a pretty fun multiplayer mode. Two players each hold a JoyCon horizontally. One player controls the game like normal, while the second player controls an on-screen reticule, and can blast enemies anywhere on the screen. The second player can also drop powerups to assist player one. My son and I had a great time in multiplayer. He really enjoyed helping me blast away at the bad guys while I did my own thing. It wasn’t a necessary addition to the title, but I’m really happy it was included.

In these early days of the Switch, only a handful of games are really great. Luckily, Blaster Master Zero is one of these games. It is a fun game to play, with an intriguing story, tight controls, and old-school gameplay. Blaster Master Zero is a bit on the short side, though. It only took me about 6 hours to get through the campaign without 100%-ing the game. I’m sure after collecting all the powerups, it will end up taking about eight-to-nine hours total. Thankfully, the game is perfectly priced at $9.99, which is ideal for what it offers. If you recently picked up a Switch and are looking for a palate cleanser between Breath of the Wild sessions, you’ve got a great choice in Blaster Master Zero.

Review Disclosure: A review copy of Blaster Master Zero was provided by Inti Creates for the purposes of this review.

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Mike Ryan is a Staff Writer who has been playing video games ever since the Atari 2600. He loves fighting games, survival horror, and he sure plays a mean pinball.

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