Review by Celtic Forest
Reviewed: 02/08/06 | Updated: 08/11/17
This game could have been so much more...
Ah, Blaster Master... One of the most popular games among me and my friends back in the day. We all loved it, and we all played it, but did we really think twice about what we were playing? As we all know, some of the games you played when you were young turn out to be not quite as good as you remembered them to be when you play them again today. Interestingly however, Blaster Master still seems to be held in high regard, and the review scores at gaming sites like this one are often very high. But if we dust off this old game and try playing it again almost thirty years later, what do we find?
The first thing that strikes you when you begin playing is that the game's concept is very interesting. The main objective is to ride around in a gigantic tank, armed with a big array of weapons and gadgets, while exploring the world. Even though you get a message that you have entered area 1, area 2 etc. when you go to new places, the game is actually not strictly separated into individual levels. The game is more like one big world, with different passages everywhere, some which are sealed off until you acquire the correct upgrade to your tank. You receive these upgrades by defeating the bosses. For example, in the beginning of area 1, there is a tall tree leading up into the sky, but even the lowest branch seems impossible to reach. Later on in the game, you get your hands on a hover mechanism, which allows you to fly up in the air. You can now return to this area again and fly up to the tree branch in order to access a new area in the game. Does this sound familiar? Those of you who have played Metroid, Simon's Quest or Rygar know the deal. Some people have actually labeled the gameplay as "Metroid with a tank," and that's actually a quite accurate description.
While the game is basically a 2D platformer, it also uses an overhead view for certain sections. The tank is your main method of transportation, but you can also leave your tank anytime and walk around on foot. This is mostly very dangerous however, and is only needed in special situations, such as when entering small passages or when you're battling the bosses. Each time you reach the location of a boss, you must walk out of the tank and enter the boss's lair on foot, defeating it with only your handgun. These battles uses a bird perspective rather than the standard platform view, which makes the game more varied and adds more balance (amusingly, it's the exact opposite of what Zelda 2 The Adventure Of Link did, where the overworld had an overhead perspective and the dungeons had a platform side view!). The game also uses these mechanisms in clever ways to throw curveballs at the player. For example, when you reach area 5, you crash right down into a huge underground lake. At this point in the game, your vehicle isn't equipped for underwater transportation, and therefore starts malfunctioning. You now have to leave your tank behind at the bottom of the lake and swim into a gigantic water cave to find a new vehicle component that allows you to escape the place. Now that you're outside the tank, the enemies, who previously were not a threat, become extremely deadly, and navigating the narrow corridors in the dark water caves in this state gives you a true feeling of claustrophobia.
When it comes to atmosphere, the graphics and music play a big part, and in this department, Blaster Master truly delivers. The graphics are good and do their job well, but what really stands out is the music. Every single tune in the game is unbelievably good. Each area has its own unique theme, with the earlier stages having some fast-paced, rocky tunes, and the later stages having slower and more ominous tracks that accompany the increase in difficulty. If I was to give a grade based solemnly on the audio-visual presentation, Blaster Master might score a perfect 10 out of 10.
Well, that's all there is to say about the good parts of the game. Now let's move on to the more annoying parts...
Blaster Master, while being a fun action-adventure, unfortunately also has some serious flaws. Some of them are more of a minor annoyance the basic controls being one of them. Your tank has a kind of momentum when it moves, which makes it slide a bit when you stop. This takes some time getting used to, and at first, you will often end up falling down into a pit and die. After a few tries however, you will get a hang of it, and eventually, the steering feels very smooth. A more frustrating thing however is that there are absolutely no maps or directions given in the game. Sometimes you have no idea of where to proceed after you have obtained a new tank component. However, most of the game's areas are quite straightforward, and most of the time, you won't get lost. Also, if you observe your surroundings while playing, you will most probably notice the special passages that can't be accessed unless you have the specific part, and remember them for later.
But then there are some aspects that are unforgivable. The biggest one of these are the insanely high challenge of the game. Most of the NES games from this time are difficult, but Blaster Master is truly one of the most extreme. The game is quite big (8 areas and 9 bosses in total)... and guess what: you get absolutely NO password and NO save function during playing! This means you HAVE to finish the game in one go! Fair? Not really. Especially since some of the bosses of the game are extremely tough to defeat. All the bosses have patterns that you have to master before you can have even the slightest chance. However, learning these patterns mostly requires you to die a few times before you can get them down, and once you've used up all your continues, you have to play the whole game all over again. This might be okay for the first and second boss, but once you're up to boss six or seven, it becomes extremely frustrating having to start from the very beginning of the game before getting another chance at the boss. During my childhood days, I could never defeat this game. As an adult, I've tried again countless times, all attempts being futile, until one day when I finally managed to beat it without any save states or cheats. While I'm very proud that I did so, all the frustration I had experienced during my numerous tries made the game feel more of a chore than a fun adventure. I should also add that once you've beaten the game, there is no replay value at all. There are no side quests or hidden items in Blaster Master, unlike in games like The Legend Of Zelda or Metroid, where you could try finding every single secret item, play a second quest, or try beating the game faster to get a better ending.
Tough games can be very addictive and fun if they have the right type of challenge, but Blaster Master is an example of a game that goes way overboard. The sad thing is that Sunsoft could have fixed this had they just put in just a password system or something similar. Now you have to do the whole journey all over again every time you turn off your console. The game is actually so difficult that I like to play a little game every time I talk to someone about old school NES games: I ask them if they remember Blaster Master, and almost always, they light up and say something like: "Aaah yes! I remember that game. It was amazing! One of my favorite NES games actually." Then I always follow up with the question: "Did you ever beat it?" And 99 times out of 100, the answer is no.
Apart from these things, there are some other annoying aspects I might as well bring up. One such thing is the way the screen updates itself. If an opponent leaves the screen, he simply ceases to exist, until you approach the spot he disappeared on, then he suddenly appears again and attacks. The same goes for bullets. The worst thing is that sometimes you can actually see the platform above you or below you, and you see that there is no enemy standing on it, but as soon as you go up or drop down, the enemy appears, even though his feet or head were not visible! Such things are unfair, and they sometimes make you take damage when you clearly shouldn't have.
Finally, I have to mention the controls once again, and more precisely, the control scheme. The more upgrades you get for your vehicle, the more confusing the controls become. Blaster Master was clearly not suited for a console with only two action buttons, because the game has to come up with the most desperate solutions for how you utilize all your abilities and weapons. For example, to fire a sub-weapon, you hold down and press B. To shoot upwards with your regular cannon, you hold up and press B. If you press A, you jump, but if you press and hold A again in the air, you start hovering. In hectic situations, it's very easy to accidentally hold down the jump button for too long, or to slide over to another directional button with your thumb, resulting in wasting your hover power or firing your sub-weapon by accident.
It gets even more awkward when you get some of the later upgrades, such as the diving mechanism or the wall mechanisms. The dive component allows you to float freely underwater with the tank. However, if you hold down to sink with the tank, and fire your cannon at the same time, you end up firing one of your sub-weapons, since down + B triggers those weapons! And then there is the wall components, which allows you to ride the walls and the ceiling. Once you've collected these components, whenever you touch a wall or drive over an edge, your vehicle will automatically start riding on that specific wall/ceiling. This means that you will often accidentally grab on the walls and the ceiling when you really just wanted to drop down from the platform to a lower level. What is worse is that the controls remain the same when you drive on the ceiling or on a wall, even if you are upside down. This means that you still have to hold up on the D-pad, except that the tank now aims downwards since it is positioned upside down! In hectic moments with many attacking enemies, it is very easy to make a mistake and drive over an edge and get killed, which is very frustrating. I don't understand why they couldn't just let you turn on and off the different components as you wish once you've acquired them. You could for example turn off the wall mechanics during normal play, only activating them once you really needed them. You can go to the menu screen and choose sub-weapons anytime you like, so why not have a simple On/Off command next to each component on the same screen?
In conclusion, I want to say that I so much want to love this game, but that's difficult to do. It's easy to fall in love with it at first sight, because of the cool concept, the badass tank vehicle, and the excellent music. But when playing it today, you realize that it wasn't as good as you remembered it. Most people will likely never complete the game without cheats (I'm very sure of this), and after having to start all over again and having to kill the first boss for the 312th time, you will most likely give up. Blaster Master could have been so much more if the developers at Sunsoft had just polished the more clunky parts and given us some kind of password system or battery backup to save our progress. Now it's just a nostalgic memory from our childhood rather than something we pick up to play again, and truth to be told, it's probably best if it remains that way.
Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Product Release: Blaster Master (EU, 04/25/91)
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