Yeah, yeah, I know: you saw the screenshots for this one and you immediately recoiled in fear. Retro-styled pixel art has proven to be a dicey proposition for some years now since indie devs decided to pick up the aesthetic and run with it. You never know if you’re getting a masterpiece that could have been a long-lost classic or a stinker that wishes it was, and the saturation of the market with pixel art makes telling the difference harder every day.
Well, here’s one game that does justice to the games of yesteryear, specifically Sunsoft games of yesteryear: Blaster Master Zero is available on the Nintendo Switch and it’s worth playing.
The original Blaster Master was a classic so you’re probably familiar with it, but just in case you aren’t: a boy named Jason goes chasing after his escaped pet frog and falls into a chasm in the process. At the bottom he discovers an advanced battle tank called Sophia the 3rd, a mighty machine packed with weapons for fighting off the native mutants of the underground world. Even the formidable tank isn’t enough to take on the baddest baddies, though, so Jason will have to find additional upgrades to soup up Sophia and continue the search for Fred. Blaster Master Zero’s plot is…well, it’s pretty much the same with a couple tweaks here and there to make it sound a bit less dumb; Jason’s now a scientist doing experiments on the frog, for instance.
Much like the plot, the gameplay hasn’t changed much. This is a Metroidvania based on one of the original entries in the genre. You’ll drive Sophia around searching for Fred, periodically emerging from the tank for some on-foot dungeon-crawling action. Many of these contain upgrades that you’ll need to get Sophia through various obstacles, like increased cannon power or jump jets, and there’s also a fair number of upgrades available for Jason’s gear as well. The balance between side-scrolling tank segments and overhead on-foot segments keep Blaster Master Zero feeling fresh, especially when you’re periodically pitted against powerful boss mutants.
It’s a snappy, enjoyable game that understands how the reward cycle in games works. You never go long without a new toy to play with; likewise, boss battles happen just often enough to be challenging and suspenseful without becoming an irritation. This really feels like the next logical step of retro gaming. By that I mean that rather than serving as nostalgia bait, Blaster Master Zero’s retro trappings underscore this game’s existence as an anachronism, a game that would have fit in just fine on the NES.
It’s more than just the game’s authentic graphics and sound – with a few liberties taken thanks to the power of the Switch. Rather, it’s that the platforming, the combat and the exploration all feel right. It’s refreshing to play a game that really “gets” the appeal of the classics in an age where pixel art largely serves to warn you of an impending me-too cash grab.
At $10 it’s really hard to fault Blaster Master Zero for much. I guess it can be a little too easy at times, the controls feel a little loose to the modern palate and the insistence on story presentation borders on bothersome, but those are nitpicks if anything. If you own a Switch, you should probably own three games by now: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove and Blaster Master Zero. It’s faux-retro done right.