Metroidvania Chronicles VII: Blaster Master
Based on: The joys of free-roaming exploration in a highly-armed (and even more highly mobile) jumping battle tank. And every boy's love for outsized frogs.
Article by parish | April 14, 2008
The thing about metroidvania games is that you play them for, well, the gameplay. Not like those fluffy new-fangled games where you play them for the plot. Rejoice, for you'll never ever play a metroidvania title that includes a scene in which the hero floats around with his girlfriend in zero-G as tepid pop music plays. Story in a metroidvania is basically a way of saying, hey, you've got the Double Jump Boots; go forth and map new areas. You play them for the satisfaction of exploration and character growth.
And good thing, too, because man does Sunsoft's sole entry into the genre, Blaster Master, have a ridiculous story.
Yeah, yeah, the game actually started life in Japan as Meta Fight, where it had a perfectly serviceable (if generic) plot. But guess how many American kids knew that fact in 1988? Not a whole damn lot. Certainly I didn't, although I was canny (or old) enough to recognize the sheer inanity of Blaster Master's premise, which involves the rescue of a giant frog named Fred who gained his brobdingnagian stature when he accidentally leapt into a barrel of highly mutagenic radioactive waste that Jason's family had carelessly left sitting in their backyard. Yup, glowing nuke waste, sitting open to the elements, collecting rainwater, and probably the source of all those helicopter-sized mosquitos responsible for sucking the neighborhood's pets dry. Maybe the sudden loss of dogs and cats accounts for hero Jason's willingness to leap into a bottomless pit and pilot a super tank against a legion of evil monsters to recover Fred. Or maybe, just maybe, someone at Sunsoft was a complete ninny.
But it doesn't matter, because Blaster Master played like a dream. Occasionally the dream was a nightmare, admittedly, such as when you reached the final boss after several grueling hours of play and -- whoops! -- out of continues, please start again. The progressive, nonlinear world design and ever-growing powers of Sophia the 3rd, the world's most bizarrely-named tank, were compelling enough without the need for a story to prop them up. In fact, they were compelling enough that the bone-headed story we got didn't detract from their quality. That spared me the confusion that would have been engendered by trying to make sense of the fact that several of the game's bosses are, in fact, giant mutant radioactive frogs that you must destroy in order to advance. Now that I'm older, I understand that aspect of the game better. He doesn't care about the welfare of giant mutant radioactive frogs in general, only the welfare his giant mutant radioactive frog. He's a true American.
Most of Blaster Master -- by which I mean "the parts that are good" -- take place while driving Sophia the 3rd. No mere sluggish, treaded land cruiser, this tank: Sophia's loaded for bear with an energy cannon, three expendable sub-weapons and the ability to leap high into the air. That last bit is a trait few tanks can lay claim to, really, but it helps smooth the divide between this game and the usual metroidvania fodder (where you're just some guy). Oh, and Sophia is upgradeable; in fact, that's why the game falls under this header in the first place. For every boss you defeat, Sophia gains a new power. Sometimes it's lame, like a more powerful shot or the ability to drive on spikes -- well, actually, driving on spikes is a nice change of pace from the usual 8-bit design style where even nudging gently up against the flat portion of a spike would cause your character to explode into a dozen tiny fragments of fatality. Still, it pales in comparison to the really awesome upgrades like improved jumping (this was before the days of Double Jump Boots, see), limited flight and the ability to cling to walls and ceilings. By the end of the game, Sophia can go anywhere and do anything, and you can revisit all those impossible-to-reach doors and impassable barriers that frustrated you in the early portions of the game.
Unfortunately, this brings to light the one really stupid flaw of the game, and it's a pretty big one: Sometimes, you have to step outside of Sophia the 3rd. And it sucks.
Well, it mostly sucks. At first, it's actually kind of cool. You hop out of your massive death machine to find that Jason is a teensy, 8-pixel-tall sprite -- a sprite in both the "moving image element" and the "tiny faerie folk" senses. He's weak and vulnerable and has pitiful firepower, but occasionally he needs to move about and do things outside the tank. This could have been an amazing innovation, but then they had to go and screw it up by forcing Sophia-less Jason to enter special doors which send him hurtling into a grim void known as "a top-down perspective."
The top-view parts of Blaster Master completely suck. Jason's a ridiculous-looking buffoon with a miserable excuse for a weapon blasting his way through mazes of infinitely respawning enemies that frequently move in that most irritating of patterns, the parabola. These sequences are so out of place in the context of Blaster Master that I'm going to assume that they're result of a terrible factory accident in which the game was somehow mixed with leftover stock of some awful first-generation Famicom game, resulting in... this. To further lend to the sense of "screw you, gamer," Jason's default weapon here is a puny peashooter that can be leveled up by collecting special icons. Great! But every time an enemy hits you, you lose a level of your weapon. For those who weren't paying attention to the ramifications of this fact, that means that the more you get beaten up, the less effectively you can retaliate. Nothing is more awesome than losing to a tough boss simply because you slipped up once and your gun was knocked down to "useless" status. Which, incidentally, means that yes, the bosses are wholly contained in the top-down areas rather than in the cool side-scrolling action sequences where you have a completely awesome tank capable of blowing up everything ever.
It's an annoying design screw-up that really detracts from an otherwise entertaining experience. Blaster Master was even a tiny bit ahead of its time -- check out that status screen and tell me it doesn't look almost exactly like Super Metroid's, eh? A tank is an unusual on-screen avatar for this sort of game, but Sophia the 3rd is a highly maneuverable conveyance of sheer destructive power and accumulates a set of powers that wouldn't become genre standards for another decade or so. But honestly, the non-tank portions almost ruin the game. For all that people are obligated to make fun of the plotline, that's just an amusing bit of whimsy -- a convenient hook for lazy writers to hang their hats on. (See this article for case in point.) The parts about Fred are just fine. The parts about Jason, however...