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My quest to play through early console role-playing games, action-role-playing hybrids, and Metroidvanias continues. I’ve got a nominal timeline, but I keep deviating from it as I add more games to the list. Now I’m finally catching up. The farthest I’ve reached is September 1988 with Spellcaster, before that was Exile in August, and before that was Blaster Master in June 1988 — a mere two weeks after our last entry, Cosmo Police Galivan. Since I’ve covered Exile already, Sunsoft’s Blaster Master is the last game on the list that predates Spellcaster; after this, I’ll be moving forward with the nominal timeline and entering the tail end of 1988.

I actually played Blaster Master as a kid. I never owned a copy, but a friend did, and we played it together on his NES. I don’t remember if we ever reached the end, but we did get pretty far. So it was a bit of a nostalgia blast (heh) to play it again now.

Originally called Chō Wakusei Senki Metafight in Japan, which roughly translates to “Super Planetary War Chronicle: Metafight”, Blaster Master got its rhyming name when it was localized for an American release five months later, in November 1988. That’s the version I played for this post. It’s mostly the same as the Japanese original, with the major exception of the premise: what was originally a story of an evil army conquering the planet Sofia the 3rd, with only the player character and his high-tech tank left to oppose them, was completely changed for the US version. We got a story about a young boy named Jason and his pet frog Fred, who escapes, jumps down a hole, and touches a radioactive crate, turning into a giant frog. When Jason chases after Fred, he falls into the hole too, and finds a high-tech tank (now called SOFIA the 3rd) which he must pilot to battle off the radioactive mutants. Yes, really.

Even at the time, we all knew this was silly. As was the idea of an action platformer in which players drive a tank. How could a tank navigate a game where jumping is one of the main actions? Easy: it jumps, with a powerful downward push from its wheels. Presumably using hydraulics. This also struck me as silly when I heard about it as a kid, but when I actually saw the game in action I realized that it somehow kind of works. The tank still manages to feel like a big tank, with lovely animations for its rolling wheels and its turret, which smoothly rotates or angles upwards. The tank even vibrates a bit from its powerful engine as it drives forwards, and builds up momentum, needing a little distance to roll to a stop. It can’t just turn on a dime; it’s a huge tank, after all. Making small, precise movements in the tank feels tricky, much like parallel parking a car in real life (not that any of us could drive yet back then). Even its jumps feel weighty, suitable for a heavy tank landing on its powerful wheels.

That’s all in sharp contrast to what it feels like when Jason gets out of the tank. This totally blew our minds back in 1988/1989: at any time, Jason can hop out of the tank and walk (and jump) around on foot. He even has a dinky handgun, far less impressive than SOFIA the 3rd’s huge cannon. Some areas, however, can only be accessed on foot. Usually, these lead to bunkers that Jason can enter, switching to a completely different game mode. Now controlling Jason from a top-down perspective, players explore these interiors in a run-and-gun style, blasting enemies with Jason’s gun or grenades. It feels similar to the outdoor areas in Rygar, or the battles in Esper Dream, but I suspect it was more heavily inspired by arcade action games at the time (as those examples were). Jason must explore these indoor areas in order to find and defeat the game’s bosses, who guard upgrades for the tank.

Ah yes: Blaster Master’s world design is inspired by Metroid, embracing nonlinear progression that’s gated by new abilities. While it’s divided into separate, numbered areas, players can travel back and forth between these at any time, and indeed must do so in order to complete the game. There may be a path leading through a few of these areas, but after that players must return to an earlier area and use their new upgrades — hover jets that let them ascend higher ledges, say, or the ability to drive up walls — to reach a new exit leading to the next area. This free travel between areas makes Blaster Master feel different to our last entry, Cosmo Police Galivan, which kept its nonlinear explorations contained within each of its sequential levels. Blaster Master’s areas must be tackled in numerical order, but they are not laid out in a straight line, and feel more like an interconnected world as a result.

That world also pushes boundaries in many ways. Blaster Master’s predecessors — Metroid included — built their worlds from side-scrolling areas a single screen tall, or vertically scrolling shafts a single screen wide. But Blaster Master’s world scrolls in both directions at once, allowing for huge open areas that can be traversed or climbed in myriad ways. There are still tunnels that lead to separate locations (and allow areas to wrap around on themselves), but even when passing through these there’s a swift camera pan, showing that the places really are physically connected to one another. In fact, it reminded me of the way the world is constructed in Super Metroid, one of the all time classic Metroidvanias that would not appear until 1994 on the Super Nintendo. It’s strange to realize, now, that Blaster Master was paving the way for this open-ended design, despite running on inferior hardware.

Even the enemies that populate the world seem ahead of their time. Mostly robots, many of them drop bombs that bounce and roll along the ground in believable ways before exploding, in an impressive facsimile of the physics systems that would creep into games in the late 1990s. There are ceiling-mounted turrets that spin up when Jason’s tank draws near, spewing ordnance like an angry fire suppression sprinkler. Landmines complicate the already tricky navigation in the tank, and fling out shrapnel if players manage to blast them (which is difficult, since they’re usually underneath the tank cannon’s line of fire). Flying robots swoop past, raining down cannon fire. When so many NES games have enemies who simply trudge back and forth or follow simple movement arcs and try to run into the player character, the foes in Blaster Master feel like a step up, and they work so well with the scale of the game too. When you’re driving a huge tank around, enemies need to be vehicles and war machines of comparable size.

This was all incredibly cool back in 1988/1989. Blaster Master simply felt smoother and slicker than its contemporaries, raising the bar for how games could look, how their environments could be constructed, and how well their controls could be tuned. That meant we were willing to forgive some weaker parts of the game, which unfortunately stand out more today. I’ve raved about the expansive environments, but after the joys of the first area’s outdoor locales, complete with caverns and even some water-filled recesses, the second area is quite bland. Its stone fortress is little more than a maze of similar platform patterns, as if the developers didn’t know what to fill it with. Later areas are a mixed bag: a literal sewer level is another boring maze of corridors and shafts, but others are more interesting, especially an underwater area where Jason must get out of the tank and swim through most of it.

But even the better areas fall into a pattern of branching paths with dead ends. Many routes simply lead to a bunker that Jason can enter, transitioning into a top-down segment. But unless this is the bunker with the area’s boss in it, there isn’t much point to exploring it. Most bunkers have a treasure trove at the end, containing ammo for the tank’s special weapons (the homing missiles are especially useful when facing certain tricky enemies), fuel for its hover upgrade, or power-ups for Jason’s gun in the top-down sections. This has eight levels. At level one, Jason’s gun is a pathetic peashooter, with barely any range. At level eight, it’s a huge wave of death that penetrates through walls. The problem is, any time Jason gets hit, his gun power goes down by one, and while health-restoring pickups are easy to come by, gun power-ups are not. If players already have a decent stock of ammo for the tank and have Jason’s gun at level eight, there’s really no reason to explore a bunker unless they’re certain the boss is in there. They might come out much worse for the attempt.

That’s rough, because having a full-powered gun makes the boss battles a lot easier, and even just the boss bunkers (let alone the other bunkers) are tough enough that players may not reach the boss without losing a few levels on their gun. It can quickly feel like a failure spiral, where each hit Jason takes makes everything harder. At low gun levels, Jason is often better off relying on his grenades, which have unlimited ammo and do a lot of damage, even able to hit some enemies multiple times with a single blast. He doesn’t have a great throwing arm, though. The grenades go off right in front of him, so he has to get up close and personal to use them. For many bosses, that’s a death sentence (although a few bosses are actually better tackled with grenades than guns). But I did learn a useful trick halfway through the game. Holding down the grenade button will let Jason move around without changing the direction he’s facing, making it much easier to dodge a boss’ attacks while still firing back. It did require contorting my hand uncomfortably, though, and even with this maneuver bosses remain deadly.

Elsewhere, death is fairly easy to avoid. Both Jason and the tank have large health bars, and most enemies drop health pickups when destroyed, so recovering from damage is usually trivial. When players do die, however, the punishment is harsh. They have a few “lives” that let them continue from where they died, but it won’t recover Jason’s gun power or the tank’s special weapon ammo. Another chance at a boss without getting to search elsewhere for gun upgrades is not very useful. And once the lives are gone, players have to continue from the start of the area, but are only able to do this four times. After that, they have to start the entire game over.

Blaster Master has no save system whatsoever. No battery backup saves, no passwords, nothing. Players must complete the entire game in a single play session. This is frankly absurd, and impossible to do unless they already know where to go. And it’s even more reason to never bother with any of the optional bunkers. Just head straight to each boss, or you’re wasting precious time (and gambling with your limited number of lives). Today, of course, through the magic of emulation (I used the Retroarch frontend and Mesen emulation core, as usual for NES games) I can use save states to continue from where I left off last time, making Blaster Master much more palatable to play. I soon fell back on save states after dying, too, because I was afraid of running out of my limited lives, and because I simply lacked the patience to repeat particularly tough sections many times. Some of the more nefarious bunkers introduce instant-death pits, while the tank eventually faces deadly gauntlets that require repeating a lot of tricky jumps if players miss one. Or, a flubbed challenge might simply drop the tank into a pit of spikes.

The final area in the game is particularly tough. It can only be reached once the tank has gained the ability to climb walls and ceilings, which has the side effect of changing its handling quite a bit. Where I used to drive up to the edge of a pit and then leap over it, now the tank just drives down the side of the pit instead, throwing off my rhythm for jumping. The final area plays with this new movement in absolutely devious ways, and would easily have ended my run if I were playing Blaster Master without using save states.

I’m pretty sure we got all the way there as kids, though. I remember battling the penultimate boss, and driving on ceilings. We were probably using guides from Nintendo Power magazine to help us find the correct route through the game, and we had probably played the earlier areas so many times that we knew them by heart. Blaster Master was incredibly cool, after all, and back then we didn’t have so many other games vying for our attention. We could afford to sit with this one game for a while, slowly mastering it (heh). It’s even possible we got all the way to the end, eventually. I don’t remember. But I do remember that we loved it.

That context is important. I’ve realized that a lot of my criticisms of Blaster Master stem from it feeling so close to modern Metroidvania designs that I subconsciously hold it to a higher standard. I want each upgrade to be more broadly useful, instead of just a glorified key (or in one case an actual, literal key) to the next area. I want more permanent upgrades for Jason when he explores bunkers, instead of the punishing gun power system. I want to be able to continue the game later, and not have to start over from scratch if I die too many times. Later games improved on all of these things, but Blaster Master was one of the first to try them at all, and was really impressive — and super cool — at the time. It’s still fascinating to play for those who are interested in early Metroidvania design.

Blaster Master got a remake/reimagining in 2010 with Blaster Master: Overdrive, a WiiWare title that (like all WiiWare games) is no longer available. More recently, Inti Creates acquired the license for the game and released Blaster Master Zero in 2016, another reboot of the original game that has now received two sequels of its own. Those might offer a more modern way to experience Blaster Master, but players who are curious about it in its original form are best off using emulation, as I did. I’d recommend they do, in fact, because even with its frustrations, Blaster Master remains a seminal game, and one of the more interesting titles of its era.

And with that, we’re finally caught up! Next on the timeline is Exile in August 1988, followed by Spellcaster in September, and I’ve already written about both of those. Which means we’ll move on to December for our final game of 1988. Stay tuned!

Next on Console History: watch this space!