Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Blaster Master Zero hearkens back to a much older age in video gaming, but it does so with a certain loving care that does more than just rely on nostalgia. In truth, the original Blaster Master on the NES always felt somewhat ahead of its time when I played it, mixing genres a little and providing some outstanding platforming and action thrills. Blaster Master Zero is a really strong release title for the Switch and should readily appeal to fans of the older games.
The obvious comparison for Master Blaster back in its earliest days was Metroid, or perhaps later dubbed a Metroidvania title. However, there are actually a couple of styles of play here. They correlate to when you are in the vehicle exploring the world through action platforming from a side view, and when Jason leaves the vehicle to explore on foot. This pulls in a closer top-downish view.
The time spent in your vehicle, Sophia III, is a more precise affair. You can aim your gun to the sides, up and at upward angles – just not downward. Here you spend your time bouncing around and shooting down enemies as you look for Fred – a mysterious frog-ish creature. Sure, the premise is a little silly, and true to its retro roots Blaster Master Zero is not as interested in story as it is with quality action, but a handful of cutscenes keep the player attached to Jason’s adventures.
Sophia III is a capable jumping and shooting form, with a handful of different weapons that can be upgraded along the way. Special weapons do however drain your special power, so similar to Mega Man games you have to consider your circumstances and choose your weapons wisely (this applies to both tank and on-foot forms of gameplay). This is especially true of boss battles, which have elements of old school pattern memorization to them, but also are easier if you choose the right blaster for the job. Having the right equipment also helps not only in combat, but much like that game the right tools for the job may blast open walls or help you better navigate underwater areas, increasing your area accessibility.
Where Blaster Master Zero separates itself from so many other games is that Jason can leave the safe confines of his tank and start to look around on foot. He is much weaker, both in terms of attack power and the ability to withstand direct and fall damage. However, he is able to access things that Sophia III is too large to reach. When Jason reaches specific points in the overworld, the visuals shift to that more top-down perspective that reminds of the older Zelda games. Here instead of focusing on jumping and shooting, the gameplay shifts to more of a walking and adventuring vibe.
This combination of exploring, upgrading and difficult-but-fair challenge has all of the hallmarks of the classic title, but with some nice new modern sensibilities. For one, the soundtrack is outstanding. Visually, there is a clear retro vibe at play here, but it’s more akin to the SNES in terms of technical proficiency than the original NES era. Backgrounds are more colorful, with greater detail than many of the simple black ones that occupied space in many NES games like Metroid, Kid Icarus and the original Blaster Master.
Blaster Master Zero is a challenging game, but fair and you learn to get better as you play it. Still, there are moments where the game’s save points are a huge blessing when compared to the original NES title. In fact, some of the level design here is a straight recreation of the original game, but others are tweaked and there are additional sections entirely that make Zero a much more nuanced, complex and rewarding experience.
There is even a cool cooperative option that surprised me. When I saw that was a feature, I expected that you would wind up with a second tank and wondered how well that would work. Anyone who has played co-op platformers from the past (here’s looking at you, Contra) knows how tough critical timing can be when you have two players sharing the same screen. Instead the secondary player controls an aiming reticle on the screen to shoot at enemies. This is a relatively lower-skill, and perhaps less satisfying role than playing the primary game, but it works well and does make the game easier.
This is a great callback to one of my all-time favorite NES titles. Blaster Master Zero delivers quality action and exploration, updating a classic formula with some great modern changes. At about ten dollars, this is actually the perfect type of downloadable title that will help to keep the Switch afloat until more major game releases roll out.Score: 8.5 / 10