Kickin’ It Old School – Blaster Master

Way back when, the NES Max controller was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It wasn’t the usual boring rectangle that the regular controller was. It was curved, like controllers these days. Also raising its coolness factor for me were the two additional “turbo” buttons it had. These buttons had the effect of rapidly pressing the A or B buttons, thus protecting my 4 year old fingers from the rigors of mashing the buttons on the controller. While I liked the controller a lot, the only game I had that really benefited from this feature was Sunsoft’s Blaster Master.

Blaster Master (NES, 1988)

Released in 1988, Blaster Master was a shoot ’em up side scrolling adventure. It sort of borrowed from Mega Man, in the sense that the main character shot up robots and gained different abilities from the bosses. You travel in a tank through 8 levels, and engage in battle with robots and mutants, both in an overworld setting and in caverns you explore outside of the tank with your trusty gun and grenade launcher. Though the game is incredibly fun and addicting, the story is so full of holes it makes the plot of Battlefield Earth look strong in comparison.

The story revolves around teenaged Jason, whose pet frog Fred leapt from his bowl and ran away. Fred found his way to a radioactive box that appears to be sitting in Jason’s driveway (?) and lands on it, immediately growing to several times his normal size. The box then sinks, apparently under Fred’s added weight, into the ground. Jason follows Fred into the chasm the box created and finds a tank (??), which he takes, along with a futuristic battle suit.

Having mastered the controls of the tank in a matter of seconds (and how hard could they possibly have been?) he blasts into the tunnel Fred hopped into and finds an expansive series of caverns populated by robots and mutants, who are under control of the Plutonium Boss, the particularly strange looking creature that graces the box of the game, that has aspirations of conquering the world above.

Exactly what this tank was doing there, and how he can master it and his on-foot battle tactics in such a short time is anybody’s guess. I personally think that this isn’t the first time he’s used it, and that he’s living a kind of Batman-esque double life: regular guy Jason by day, robot destroyer by night. Thinking like that, now it makes perfect sense as to why he would leap into what appears to be an unknown cavern. It is, in fact, his own hideout – the “Jason Cave” if you will – where he keeps his tank and suit for just this sort of emergency. Also, you’d think that if he didn’t already have a secret life as a robot-busting hero, he would’ve done the sensible thing and gotten a new frog and moved away from whatever nuclear facility deposited an irradiated crate in his front yard.

Anyway, convoluted plot aside, Blaster Master is one of the best action games on the NES. The levels are set up in a non-linear format; there are a few levels that you have to go back through other levels to get to (for instance, to get to level 4 from level 3, you have to go all the way back through level 3 and level 2, and back to the very beginning of level 1). You explore the levels in your tank, but there are certain caverns you can only enter on foot. Most of these caverns only contain enemies and a batch of power-ups, but one in every level contains the boss of that level. Most of the bosses, with the exception of levels 3 and 8, are mutated animals, such as a crab, a lobster, and your own mutated frog, Fred.

When you enter a boss’ chamber, the background goes away, and it appears in front of you. Battles can be a little tough if you don’t know a little trick to get by them. On levels 2, 4, 6 and 7, the battle can be ended by hitting the boss with one grenade and pausing the game just as it is hit. The game will pause but the boss will still flash as if it is still being hit. After about 20 seconds, unpause it and the boss will be defeated. Got me through some rough fights.

Upon beating a boss, you gain some sort of upgrade for your tank. This upgrade can affect the tank’s weapons, to make the beam more powerful, or the tank’s abilities, to make it hover, climb walls, or move rapidly through water. There is one dud of a reward for beating a boss, in the form of the key to get to level 5 after beating the boss of level 4. Weak.

There are three kinds of power-ups you can get in this game. There are those that refill your various meters; “Power”, “Hover” (your hover power in the tank after getting that ability in level 3), and “Gun”, which makes your gun outside of the tank more powerful. There are also special weapons you can use inside your tank. Homing missiles, obviously, seek out enemies on the screen, “lightning” power, which shoots a bolt of lightning below the tank, and a missile spread, which shoots out 3 missiles at a time. All of these extra weapons are limited in ammunition, unless you pick up more power-ups.

Outside the tank, and in the overworld, not a cavern, Jason appears small in comparison to everything else, and his gun is very weak against the robots out there. Inside a cavern, Jason is much larger and much more effective. You use both a “blaster” type gun and grenades. Grenades are more powerful but have a specific range. Gun power-ups make the blasts more powerful, reach farther across the screen or fire more blasts in different directions.

The backgrounds and graphics are good for a NES game. Most of the levels take place in what are obviously underground tunnels, but some, like level 2, appear to be sophisticated dungeons. Say what you will about these robots wanting to take over the world at the command of their maniacal master, but they could build some cool looking dungeons and intricate tunnel systems.

The music is one of my favorite aspects of the game. From the first beats of the first level, right before you take off in the tank, to the boss battles, everything sounds awesome. Every level is different. The music builds suspense when the situation calls for it, is celebratory at times, and sad at times.

Once you defeat the Plutonium Boss, Fred returns to normal, and you escape the underground, waiting for the next adventure. These adventures would come in the form of Blaster Master Boy, Blaster Master 2, Blaster Master: Enemy Below, and Blaster Master: Blasting Again, for the Game Boy, Sega Genesis, Game Boy Color and Playstation, respectively. As much as I’d like to go into deeper detail about these sequels, my experience with them ranges from non-existent to very limited, so it probably wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss them at length.

And that’s Blaster Master. Despite the outlandishness of the plot, the game has strong gameplay, and is incredibly fun and addicting, albeit a little challenging (though the grenade cheat helps you past that), and still has a strong following among many fans today, and remains one of my personal favorites.

Next Week: Um…I’m not doing one next week. Yea, I have to study, and in some cases learn, pretty much all of history between 4500 B.C. and 1865 A.D., give or take a few hundred years, so there’s no time for writing anything fun, I’m afraid. But I’ll be back after next week, probably with something a little further into the 90’s. As always, questions, comments, complaints, requests and anything else you want to say can be directed to me through email or the forums.