Blaster Master Zero Review

This is what I call an upgrade.

Full disclosure: I’ve barely touched Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’m sorry, internet; it failed to enthrall me as it enthralled you. What I have been playing is one of the first titles available on the Switch download platform. Its name: Blaster Master Zero.

I have no clue what Blaster Master is or was in its non-Zero incarnations. I picked this one because it looked cool. It didn’t disappoint.

This is gorgeous pixel art. It’s presented in HD, but it’s true pixel art. Not those hand-drawn HD sprites that are all the rage today. I love the UbiArt Framework and similar 2D engines. But I also love pixel art, and not a lot of people are doing it with this quality. This is a game birthed for a NES with the specs of an SNES, and a 1080p output.

It’s also the only game I’ve played so far that looks and plays great on both handheld and TV modes. Zelda, I can’t feel it breathe on handheld — the open world begs for a big screen. 1–2-Switch is a blast with friends around a table, but there’s no reason I’d ever want it blown up to the big screen. Most times, you don’t even have to look at it!

Blaster Master Zero mixes side-scrolling exploration with top-down run & gun action. And this feels right both in handheld and TV modes.

What feels a bit off, especially considering its NES leanings, is the difficulty. I’m the proud owner of a NES mini and I admit, most of the games there kick my ass. Blaster Master is very tame in comparison. Within minutes of reaching a level, it becomes obvious how to best avoid or kill each new type of enemy. Tank upgrades soon unlock new weapons and movement abilities. These make matters even more trivial.

A pet frog, a blonde girlfriend, and a nuclear equipped battle tank. #AllAManNeeds #ItsTheSimpleThings

When on-foot during the top-down sections, there’s a nice risk-reward mechanic. When you get hit, you lose one of your weapon upgrades. And the power-ups that replenish them aren’t very common. So these sections get harder the worse you are at them. It’s original, I’ll give it that. But eventually it’ll encourage you to suicide and restart at the last checkpoint. You’ll have the power-level you check-pointed with, and can try for a flawless run. And that’s not too hard, especially with the overpowered, maxed-out weapon.

Sometimes, you’ll leave your tank and move on foot during the side-scrolling sections. This tends to be much harder, due to fiddly controls. The game will often ask you to grab a ladder during free-fall. To succeed at this, you need pixel perfect alignment with the stair, and to press exactly UP. And by “exactly” I mean the analog stick is not your friend. If you don’t manage this, it’s instant death. These deaths amounted to 98% of my deaths through the whole game. But at least smart check-pointing and fast restarts removed most of the sting.

Blaster Master does challenge you more during the last couple of levels. Especially in the “final” level accessed by finding all upgrades. This one asks for mastery of all the moves thus collected. The game finally tests all the skills it has been teaching you. And it feels it should have done so sooner and have been better for it.

There are some very nice touches to Blaster Master Zero. On one occasion I got to trigger special dialogue and a one-hit kill of a boss because of an optional upgrade. And while the dialogue is basic, the story pixel art screens never fail to tug at the retro heartstrings.

But this is 2017, and we’re spoiled. Blaster Master is good, no doubt about it, but as Mass Effect Andromeda proved, “good” doesn’t cut it anymore.

If you’re only a Switch gamer, Blaster Master Zero is worth your time and money. But most of us are already drowning in fantastic releases for other platforms. This cute and competent throwback is not in that league.

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