For the Love of a Frog
Now here is a game (and a game series) I've been intending to discuss for a while. I'm a fan of Castlevania (as if you couldn't already tell from Castlevania: The Inverted Dungeon and CVRPG, among other reasons), and with that love of that series comes a greater enjoyment of the Metroidvania genre. Castlevania, under the leadership of Koji "IGA" Igarashi, redefined Metroidvanias, and his work essentially gave the genre its name.
But then Metroidvania titles had been around long before IGA got to the party, not just in the Castlevania series, or the Metroid series, but as action/adventure platforming games with an emphasis on exploration. That is where our eyes turn to Blaster Master because, which that game tucks into the larger genre it's about as far from both Metroid and Castlevania as any Metroidvania can get.
Originally released in Japan as Cho Wakusei Senki Metafight (translated as "Super Planetary War Records: Metafight"), the game lost the Metafight title when it came over seas and was retitled Blaster Master. Localization also changed the story, from an evil space empire attacking the planet of Sophia the 3rd and the space institute NORA sending a powerful "Meta Attacker" tank to save the planet, to the story of a boy finding an alien tank, Sophia the 3rd, just as his pet frog, Fred, runs off into dark, alien infested tunnels, leaving the boy, Jason, to run after him. The plot of the U.S. version is stupid but it struck a chord with gamers of the era. Who hasn't wanted to find their lost pet? Certainly much more visceral and that's the version of the plot that stuck (even getting a "Worlds of Power" book adapting it officially).
The game itself basically plays in two modes: side-scrolling platforming and top-down, run-and-gun shooting. While in the side-scrolling section, Jason has control of his tank and can drive, shoot, and eventually hover and cling to walls in the vehicle. He can also pop out with a single button and explore, as a tiny little guy, the tank's overworld. Certain ladders are scattered around the world and only Jason can traverse these ladders. When he finds entrances to special zones the perspective changes and Jason is suddenly big, moving around the top-down dungeons, shooting enemies and taking out bosses to find the upgrades he needs to augment the tank and get to new areas.
Considering that the original Metroid had already been out for two years it's interesting to see just what ideas Sunsoft took from that game when crafting Blaster Master. On a surface level the two games do seem very similar: a obtuse, closed off world that makes you search out its secrets without any hints or clues, along with a run-and-gun game play that feels satisfying in its impacts without ever making you feel truly overpowered. In that respect the game's core DNA truly does seem shared.
But then there are just as many mechanics that feel different. The tank isn't the only character as Jaso0n can bounce out and do his own thing. The side-scrolling sections involve massive levels but the game never features any bosses for the tank to fight; those are always tackled by Jason in the overhead section. And there the game also feels slavish to other, harder action titles; you only get three lives to explore the whole world and then you're done, and your energy bar never expands in any way, leaving you tiny, even a little poky, with all the danger that's around you. Metroid might have sent you back to start when you died but the size of the world there, in comparison to here, makes the "penalty" feel like night and day.
At the same time it's pretty clear that Sunsoft didn't just want to copy Metroid; they also had their eyes on The Legend of Zelda with the overhead dungeons. This is a weird mechanic, honestly, adding a second, entirely different game play style into the game. It reminds me of The Guardian Legend, another odd-ball Metroidvania title, and while it plays smoothly enough it is kind of weird to have these two different style of game play in the same game.
But then I can also see how this varying game play style helps keep the game fresh. If you know where you're going this game can be tackled in a comfortable hour-and-a-half (faster if you're a speed runner), but figuring that optimal line can be a chore. The game world is massive, and there are a lot of little side areas to explore, things to collect, and ways to stretch out the game play It's certainly at the long end for this style of game in the era it came out, and certainly seems positively massive against the Contras and Ninjas Gaiden that came out at the time.
Also working in the game's favor is that it's absolutely charming. It has a killer soundtrack (all except for the last area theme which is dull and droning) which, paired with the crisp, sharp, at times cutesy graphics makes the game feel interesting and dynamic. It's hard not to tap your foot to the iconic tunes of area one and area two (the only areas I could get through as a kid), and once you get the power to hover or take your tank under water or climb on walls, man, this game feels so different from other titles of the era.
I'd even be willing to bet Nintendo saw what Blaster Master was doing and took some ideas for their own games. The fact that the tank can get upgraded to climb on walls and ceilings, that feels like a direct influence to the Spider Ball from Metroid II. it's impressive considering the original game wasn't that big a seller. Although it gained cultural cachet among gamers, the game itself didn't exactly fly off shelves, which helps to explain why so few sequels were made for the series (inc comparison to many of its contemporaries).
That also might not have been helped by the fact that later sequels, remakes, and the like were generally not great. Although Inti Creates has found success for the series with their Blaster Master Zero reboot, titles like Blaster Master 2, Blaster Master Boy, and Blaster Master: Reloaded frequently lost the magic of the original title. The series, instead, lives on in the hearts and minds of gamers, an experience familiar and yet distinct from the classic era of games with its own way to make gamers work for its charms. It might not have been perfect but Blaster Master Boy was certainly distinctive and that alone has allowed it a long legacy and even a credit as a "beloved game" among many gamers from the 1980s.