Blaster Master Zero: Switch vs... NES?
A retro classic finally gets the revamp it deserves - 29 years later.
Decades on, Blaster Master remains one of the most fondly remembered releases of the NES era and for many Western fans, it was the game that put developer Sunsoft on the map. With an inviting blend of side-scrolling and top-down action, Blaster Master was an ambitious game for its day but one that never really received a truly great sequel. Until now. Nintendo Switch hosts a tremendous continuation of the saga that finally delivers in all the right ways - it just took 29 years to finally arrive.
The original Blaster Master hit right as NES mania was in full swing, back in 1988. Combining tight action, multiple gaming genres and smart programming into a single game, Blaster Master stood out in a big way - an impressive achievement bearing in mind that the system was hitting its peak. Blaster Master took pride of place in an amazing line-up of titles including Mega Man 2, Bionic Commando, Contra, and of course, Metal Gear.
At its core, Blaster Master is split between side-scrolling action stages and top down shooting stages. While side-scrolling, you pilot the tank-like 'Sophia the Third' and spend most of your time jumping and blasting away at enemies in all directions. Ultimately, your objective is to find the exit in each stage but getting there requires you to explore intricate, non-linear levels, discover power-ups and fight giant bosses.
One of the key innovations centres on the ability to hop out of your tank at any time by pressing the select button. On foot, your character is less powerful, but your smaller size makes it possible to go where the tank cannot. This is where the overhead stages come into play - entry points are scattered around each level and you explore these areas to find the boss. Defeat the boss and you gain a new power-up for Sophia, which you use to bypass roadblocks and make your way to the next stage. This aspect gives the game an almost puzzle-like quality since victory requires you to figure out how to get your tank through each environment while surviving in combat. This back and forth style of puzzle solving and action still feels fresh and different today.
The unique concept and superb execution makes Blaster Master an important title in NES history, looking and playing differently to just about anything else on the system at the time.It received a number of lacklustre sequels, but the new Switch release gets everything right - and from a Digital Foundry perspective, this might be the first and only time we get to compare a game on Nintendo's very first console to a new release on its latest hardware.
Developer Inti Creates has collaborated with what's left of Sunsoft to create what feels almost like a re-envisioning of Blaster Master. It looks and feels like an authentic Blaster Master experience, only taken to the next level. There's a unique hybrid of visual techniques on display here where we see things like a harsh limit on colours per tile combined with parallax scrolling that would make a 16-bit system jealous. At its core, the design of the game remains much the same - you're still platforming through large side-scrolling zones while finding goodies hidden in the overhead stages. This time, there are new power-ups and items to find which encourages you to spend more time exploring the world since it's no longer just about finding the boss.
Controls are improved now (allowing Sophia to fire at an angle, for example) and the stages are modified in many ways. There's even a new map system and save points here - modern sensibilities we take for granted, but simply weren't there back in the day. When you stack it up against the NES original, it immediately becomes clear that a lot of changes have been made. Sophia now has an idle animation, grass blows in the wind and detailed backgrounds fill the environment. When you hit the ground, little plumes of smoke and dust are kicked up while weapons produce a beautiful neon shot.
The parallax scrolling added to the game is truly beautiful as well, with a huge number of layers that can overlap smoothly. Once you jump into the top down maps, things improve further with greatly enhanced sprite-work and fleshed out visuals. It certainly helps give these areas some additional character. It also runs more smoothly. The original game operates at 60fps but many scenes trigger significant slowdown. That is not the case with Blaster Master Zero, which delivers a perfectly stable frame-rate. Blaster Master Zero is also available on 3DS where we understand that it's much the same game - albeit with a 30fps lock.
Unfortunately, there is one disappointing issue with the game on Switch - it uses non-integer scaling. We covered something similar back in the DF Retro Symphony of the Night episode where every fourth pixel was an extra pixel wide leading to distorted artwork. In this case, the resulting artefacts from this improper scale result in noticeable shimmering and distortion while scrolling. It's distracting in docked mode but is noticeably worse when playing the Switch in portable mode. But the positives far outweight the negatives here. Take the soundtrack, for example. The main theme from the original game is retained but most of it is brand new. What's interesting here is that all the music has been create to sound quite like audio produced by the Sunsoft 5B audio chip that was used in NES classic, Gimmick. It certainly sounds great.
Ultimately, though, Blaster Master Zero is exactly the follow-up we've been waiting for. For our money, this is the best Blaster Master game released to date and the first one to exceed the original in all areas. It feels almost like a sequel lost in time. Although it's running on modern hardware, Blaster Master Zero still feels like a sequel lost in time, the game we should have had back in the Super NES era, but only 'now' discovered. It feels old-school but in the right ways, still feeling fresh and fun today. Put simply, if you're new Switch owner and a retro enthusiast, Master Blaster Zero is an essential purchase.
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