No matter the medium, it often pays to be the first. There’s something about being first in an innovation that creates an aura of respect. In many cases, it’s deserved. The 1986 NES game Metroid, for example, lives up to the hype as an innovative masterpiece. Metroid focuses on exploration and non-linear gameplay to pull the player deeper into its world, and it did so with such success that it helped coined the term “Metroidvania.”
That’s all well and good, but what about the next game to work with Metroid’s ideas, to play with non-linear levels and use a variety of items to explore? It’s not 1994’s Super Metroid, amazing as that game is. But it’s another game on NES, one that, while it carries a legacy of critical respect, hasn’t carried on in the public imagination. It’s the 1988 game Blaster Master, one of the most ambitious games on the NES that’s available right now if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
Blaster Master has an origin story so odd that it could have only appeared in the 1980s. As per the game’s manual, “This game is about a guy named Jason.” Okay, fair enough!
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“Jason had a pet frog named Fred,” the instruction manual reads (believe it or not). “One day Fred decided he had enough of being locked up in a fish bowl and made a fish for the door. As fate would have it, Jason was there when all this happened and he gave chase. Once outside, Jason was totally amazed to find Fred running toward a huge radioactive chest. As soon as Fred touched it, he grew to an enormous size, and the radioactive chest fell into the earth along with Fred. Jason tried to reach for Fred but fell into the hold along with him.”
What’s fascinating about Blaster Master’s story is what it lacks: There’s no military, no outer space, none of the typical trappings for a run-n’-gun game where you’re spending most of your time shooting in and out of a tank. The story of Jason and Fred doesn’t have anything to do with gameplay, which is a shame, but their dynamic does give a sense of how outside-the-box Blaster Master is willing to go.
Actual gameplay begins when Jason falls into the Earth and finds himself with a tank named SOPHIA.
Jason, crucially, can get out of the tank and walk around. Together, the two make their way through land and water levels and shoot varying gray robots. Enemies aren’t really the highlight here (with a big exception which we’ll get to). Instead, the core of gameplay comes through discovering the world Jason finds himself in.
It’s very easy to get lost within Blaster Master’s massive levels, especially when you have no idea what you’re doing. Since the original manual included basic maps to understand the game’s structure, I don’t really think it’s cheating to look at walkthroughs, or even to watch a playthrough.
Yoshiaki Iwata, the game’s creator, gave a simple reason for why Blaster Master offers as much as it does in a 2011 interview: “Basically we were trying to make the best action game to date, with all that entails.” Creating something that is “the best” is a high standard at any time, especially when games like Top Gun, The Legend of Zelda, and Double Dragon were coming out.
But Blaster Master makes a strong case.
Once the game’s learning curve is understood, once players understand where to go and what to do, the challenge is intriguing. Jason has to get out of SOPHIA to climb up and down tall ladders, leading to doorways where the point-of-view shifts to an overhead view of Jason, his head enlarged like a bobblehead.
Navigating through power-ups and treacherous terrain, Jason encounters floating robot heads and explosive bombs. But the game’s enemies really get interesting when it comes to bosses. Giant frogs, giant brains, and the dreaded Plutonium Boss, all feel huge and novel. The game’s music also bounces along, keeping a player interested even when they’re lost.
But getting lost is half the appeal in a game like Blaster Master. There are places that could have been improved, although the Switch’s saving capacity now eliminates the big complaint at the time of no save codes. Unlike Metroid, Blaster wasn’t able to become an iconic series. But it’s not less fun.