It's time to take the ol' SOPHIA for a joy ride.
Over the past few years, games like Shovel Knight have cropped up, showing off a fun style of neo-retro gameplay. I’ve wondered why more companies haven’t made more throwback-style games like that in the past few years. Inti Creates, who may have started off this fad back when they made Mega Man 9 and 10 with Capcom, are jumping on this retro-chic bandwagon with Blaster Master Zero, and by golly they did it right.
Blaster Master Zero is the ultimate throwback to its roots. The 8-bit artwork, which looks crisp on the TV and on the Switch screen, and chiptunes immediately took me back to my childhood. Everything in the game - the art, the menus, the animation, and the sound FX - are all wonderfully designed and produced to evoke those nostalgic feelings. Fortunately, even if you have no history of previous Blaster Master games, or even the NES in general, the game holds up and plays just as well as any modern-day platformer.
Blaster Master Zero is a mixture of gaming genres. During the game you drive a tank (named SOPHIA) that can shoot in multiple directions and has an extraordinary ability to jump very high. Moving, shooting, and jumping around feels very good and tight. It’s a well-designed platformer that is fair in its difficulty. This section is simple, but it’s expertly crafted.
The twist in Blaster Master is that at any time you can get out of your tank and explore the world as a tiny little character. This little guy (named Jason) makes for some interesting mechanics. On one hand, he is smaller and can get into areas you can't get to with SOPHIA, but on the other, he is weak and can die from falling from a fairly small height. You use Jason to go into smaller caves and areas where the gameplay turns into a top-down perspective more akin to a 2D Zelda. In this mode you have a different set of gun upgrades as you walk around and fight enemies. Here the gameplay transitions from platformer to something more like a shooter. This mode also features the main boss fights, all of which are a visual treat.
The sense of progression in Blaster Master Zero is top tier. Each new ability I discovered felt fresh and well implemented in the entirety of the experience. Not one of the upgrades felt like a quick gimmick only to be used in a single section of the game. Just when I thought it couldn't get better, I collected a new upgrade that opened up many opportunities to change how I could play and where I could go. By the end, I felt like a one-man unstoppable machine, completely owning every area I traveled through.
The difficulty of Blaster Master Zero is right in that sweet spot of not being too difficult but adding lots of challenge to master, especially as you near the end. Save Points are placed at very helpful locations, so you aren’t forced to replay large chunks when you die. A great map system helps you know where to go without ever feeling lost. But just because you aren't ever really lost, that doesn't mean that you can't wander. Many optional sections are nestled throughout, giving you the chance to acquire health and/or weapon upgrades to beef up SOPHIA. Exploration is assuredly worth your time.
The story is successfully simple, with enough cute charm to avoid being grating, but also wisely staying out of the way for the most part. Occasionally you get a little conversation from the game's main characters, but it never feels annoying and adds a bit of personality to the characters.
One very cool extra feature in Blaster Master Zero is the ability to play co-op with a buddy. The second player doesn't get their own tank, but actually gets to control their own separate reticle on the screen. With the reticle, they can assist by shooting enemies and even build up energy to give the main player some health and weapon fuel. This ends up working surprisingly well and feels like a clever alternative to just adding a second tank that could get in the way. The second player doesn't have to have any skill to play and can only help the player, so it's very welcoming to pretty much anyone who wants to join in. You can also use a Joy-Con for each player, so thanks to the Switch it's easy to play at home or on the go. It also makes use of HD Rumble. However, you can’t use the Pro Controller, though a patch is being implemented in a future update, according to Inti Creates.
Blaster Master Zero is the Blaster Master follow-up we’ve been waiting for since 1988. Is it a revolutionary game? Probably not. But it is a dang fine video game that completely (blaster) masters what it sets out to do. With an amazing progression, fun co-op multiplayer, and absolutely gorgeous retro style, Inti Creates has created a new classic and must-buy for the Nintendo Switch.