Welcome to the second installment of this series. One year after the excellent Fantasy Zone, Sunsoft released a much more (non-ported) original work: Blaster Master. Well, that's how the game is now recognized, but it began with a much more different title and story in the Land of the Rising Sun...
The Metafight Begins in Japan
Chou Wakusei Senki Metafight did not sell very well in Japan—hard to believe, given its catchy title, which per Wikipedia loosely translates to "Super Planetary War Records: Metafight. It must have been the clumsy title, because if you even play this game for 10 seconds you realize how awesome it is. Hit start and you launch into the distance, driving a wicked cool futuristic jumping tank.
There actually is a story behind the game, albeit a bare bones one. Kane Gardner pilots a tank known as the Metal Attacker and tries to save planet Sophia from the invasion of the malevolent emperor Goez. Of course, you'd never know this tale from watching the short animated opening scene with Metal Attacker zooming out of a futuristic underground garage.
Enter the Frog
How many times did gamers outside of Japan get robbed during the localization process? We lost the animated backgrounds in Contra, and received inferior music for Castlevania III. Brace yourselves, because when Blaster Master made its way to the US (November 1988) and Europe (25 April 1991), not only was the story changed but cut scenes were added.
Jason is your average senior high school kid until one day his pet frog, Fred, escapes—guess he didn't want to be dissected in biology class. The pesky radioactive waste in Jason's back yard causes Fred to mutate and become enlarged. Then Fred jumps down a hole and Jason follows, tumbling down. At the bottom, Jason discovers a giant tank named Sophia the 3rd.
Everyone always highlights Ninja Gaiden as one of the first make great use of cut-scenes to tell a story. Well, I gotta set the record straight. Blaster Master predates Ninja Gaiden, and in less than a dozen storyboards it pulls on heartstrings that every kid can relate to. You've got that childhood affinity for a pet (Fred), and there's also that dream that one day you'll just stumble upon something really cool (maybe a map to buried treasure, like in Goonies) and get swept away in an adventure. Granted, Blaster Master's story is totally ludicrous, yet it remains one of the most memorable openings in the NES game library.
Sophia zooms out of the cave and you immediately encounter the strange mutant denizens of this underground world. Piloting the tank is even more fun than you could have anticipated, because this tank is capable of incredible jumps, complete with slick spinning wheel animations. Bouncing around in the tank through these platforming sections is a joy, but there are many other dimensions to the gameplay.
Striking out on Foot
During these overworld sections, you can actually get out of your tank. You'll find that going on foot is necessary to use ladders and that the little man cuts through water much more easily than the tank. Jason is nowhere near as good a jumper as Sophia and, should he drop any distance much higher than he could normally jump, it's going to cost you life points—all of them if it's a long fall. Though leaving Sophia behind represents a severe drop in firepower, you have more weapons at your disposal during the overhead run 'n gun sections of the game.
Run 'n Gunning
Admittedly, these overhead sections of the game are not as fun as jumping around in your tank, but there are still some pretty excellent gameplay elements. Like Gain Ground, the hand that holds your weapon makes a difference. Shoot up, shoot down, and you'll find that you're shots favor your right (weapon-holding) hand. Like traditional shoot 'em ups, you can also power up your main weapon, extending its range, and even making it shoot in a wave pattern, but one hit from an enemy and your gun starts to lose steam. Gone is the jumping element of the side-scrolling stages. In return, you can fire grenades. They're quite powerful (each one equivalent to eight bullets from your regular gun), but have a very short range. Strangely, grenades are always fired from your center of mass, unaffected by the fact that Jason is right-handed.
Feels like Blasteroid
Like Metroid, Blaster Master is nonlinear. You're going to have to explore each area to discover where the boss is hidden, and backtracking through stages is necessary as well, so that you can use newly-acquired powers (i.e. the Hyper Cannon) to access previosly inacessible areas. At one point, you even acquire hover jets for the tank! There are numerous optional run 'n gun areas as well, where you can hone your shooting skills and power up Jason's main gun.
The Famous Grenade Glitch
Blaster Master is notorious for its difficulty, compounded by the lack of any way to save your progress. There is, however, a nifty trick that lets you cheat and defeat bosses with a single grenade blast. It works in stages 2, 4, 6, and 7. Simply hit the boss with a grenade, pause the game, and the grenade remains active while paused, so when you unpause after about 15-25 seconds the boss is dead.
Special PAL Release of Super Glitch Master
Not only did it take an unusally long time for Blaster Master to make it to Europe (over two and a half years after the U.S. version!), but somehow the PAL cart gained additional glitches. Fortunately, it's unusual to acidentally trigger these glitches in the course of normal gameplay. But what if you intentionally took advantage of the glitchy double-jumps and warping to finish the game in a tool-assisted speed run? The fascinating video below does just that:
Mutants Play Rad Music
Sunsoft was known to push the limits of the NES sound hardware, and Blaster Master's score is no exception. In fact, it's among Sunsoft's best efforts. I was originally going to include just my favorite three tracks, then I couldn't keep it below five, and finally I just decided to include the whole soundtrack. The scores for Area 4 and Area 7 are outliers, with much slower pacing and atmospheric sounds than the other Areas, but they do a nice job of breaking up the soundtrack as a whole. One of the most underrated clips is Game Over. Listen to that sound at the end. Sounds like...the croak of a frog!
For all its wonders, Blaster Master is also an example of how perishable 8-bit video game history is. We hardly know who deserves credit for this game. That Yoshiaki Iwata was the creator is clear, but beyond that who knows. This was an era when "credits" for video games were often inaccurate, incomplete, and Sunsoft had the habit of using silly nicknames and pseudonyms rather than real names. Blaster Master creative team, whoever you are, thanks for making the greatest game ever that features a jumping tank.