Sunsoft / Tokai Engineering
The early days of NES gaming were a strange time for Americans. Deep and complex games were being introduced to people whose previous console experience likely included only the Atari 2600. And a whole slew of theretofore unknown Japanese developers were suddenly making the best games the world had ever seen.
If you had your head on straight during the late 80’s, you would have quickly noticed that a handful of Japanese companies were producing the highest quality games, among them Nintendo, Konami, and Capcom. If you were to go back in time and ask kids what their favorite action games were on the NES, you’d probably get the names of several games that were developed by those companies: Super Mario Bros., Metroid, Kid Icarus, Contra, Castlevania, Bionic Commando, Mega Man. But there was another game that offered the same great gameplay and high production values, which stood alongside these gems in the pantheon of iconic games. That game was Sunsoft’s Blaster Master.
Sunsoft was primarily a developer of licensed games during the 8- and 16-bit days, developing several competent action titles for prominent licenses, including Fester’s Quest, Batman, Gremlins 2, a number of Looney Tunes games, and The Pirates of Dark Water. They even worked on a game based on the Terminator license, which was later released as the cult classic Journey to Silius after the movie license was pulled. However, Blaster Master was the one original flagship IP that saw several iterations throughout Sunsoft’s life as a console developer.
Blaster Master was released in 1988 for the NES by Sunsoft. It is a port of the Japanese Famicom game Cho Wakusei Senki Metafight. The gameplay between the two versions is the same, but the premise is very different. Metafight has a more militaristic premise, where you’re piloting the Metal Attacker to fend off an alien invasion on another planet. The extremely short introduction of Metafight simply shows the tank firing up its engines and flying down a long metallic hallway, rather than the cave that’s featured in the NES version.
The premise of the NES version of Blaster Master is one of the most cockamamie stories ever created (as outlined in the PREMISE section below). It centers around a boy chasing his radioactively-mutated frog down a hole and discovering a super-powerful tank and a power suit that happens to fit him quite nicely. He uses his newfound equipment to take down numerous menacing enemies on his 8 stage journey to rescue his pet.
Sunsoft went on to bring out several more Blaster Master titles, although the original is probably the best known and the most tightly developed game in the series. After the NES version, the next Blaster Master outing was a spinoff, ported from one of Hudson’s GameBoy Bomberman games and released as Blaster Master Boy (a.k.a. Blaster Master Jr. in EU), and featuring only on-foot gameplay.
The only numbered sequel in the series, Blaster Master 2 was released for the Genesis, but development of the game was farmed out to another company and is widely regarded as an inferior game in all respects.
Then the series then went back to its roots with the GBC release of Blaster Master: Enemy Below, which was a sort of Master Quest-style version of the game, where you revisit several environments from the original NES game, take on new dungeons and new bosses, and even receive some weapon upgrades not featured in the original game.
A full 3D sequel was released on the original Playstation (which is outlined in the 3D AFTERMATH section at the end of this article) known as Blaster Master: Blasting Again. And finally, a new 2D game was released for WiiWare called Blaster Master: Overdrive.
From the instruction manual:
This game is about a guy named Jason.
Jason had a pet frog named Fred. One day, Fred decided he had enough of being locked up in a fish bowl and made a dash 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 hole along with him.
When Fred [one assumes that the instruction manual should have read “Jason”] landed, he found himself alone next to a huge armored vehicle. This was not just any vehicle, but one designed for the ultimate challenge against the radioactive mutants living under the Earth’s crust. These mutants, created from escaped radioactive waste, are controlled by the Plutonium Boss.
Your mission is to fight your way and destroy the Plutonium Boss before he destroys you.
Along the way to your final encounter are many warlords of the underground you must destroy.
Jump (overworld) / Grenades (in dungeons)
Press SELECT to enter and exit the vehicle
Combo: Press DOWN and B to fire a special weapon
Blaster Master offers a huge game world and a wide variety of unique gameplay elements. It features an extensive upgrade system, in-vehicle and on-foot sections, and lots of exploration in both overworld and dungeon areas. It is one of the most detailed and complex games that the NES has to offer.
Like Super Mario Bros. before it, Blaster Master starts the game by placing you in a level that’s set up to explain the bulk of the game mechanics, with no formalized tutorial whatsoever. Your tank (SOFIA 3rd) drops into the level with the left path blocked off (for now), leaving you to move to the right. You’ll immediately find that you can move horizontally, and that your turret will swivel in the direction you’re facing, with a momentary delay while it animates.
As you travel to the right, you’ll encounter a pit, which requires you to jump. Your tank has a pretty high jump, on par with a Super Mario jump, and you have some control over your horizontal movement while in the air. You should have no trouble clearing the first gap, and soon you’ll be introduced to larger gaps and smaller platforms, which teach you a bit about momentum and inertia. When your tank lands, it doesn’t come to a complete stop. Rather, it coasts forward a bit based on your forward momentum. So, you are forced to accommodate for this motion by pressing the D-pad in the opposite direction, lest you coast off the far side of the platform.
As you begin to get accustomed to correcting your movement mid-flight, you will learn that your turret can swivel in one direction while you move in another, allowing you to pick off enemies who might be coming up behind you while you jump. The game emphasizes this fact by placing some fast horizontally-moving enemies in this area as well. When you spin your turret in mid-air, you can even leave it facing backward while you’re coasting to a stop on the ground. Your turret can fire infinitely, but is limited to 3 shots on the screen at once.
In the first area, you will encounter enemies that enter the screen above you, stop to drop bombs, and then rise up off the top of the screen. Pressing UP on the D-pad brings your wheels together and raises your turret, allowing you to fire straight up. You may even notice that your turret doesn’t line up with the exact center of your vehicle, and it is instead off-centered a bit based on the direction you’re facing. This adds a bit of strategy, especially in later vertically-oriented stages, since you’ll need to be mindful of your position when firing.
Invariably, when attempting to line up a shot with these flying enemies, you’ll miss hitting one or more of them, and will find yourself getting hit by their dropped bombs. Getting hit by a bomb teaches you another lesson: bombs hurt. You only have a 8 units of health, and bombs take off 2 units, whereas a collision with an enemy only takes off 1. So, it’s often best do dodge out of the way of bombs, even if it means colliding with another enemy in the process.
Hitting and destroying your targets may reveal a “P” icon that allows you to restore a portion of your lost health. Since your maximum health never increases for the duration of the game, managing your meager health reserves is absolutely required for success.
Another important lesson that you may learn in the first level – especially if you miss a jump – is that it is very easy to die in this game. Falling to the floor in this first area will cause you to take damage, and it can be difficult to jump back up to a platform. Your post-hit invincibility period is very short, meaning that you’ll take near-continuous damage when coming in contact with a hazard or enemy, until you can get away or fight back. It is very much possible to die within just the first few seconds of this game, and it serves as a strong reminder that death can come quite quickly.
The game gives you 3 lives per continue and a total of 5 continues. Losing a life will drop you back at the most recent doorway, but using a continue will place you back at entry gate for the area with no special weapons, no Hover, and Jason’s gun will be dropped all the way back down to level 1. So, if you die facing a boss, you’ll essentially be starting the area over entirely from scratch. There is no save system and no password in the game, so you’ll have to complete the entire game in one sitting.
And this is no short game.
It’s one thing to offer quick brutal death in a game like Contra – which is ostensibly only a few minutes long – but Blaster Master is an exploration-based game. You’ll be poking your nose into every nook and cranny, looking for hidden dungeon entrances, getting powerups, backtracking through previously explored areas, and probably becoming lost on more than one occasion. There is no in-game map to guide you, but there is a very simplified map in the game’s manual.
Exploring everything that the game has to offer – a large overworld consisting of 8 Areas with several dungeons in each – could take you hours. This is one of those games that you might have to leave paused for days at a time while you struggle to make your way to the end without giving up your progress.
But enough of that, let’s get back to the lesson! There are 3 important pieces of gameplay that are not explained to you in the first room. One is the use of special weapons, which you will gain later; the second is the use of upgrades, which you will learn as you acquire them; and the third is the ability to get out of the tank, which you’ll learn shortly after the first area.
So, now that you’ve taken some time to get accustomed to the controls, you decide that it’s time to leave the first area. You dodge and shoot a set of enemies in a vertical section, and pass through a door. When you enter the next area, you are immediately struck by something new in the environment: a ladder. You’ve learned that your tank is a pretty versatile vehicle, but it should be clear that there’s no way you can drive SOFIA down that tiny ladder.
And so, you press the SELECT button, and Jason disembarks from the tank. Compared to SOPHIA, Jason is tiny and weak. He has the ability to jump, duck, and shoot.
Jason waddles slowly over to the ladder and begins his descent, and you watch your tank scroll toward the top of the screen as you get farther and farther from its protection. But what? There’s an enemy down here, and it’s huge! …at least compared to Jason. What’s worse, it’s guarding the door you need to enter. You could run back to your tank, but what would be the point? You can’t get the tank down here anyway, and you have no weapons that can reach the enemy. So, you take a chance and open fire.
Your tiny little bullets seem almost completely ineffective against this huge mechanical beast who can toss shots that are almost as tall as you are, and you can only have 2 shots on the screen at once. You find a safe spot, maybe even duck down to avoid his fire, and just keep pew-pewing away until it is destroyed. And now you have learned just how vulnerable you are when you’re out of the tank.
You continue to the tiny door and press DOWN to enter. This takes a little getting used to, since the control for entering doors in most games is to press UP, but this was done to keep Jason’s controls as close to SOPHIA’s as possible. Pressing UP in SOPHIA causes the tank to aim up, and pressing DOWN allows it to enter a doorway.
And when you pass through the door, you will discover the other 50% of the game. Jason is no longer a tiny weakling, struggling for survival in the overworld. Now, he’s full-size – albeit somewhat oddly proportioned – walking through a top-down dungeon.
In the dungeon areas, Jason’s gun is somewhat more menacing, although it is still fairly weak at the outset, until you can gain the proper powerups. At it’s base level, the gun fires small shots straight forward, which have a medium range. You do not have the ability to jump in the dungeons, but that action button has been replaced with very powerful short-range grenades.
Traversing dungeon areas serves multiple purposes. For one, it allows you to find gun upgrades that increase the power of your primary weapon. For another, it allows you to pick up special weapons for your tank. And most importantly, some of these areas have boss battles, which allow you to progress through the game by unlocking new abilities for your tank.
Let’s start with Jason’s gun upgrades. The gun has 8 power levels, and you start out at level 1. Each upgrade you get increases the power of the weapon. Levels 2-3 allow your shot to extend from one side of the screen to the other in a straight line. Levels 4-5 allow you to fire straight forward, with secondary bullets that curve away and move in an expanding arc.
Levels 6-7 add a concentrated effect, allowing you to hit targets straight on, as well as off to the side. At its highest level, the white shots are replaced with glowing multi-colored blobs which move in the same wave pattern, but now the bullets can pass through solid objects. Outside of bosses, very few enemies stand a chance against a fully-powered weapon.
But here’s the rub: Each time you take damage in the dungeon, you lose not only health, but also one unit of power for your weapon. So, your Level 6 wave gun will get knocked back down to a Level 5 curve gun if you get hit. As such, the dungeons actually become more challenging once you begin to take damage, and much of the challenge centers around retaining your weapon’s upgrades for as long as possible, especially when working your way toward a boss. Unfortunately, the game has many ways to wrest this power from your grasp.
Very often you’ll find yourself walking into a room only to be confronted with an enemy that fires on you immediately, making the shot almost impossible to avoid if you’re not ready. Like SOPHIA, your post-hit invincibility period is short, making it easy for enemies to hit you more than once before you have a chance to react to them, and returning fire can be difficult when the capabilities of your weapon are constantly changing with each hit you take.
There are some environmental hazards as well, including spiked floors, which cause continuous damage. Later in the game, the hazards increase, and you will find yourself on platforms that hover over pools of water or lava, which will kill you instantly if you fall in. Heavens be cursed.
To add to the torture of these elements, one set of dungeons intersperses spikes with sheets of ice, which cause you to slide into the spikes and take damage. Correcting your misstep can cause you to slide back the other way into another set of spikes. To make things more challenging, the game tosses some enemies at you as well.
In fact, the first time you encounter ice sheets between spikes, the game will start to toss waves of 4 eyeball enemies at you once, which spawn infinitely and are indestructible! All other enemies die and disappear when shot, except for these, which are thrown at you in the most frustratingly barely-navigable section of the game.
As you can see, it can be quite difficult to hold onto that Level 8 gun. But, besides its outright destructive power, it does offer you one additional bit of help. Each time the bullets come in contact with a solid surface, they create a small explosion. Since the bullets travel through walls, this means that there will be tiny explosions on the entry and exit points. Generating these explosions causes the game to slow down somewhat, giving you a bit of extra time to react. Of course, the game can speed back up unexpectedly once the bullets stop contacting said surface, so it can be somewhat unpredictable.
Oh, and it’s well worth mentioning that the fully-powered gun has a blind spot, which is directly in front of Jason. If there is an enemy standing at your feet, and you unleash the blinding power of the Level 8 wave gun, you will miss. That enemy will then step on your toes and cause tears to well up in your eyes. And your power will decrease.
At the lower gun levels, your orientation also affects your fire. Since Jason is right-handed, moving up will cause his shots to emerge slightly off-center to the right, and moving down will cause them to be off-center to the left. It’s an interesting design choice, because it adds authenticity and strategy, while simultaneously making gunplay somewhat more difficult. If an enemy is coming around a corner, you can position yourself to be partially under cover and fire. But at the same time, if an enemy is behind you, turning around means that your bullets will be off-centered in the opposite direction, so you will need to plan accordingly.
Grenades, on the other hand, fire directly from the center, and they also have no blind spot. However, it can be difficult to get in the habit of using the grenades because they are largely ineffective against most non-boss enemies given their extremely short range. They also do not have the ability to break through blocks like your standard weapon, which you’ll need to do to find heath and gun pickups as well as special weapon upgrades for the tank.
Any health (represented by “P” icons) that you pick up as Jason affects only Jason’s health. Also, gun upgrades in dungeons are used to increase the power of Jason’s weapon. Flashing versions of either of these icons will fill the corresponding gauge to the max.
You can also grab special weapon pickups in the dungeons which will be transferred back to SOFIA. There are 3 special weapons in the game:
Homing Missiles – As expected, these missiles hone in on enemies. They can be fired in quick succession, allowing you to send a snaking stream of death toward nearby baddies.
Thunder Break – This is a somewhat odd weapon in that it discharges a lightning blast straight down, making it effective only against enemies below you. It has limited uses, but since your turret cannot fire in a downward direction, this gives you a way to take out enemies beneath you while you jump.
Multi-Warhead Missile – This fires 3 missiles at once, in whatever direction you’re facing. They continue to spread out away from each other as they move, making them difficult to use against moving targets. Interestingly, it actually depletes 3 missiles from your stores each time you use it, rather than just reducing your special weapon counter by 1.
You can only have one of these special weapons equipped at a time, and you can change your selection at the pause screen. To use these weapons, you press DOWN on the D-pad and fire. This works similarly to the special weapons in Castlevania (used by pressing UP and your whip button). It can be somewhat easy to accidentally fire off a random special weapon due to the regular D-pad wrangling you’ll be doing throughout the game.
As you begin defeating bosses, you’ll open up a slew of options that change what your tank is able to do, and more importantly, where it is able to go. There are a total of 7 powerups in the game, each of which is received by beating an end-level boss:
Crusher – This increases the destructive power of your cannon, represented graphically by a physically longer projectile. This upgrade is also required to defeat the guardian that blocks the entrance to Area 2.
Hyper – This powerup gives your tank the ability to destroy certain types of blocks and walls, which you can use to open up shortcuts and access new areas.
Hover – This powerup gives SOPHIA the ability to hover for a short time. Tapping the JUMP button a second time while in midair will cause your wheels to turn sideways – like the hover-converted DeLorean in the Back to the Future movies – and emit a jet thrust, which will propel you upwards.
The Hover ability has its own meter along the left side of the screen, above your power meter, and it can be replenished by picking up “H” icons. It’s a bit odd that the Hover meter appears even before you gain the ability (although it can’t be filled), and that enemies drop Hover pickups as early as Area 1. Only certain enemy types will drop Hover pickups.
Key – This “powerup” is more along the lines of “we could only think of 6 gameplay-altering powerups, but we needed to have 7 in the game.” You get the key for beating the Area 4 boss, and all it does is unlock Area 5. It is used nowhere else in the game, and has no other function.
Dive – This gives you the ability to move freely under water. It turns your rear wheels into a propeller of sorts which allows you to move quickly in any direction.
The game does something pretty amazing with water very early on, in Area 1. At the bottom of the main open area is a deep pit of water, which has its own set of enemies, blocks, and paths to take. However, the tank is almost completely useless in the water. It moves extremely slowly and can’t jump very high. So, you might think to yourself that it’s best to avoid the water altogether, that it’s only in place as a punishment for falling all the way to the bottom of the area. But you would be wrong.
Exploring the water in the first level is the only way to uncover the dungeon containing the first level boss. What’s more, the game requires that Jason leave the tank to get to this boss, which reveals his swimming animation, and the fact that he’s far more maneuverable in the water than SOFIA. He can move faster and swim in any direction, whereas the tank simply sinks to the bottom.
The place where you finally get the Dive ability is in Area 5, which is an entirely water-filled level. At the outset, you have no choice but to drive SOFIA in, and begin your slow descent to the bottom with no way to get back out. This creates a feeling of isolation and fear as you’re entering an unknown and dangerous area, with very little control over your movement, and no way to change your mind once the course has been set.
You sink farther and farther, and finally get to the bottom. Your only choice at that point is to have Jason leave the vehicle and navigate the rest of the area. More than half of Area 5 must be explored with Jason swimming through the numerous branching paths away from the safety of the tank. Once he does find the final dungeon and beats the boss, he still has to survive the long swim back.
Only once the Dive option has been equipped can the tank move with as much freedom as Jason. The only ability you lose under water is the ability to shoot upward, because pressing UP causes you to move up. This restriction actually forces you to take a different path out of Area 5 than you used to get in. Also, since you can move in all directions, it is quite easy to accidentally fire some of your special weapons while trying to move down and fire at the same time.
Wall I – This ability allows you to drive straight up the sides of walls. Just drive you tank toward any vertical surface, and you will begin your ascent. Controls are tank-relative, however, so pressing up doesn’t make your tank drive up; it makes your turret move up, just as it does when you’re on the ground. Just keep pressing in the direction you were originally headed to drive straight up a wall.
There is a secondary move which comes about as a result of gaining the Wall I ability. When you climb to the top of a wall, SOFIA will flip off of the ceiling/platform, spin in the opposite direction, and fall back toward the ground. Since you have the ability to control your tank’s movement in mid-air, this means that you can actually climb above the level of a nearby platform, spin off of the ceiling, and then quickly reverse your direction to land on it. Use of this particular skill is required in order to reach Area 7.
Wall II – The ultimate in maneuverability, Wall II lets you not only climb up walls, but also across ceilings, allowing you to get into any area the game has to offer, and fully explore the world. An interesting side effect to this ability is that you can now climb down walls. Sound confusing?
Before, you could climb up any wall as long as it was connected perpendicularly to the ground on which you were driving. Now, if you attempt to drive off a ledge, your tires will grip to it, allowing you to drive straight down any vertical surface.
The alarming part of this ability is that you can no longer drive quickly off of a ledge and fall down onto the one below it. Try to fall from a floating platform, and you will find yourself driving around it in circles. It may not be apparent when you first gain this ability – because you’ll be spending most of your time giggling to yourself while driving across every solid surface you can find – but this is actually a hindrance to your natural movement. To purposely fall, you will need to drive slowly off the edge, or you can disengage from a wall or ceiling hug by pressing the JUMP button.
The full function and restrictions of the Wall II ability become clear when you enter the final area. Area 8 is set up specifically to exploit the fact that you can’t drive off ledges due to your super-grippiness, and it is littered with floating platforms interspersed with spikes to prevent anything but a perfectly timed jump. You have to initiate your jumps much earlier than normal to prevent your tires from gripping the ledge and causing you to wrap around the platform, and the margin for error is quite small. Just because you’ve bested the first 7 areas and have gotten all kinds of upgrades doesn’t mean that navigating the final area is easier.
There are actually a few areas in the game that change up the “rules” and put you in situations that challenge your mastery of the controls. Among these are the previously discussed water sections and floating platforms intermixed with spikes. Another is Area 6, which tosses you the challenge of driving your tank on ice.
Ice has been a staple in the action/adventure genre since roughly the dawn of time. Innumerable games have ice levels (usually somewhere just before fire level), and generally speaking, they are structurally similar to any other environment, save for their reduced levels of friction. And this game is no different.
What adds to the challenge in Blaster Master, however, is that your heavy tank is already greatly affected by inertia in the world at large. Even on normally-frictioned dry land, your tank will slide forward a bit before coming to a stop. With ice, your ability to stop, or even slow down, is greatly reduced.
Furthermore, it can take a long time for your tank to get up to speed. From a full stop, you will watch your wheels spin as you press the D-pad to the right, attempting to gain traction. To overcome this, you can jump, which will kick you up at the standard velocity, and allow you to gain some forward momentum in mid-air.
But once you’re up to full speed, you’ll likely be spending your time sliding, aiming, and jumping, rather than trying to come to a complete stop and then take off again, since it’s difficult to break the momentum. There are lots of precision jumps to be made, and pits of spikes to punish your lack of dexterity and mental fortitude. Missing a jump in certain areas will send you back to an earlier section of the level, and you’ll have to try again.
Once you get used to sliding around on the ice, the game intermixes some steel girders which are not slippery at all. And so, you’ll be inadvertently winging yourself off of ledges as your tank becomes twice as responsive as it was before, leaving you to laugh and laugh at your own ineptitude to control your vehicle on normal solid ground. You’ll then have un-learn all of the control quirks that you picked up in the level, since you won’t be using them for the remainder of the game.
A couple of other fun environmental hazards are lava and spikes. The game introduces lava very early on, and it is understood that driving into it will cause continuous damage. So, you wisely avoid this hazard whenever possible. However, in Areas 7 and 8, there are sections where lava or spikes line the entire floor of a room, meaning that if you accidentally fall to the bottom of a room, you can – in just a few seconds – find yourself suffering from an extreme case of No Longer Being Alive.
Yes, if you’ve successfully fought your way to the last couple of areas, managing your health and utilizing your special weapons properly, you will find yourself regularly facing near-instant controller-chucking mind-exploding death.
Navigation through the overworld works similarly to Metroid, in that you will traverse a horizontally- or vertically-aligned section, pass through a door, and enter a new horizontal or vertical section, with platforms interspersed throughout. And, as mentioned, there is plenty of backtracking and no in-game map. Areas 1-3 are adjacent to one another and can be accessed after acquiring the required powerups. However, to access Areas 4-6, you will need to travel back to the very first screen in the game.
Area 7 and Area 8 each require backtracking to different levels to enter. As such, an unassisted playthrough of Blaster Master is likely to lead to a lot of time spent exploring and checking every available path.
Moving about the overworld areas as Jason – which is not recommended, but sometimes required – you will find that he can be an effective fighter against certain enemy types, especially those that are low to the ground. Since SOFIA’s turret fires at a specific height, shorter enemies can get into the “dead zone” between the turret and the ground, and cannot be hit. These enemies will typically move straight toward you and ram the tank for continuous damage. For dealing with this situation, you can eject Jason into the fray to take them out. He gets damaged quickly when hit, but his health is fully restored once he gets back into the tank, allowing you to get in some hits on the enemy without too much risk to your personal welfare.
It should also be noted that “P” icons dropped by enemies will restore Jason’s health if collected by Jason, and will restore SOFIA’s health if picked up with the vehicle. This means that you can send Jason to scout ahead a bit and destroy enemies, then hop back in the tank and grab the health pickups. This is a particularly effective strategy if SOFIA is low on energy, and the “P” icons stay on the screen for a long time, so it’s not difficult to collect them before they disappear.
One word of note, however, is that Jason is easily killed by falls. Any fall longer than his standard jump will kill you instantly, so you need to be careful when fighting enemies near ledges, since taking damage will push you backward a bit. From a design standpoint, this was done to prevent Jason from getting permanently separated from the tank in the overworld sections, but it can be a painful lesson to learn in-game.
Exploring the dungeons has its own set of rules as well. For one, Jason can only fire in 4 directions. However, holding down the grenade button locks you in the direction you’re facing, allowing you to strafe. Some types of enemy shots can be cancelled out with your bullets or grenades, including some boss projectiles, so it’s best to fire continuously. And, even though your character sprite is very large, enemy projectiles can only hurt you if they hit the spot where you’re standing. So, bullets can actually pass behind your character’s head without him taking any damage.
An important note when it comes to exploration and progression is that not all dungeons have bosses. Each area generally has a handful of dungeons (some of which allow you to drop into different blocked off points of the same dungeon), but most of them are just there to allow you to grab powerups and/or further increase the amount of exploration you need to do to find the “real” dungeon. If you have a full stockpile of special weapons and a Level 8 wave gun, there’s no need to enter any dungeons except for those with bosses. Of course, this only helps you on repeat playthroughs, since the only way to determine if a dungeon has a boss is to explore it and find out for yourself. But as a rule, the boss dungeons are at the farthest point from where you first entered the area.
Destroying blocks in the dungeons sometimes reveals health pickups for Jason, or special weapon refills for SOFIA. However, destroyed blocks reappear if scrolled off the screen and back again, even sometimes generating a block that is 50% destroyed. Also, pausing and unpausing the game causes the blocks to reappear as well (collected powerups do not reappear). Often, this is just an annoyance, but it can also get you into tight spots because of the blind spot on the Level 8 wave gun. Pausing your game amidst a pile of destroyed blocks may leave you spinning furiously in circles trying to get the block directly in front of you to disappear.
Destructible blocks appear in overworld sections as well, with less frequency. They operate in the same manner, but it’s more difficult to get “stuck”. In fact, you can even exploit this trick to drive through an area and leave enemies locked in blocked off areas behind you.
One odd quirk with the game engine, which affects both overworld and underworld sections, is that enemies stop moving once they leave the screen. In many games, patrolling enemies can leave the screen, continue on their patrol route, and then return to the playfield. However, in Blaster Master, enemies scrolled off the edge of the screen will stay in that exact spot, with their initial vector locked in place. If you scroll them back onto the screen, they will continue moving in the exact same direction they were previously, at the same speed. This can cause situations where you’re chasing an enemy that continues to flicker near the edge of the screen as you move toward it, as well as situations where pursuing enemies will simply disappear because you got far enough ahead of them to scroll them off the screen. The only time when you are really at a disadvantage is if an enemy is moving toward you off-screen, such as falling down between platforms, and the only way to get them to register again is to force them to scroll onto the screen, possibly taking damage in the process.
Most of the enemies in the game are metallic and mechanical in nature, meaning that most enemies are gray. However, some of these gray enemies have red-tinted counterparts, which work similarly to the gray versions except that they are faster and take more hits to destroy. Some of these, like the metal slug (no, not that Metal Slug), can be real bastards, as noted below.
SPECTACLE ENEMIES (What’s this?)
There are a couple of unique enemies in the game which each make only one appearance.
First is the alien-looking head of the guardian that blocks the way to Area 2. If you encounter this enemy before receiving the Crusher upgrade, you will not be able to defeat it. Otherwise, blowing it up will allow you to pass through the wall leading to the Area 2 transporter. Once it is defeated, it never returns for the duration of the game.
The second enemy is in the Area 6 dungeon. It is a very peculiar-looking humanoid enemy that runs down from the top of the screen at high speed, barely giving you the chance to absorb what you’re seeing. Once it runs past you, it will run off the bottom of the screen, never to be seen again.
BASTARD CLASS ENEMIES (What's this?)
It should be noted that pretty much any enemy is powerful enough to kill you on its own, if you fall victim to its particular flavor of attack. Since you have almost no invincibility time after taking a hit, just about any enemy that can corner you and/or move quickly presents a serious threat to your health bar, and can kill you in a few seconds. There are, however, some enemies that are more bastardly than others, and there is one that stands well above the pack.
Metal Slug We’re only going to be calling out a single BCE because the enemy is extremely prolific and seems to have been created for the sake of cruelty alone. This enemy is the metal slug.
These slugs are introduced to you very early in the game, in Area 2. They are shorter than the height of your turret, meaning that if you don’t hit them when they’re falling down (they usually drop from the ceiling or a higher platform), SOFIA is useless against them. You can try to run from them. Oh yes, you can try. But they are fast, and they can hop up over small ledges and give you a decent chase. Plus, there’s often more than one.
If you can’t lure them off of a cliff or get high enough to avoid their sting, your best chance is to eject and let Jason deal with them on foot. As with SOFIA, the slugs will swarm Jason, moving quickly back and forth, causing near-continuous damage, and pushing him back as he is stunned. So, you have to be careful near spikes or ledges, and you have to be especially careful if you’re fighting more than one, since two of them can easily kill Jason with successive hits if you’re not careful.
To make matters worse, the gray metal slug has an evil (not really evil in the context of the game, but evil nonetheless) red-tinted counterpart that is the metal slug equivalent of an upgraded next-generation Terminator. The red-tinted ones move faster and take twice as many hits to kill.
Oh, and in some areas, there are claws affixed to the ceilings which drop red slugs like bombs. They can hurt you as they fall, and if you don’t kill them on them on their way down, they spring open into red-tinted death machines that hunger for your gears.
Did we mention that the slugs each have a single Berzerk eye that moves back and forth while it hunts you? Proof that robots are evil, as if you needed any.
The best piece of advice that every Blaster Master-er should heed before going in for a boss fight is to always have a fully-powered Level 8 wave gun. Or, you can simply rely on the most infamous trick available in the game: the grenade pause.
Generally, we wouldn’t entertain the notion of using a cheat to get through a game. But given the fact that this is probably one of the most well known tricks among Blaster Master players (it was in Nintendo Power and was even in the Blaster Master Worlds of Power novella), and given the difficulty of the game as a whole, it’s fairly reasonable to assume that many players who have completed this game used the grenade pause trick to do it.
The way it’s done is that you toss a grenade at the boss and pause the game as it makes contact. The grenade causes continuous damage to the boss while the game is paused (see, you’re returning the favor). After 20-30 seconds, you can unpause the game, and the boss goes bye-bye. However, you do still need to possess some legitimate skill, as lining up this death shot is not easy given the short range of the grenades, and precise timing is needed when pausing. Oh, and some of the bosses, including the final boss, are immune to this trick. So there.
One other point of note is that pictures of most of the bosses are shown in the back of the instruction manual. The text in the “Mutant Bosses” section of the manual reads “You must discover, on your own, where these ‘Mutant Bosses’ are. But we cannot show you the ‘Master Boss’ in stage 8. He is the most powerful of all.” There are 7 pictures shown on the page, and one question mark, leading you to believe that you’re seeing the first 7 bosses in the game, and that the final boss will remain a mystery.
In actuality, what you’re seeing are bosses 2-7, and the first form of boss 8. The brown mutant thing with horned shoulder-knees is the first form of the final boss, and is actually featured on the cover/box art for the game. The manual does not show the very first boss, which can lead to some confusion when you’re fighting it, since you’re not sure if it’s truly a boss or not. And the bosses shown in the instruction manual are not displayed in the order in which you will encounter them.
Plus, two of the bosses are frogs… and you supposedly got into this situation by chasing your radioactively-mutated frog down a hole. So, is one of those frogs Fred? Are you blowing your pet to tiny froggy bits? The game does not tell you (although the Worlds of Power novelization offers its own answer). Poor giant radioactive Fred monster…
When you enter a boss area, an alarm will sound and the screen will start to flash. The room will begin to darken, and the walls will fade away into blackness. You have until the walls disappear to change your mind. If you walked into a boss room underpowered or unprepared, you can walk out the door and back into the dungeon. But once the walls and the door disappear, you’re stuck in the room to face off against the boss.
Area 1 The first boss is something like a pulsating brain jellyfish. It floats around the room with a group of 8 pink brain satellites spinning around to protect it. All you need to do is dodge the brains and keep firing and you’ll be awarded with the Crusher upgrade.
Area 2 The second boss appears to be a representation of a male psychological fear known as the vagina dentata (you can look this up on your own). In addition to its oddly-placed teeth, it also has horns and giant legs with crab-like pincers on the ends. It will occasionally toss a volley of 4 white bullets from its opening while moving about the screen and flailing its crab arms at you to cause damage. Fortunately, its bullets can be absorbed by your own. Defeating it yields the Hyper weapon upgrade.
Area 3 Area 3 presents the most different and complex boss that the game has to offer. This is a series of bricks that materialize, move and/or shoot, and then turn pink and stop. The bricks can only be damaged while they are active, and the more you destroy, the faster they will move.
Once all of the blocks have entered the room, they will begin cycling, becoming active one at a time. They can move in any of four directions. Some will shoot a 3-way laser, while others will hurl a series of 3 spinning energy pulses. Still others will not fire at all and will simply activate, move across the screen, and deactivate. Any of them will cause damage if they hit you, and their unpredictable movement can discourage an up-close attack.
There are 2 strategies that will work equally well against this boss. You can aggressively attack each of the bricks as they become active, or you can simply hang back and take pot shots from a distance. Since the bricks will activate in the same order each time, you can stand close to one as it is about to activate and pummel it with grenades, leading to its quick and explodey demise. You don’t even have to wait for all of them to enter the screen; you can blow them up as they begin to materialize.
Or, you can just hang back and fire in their general direction, which allows you to easily dodge their projectiles, since only one can fire at a time. This is particularly effective if you have a Level 8 wave gun. Crushing your enemies unlocks the Hover ability.
Area 4 The first of the frog bosses (Fred, is that you?) jumps around the screen quickly, and can only be damaged when it stops and opens its mouth after every third jump. It has 3 attacks in its repertoire: a huge pink tongue that can lash out and cause melee damage, a set of 3 balls that are spit from its mouth and bounce down the screen, and a fireball which shoots in your general direction. Defeating it gives you the Key to Area 5.
Area 5 Here we have a giant enemy crab that moves to the left and right across the screen, shooting bubbles. Since the bubbles can be popped by your gun, and the crab never moves down the screen, you can simply stand at the bottom of the screen and shoot at it until it goes bye-bye, especially if you have a fully-powered gun. The bubbles do emerge faster as the boss takes more damage, but this doesn’t really affect the strategy needed to destroy it. Shucking the crab yields the Dive upgrade.
Area 6 The Area 6 boss is a palette swap for the Area 2 boss. This all-green boss moves a bit differently and has one new attack: a white ghostly blob of bullets that occasionally descends from the top of the screen. This boss guards the Wall I tank upgrade.
Area 7 Hey, it’s another palette swap, but the difficulty is at least increased. The original frog in Area 4 would only attack on every third jump, whereas the Area 7 frog can – but doesn’t always – attack after every jump, and he can move much more quickly, making him harder to hit. He shares the bouncing ball attack with his Area 4 counterpart, but now his tongue is made of fire, and he can shoot several fireballs at once. Destroying this giant mutant frog reveals the Wall II, SOFIA’s final upgrade.
Area 8: Plutonium Boss The first form of the Plutonium Boss is featured on the cover of the game and its box. It is essentially a stationary background with a moving head that tosses bouncing rocks around the room. The bouncing rocks can be deflected by your primary weapon so, like the Area 5 crab boss, you can simply stand at the bottom of the screen and continuously fire your weapon until the boss is destroyed.
Then, the final form of the Plutonium Boss is revealed, an armored knight with a flame whip. The knight moves quickly and somewhat erratically, and each hit from the whip will drop 2 of your health units, meaning that it can kill you in 4 hits.
It can fling its whip straight forward or at an angle, although there is a safe spot in the lower right corner of the screen which will prevent it from hitting you with an angled attack, and therefore make you untouchable for the duration of the battle.
After you have gotten in enough hits, the boss’ shield will begin to show damage, and eventually it will disappear altogether. Killing the boss reveals the game’s ending cinematic and credits.
Why this game should be part of your 2D heritage:
- A huge world to explore, containing both in-tank and on-foot sections with different controls and objectives
- A number of nuances in the controls add small details such as non-centered shots, inertia, and strafing
- Numerous gameplay-altering upgrades
- No password system and no save function, which means that you’ll have to beat the game in a single sitting
- Short invincibility period can lead to some quick deaths, especially when cornered by fast-moving enemies or encountering environmental hazards
- Some cheap hits, especially when entering new rooms
OK, before we get into the actual “aftermath” portion, it’s necessary to discuss a bit of fiction that was released in the wake of the original game. We are referring to the Blaster Master novella in the Worlds of Power series, which was a novelization of the events that transpired during the original Blaster Master game (and yes this novella is in the 8 Bit Horse library, and we ask that there be no questions on this matter).
The Worlds of Power series of books was intended for consumption by young adults and focused on several games that were popular at the time, with the intention of getting kids interested in reading by providing fiction based on video games. There were several books in the series, including novelizations of Metal Gear, Ninja Gaiden, Bionic Commando, and even (of all things) a Junior edition of Bases Loaded II.
These novellas contained generally throwaway stories that were largely fleshed-out retellings of the events that occurred during the games, and otherwise have no part in the history/canon of the games that they were based on. The sole exception to this is Blaster Master, the first novella in the series.
When Sunsoft was looking to revitalize the Blaster Master series with a fully 3D PS1 sequel, they went back to the novella and used it as the backstory for the game. As such, the events outlined in this book are now considered canon for the series. Also, all previous Metafight continuity was completely thrown out, and the game was released in all territories under the Blaster Master name.
So what was different about the book compared to the original game? Well for one, Jason was not the sole pilot of SOFIA. In the book, Jason Frudnick chases his pet frog, Fred, into a swamp outside of Batrachia, New York (Batrachia being the scientific name for an order of amphibians that includes frogs). There, Fred comes in contact with some radioactive waste – which is slightly more believable than having it in Jason’s back yard – and begins to grow to tremendous size as he jumps down a hole, where Jason follows.
There, Jason encounters SOFIA being piloted by a girl named Eve, who is actually an alien in human form. Eve tells Jason about the destruction of her planet by the Plutonium Boss, which had lived beneath the surface feeding off of Plutonium (its sole food source) and breathing methane. It has now come to Earth and is living beneath the swamp, building up power.
Throughout the story, the Plutonium Boss actually communicates with the characters by way of a booming voice, even going so far as to explain that there are 8 levels in the underground world (yes, he actually calls them “levels”, and there is at least one signpost telling them where the next level is), and each level is protected by an Underboss. Here’s a sample of the Plutonium Boss’s speech:
”Silence! I’ll do the thinking here! The defective tub of lard you defeated was merely a Mutant Underboss. Being the weakest one I owned, he guarded the first level. So save your bragging you simpering slush brain. There are seven more deadly levels, six more Underbosses between me and you. Somehow, I don’t think we shall ever have the pleasure of meeting!”
After defeating the second boss, Eve is kidnapped and Jason has to find her on his own. Jason eventually encounters a school chum of his named Alex Batoni. Alex seems to have suffered a similar fate when running into the swamp after his pet crab, Plutarch (no, it’s not a coincidence that the game also had a mutant crab as an enemy). Alex had also encountered Eve, but he was left behind.
With Alex’s help, Jason manages to rescue Eve, destroy the Plutonium Boss, and prevent the destruction of the world. With the underworld crumbling, the trio manage to barely escape in SOFIA, pets Fred and Plutarch make their triumphant return, and Eve goes off to live with Alex after telling his parents that she’s actually an alien, which was fine with them because they “love that kind of stuff” and because “Eve promised to tell them all kinds of outer space stories.”
Picking up years later, the PS1 game explains that Jason and Eve got married and had 2 children (presumably via interspecies erotica), a boy named Roddy and a girl named Elfie. Eve seems to have passed away several years prior to the PS1 game, and Jason passed away only recently, succumbing to injuries from battle. This leaves Roddy and Elfie to save Earth from destruction.
The pair upgrades SOFIA 3rd to a new model, now called the Sofia J-7. Elfie is the engineer who handles the maintenance and modifications of the J-7, and she guides Roddy as he pilots it beneath the surface blasting alien/machine hybrid creatures. The enemies are led by some great creature who may or may not actually be the Plutonium Boss from the original game/story.
Blaster Master: Blasting Again (or just Blaster Master in Japan) was developed by Sunsoft and published by Crave in the U.S. as a $10 budget title in 2001, after the PS2 had already been released. It keeps a number of the core gameplay elements of the original Blaster Master games, providing in-tank and on-foot movement, gun upgrades for Roddy (which also get powered down when he takes damage), and numerous special weapons and gameplay altering powerups for Sofia which visibly alter the look of the tank. Both Sofia and Roddy are played using a 3rd person perspective, with an up-close or long view camera that can be adjusted only in the Options menu.
Most of Sofia’s original upgrades are in place, including the ability to hover, dive, and climb walls (only certain walls, unfortunately), and even the Key makes a return (woo!). New to this game is the boost ability which allows you to increase your speed while depleting your battery power. Some of the special weapons make a return as well, including the homing missile and thunder abilities. However, homing missiles must now be locked on before firing, and the thunder ability now hits enemies around you instead of below you. Replacing the multi-warhead missile is a simple blaster attack, which fires a powerful bullet straight ahead. And new to this game is a defensive field guard weapon that spins around Sofia and destroys incoming projectiles. All of these secondary weapons can be upgraded by collecting pickups throughout the game.
Modern accoutrements include in-game and pre-rendered cinematics, the ability to save your progress, on-screen radar, and an in-game map that shows you where you’ve been as well as the locations of upcoming objectives, which are shown throughout the game by Eflie. This prevents you from getting lost, but also reduces some of the explorative nature of the original game, making it a more linear experience. And, of course, this reduces the feeling of Metroid-like isolation that the player experienced in the first game, since he now has a constant companion assisting him during his adventure.
Being a 3D game, Sofia and Roddy control quite a bit differently than their counterparts in the original game, and movements are somewhat less precise. Oddly, Sofia has been given the ability to strafe, but Roddy cannot (even though Jason could do so in the first game), which makes him somewhat cumbersome to control. Of course, the addition of a Z-axis means that enemies can come from any direction, and you’ll need to turn to face them. Sadly, there is no manual camera control or lock-on, so tracking enemies and navigating through platforming sections becomes more difficult than it would be otherwise. Vertical aim is now handled automatically, rather than giving the player direct control over the elevation of the turret.
One of the most interesting changes is the boss battles. Some of the bosses are fought on-foot, while others are challenged from within the tank. This adds quite a bit of variety given the vast differences between Roddy and Sofia’s weapons. Also new to this game are gauges in the upper-right corner of the screen, each of which represent one of the components of the boss. Depleting the energy gauge destroys the associated component, causing its function to cease, so you can actually weaken the boss as you fight it. The very first boss in the game has 18 separate gauges! Oh, and they brought back the fun Area 3 block boss, who is also the Area 3 boss here.
All in all, Sunsoft retained the spirit of the original game while bringing it forward to the 3D realm. As mentioned, the controls are less precise, and there is no lock-on or manual camera control, so there are definitely some major design issues that prevent the game from being a truly standout 3D title. And as with most of the early 3D games, you’ll have to be willing to bite down on some low-res textures and long loading times if you’re going to enjoy it. Still, it has remained true to its NES roots, and it definitely carries the feel of a game that belongs to the Blaster Master universe.