Thanks to the Dingoo Digital, I have the entire NES library in portable form. This has allowed me to go back and play some NES classics I missed the first time around: Metroid, Crystalis, and Blaster Master. Metroid was fun because it was the first (and doubtless last) time I drew out a map, which I found surprisingly therapeutic. And Crystalis turned out to be a Zelda clone that could hold its own. But it’s Blaster Master that I found most worthy of commentary.
In Blaster Master you drive around in a tank that jumps, a concept that’s such a terrific blend of NES logic and Japanese zaniness that it’s surprising there weren’t more games like it. You often need to venture out of the tank, where your character appears as an dishearteningly-small sprite armed with a pea shooter. Outside the tank you also explore dungeons, where your head is the size of your torso and legs combined. Guess the hero took too much Brain and Nerve tonic.
But the most memorable thing about Blaster Master is the story. The opening 10 frames of animation have been called one of the great scenes in all of video games, perhaps using the term “great” in the same way professional wrestling is labeled “great.” We see the hero’s pet frog (Fred) escape his habitat and wander onto a box helpfully labeled as radioactive. Fred naturally mutates into a giant, then leaps down a nearby hole. The hero (Jason) stumbles after him. At the bottom of the pit he finds an ultra-advanced (it jumps!) combat vehicle and matching suit with lovely pink highlights. And you’re off.
I’ll give Sunsoft credit, this is a story that stuck with me far longer than it should have. A four year-old could have come up with the idea in five minutes, yet it’s compelling just in terms of the sheer audacity. It’s so insultingly basic it makes Mario Brothers look like Brothers Karamazov. A few thoughts…
- Deus ex machina count: 1) radioactive material just sitting there, 2) mysterious hole down which to fall, and 3) alien super combat vehicle complete with form-fitting combat suit. Not bad for 10 frames.
- I enjoy the implicit assumption that Jason is going to fight to get his frog back. I guess on the NES you need little justification to fire up your tank and start jumping around and blowing stuff up like a total asshole.
- THERE IS RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL IN HIS BACKYARD. I think this is more important than a missing pet frog.
- Touching radioactive material = clichéd transformation. Merely standing next to it = no problem! Maybe the modern sequel can be one of those courtroom games in which Jason sues the Plutonium Boss over his “lazy” sperm.
- Look at that beater of a car they have in the garage! Is that a Cadillac? It’s funny how little details like this can date something that would otherwise (kind of) hold up today.
- Look at the hero! This is the epitome of 80s cool, what with the blue jeans and muscle shirt and absurd hair. Jason joins a rogues gallery of early Nintendo characters with ridiculous hair: Billy Lee, Ladd Spencer, and the unforgettable cool kid in the Legend of Zelda commercial.
When you pause the game, you are blindsided by the name of your combat vehicle: “SOFIA THE 3RD NORA MA-01.” Really? Who names a tank “SOFIA THE 3RD NORA MA-01″?? It’s like Sunsoft spent their story budget on the combat vehicle naming budget. I was ready to chalk this up as just one of those bizarre details of life that would never be explained, but fortunately Wikipedia has been steadily whittling those away. In this case, the original Japanese game took place on a planet called “Sofia The 3rd” which built a tank called “NORA MA-01.” This makes just enough incremental sense for me to be able to move on with my life.
As for the game itself, I can’t say it’s as entertaining as over-analyzing the story aspects. It definitely lived up to its tough reputation. I used save states to master the hardest parts (really, the bosses), then played through the full game without using save states. A pretty fair way to do it, I think. If you’re looking for a challenge you could do worse than this game, but you’ll get about 90% of its place in video game history by watching the first thirty seconds. And maybe listening to that great level one music.