The original Blaster Master for NES is something of an oddity. The game is divided into two distinct styles. The primary style, where you control a rolling tank inexplicably named Sophia III, has excellent gameplay and amazing graphics for its time. The central appeal of the game is that you earn new abilities for your tank upon completing each area. However, all of the actual boss fights take place in the other style, an overhead shooter that’s passable but nothing special.
The tank gameplay of Blaster Master is, if you’ll excuse the pun, a blast. You can fire left and right as well as straight up, and the tank is highly mobile, able to jump and control itself in the air. You’ll eventually gain the ability to hover briefly, a fun mechanic that is unfortunately fairly limited in its applications, and by the end of the game you can drive on walls and ceilings. While these abilities are undeniably cool, they aren’t perfect. Several, particularly the wall abilities, actually make your tank harder to control, a limitation no doubt caused by the small number of buttons on the NES control pad.
For most of the game, the tank gameplay remains a lot of fun, and you’re rarely in much danger if you’re careful. The exception is the final stage, which is a brutal slog the rest of the game doesn’t really prepare you for. But on the whole, playing as a tank is what makes Blaster Master fun. The levels are cleverly designed with a lot of shortcuts back to the start (which are useful when traveling between areas) and some tricky layouts designed to force you to pay attention. They each have distinctive designs and most have excellent and memorable music.
The overhead shooter sections, by contrast, are frustrating throughout the game. This is due to the gun power mechanic. In addition to a life meter, your character has a gun meter that starts at zero. Each gun power up increases the effectiveness of his weapon, at least in theory. You’ll start by getting more distance on your shots, progress to a firing pattern where some shots veer off on a curve, and finally get two levels of sinuous wave shots. Unfortunately, every one of these levels is flawed. Even the top level, a devastating wave beam that shoots through walls, can be hard to hit things with consistently without a turbo controller. The non-piercing wave beam may be the worst of the bunch, as it is quite effective except in narrow quarters where it is basically useless.
Fortunately, you can also use powerful grenades. These are an important weapon, because the other problem with the gun meter is that it decreases every time you get hit. If you’re relying on your maximum gun power to take out a boss, getting hit even once will ruin your day. Grenades are always available, and always quite devastating. Of course, you have to get in close and have good aim to use them effectively, but it’s a skill worth mastering if you want to get far.
The challenge in Blaster Masters comes from two places: the bosses, and the limited number of continues. Aside from area 8, you’re liable to lose most of your lives fighting bosses. While each has a fairly predictable pattern, many require constant vigilance and precision dodging. As mentioned, one mistake will cost you your gun power, though in many cases grenades are your most effective weapon anyway. You get three lives per continue, and dying against a boss once can quickly cost the rest of your lives as you restart the fight with no gun power. Each continue sets you back to the start of the area and robs you of all your accumulated weapons and types of power. One failure can quickly escalate into a game over.
If you’re willing to put up with its considerable difficulty, Blaster Master is a lot of fun. It’s pretty, it sounds great, and even though it’s hard, it’s not unfair. The controls start off great, though they can actually get in the way by the end of the game. Hopefully by that point, you’ll be hooked. Then again, you could just play the excellent remake, Blaster Master Zero, instead.