Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Second Chances - Memory Log #25

Blaster Master

If you would have asked a teenaged me to name the one game I regretted not adding to my NES collection, particularly in the early years when I was forming my strongest bond with the console, I think my answer might have been "Blaster Master." Even though I'd been an NES enthusiast for over nine years at that point, I didn't know much about Blaster Master other than what I'd skimmed over in back issues of Nintendo Power and what the kids at school had told me, which was that it was a lot like Metroid except the main character was a highly mobile tank!

As someone who loved everything about Metroid, I was very much intrigued by the first half of that description but not so much the second, which brought to mind images of titles like Moon Patrol and those other vehicle-based action games I never really cared for. For whatever reason, there was something about the idea of traveling around a world in an armored vehicle that registered with me as so much less interesting than exploring it as a human character, so I concluded that Blaster Master might not be for me. It didn't help that none of my friends ever owned it (not even Dominick, who seemed to have all the "essential" titles), which would have been my only impetus to give it a fair chance. 

Oh, well.

Fast-forward a bit to the middle of 1995 and a rather ordinary summer weekend, when my parents and I were heading out to Staten Island for our monthly hair-stylist appointment (well, mainly my mother and I, since my father, who otherwise proudly advertised the fact that he wore a hairpiece, was only there for transportation purposes). We took the trouble of traveling from Brooklyn all the way to Staten Island for our haircuts because the shop we went to on the corner of New Dorp Lane was owned by the Catricolas, who were long-time friends of the family and always gave us a generous discount (like everyone else who treated us so kindly, they did it as a thank-you to my father, who was always helping them out financially).

They'd close their shop early on the weekends, so we'd sometimes hang around after we'd been trimmed--usually at the pizza place on the adjacent corner--and wait for them to finish before following them back to their house, where we'd make a day of it. Really, it wasn't so much fun for me, since any such day entailed hours of listening to the women complain about trivial nonsense ("Kids these days!") while my father and I watched TV, but it was all worth it at the end if only for the reward that would be waiting for me: The husband, Johnny, would go out and get Chinese food from this place I so fondly remember because of how they'd chop their spare ribs into three or four mini-ribs, making them much more edible and delicious (read: "well done," which is how I like everything cooked).

Such was true of this particular day, which had one specifically memorable event: Sensing that I was bored, the wife, Mary, requested that her daughter show me up to her room, where apparently there was a video-game system set up--an SNES, I assumed, since that was the console to own at the time. Not so; there was instead an NES resting under her TV, which I thought was weird. Now, don't get me wrong--I didn't think it was so odd that someone would have an NES on display in 1995 (I mean, we all did), but I considered it an unusual sight to see a technically outdated console standing all by its lonesome and not placed right next to one more current. "Doesn't everyone go out and buy the newest systems?" I thought, naively.

Certainly not Janie, who rummaged through her closet and pulled out a box of NES games. Before departing, she showed me which ones were her favorites and even made a few recommendations, creating a short stack of games she thought I might enjoy. And wouldn't you know it: The cartridge that stood atop the pile belonged to Blaster Masterwhich I was seeing in person for the first time. I still wasn't convinced that I should give it serious consideration, since I wasn't sure if I'd like it, but there wasn't much else in that box that I hadn't already played. But what did I had nothing to lose? So with the room all to myself, I decided to snap that cartridge into the NES, switch off the lights, and begin digging into Blaster Master.

I was immediately floored by what I was seeing and hearing. I absolutely loved the opening scene and the game's main theme, which I felt was every bit as brilliant as Metroid's heroic Brinstar melody. When you're an enthusiast for a system, you tend to gain this sort-of sixth sense that allows you to quickly spot all of the subtle signs that convey to you whether or not an older title is any good, and Blaster Master, only seconds in, had my classic-o-meter ringin' off the hook. I was just so engulfed by that outstanding theme, to which I made sure to stop and listen for a minute, and the whole atmosphere of the game--the whimsical sound effects, the tint of its detailed graphics, and of course that memorable mountain backdrop, which was instantly burned into my memory. There were even enemies that looked like Metroids, which I thought was a great tribute. (It seemed that every Metroid-inspired game had to have at least one enemy that resembled them.)

Even compared to Metroid, Blaster Master seemed so very vast and overwhelming; I had no idea where I was supposed to go, how to properly control the tank, or when it was most appropriate to switch between the vehicle and the diminutive hero, which I didn't even realize you could do until I accidentally hit the Select button while trying to pause the game. That Blaster Master also had overhead sections was further testament to the immense depth I perceived it to have, though I might have been more impressed with their execution had I not first played Rygar, which did it better. (Until then, I believed that Rygar was the only 80s-era NES game to attempt such a convergence of styles.)

It wasn't long before they called me downstairs for Chinese food, which cut short my time with Blaster Master. I'd only spent about 30 minutes or so with it, making little actual progress, but the impression those opening areas made on me was still astoundingly indelible. I'd call it a total repeat of my first sampling of Bionic Commando if not for the fact that Blaster Master appealed to me both aesthetically and gameplay-wise. I was so inspired by what I'd seen of Blaster Master--so enamored with the highly nostalgic, imagination-stirring world it presented me--that I knew I had to see more of it. So I did what was only logical: I avoided it for the next 19 years. 

I have no explanation as to how or why that happened, and I can only guess that my blinding interest in the upcoming N64 release had something to do with it. I wouldn't again have any meaningful contact with Blaster Master until the early portion of 2014, right around the time I started this blog. It's only since I've taken on this mission that I've gone back to address past mistakes and either finish up or rediscover all of those NES classics I originally missed--titles like Bionic Commando, The Goonies II, River City Ransom, and a few others I'll discuss in the future.

As for Blaster Master: Well, yikes. I'd like to tell you that Blaster Master stormed back into my life after two decades of irrelevance and belatedly grabbed itself a spot atop my list of all-time NES favorites, but I can't do that. There are no collection of words I could put together to even mask my disappointment. As I imagined it'd be, Blaster Master is vast and wonderfully labyrinthine, creative in how it handles Sophia's power-ups, and never ceases to be ambitious, but it's just too unfairly difficult to be enjoyable for too long. I don't know where to start, really.

For one, there's no way you're going to achieve victory if you can't find a reliable strategy for fully powering up your gun and maintaining it thereafter, which is an extremely cumbersome task; you'd better do it, though, if you hope to survive those overhead areas--particularly their boss guardians, like that second frog, which almost gave me a conniption. And bosses possess entirely too much health even when you do attack them with the best gun, which makes fighting one an overly stressful marathon. Also, the minor enemies have indecipherable hit-detection, making it unecessarily difficult to accurately shoot them with the stronger guns, which have inexplicably wavy patterns and are rendered ineffectual when fired near walls (this is what turned me off to Fester's Quest, which was created by the same people). It's annoying, too, how minor enemies are able to strike right as you enter the room, when you're still in the transitional animation and completely defenseless--a Metroid element they shouldn't have copied.

Overworld navigation, too, is hampered by a laundry list of smaller flaws that nonetheless accumulate to create a hellish spin-cycle: Since your field of view is limited and Sophia's default position is a bit right of center, the enemies that suddenly appear on the screen's edge  attack you before you can even react. There are these highly irritating worm creatures that are so small that they can sneak under your line of fire and hound you mercilessly, which wouldn't be so much of a problem if they weren't the game's most recurring enemy. Some rooms have so many enemies piled into them that the action slows down to a crawl, compounding the frustration. And once you attain the wall-riding ability, the game's platforming aspect becomes an absolute nightmare, the resulting control-confliction now causing Sophia to ride along platform edges and directly into spike pits and lava pools. It gets obnoxious.

And after all of that, Blaster Master goes and commits the ultimate sin of affording you only limited continues! What in the blue hell were its creators thinking when the decided that? Playing it with some type of restore function is a complete necessity. Even then, victory isn't guaranteed, since there remains the possibility of save-stating your way into an unwinnable situation (like having the weakest gun and one health unit against a boss who's been barely damaged). 

I could list more of my grievances in this space, but then I'd be leaning dangerously close to making this a full-length piece. I'll just summarize my feelings by saying that I can't imagine ever playing through it again.

But even after all of the suffering it's put me through, I can still say that I appreciate Blaster Master for its sheer scope and how its feeling of vastness so captured my imagination the first time I played it. Its finely rendered 8-bit terrain, which ranges from calm woodland to submerged caverns to bizarre alien habitats, makes for a truly memorable setting, and the encouragingly cheerful soundtrack imbues every inch of it with adventurous spirit. And that main theme remains one of the most fantastic chiptunes I've ever heard. It's the one thing that will always come to mind whenever I hear the name "Blaster Master" despite how much my feelings for it have changed since that fateful day in 1995.

Who knows--maybe a decade from now, when I've got nothing to do on a quiet summer night, I'll pop open a window, turn out the lights, and load up Blaster Master just for old time's sake. By then, those feelings of terror will have hopefully been washed away by time, my prevailing memory of Blaster Master one of that wondrous adventure game I played back in Staten Island when life was so much more simple. For now, though, I'll stick with Metroid.

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