Saturday, May 13, 2017

Modern Classics: Blaster Master Zero (Switch)

Area 5

And now we've arrived at the game's oceanic area (the "man-made water area," as Jason labels it). The music takes a melancholic turn, as it should; wistfully charged chiptunes always have a way of capturing that feeling of yearning that arises whenever one thinks of a serene ocean setting. Here it works to convey the desperation of the moment--how Jason and Eve would rather be in a better place. I still greatly prefer the original Area 5 theme--another of those 8-bit works whose nostalgic resonance I find arresting--but this new piece is a solid substitute; it does well to imbue the surrounding environment with nostalgic energy.

The area's basic structure is largely unchanged, as are the expected means of exploration. That is, the aquatically challenged Sophia has no choice but to sink down to the ocean depths; from there, it's up to Jason to exit Sophia and navigate his way around the underwater maze and its aggressive marine life. Interestingly, the standard fish enemies have been replaced by a new breed of finned nuisance that comes equipped with a diving suit and an arm cannon; they function about the same, but still theirs is a neat little alteration.

Oh, there is one major change here: Now prominent are long patches of currents that work to either aid or restrict Jason's movement. Part of the challenge entails figuring out which currents must be avoided, lest a series of them will carry you back to the starting point. Just for laughs, I suppose, the trolly designers include segments that force Jason to spend minutes crawling within the open spaces below wide-ranging currents. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that I was supposed to reunite with Sophia before attempting to progress through these segments. 

Special note: Nope--mine was the intended course of action. I don't even know what to say about that.

You stay funny, Inti Creates.

The top-down sections, too, are submerged, theirs scenes rendered through a cool watery filter. Though, I soon discover an even better atmospheric touch: Providing the terrain substance are the quivering shadows that indicate the presence of the aquatic creatures (schools of fish, manta rays, dolphins, squid, etc.) swimming around above us. I like to stop and observe their activity. One particularly grizzly scene entails a giant crab viciously T-boning a dolphin and presumably killing it, the act temporarily rendering all of the water in the immediate area blood-red.

The perpetrator was Hard Shell, our main boss for this area. This is the same pincered horror that haunted my dreams in the days following my rediscovery of the original Blaster Master. Though, my sense is that this encounter won't be quite as terrifying.

In fact, the battle conditions are completely different this time: Our fight occurs within Hard Shell's screens-wide domain, its innards arranged like a grid. Hard Shell scurries about its rows and columns, his movements mostly evasive; getting in some clean shots entails discovering his location and striking his vulnerable middle portion. He stops occasionally to emit streams of acidic bubbles--which negate your gunfire but in the process drop a bevy of replenishment items--or execute a swift charge attack. As the generous drops make it easy to maintain the Wave gun, I'm able to take down Hard Shell without breaking a sweat (and, really, I could have destroyed him in seconds had I decided to get in his face and mash like crazy).

So we trek about the underwater labyrinth until we find the Sophia-modifying enhancement chip that allows for her to freely navigate underwater; the accompanying boosting ability enables her to resist even the strongest of currents, which makes possible Area 5's full exploration. All that's left is to fill in all the squares and clear out the rest of the top-down sections--one of which yields the highly useful multi-directional, rapid-fire turret, which provides assist fire and in addition can decoy enemies. I use it to great effect in the battle against the giant fish creature Gurnahide, which succumbed so quickly to the onslaught that I didn't even get a chance to see any of its offensive maneuvers. So yeah--the turret will likely remain my sub-weapon of choice for the rest of the game.

And onto Area 6 we go.

Area 6

It's the slippery ice area, as expected. And oh no--the tougher-skinned versions of the worms are back, and they're as obnoxious as ever! As they're more numerous than before, I can going to have to be more liberal in my use of homing missiles. Though, I soon find a better option: my Maximum Shot main, whose scrolling blast has the vertical length necessary to prevent them from sneaking under Sophia's line of fire. No longer will these worms be a persistent menace!

The area's new gimmick entails freezing entire sections of the environment by entering into top-down controls rooms and interacting with their climate-controlling computer systems. Doing so alters the affected rooms' layouts in two essential ways: spongy water beds become navigable frozen terrain, and series of destructible ice blocks come to clog up passages, providing necessary platforms; therein, exploration requires carving a desired path through the ice blocks while hovering and maneuvering your way around enemies and deadly spikes.

The top-down sections more closely match up to Blaster Master's. They're mostly about slipping and sliding your way around enemy fire and patches of spikes; though, this version of Jason proves to possess much greater traction, so exploring these sections isn't as nerve-wracking (or as devastating to your health). Also, you can further neutralize their challenge by using your Flame weapon to melt away the ice covering the immediate surface! Very cool.

It's here where we finally catch up with our pal Fred, who we find has been incapacitated. The open wounds on his flesh give view to underlying machine parts, which draws from Jason a confused reaction. I think the implication is that Jason believed Fred to be a wholly organic creature, but I can't be sure; the writing here is too unfocused, as if the translator didn't understand the context and tried to cover for this failure by scripting the characters to speak in an ambiguous, often-empty way.

I continue to appreciate how they mix in some of the old texture-work, like the green girders ("columns comprised of green Xs," as I originally saw them) found in the ice area's upper portion. Reusing (or closely approximating) these assets is such a great way of memorializing the work of people who so many years ago labored to produce this unmistakably vintage artwork, which they'd be honored to know continues to resonate with us.

Enduring a chaotic battle with the Remote Blaster--a wall-mounted turret that transports about its labyrinthine chamber and targets Jason for successive missile strikes--nets me the Wall Climb. And as I guessed by gauging the option menu's display, using a designated button to activate the ability is so much more practical. Sophia is far less clingy than before, which eliminates the possibility that she'll start curling around platform edges and frustrating the hell out of me. Interestingly, it appears that Wall Climb is the game's only surface-cling modification, where before there were two (one for climbing up walls, and the other for riding along ceilings). I'm not sure how their being combined will affect my expected means of progression.

As goes the story: Eve has learned (or remembered) that Fred is a drone that was built to assimilate with the planet's creatures and search for the whereabouts of mutants. However, he couldn't stop the mutants from consuming all of the resources and leaving the planet in ruin. These same mutants once invaded Eve's home planet but were successfully repelled, though the destruction was massive. That's when her people created Sophia III to combat the mutants wherever they surfaced; they also engineered a support bot--a maintenance android--named NORA-2057, whose job was to repair Sophia. Not surprisingly, Eve then reveals that she is in fact NORA. 

Having informed Jason of this, she requests that he return to the surface and leave the rest to her and Sophia. He rejects her request, swearing that he's not fearful of the consequences of continued participation; mainly, he wants to be there to offer her support. Eve is touched by the gesture and happily agrees to continue teaming with him.

As I finish exploring the area and cleaning out its top-down sections, I come into possession of another cool Main weapon: the high-powered Cannon--an arcing shell that explodes with such force that it can clear away fields of blocks and even large spiky obstructions! Though, I quickly discover that it's best to be cautious while using it, since Sophia suffers damage whenever if she's within the blast radius. But being able to destroy spikes is big; having the propensity to do so will certainly alleviate a lot of the stress involved in navigating through areas that are rife with spiky obstacles. I'm lookin' at you, Area 8.

But first we have other business.

Area 7

Staying true to the original's routing scheme, my accessing of Area 7 entails backtracking through just about all of the previous areas and snaking around a certain set of zigzagging columns in Area 3. Negotiating the barrier requires a bit more effort this time; that is, we have to force open the columns by using our wall-riding ability to interact with a nearby wall-embedded conveyor-belt. As ever, our surface-clinging grants us access to the fiery zone.

While I was backtracking, I stopped at Area 1's previously inaccessible watery cavern and used my Dive ability to squeeze through a narrow passage and enter the area's last remaining top-down section. Clearing it out earned me that old Thunder sub-weapon ("Thunder Breaker") from the original. It's a more refined weapon this time around; it's especially useful in water, as its electrical energy disperses over a wide area (practically a screen's length worth of liquid) and fries all visible enemies! Nice touch. The boys at Inti Creates just keep surprising me with how they give so much care and attention to game aspects that we'd be apt to consider marginal.

Perhaps I'll put it to greater use here in Area 7, which I'll start exploring tomorrow.

The crimson-hued Area 7's is an ominous composition with a funky beat. Its tone isn't quite as urgent as the original's, but it does better to elicit feelings of concern. And it certainly isn't dishonest in its conveyance: the enemies here, most alarmingly, are super tough. There's a reason for this, which I at first failed to gauge: Their bump in resiliency is a condition of the area's newly implemented stealth element, which dictates that its intsectoid inhabitants patrol over designated areas with their activity-sensing cone-shaped tracker beams projecting out over a four-block distance. If you get caught in their beam, the alerted parties will go berserk--aggressively pounce on Jason while bombarding him with lasers. The healthiest choice is to avoid getting spotted--keep your distance and hover around them.

Area 7 also introduces a transportability gimmick wherein Jason needs to separate from Sophia and work to gain her further access by positioning her on lifts and manipulating their corresponding terminal. In some such sequences, he has to avoid the reach of spotlights (which, if triggered, seal off the immediate area and sic worms on you) and the previously mentioned insectoids as he scurries about from station to station. This is a fun idea; call it Example #122 of the designers building whole new systems around an existing frame--much like R&D1 did with Metroid: Zero Mission.

The top-down sections stick with the theme; patrolling them are numerous tough-skinned sentries who endlessly circle around specially carved structures. The stealthy maneuvering required here is comparable to what would be expected of you in a top-down Metal Gear. The consequence for getting caught by a pack of them is certain death. Of course, you can attempt to pick off sentries, one by one, by safely firing at them through walls, but that carries the risk of alerting every unit currently patrolling the room--of inviting those with favorable positioning to charge you from every angle.

I even lost a few lives here! Could it be that the game is suddenly spiking in difficulty?

Exploration in the side-scrolling sections also entails blasting your way through rocky structures and carving out a desired path to a goal. The trickier layouts require that you clear away an appropriate amount of space and then use your Wall Ride ability to tactically maneuver around and carve passages in the walls and ceilings. This is nothing we haven't seen in the original Blaster Master.

The last of the transportability sequences funnels Jason through a top-down section and eventually the area's exit point, where a giant skeleton dragon--another boss of the side-scrolling variety--is waiting. Jason's shots are too weak to even nick the dragon's exterior, so we can't possibly engage it; instead, we take to heart what the room's design is hinting and platform ourselves up a series of ladders and over to a terminal whose activation lowers down the Eve-controlled Sophia. After reuniting with my friends, I camp on the room's left side and assail the dragon from afar. As none of its bouncing projectiles or spewed charge-shots are a threat to me, I destroy it with ease.

Following its defeat, Eve informs us that the mutants' ringleader is hiding just up ahead, in the final area.

Area 8

We've arrived at the familiar purple- and orange-hued stronghold, but all is not as it appears. Eve and Jason deduce that we've actually moved to within the pulsating innards of an enormous mutant! Even then, the layout is entirely reminiscent of Blaster Master's Area 8. There are no special gimmicks here--just straightforward action.

Though, there are three minor differences: (1) Passages tend to be clogged up by stacks of cubical green mutants--some of which nest the globulous hatchlings that begin homing in on you when their protective cover is destroyed (Cannon shots can effectively clear away whole fields of green cubes, the powerful blast negating their ability to produce hatchlings). (2) Top-down sections are home to a new type of degradable slime enemy, the fanged mass breaking into two smaller slimes when sufficiently damaged. And (3) It's necessary to fully explore the area's southwestern portion and its lone top-down section, whose guardian, the Mother Brain-derivative Anti-Body cell, protects the key that we need to enter the ringleader's domain.

So it's final-boss time. Surprisingly, the expected wall-embedded alien is a no-show. Rather, we skip right to the whip-wielding knight (now called the "Underworld Lord"), whose weapon is now electrified. I've always felt that this towering humanoid fellow seemed out of place among Blaster Master's cast of animalistic mutants and chibified sentries. Apparently Inti Creates' writers agree with that sentiment, which is why they address the obvious incongruity by having Jason tell us that "This feels completely different from the other mutants!" Though the comment might go over the heads of most players, its inference makes a big difference to how we visualize this character; it both address an anomaly and creates the narrative substance necessary for us to wonder about his possible mysterious underpinnings.

This time, there's no need to cheaply camp in a corner and exploit his nonadaptive programming; he goes down pretty easily when showered with Wave bullets and turret fire. Of course, nothing could be so simple. Naturally, he then reveals his newly conceived "true form"--the fiery Multidimensional Overlord, who executes and expels all manner of scary-looking attacks (stalking, burrowing spikes; giant encircling orbs; short-range energy bursts; and maybe one or two others). Once again, I couldn't get a true sense of how powerful the Overlord is supposed to be, because he just as quickly succumbed to my deluge of Wave fire and my devastating Remote Blast sub-weapon, which prompts the surveilling Sophia to lock onto a target and bombard it with missile fire.

Well, that wasn't as climactic as I'd hoped.

But wait--apparently it's not over. What I thought were the end credits actually weren't. It was all a big fake-out, the tsunami of exposition and sappy mutual-aid dialogue exchanges the substance of a prolonged transitional cut-scene that concludes with Eve inexplicably rendering Jason unconscious via physical contact. She takes this measure because she knows of a nebulously defined nemesis called the "Mutant Core," which is supposedly too incomprehensibly powerful for him to confront. A while later, Jason awakes to find that both she and Sophia are long gone; all he has left is a memory of Eve's mentioning a "certain thing" that was still hidden on Earth. As if sensing Jasons' desperation, the hopping Fed leads him to the journey's starting location and ribbits opens another wormhole. Inside, they find an upgraded battle tank called "Sophia Zero." 

Responding to Jason's request, Fred opens up an additional wormhole that leads directly to wherever Eve and Sophia ran off.

Area 9

And that would be the cosmic, otherworldly Area 9, which Jason describes as "an amalgamation of a bunch of different things." Ah--one of those ol' recycled-content-heavy "chaos zones" that developers are apt to throw together when challenged for time.

I'm glad to see that all of my acquired abilities transfer over to Sophia Zero. The only obvious difference is that Cannon is now my main weapon--at least until my ammo meter is depleted, at which point I default to the basic turret shot. It seems that I'm now immune to the Cannon's explosive blasts, which means that I can fire away as recklessly as I want! In fact, I'd say that the enemies and obstacles found early on--particularly the returning skeleton dragon--have been positioned in a way that encourages a frenzied demonstration of my newly realized destructive potency!

That's not to suggest that the designers didn't get creative here. Nay--they still manage to surprise us with some inventive platforming scenarios. Notably, most of our navigation is done by hovering over to and across what look to be gravitational fields composed of water; therein, we have to use our buoyancy to weave our way around enemies and the unaffected open spaces.

Mainly, we want to find creative ways to access the area's three top-down section, all of which challenge us with mini-boss rushes. Defeating any series of bosses earns us one of the keys we can use to unlock the final path to the Mutant Core.

We arrive at the core--presumably the last top-down section--and find that Sophia has been corrupted by its essence, her shell now a mass of twisted mutant tendrils; inside lay a tired, injured Eve. Still able to communicate, she insists that it's too late to stop the core; not wanting to see Sophia serve the core as its destructive instrument, she requests that Jason destroy both of them. He reluctantly complies, and the big fight commences.

I begin spraying Sophia (now called "Invem Sophia") with bullets but to no avail; my offense is completely ineffectual. Turns out that this is a scripted battle; I realize this when I'm suddenly prompted to exit the room. Now it becomes an escape sequence in which I must backtrack through the vertical top-down section while being chased by Sophia; as I negotiate my way around enemies, rocky obstructions, and conveyor belts, I have to dodge her crippling cannon shots, which become more difficult to anticipate when fired from offscreen.

Upon making our exit, we enter into Sophia Zero and prepare for the final battle (I think) against the corrupted Invem Sophia. In an interesting twist, the battle occurs from a side-scrolling perspective. It's no surprise that Sophia III attempts to give us a taste of our own medicine--attack us with all of the sub-weapons and abilities we've collected over the course of the adventure. Basically her attack-cycle entails hitting us with three-directional missiles, spark tackles, thunder breakers, shield mines, and occasionally a devastating acceleration blast.

It's a chaotic battle of attrition (or, at least, I made it as much with my spammy offense), which I somehow win at the last second. This triggers a scripted sequence wherein we're prompted to exit Sophia Zero and rescue the incapacitated Eve from the cockpit of Invem Sophia, whose damaged appendages no longer restrain her. We're then instructed to re-enter Sophia Zero and administer a final blow to the mutant-corrupted Invem Sophia. One final barrage of Cannon shots and finally it's all over.

The cut-scene viewed in following shows us what's going on inside the mind of the unconscious Eve. Basically it recounts all events post-Multidimensional Lord from her emotionally confused perspective. When she awakens from this nightmare, she can't help but feel apologetic for how she chose to handle the situation. Jason consoles her by playing a message from Sophia Zero on his gun's communicator; it reveals to Eve that her parents, Kane and Jennifer Gardner, were the creators Sophia Zero, who he surmises was constructed to aid Eve in her quest to destroy the core. I don't what that explains exactly, but somehow it works to brighten her mood. That's fine; whatever works, I say.

In following, Jason and Eve put into gear their respective inferiority complexes and spend another several hours (or so it seemed) sharing some tender words (each exchange basically equivalent to "Nuh-uh--I'm such a complete failure, which means that you're the one who's special!"). Also, Jason begins to speak of a secret that he's been keeping from her, but then credits start to roll before he can spit it out. I hope that means what I think it means.

Sadly, the endgame activity doesn't terminate by displaying for me a Super Metroid-style percentage-total. Really, I was interested in knowing how close I came to achieving a 100% completion rate. No helpful math for me, I guess. However, a special prompt reveals that I have unlocked the "Unlimited Mode," wherein I can start a new mission in control of a fully stocked Sophia Zero! Neat. I'll be sure to check it out in the future--perhaps after I've played through the normal mode a second time.

(Special note from Future Mr. P: I actually did achieve a 100% completion rate. Doing so was what allowed for the story to advance after the Multidimensional Lord had been defeated. Had I failed to collect every last item, the game would have ended right there, and I would have gotten a bad ending.)

Closing Thoughts

Well, that turned out to be quite a ride. Just when I'd think it was close to over, Blaster Master Zero would surprise me with additional hours-worth of content. And none of it felt superfluous or lazily constructed. I was never eager to see it end; rather, my immediate reaction to the unanticipated post-Area-8 content was that of brow-raised delight. I viewed what I was seeing as a necessary supplement--as a welcome product of Inti Creates' well-earned license to put its personal stamp on a creatively woven, lovingly produced remake of a treasured 8-bit classic.

Sure--there was a period, early on, when I was disappointed with what I perceived to be Zero's strict adherence to the original's blueprint--to its prescribed means of level-advancement--but hours of play-time and some unbiased observation showed me that I was being too presumptive. Indeed there was wisdom to Inti Creates' approach, the realization of which hit me when I became aware of the fact that I was suddenly finding great enjoyment in material that I used to swear off in frustration. That's Zero's purpose. Its creators knew that before they could realistically entertain the idea of taking us to new places, we, enthusiasts both experienced and untested, first needed to experience Blaster Master in a more-palatable form--survive so that we might recognize its genius.

As I remarked earlier: Blaster Master Zero is Inti Creates' Metroid: Zero Mission. Here we have another case of a design team striving to retain an original game's all-important core while calling upon decades-worth of acquired knowledge plus a whole lot of creative spirit to embellish it and build an expanded world around it. In that regard, Blaster Master Zero is a highly refined portrait, and all of its interesting new gimmicks and inventively retrofitted platforming challenges, which I've raved about all throughout this piece, are its skillfully brushed layers of texture--the compelling substance that will surely help to render it more attractive to those who are normally repelled by those ol' 8-bit values.

Zero does almost everything better. And then it goes beyond and provides us more: more weapons, more power-ups, more bosses, and even a whole extra area! That's a considerable amount of content for only $9.99!

All I know is that I felt good about Blaster Master Zero from the earliest moments. It was fun to play, and its remindful vibes had the effect of warping reality around me--of texturing the air with a quality whose influence could almost trick my brain into thinking that I was back in Brooklyn, soaking in that 1980s atmosphere.

Yeah--it has its issues: The action in top-down sections can grow tedious when a gimmick requires that you remain stationary for several seconds at a time. Certain enemies' AI is embarrassingly unevolved. Boss battles are easily trivialized, which speaks to both the exploitability of the game's systems and the overly generous item-doling. And the writing is, well, painful (not really a big deal, but still--you don't need for elements of your game to project a sense of amateurism). So there's still room for improvement, and I'm certain that the guys and gals at Inti Creates will recognize as much; I have as my assurance Blaster Master Zero, which stands a symbol of their commitment to righting the wrongs of history.

Now, does my telling you that Blaster Master Zero is improved and refined mean that it's definitively better than the original? If you have the choice, should you absolutely play Zero over its progenitor? I always struggle with these types of questions--with trying to determine what it is that makes a new game better than an older one or vice versa. I mean, I admit that I have something of a bias; that is, for someone like me, who's been around the medium since virtually day one, it's difficult to resist the insidious influence of nostalgia, which is indeed a powerful force. A well-adjusted person would tell you that Zero is objectively the more polished and more playable of the two and call it the better game based on that criteria. I can't. I'm simply unable to ignore Blaster Master's vitally significant intangible qualities--like how it captures the spirit of a beloved era and so unfailingly stokes the imagination with its unmistakably classic 8-bit graphics and music--and what they mean to me. There's just no replacing that.

So let's leave it at this: Blaster Master Zero is where you'll want to turn if you're looking for an enjoyable, well-made modern remake that does an excellent job of celebrating an original work while correcting its most crippling flaws. That's were it excels. That's what I'm going to continue to appreciate about Zero as I replay it.

But it could never make me forget the original Blaster Master, even though I have some serious issues with it. For certain, I'll forever return to Sunsoft's epic for reasons that aren't as easy to put into words. In simple terms: Its highly desirable intangible qualities are absolutely irreplicable.

Still, I won't detract from the fact that Blaster Master Zero is a damn fine game, Inti Creates' reverentially crafted remake a fun, delightful experience from beginning to end. I'd recommend it to anyone. I hope it finds great success.

I think about Blaster Master Zero the same way I did DuckTales: Remastered, whose creators also sought to refine a classic work and therein bring it back into the public consciousness: I see it as a good launching pad for a reboot--for the series of amazing sequels the original never got. The DuckTales reboot I was looking for didn't pan out, unfortunately, but that won't deter me from rooting for Inti Creates to seize the same opportunity and aspire to build an enduring Blaster Master franchise. They have something good here, and it would be great if they were able to expand upon it further and in doing so reestablish Blaster Master as a major brand. It's not too late for that to happen--not even after 30 years.

And if that's what the future holds, I'll happily spend those years telling you about how I was there from the very start.

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