As a hyperactive 6-year-old who had been exposed to the Americanization of Macross through Harmony Gold's release of Robotech, I was very obsessed with the idea of piloting my own giant robot. The thought that I could someday stumble upon a metallic giant that would be at my command was totally plausible in my developing, irrational mind.
At the same time, I desperately wanted a pet reptile or amphibian - turtle, frog, iguana, chameleon... it didn't matter to me. Maybe it was my love of dinosaurs, maybe it was the steady diet of TMNT - regardless, I really wanted some kind of cold-blooded creature to call my own. My parents, however, weren't so willing to allow me the responsibility of such a high-maintenance pet, which was quite the bummer to little ol' me.
How fitting, then, that I discovered Blaster Master around this time.
Blaster Master, a Sunsoft game for NES, fused my two specific desires into one heroic saga of man, machine, and amphibian. It shifted genres and perspectives, armed the player with a vast array of weapons and abilities, and exemplified the delicate balance of difficulty and reward in videogames. The spread pictured above was the introduction to a feature on the game from the third issue of Nintendo Power magazine (RIP), and the moment I saw the story and the screenshots, I knew I had to embark on this journey. Please watch the Youtube clip below, which details the story in its entirety.
That's everything you need to know about the story in this game. Boy has frog - boy loses frog - frog turns radioactive and falls down hole - boy falls down hole and discovers badass tank - boy ventures into underground, inner-earth realm to slaughter mutants and recover frog. The stuff of childhood dreams! What little kid wouldn't want to pilot their own giant tank, let alone save a lost pet? Or slaughter mutants in a sprawling inner-earth through two modes of gameplay that seamlessly merged different genres? It was like this game was made for me and me alone when I first learned of it. The funny thing is, this whole Fred-the-frog-business is not the game's original story.
When I was little, I didn't really get that a lot of the games I loved came from Japan, and had to be localized in some way, shape, or form, before being distributed to the North American market. To me, games existed exactly as they were, and whatever I was exposed to was the only version that could have ever been. I had no idea that stories were often rewritten, graphics were changed, and intro sequences were cut or replaced before many Japanese games hit the shelves at the local Toys 'R Us. Hell, I didn't even know what a Famicom was, or that their cartridges (aka, cassettes, as they're more commonly referred to in Japan) were completely different shapes, with much, much better label artwork in most cases.
Generally speaking, I feel like most gamers would agree that changes made to Japanese games during the localization process are destructive to the spirit of the original work, and Western versions typically end up being inferior. The first example that comes to mind is the missing introduction in the American version of Metal Storm, which features some very cool drawings of the M-308 Storm Gunner. However, Blaster Master is kind of a strange anomaly in that the regional differences likely contributed to its success in the West, considering its poor reception in the East. So what was Blaster Master before it was Blaster Master?
Chô Wakusei Senki Metafight, or simply Metafight for short, is the game from which Blaster Master was localized. Wikipedia tells me that the title loosely translates to "Super Planetary War Records: Metafight," and that the story consists of an inter-stellar war between tank-building scientists who survived the genocide of their home plantet, "Sophia the Third," and an evil dictator named Goez, who has conquered all of space and regards himself as a god. Awesome.
Except, the original story, as cool as it sounds, wasn't anything that new or special in Japan, or so I imagine. Of course, the same could be argued for so many other games, but considering the fact that this comes across as your run-of-the-mill Anime tale, I would expect that it simply got lost in the shuffle of competition. Since the Anime aesthetic was only popular in certain niches in the U.S. at the time it was released here, I'm not surprised that Sunsoft chose to change the name, backstory, and created something so utterly stupid to bookend such an enthralling adventure. But, I identified with it, so it worked.
The game's world is so vast for its time, that the regional context shift of perceiving the environments as inner vs. outer space made a significant difference to me. I had played so many games that took place in outer space - the thought of an entire world full of danger beneath our feet was something I had never thought of, let alone experienced. The environments were very diverse, and each area had its own distinct atmosphere, emphasized through skillful use of color palettes and music so catchy, I still find myself humming the songs today. Underground forests, fortresses, castles, robotic bases, ice caverns, sea caves... it was all so amazing to think that these places were linked underground.
I'm glad that the U.S. team kept the name "Sophia the Third" for the tank as a reference to the original story when the game was localized. I was always intrigued by this name as a kid, as it was such an unusual, ambiguous thing to call a piece of technology. It really helped define the tank as its own character in my mind, and the idea of it being deserted in an underground world full of monsters gave me a strange feeling of legacy behind its existence that was never implied, nor explained by the game's story. I'm very happy the tank's backstory wasn't written out in detail, because the lack of explanation contributed to my imagining of what was happening with Blaster Master, and added to the game's originality.
The thing that really made the game so original though, was the way in which it seamlessly blended platforming as Sophia, and the dungeon-crawling chaos of the run 'n gun levels. It really felt like you got two games for the price of one, but they were so perfectly integrated that shifting between separate modes was never jarring. In order to conquer each area in the game, you have to shed the armored safety of Sophia, seek the entrance to the boss' lair, and fight through hordes of creatures while avoiding traps and environmental hazards. Giant, terrifying bosses like mutant crabs and frogs are the masters of these levels, and defeating them without a powered-up gun is quite the challenge - that is, unless you know how to use the bomb-pause trick when and where it works, heh.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I never played the original Metroid until I was an adult, so Blaster Master was my introduction to the notion that the player could add abilities over time that opened up new parts of the map, and that levels in games did not need to progress in a linear fashion. If you wanted to get to a new area, you needed to defeat a boss and claim an upgrade that would allow your tank to progress to the next level. Driving on walls, turning into a submarine-tank, and hovering were all amazing powers that I had never before witnessed in any other game, and were all integral to discovering the path to the next area. The most notorious example of this is how you get to Area 4 - once you've made it through the first three areas, the game dead-ends. It was only because my nerdy-ass had read the Worlds of Power novelization that I was able to figure out that you had to return to the beginning of the game, and use the hover drive to float all the way up and to the left to a hidden area to get to the next area.
...God, that was a mean trick to play on the player!
This kind of sadistic game design is rarely seen these days. To be honest, I miss it. Sure, the frustration of having no idea what to do or where to go was torturous, but what you gained in making the discovery on your own was truly rewarding. Consider this quote from the game's designer, Yoshiaki Iwata:
"We wanted the player to experience the feeling of excitement that comes from discovering something after endeavoring through a difficult search, which is why we composed a map that allowed the player to move freely between different areas. We really put a great deal of thought into that element of the game design and, I mean this in the best possible way, but we wanted the player to have to struggle."
"We wanted the player to have to struggle." Well, if that isn't the epitome of what videogames used to be in the purest sense of the term, I don't know what is. A lot of people seem to give Blaster Master a hard time for it's difficulty, and I'll admit, it isn't easy... you have a limited amount of lives and continues, and some of the bosses get pretty brutal (the harest part of the original game though, an insane suicide-jump from one ladder to another, was removed during localization). But like I said previously in regards to Legendary Wings, games from this era rewarded you for what you were willing to put into them. They didn't baby you, and you didn't have the internet at your fingertips to instantaneously know all the answers. You had to talk to someone else who had figured it out, read about it in a magazine, or, God forbid, fight through it on your own. What you gained from that struggle was yours, and it was worth something.
Blaster Master's success in the West allowed Sunsoft to continue to release games in the series, with the exception of the terrible Genesis sequel - that stinker was made by the jokers who programmed Silver Surfer... (shudder). I recall playing a bit of the PS1 game, and it seemed pretty fun. I'd like to check out the re-imagining on Wii as well. But honestly, I know that nothing will come close to the original in terms of overall spirit.
Blaster Master is still one of my favorite games of all time today, and If you have not checked it out, I sincerely hope you give it a chance. It has a pretty important place in videogame history for a lot of people, myself included.
BONUS ROUND: Naoki Kodaka, the composer of Blaster Master's excellent soundtrack, worked on other Sunsoft games and helped them get noticed for the quality music that can be found in many of their titles. Below is a terrific preview of Blaster Master's music, as well as another soundtrack he did for Journey to Silius / RAF World, which just might be my favorite 8-bit videogame soundtrack of all time. Give it a listen!