Default Game of the Year: Blaster Master Zero II

It’s tradition to spend December summing up your favorite releases of the year, and that leaves me in a bind. This was a very busy year for me, and I finished only one video game that actually came out in 2019.

However, that means something in itself. The fact that I found time to play through a game in an otherwise hectic twelve months is a high compliment, and Blaster Master Zero II deserves it.

Inti Creates’ Blaster Master Zero lovingly remade the original Blaster Master, an NES almost-classic in which players control a human hero named Jason both on foot and within his wheeled tank of a vehicle, Sophia. Zero took the best ideas of from its originator and reworked them with excellent level design, substantially better controls, and a refreshingly lack of enemies the Sophia couldn’t hit. It made the most of Blaster Master’s odd premise, sending Jason to rescue his pet frog Fred and meet up with Eve, an apparently biological android woman who originated in the Worlds of Power novel for Blaster Master (no kidding). Together they defeated a mutant-alien warlord and, provided you unlocked the real endgame, everything turned out fine.

The introduction of Blaster Master Zero II tells us otherwise. Eve was infected by a mutant strain during the final battle of the first game, and now she, Jason, and, of course, Fred are off on an interplanetary quest to find a cure. Now modified for space travel, their Sophia tank carries them between worlds, with Eve steadily weakened by the alien virus. It’s already overhauled her design from the original game, making her more gruesome in her appearance and more pandering in her figure. We’ll return to this point.

Blaster Master Zero II retains the unique centerpiece of the series: you’ll roll through side-view levels in the Sophia, but Jason can exit the tank to explore further or enter mazes. Within those labyrinths the game switches to an overhead perspective as Jason treads around and faces bosses on his own. With each discovery the Sophia gets upgrades to its weapons and parts: missiles, chargeable lasers, hoverjets, a blazing dash attack, and so forth. These help him reach new areas in that Metroid-Castlevania fashion that’s now familiar but was so novel back in 1989.

It’s no feat for today’s video games to evoke the appearance of an NES game advanced beyond its hardware, but Blaster Master Zero II is a good example of never going too far. It sticks with a practical look, even with all the screen-filling lasers and colorful palettes, and its designs use the Blaster Master ideal of small enemies to the fullest extent. It’s also true to the original game’s upbeat soundtrack, including a deep-space theme that recalls, of all things, the bonus levels from Alien Crush.

Not that Blaster Master Zero II needs your nostalgia. It’s a fantastic little adventure in its own right, sending the player across complex levels in jungle worlds, sparsely inhabited moons, abandoned spaceships, dualistic ice-and-desert planets, and elaborate references to older Sunsoft games like Ikki. Jason and Sophia meet up with fellow tank pilots, from friendly types to a mysteriously hateful rival, and each new world is an engaging chance to find new abilities and oddities. And yes, one of those oddities is a plant-girl pilot with literal watermelon breasts. Because Eve’s new measurements just weren’t enough for Inti Creates.

Zero II, like Zero before it, sheds most of the annoyances of the original Blaster Master. The Sophia still rolls loosely around star cruiser corridors and alien caverns, but the game design forgives it. While on foot, Jason can strafe easily and use a dodge-attack move that obliterates foes handily. His weaponry increases from basic shots to machine-laser fire and vicious energy blasts, and sub-weapons let him plant various explosives or hurl many different types of grenade. Either half of the game would be a substantial title on its own, and together they’re a marvel of old-made-new design.

One irritant lingers from older Blaster Masters, though. Jason’s weapon loses power whenever he takes a hit, and Zero II punishes players harsher than the first Zero ever did. It’s easy to drop weapon levels after just a few brushes with an enemy or a projectile, reducing Jason’s gun from a wide-angle blaster or energy whip to a puny and ineffective shot. Interestingly, the game seems to realize this halfway through, and it grants you an accessory that lets Jason hold on to his arsenal.

My other complaint? Blaster Master Zero II is unfair to Eve on several fronts.

Not trusting players to like her for being a plucky but secretive combat pilot, Inti Creates struck Eve with a crippling, gooey alien infection and bumped up her bra size. She spends much of the game in the Sophia’s back seat, either delivering advice and jokes or just lying unconscious while Jason grows even more determined to save her. The whole “moe” element, in which players are meant to fetishize and protect imperiled women, may never go away, but Blaster Master sure doesn’t need it.

And yet Blaster Master Zero II realizes this as well, and it tries to fix things. Explaining will involve spoilers, of course.

Upon confronting the final boss, the Sophia tank and Jason are turned to stone and held hostage. If you’ve located all upgrades and made enough allies, however, the twist emerges: Eve awakens all alone on a barren asteroid, and it’s up to her to rescue Jason. She brings a close-range attack and time-freezing abilities instead of Jason’s more traditional gun, and the game focuses more on puzzles as Eve makes her way through monster-filled caverns and finds a new way to fight back.

It’s a simple reversal of roles, but it’s one that games don’t use nearly as often as I’d like. It sends Blaster Master Zero II to a satisfying climax, after which it’s a little easier to forgive the earlier sexist sidelining.

I admit that I was never Blaster Master’s biggest fan in the past. I liked the NES game and found the PlayStation sequel underrated, but the series didn't become a favorite in any way. Zero and Zero II took me from that casual fondness to being a genuine fan, one who’s disappointed that there aren’t more Blaster Master Zero games and merchandise—or at least more promotional artwork of Jason and Eve just hanging out and having lunch. They’re adorable and I want them to be happy.

So this wasn’t such a bad year for me and video games. If I only average finishing one new game in 2020, I’ll be fine as long as it satisfies me like Blaster Master Zero II.

1 comment:

  1. Jean-Karlo8:02 PM

    Woof. Eve already made me feel bad given that she was just a support character/damsel in distress in BMZ1, I really don’t like the whole “Oh, we bumped up her figure for the sequel” thing they did. I remember when they did that to Lightning for FFXIII-3, which already felt kinda gross.

    I don’t begrudge IntiCreates their horniness, but it’s best if they isolate all of that stuff to the GalGun games.