Review: Blast Corps (N64)

Blast from the past

Long before the mainstream commercialisation of video games that exists today, developers were mostly free from the shackles of big business. AAA games weren't bound by "sequelitis" — although it was still very much present — and the relative youth of 3D gaming had paved the way for innovation. In this regard, Blast Corps is quite possibly the best example of this time. Developed by Rare for Nintendo 64 in 1997, it was unlike anything that came before it, offering a novel action-puzzle experience that was incredibly good fun and extremely stressful at the same time.

The goal in Blast Corps seems simple enough. A mobile nuclear missile carrier has gone into automatic pilot after it begins leaking radioactive material. The clever bods that built it thought it'd be a swell idea to install a nifty little system that takes over and sets the carrier on a direct course to a safe and remote detonation site, should such a dangerous malfunction occur. This would be a sensible idea were it not for the fact that millions of acres of heavily populated land exists between the carrier and its final destination. To make matters worse, even the smallest of jolts could detonate it and cause a catastrophic event. From the get-go, Blast Corps likes to throw bundles of danger your way.

What’s the solution to this potentially devastating problem? Call in a cutting-edge demolition team known as the Blast Corps and annihilate every single building and obstacle that stands in the carrier's way. Using everything from your everyday bulldozer to wacky robots and explosives, it's up to you to clear the path and keep everyone safe until the next Ragnarok event comes along.

Only Rare could come up with a plot so brilliantly absurd that it actually makes the game utterly enthralling. In order to prevent a nuke from destroying a sizeable, yet still relatively small, area of land, you seemingly have to destroy more, if not everything. The player is given free licence to destroy as much as they deem necessary without ever needing to feel guilty about it. This means that the elderly couple living out their retirement plan in quiet suburbia can't complain when you brutally demolish their cherished home just because it happened to be kinda near the nuke carrier. You're working hard to prevent a nuclear holocaust after all; you're a hero no matter how many innocent lives you ruin through your desire to cause wanton destruction.

Nevertheless, as much as the above may make Blast Corps sound like nothing more than a carefree, demolition-packed joyride, the game is in fact very serious at times. That nuclear carrier isn't waiting around for anyone and — surprisingly — knocking down buildings and blowing things up isn't as easy as it seems. That's because the Blast Corps company, the so-called leader in the field of demolition, uses a wide array of vehicles that look really cool, but are also rather impractical at the same time. Sure, there's the trusty bulldozer that mows down most small- to medium-sized structures with ease, but it's clear that questionable design choices were made when it came some of the other vehicles. For example, the Thunderfist and Cyclone Suit, two of the three robots available, must perform crazy acrobatics in order to obliterate buildings; it'd simply make too much sense if the blasted things could just walk up and pummel them with their giant robotic hands.

Of course, there's a very obvious reason for the vehicles being the way that they are and that's because if they weren't, Blast Corps would be incredibly dull. What makes it so entertaining is the fact that you have to master these vehicles and use them to speedily and efficiently to clear a path. From a game design perspective, Rare outdid itself. Each vehicle has its own style, and when you learn how to use each one to the best of its abilities it's remarkable what you can achieve with them. Some of these mechanical beasts are harder to tame than others, however; the more difficult ones are typically reserved for towards the end of the game, creating a nice sense of progression along the way.

Regardless of how the vehicles handle, the landscapes that you have to shape are what present the true challenge. Certain surfaces slow you down, thus preventing you from gaining the speed you need to go through a building; some objects can only be destroyed by timed explosives, while rivers and gaps present an entirely different challenge altogether. Suddenly all that free time you thought you had to rain havoc on your new suburban sandbox starts to become a desperate race against the clock. It's both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

While the ultimate goal of each mission is to clear the way, Rare did a good job of keeping things fresh throughout. As you progress, you find yourself having to switch between vehicles mid-mission, as well as having to occasionally think outside of the box. There are a lot of puzzle elements at the heart of Blast Corps, which only add to the surprising amount of depth this game has. In addition to using the main vehicles correctly, players must line up cargo trains and boats to create temporary bridges and use cranes to shift vehicles and explosives around. As a result, this makes Blast Corps a game of trial and error. Although an arrow and radar show you where you need to be going — and what you need to destroy — it never spoon-feeds you the solution. It can feel a little frustrating at times, but the difficulty level certainly makes a nice change of pace from some of today's titles.

The game features a number of diversions to help extend your playtime. You're also tasked with finding radiation dispersal units (RDUs), which are essentially lights that turn on when you drive over them, as well as communication relays which unlock new training levels and side missions. You see, for as urgent as the main mission may be, it doesn't stop the Blast Corps team from having a bit of fun every now and again. There are time trial challenges where you have to complete X number of laps or destroy so many objects within a certain time. Many of these are superbly designed, providing the player with a particular pattern or path that they need to work out in order to achieve the best time possible. It adds another dimension to the game, in which the main focus is different, yet still very entertaining.

In terms of visuals, Blast Corps is a little rough around the edges, most probably because it was a fairly early N64 game — it was Rare's second game on the system after Killer Instinct Gold) — but it's still charming nonetheless. The frame rate is rock solid, even when you're causing all kinds of carnage, and the explosion effects do a grand job of adding to the experience. Much like Pilotwings 64, the colour palette is quite vibrant and you never have to worry about fog or slowdown. What makes things a bit difficult, however, is the camera system. Adopting a third-person view similar to real-time strategy games, you'd think that Blast Corps would always provide the player with a good view of the level. However, things can seem a little zoomed in at times and you're often forced to manually change the camera throughout. This can feel a bit unwieldy, but more often than not you can get an ideal viewpoint.

In terms of content, Blast Corps is by no means the longest game in the world, but it’s incredibly challenging. Many stages will likely take you a good few tries, not to mention there are a wealth of collectibles hidden within each main stage. The game’s short mission structure means this a great pick-up-and-play title, and one which you’ll find yourself frequently wanting to come back to.

Conclusion

Blast Corps is a game that probably would have never had a chance in today's world of first-person shooters and plot-led borefests, so it brings us a great deal of comfort knowing that such a project got the high quality Rare treatment back in the day. This is a game that is still immensely fun to play all these years later; the concept is simple and novel, it’s highly playable, has great lasting value and can easily be enjoyed in short bursts. The mixture of puzzle-based and time-limited gameplay provides a unique challenge that even the most veteran gamers will find incredibly testing at times. The end result is absolutely smashing; if you're an N64 enthusiast, there's certainly no excuse for not having this brilliant game in your collection.