In the early days of the Switch eShop, one of the first indie darlings to resonate with audiences was Blaster Master Zero, an enhanced remake of the NES classic. What began as an already solid remake quickly grew into something much more substantial thanks to a series of paid content drops and free updates that widened the scope of the game considerably with the addition of new modes and playable characters, demonstrating that Inti Creates had a vested interest in curating a new fanbase around the long-dormant IP.

Though hindsight is always 20/20, few could’ve predicted the surprise release of an original sequel, Blaster Master Zero 2, mere minutes after its first reveal on a Nintendo Direct, but fans were understandably ecstatic at the opportunity to further the adventures of Jason and Eve. Luckily, Inti Creates pulled out all the stops this time; Blaster Master Zero 2 rises to meet the high bar set by its predecessor and surpasses it in just about every way. This is pure, retro platforming goodness at its finest.

Blaster Master Zero 2 picks up right where the ‘true ending’ of its predecessor left off, with Eve’s body slowly being corrupted by mutant cells that will eventually kill her. The only cure for this alien affliction is evidently located on Planet Sophia, which is also the place from which Eve and the Sophia tank originally came. What follows is an intense race against time as Jason endeavours to cross the universe to save his friend’s life, encountering all sorts of opposition and turmoil as he learns that Eve and he are not the only android-and-pilot combo flying super tanks around the stars.

Compared to Blaster Master Zero, there’s a bit more of a focus on story here, with each new sector of the stars acting as a sort of chapter in the duo’s desperate adventure, and while the writing isn’t exactly what we would call stellar, it’s certainly a cut above the kind of storytelling one comes to expect from retro platformers of this ilk. Characters develop in sometimes surprising ways and the narrative occasionally touches, on a surface level, on some rather heavy themes, bringing a kind of gravitas to the narrative that’s much appreciated. Also, through conversations between Eve, Jason, and the various characters they encounter in their travels, the world-building gradually reveals the scope of the much larger universe this adventure is set in, setting the stage for many potential sequels if Inti Creates chooses to go that route.

Much akin to the story, the gameplay also picks up right where the original left off, ratcheting up the difficulty and throwing in a whole new wealth of gameplay improvements and additions that evolve the side-scrolling action in new and interesting ways. Rather than the large, mostly interconnected world of the previous game, Blaster Master Zero 2 takes things to the next level by offering a quasi-open world that places greater emphasis on player choice. The world is divided up into ‘areas’ that are separated by wormholes, and each area usually contains one ‘main’ world and a host of smaller, side worlds.

Once you pick a planet or ship to land on, you then take control of the all-new Gaia-Sophia tank in side-scrolling run ‘n’ gun sections that play like a bit like a slightly floatier version of Mega Man. On occasion, there will be sections of a level where the tank can’t go, requiring that Jason disembark and go it alone in his own platforming sections that usually revolve around climbing ladders and activating switches that can open new paths forward. It’s interesting how these side-scrolling portions highlight the disparity between Jason and the tank, as they really go a long way towards communicating the raw power and relative invulnerability of Sophia. When running around on foot, Jason is extremely vulnerable to enemy attacks, and jumping from what seems to be a relatively short height is usually enough to kill him outright; when you finally do get back into the driver’s seat of the tank, there’s a deeply satisfying feeling of relief to be found at the controls of a nearly unstoppable death machine.

Naturally, side-scrolling isn’t all that Blaster Master Zero 2 has to offer, as about forty percent of the gameplay is found in Jason-only dungeons that shift the perspective to a top-down cover-based shooter. Once again, there are plenty of improvements to be found in these sections compared to the original, most notably in how Jason now has a flashy counterattack that rewards risky play. When just about any enemy attacks there’s a small window in which a reticle appears above their head, and if you tap the ‘X’ button during this window, Jason will dramatically dodge out of the line of fire and respond with a powerful shot of his own. It’s the sort of mechanic that feels organically integrated into the underlying gameplay flow, making shootouts feel a little more skill-based while also allowing of the difficulty to go much higher while still being ‘fair’.

Dungeon designs have overall become more complicated in a good way, too, with the map layouts featuring interesting puzzles and lock and key situations that demand a bit more snooping around. Granted, these dungeons still don’t approach the kind of complexity that you’d expect to find in the Zelda games of old, but we appreciated there being a bit more meat to these top-down sections now and that the rewards at the end of them are often worth the struggle.

Whether playing as Jason or Sophia, level designs are noticeably varied and interesting, with each new area and planet bringing with it some new enemy types and environmental gimmicks to set things apart and keep the gameplay fresh. For example, one planet is divided into two by a series of dimensional rifts, which has turned part of the planet into a desert wasteland and the other into a frozen tundra; not only do you have to make sure not to touch any of those rifts – which will kill you instantly, tank or not – but navigating the two vastly different terrain types can prove to be an interesting challenge. Another planet is plant-based and overrun by some unusually aggressive bamboo which will actively block progress in certain places, creating an interesting maze-like environment that requires a lot of trial and error. You never know what to expect when you finally gain access to another area in Blaster Master Zero 2, and it’s to the game’s credit that it’s able to so continuously keep both the tank and on-foot section fresh with new gameplay variety every couple hours.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Blaster Master without a hefty amount of exploration, and Blaster Master Zero 2 does a great job of rewarding the player for going off the beaten path while also encouraging them to frequently backtrack to old areas. Throughout your adventure, you’ll frequently come across small maps that unlock new planetoids on the world map, which will be waiting for you whenever you opt to leave your current planet. These extra planetoids usually act as sort of ‘mini-dungeons’ that offer up a small, but focused set of challenges for both Jason and Sophia that usually end in you getting a health or SP upgrade or, more rarely, a new special weapon for one or both of them to make combat sections a little more spicy.

What’s nice about this new map system is how open-ended and non-linear it can prove to be; you aren’t usually required to go to any of these side areas unless you want to, but you can tackle them in just about any order you want and the rewards for taking that time away from the main story are almost always worth it. Plus, there’s a real sense of progress to be found in gradually upping your survivability and arsenal; many of the pickups along the way prove to be functional in more ways than one would expect, often subtly changing the way you approach the gameplay.

In terms of presentation, Blaster Master Zero 2 manages to surprise and delight; continuing the retro charm of the NES original and building on it in some subtle ways. It more or less looks just like its predecessor, but unlike that release, this one isn’t constrained by the limitations of a console that's over 30 years old. Worlds are much richer and rife with small details here, and the pixel art is truly astounding, especially in the boss encounters. One memorable boss harasses you from the background for almost an entire level, and both the boss itself and its attacks prove to be bombastic, colourful, and utterly scene-stealing as you deftly manoeuvre through the environment.

There may not be anything here that necessarily pushes the boundaries of pixel art, but it’s also difficult to think of many other retro-style games on the eShop that demonstrate a stronger grasp of the art direction. The same could be said of the chiptune soundtrack, though the music does tend more towards being forgettable. It’s not that there are any tracks here that are outright bad, but there’s also nothing nearly as memorable or iconic as the original game’s main theme; it’s the sort of chiptune soundtrack that’s just ‘there’.

Conclusion

Inti Creates has knocked it out of the park with Blaster Master Zero 2, improving on the original in nearly every conceivable way while also setting a clear path forward for what could hopefully become a flagship series for the company. Tight platforming action, memorable boss battles, plenty of extra side content, and some gorgeous pixel art make this one of the easiest recommendations on the eShop; we’d strongly encourage you to pick this one up as soon as you can. Whether you’re a long-time fan of the series or are just getting into it for the first time, Blaster Master Zero 2 is a stellar and enjoyable experience from stem to stern, and just goes to further cement Inti Creates’ legacy as one of the best developers in the retro gaming business.