Sometimes, when things are going awry and the world finds itself in desperate need of a hero, only a bipedal frog armed with a blaster will do. Okay, technically it’s a company called Cat & Frog Inc. that needs assistance and our ‘hero’ is actually an employee, but why ruin the moment? Turns out C&F Inc. has made a name for itself in the world of teleporters, but when said devices start going offline it falls to one pixelated Kermit lookalike to strap on a weapon and put all this nonsense to bed.
With its 8-bit visuals and ubiquitous side-scrolling shooter setup, you’d be forgiven for discarding Kero Blaster as just another run of the mill throwback to one of gaming’s many golden ages. But this is the next game from Studio Pixel - aka solo Japanese developer Daisuke ‘Pixel’ Amaya - the man who brought the brilliant Cave Story to life, so you know you’re getting to be getting much more than a simple blaster.
As you’d expect, platforming and shooting are the bread and butter of Kero Blaster, offering plenty of options when it comes to battling its many enemies and bosses. You can fire your weapon indefinitely, but it’ll only fire in the direction you’re facing - effectively enabling you to move and fire in different directions if you're holding down the fire button. It’s the kind of navigation quirk that takes a little while to adapt to in more intense battles, but once learned, it becomes vital to surviving and - when you’ve really nailed its nuance - dominating bosses and enemies alike.
There’s no procedural generation here, and most levels are relatively linear in design (with a handful of ‘hidden’ area usually containing a chest, safe or other container filled with coins). While you only start with two hearts, three lives and one type of blaster, those shiny discs of gold are your ticket to better upgrades across the board. Thankfully, your bank balance survives even when you die, and with a shop for both weapon upgrades and permanent health boosts, there’s a tangible benefit - even for those that are struggling to beat a certain level.
If you want a new weapon, however, you’re going to need to take on and beat the game’s big bads. Some of the early ones won’t be all that challenging or memorable, but as the game progresses and new worlds are unlocked, those giant foes and the traditional single-screen arena you battle them in get progressively more complex. One level, which sees you fighting a giant whale, requires you to dodge electrical attacks both underwater and by leaping between platforms.
When you do unlock new weapons (which you can switch between at any time by pressing ‘L’ or ‘R’), you’ll get access to a refreshingly different set of offensive tactics. Your standard repeater offers a thin line of tracer fire, but it’s less effective underwater. The wave, however, can fire underwater and has a wider area of effect, but its range is limited. There’s even a bubble weapon that can float on water or bounce off walls. Learning which weapon works best in certain encounters is part of the enjoyable learning curve that makes this indie hit so much fun to master.
With plenty of water sections to swim through with your waterproof weapons and later levels that use a jetpack to offer a similar floaty form of navigation, Kero Blaster’s platforming won’t blow you away or rewrite your perspective on the NES-era side-scrolling shooter, but it’s solid and works well with the directional ballistics our froggy avatar can unleash. When you filter in the impressively vast roster of enemies you’ll encounter - which are often carefully placed in order to prepare you for the boss to come - you begin to appreciate the entire game’s seemingly simple yet consistently rewarding technical precision.
While it has taken a long time to reach Nintendo Switch - it first appeared on PC and mobile in 2014 - the authentic mechanics and 8-bit pixel art style have ensured that Kero Blaster doesn’t feel dated or out of place on a platform so accommodating to indie developers. With around three hours of gameplay for a single run it’s certainly a far shorter and more straightforward offering than Cave Story ever was, but there’s plenty of replay value to be had as you chase those later upgrades and appreciate the subtle humour of its story.
Four years on, and Kero Blaster is just as engaging and rewarding as it was when Pixel first unleashed from within the Japanese indie scene. It doesn’t just look like the classics that made the genre such a pillar of gaming three decades ago, it confidently recreates the deep mechanical prowess of Contra and its ilk, with just a sprinkling of modern persistent systems to make it more palatable to newcomers and replayable far beyond those first few hours of froggy firefights.