The latest eShop release of Sunsoft's 1988 NES classic, Blaster Master, marks the title's third Virtual Console appearance. With the game previously sighted on the Wii and more recently the 3DS, now it's the Wii U's turn to host this side-scrolling and top-down platform shooter that has since spawned an entire series.
The western iteration of Blaster Master is considerably different to its futuristic Japanese counter-part, Meta Fight. Players instead take control of protagonist Jason, who lands himself in hot water after his pet frog, Fred, jumps down a hole into the depths of the earth. While in pursuit Jason stumbles upon an armoured tank, the SOPHIA, and so he takes it in his stride to unleash hell upon an army of radioactive mutants.
What makes Blaster Master such a special outing is its seamless but challenging mash-up of styles across eight levels – with each area composed of an overworld crafted as a traditional side-scrolling section, and multiple top-down platform stages featuring Jason alone. To access top-down segments, Jason is also able to exit the vehicle in the side-scrolling sections.
Beyond exploration, the primary goal is to defeat the mutant bosses hidden in the depths of top-down stages. These areas are relatively small – although, as already mentioned, there are plenty of them to explore. After a boss is defeated a new item to power up the tank is obtained, rewarding access to the next area.
In terms of survival basics, both the vehicle and Jason have a power energy gauge which displays remaining health. A separate mechanic for the tank is a hover meter, whilst Jason has a gun energy gauge that allows him to power up his weapon, but also reduces the weapon's power if damage is taken by enemies. Additionally there are various other items and capsules which enhance and replenish supplies, while improving the overall chance of survival. The player also has the ability to select between weapons from the start menu, which adds a minor element of strategy.
With so much on offer, completing Blaster Master can be quite a feat; the difficulty level of the game only adds to the experience with its ruthless nature. This requires the player to abide by a strict formula with well-timed jumps, pinpoint accuracy, and also display an understanding of the enemy in order to progress. This level of difficulty is thankfully nicely balanced with precise and responsive controls, and a smooth sense of movement when controlling both the protagonist and vehicle. The support of the Virtual Console's save state is also helpful, given the lack of in-game save points or even passwords.
Visually speaking, Blaster Master lives up to the average 8-bit release. Both the side-on and top-down environments have been appropriately themed, though the colour palettes don't look particularly vibrant on modern technology. The title screen, opening cinematic and boss scenes are also dangerously unpleasant with flashing that could cause a seizure. The music and sound is a redeeming facet, with a range of catchy tunes on loop, and oddly soothing beeping sounds when firing a weapon or jumping.
Blaster Master still stands as a satisfying experience. With clear-cut controls, a ruthless but rewarding nature and an obscure yet fitting theme (in more ways than one), Sunsoft's hit is a worthy addition to anyone's Virtual Console library – provided they are ready for a truly classic challenge.