A recipe for a good old-fashioned shooter is actually quite straightforward. Take a vaguely sinister terrorist organisation with a remote base of operations (genetic experimentation is always a plus), stir in a brightly pixelated art style, sprinkle weapon upgrades, and always serve with a buff hero who shoots before he speaks.
Blasting Agent: Ultimate Edition is an indie title that champions this retro mentality, taking the run & gun formula and adding in some exploratory elements while keeping the plot nice and simple. The evil Black Hand of Fate has set up shop in a secret volcano base deep in Antarctica, and your mission as the blasting agent is to storm in and calmly negotiate their surrender – by blasting everything. Originally released in 2009 as a smaller title on popular gaming site Kongregate, the expanded and definitive Ultimate Edition has arrived on Wii U and 3DS for your nostalgic delight.
In true 2D style, the controls are little more than jump and shoot, with enemies to dispatch and a series of 6 expansive levels to traverse on your way to the finale. They're broken up into smaller areas separated by doors, which also save your progress like checkpoints. A non-linear layout is filled with optional paths to explore, and upgrades can be found along the way to increase the damage and speed of your weapon, as well as the maximum health of the agent himself. This really counts when the game begins ramping up the difficulty later on.
Though it's possible to speed through levels in a matter of minutes, a steadier approach is encouraged if you want to get the most out of your adventure. Optional piles of gold can be found scattered throughout the level, and collecting them will tally up a percentage counter based on how many you've found. Similarly, you'll be ranked based on the percentage of enemies you defeated, and acing these extra challenges unlocks new outfits and abilities for the hero. It's nothing too wild, but certainly enough to merit taking your time even when the difficulty is low.
With simple taps of 'A' and 'B' to jump and shoot, the whole game feels smooth and responsive to play. The blasting agent himself is nimble, and the ability to topple enemies with gunfire or a few quick jumps on the head is always satisfying. Levels are generally packed full of platforms and buildings to move around, whether you're out on the snowy plains or in the dingy depths of an underground lab, so you're able to get a good rhythm going and dart around while picking off enemies. A boss battle wraps up each level, with a diverse set of beasts to take on and with no two fights feeling quite the same.
Overall, unfortunately, the game does nevertheless end up feeling repetitive before you're even halfway through. Despite a varied set of locations and some solid core mechanics, if you aren't totally on board from the get-go then Blasting Agent won't do much to change your mind later on. It's an old-school title through and through, focusing in on a simple experience that unapologetically cuts out the bells and whistles in favour of something you can grasp immediately. If it clicks, then there's a really comfortable vibe to playing through a title like this, something that goes beyond pure nostalgia.
There's some frustration to be had, however, as enemies become bullet-sponges and fill the screen with projectiles that get more and more difficult to evade. On hard mode, unlocked by completing the game, this is amplified even further, so that easygoing nostalgia can quickly turn into a stiff challenge if you so choose. On standard difficulty the game only takes about 2 hours or so to complete, but mileage may vary depending on ability and whether you choose to dive in for a second playthrough on hard mode.
Visually it boasts clear - if basic - sprites and some detailed environments, but the real standout is the soundtrack. The music is punchy and effective, with songs to suit each environment and more than a few particularly memorable tracks to go back to. Sound effects are great too, topping off the retro feel nicely.
The differences between the Wii U and 3DS versions are minimal, but we did find that the Wii U version runs better than its handheld counterpart. The 3DS struggles to keep up as projectiles fill the screen, causing the framerate to drop far more often than we'd like. Although the sprites may look nice on the smaller display, without any 3D functionality it really isn't worth putting up with a less optimized version of the same game unless you definitely want your blasting agent on the go. Both the 3DS and Wii U also display a map on the bottom screen or GamePad respectively.
Blasting Agent: Ultimate Edition is like a little trip back in time to when graphics were blocky, gameplay was simple and story was almost non-existent in video games. It's got the look of a retro game, the feel of a retro game, and due to its repetitious nature, some of the shortcomings of the era as well. Without any particularly interesting mechanics or set-pieces to mix things up mid-game, it has to rely on its admittedly solid foundation of run & gun gameplay, which wasn't quite enough to consistently hold our attention throughout. That being said, what's there is still an enjoyable romp in its own right, and well worth checking out for fans of the genre.