WedNESday: Blaster Master (1988): A Very (Very) Quick Review

See the source image It’s been difficult for me to find time to write an NES article lately but I felt I needed to get something online.  I decided on writing a very quick review of Sunsoft’s Blaster Master a Metroidvania action platformer released in 1988.  I’ve discussed Blaster Master before and have a certain nostalgia for the game as I think it was one of the first games of its kind that I actually beat, and I was absolutely captured by the seamless melding of genres: A platformer in the overworld, a top-down shooter in the dungeons.

In the game you play a kid driving a tank around a strange world.  Leaving the tank outside you are vulnerable, but you must enter dungeons to find upgrades and face each level’s boss, after which you will obtain an upgrade that allows you to traverse deeper into the world.  Each level contains distinct obstacles that require new abilities to overcome and the game uses difficulty progression quite well. The player is also forced to backtrack at times, with level entrances located inside of areas from previous stages that were inaccessible without specific abilities; a core staple of the Metroidvania genre.  The dungeons are short top-down action segments in which you control the hero as you collect gun upgrades to power yourself up before facing off with the level bosses.

I wouldn’t exactly call Blaster Master hard.  It is a lot like other titles such as Simon’s Quest and Rygar.  Once you know where to go, the game is actually quite direct and simple.  What saves it from mediocrity is that it is a well-crafted action game and it easily ranks among the best titles on the NES.  I believe one of the challenges a game like this faces at its age of nearly 30 years is falling into obscurity. Fortunately, Blaster Master Zero does exist for the 3DS and it is effectively a remake of the original, with a few improvements to the world to made the game longer and add some more exploration and depth and just add some necessary modernization.For collectors, Blaster Master is a pretty easy find.  It typically doesn’t run more than $10 and is certainly worth adding to any NES collection.  Chances are if you’re already collecting, you either have this one or it's on your list. For everyone else, the original game is definitely worth checking out on its own, even if you already have played through the remake.

WedNESday - Rockin' Kats (1991)

See the source image The NES has no shortage of quality action platformers.  Contra, Ghosts n' Goblins, the Castlevania and Mega Man series, all while being among the most well-known action entries on the 8-bit behemoth, only scratch the surface of the assemblage of titles that are really worth playing.  There are a host of lesser-known classics available that deserve their time in the spotlight.  So, let's start with a simple-but-fun title developed by Atlus in 1991 named Rockin' Kats, released on the Famicom as the cringingly-titled N.Y. Nyankies.

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In Rockin' Kats, you play as Willy, who is pushing pavement trying to rescue his girlfriend from a brutal mobster.  Armed with a spring-loaded cartoon fist, Willy can punch bad guys, pound the ground to bounce higher into the air and grapple and swing from ledges ala Bionic Commando, although the feel of the swinging is more akin to Ristar.  You select your stage at the start by choosing from a list of TV channels, and then you begin your adventure.  The levels are mostly standard platforming fare, but there are a few auto-scrollers, and we all know how great those are...

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In terms of overall quality, Rockin' Kats fits squarely in the fun-but-quaint category.  There was obvious effort put into this game but it does show its age a little more than something like Mega Man 2, with it never really taking any risks but still succeeding in providing a fun platforming experience that keeps me coming back.  It is the sort of retro game that naturally encourages you to improve your skill over time.  Some platformers, by the nature of their design, are more successful at this than others.  What makes Kats interesting is the grappling mechanic, which adds a layer of technicality that requires some skill to master and can open the door for some swift tricks to speed through levels and skip sections of each stage.

There are some notable differences between the NES and Famicom versions of Kats and it really just comes down to performance.  To me, the Famicom cart seems to play a little better.  This isn't uncommon for faster games or games that require a lot of timing as the Japanese versions can occasionally have slightly differing framerates and controller latency.  Emulation can often mask this, but if you play a Famicom and NES copy of Super Mario Bros. back-to-back, on-hardware, the difference is subtle, but it's definitely there.  The Famicom option is certainly worth going for here anyways considering the cost hurdle for the North American release.

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For collectors, the NES cart of Rockin' Kats remains in the gap between "very uncommon" and "rare".  It's a subtle place for games that aren't exactly hard-to-find on the market, but still fetch a high price due to demand (see: Fire n' Ice).  This game is sought-after and regularly brings with it a hefty $100+ price tag but you can generally find several on sale on marketplaces like eBay.  The Famicom cart is significantly-cheaper, though, provided you have the necessary hardware to support it, so for most serious collectors who focus on simply being able to play the game on original hardware over their collection's total monetary value, the import is probably the way to go  This is generally the case with very uncommon or rare games from Japan due to a lot of these imported games having been either shipped to North America in limited quantities (as was the case with Rockin' Kats) or ported very late in the NES's cycle after a majority of the gaming market had since migrated to contemporary 16-bit platforms.

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WedNESday: Tiger-Heli

Less than a year after its release, the Nintendo Entertainment System was a hot ticket item in the US.  Finally it appeared there was a savior for the dying games industry, which by 1985 had lost roughly 95% of all market value since its 1983 revenue peak!  After Nintendo almost single-handedly revitalized the gaming market by labeling the NES as an “entertainment system”, not a “video game system” (hence the famous “toaster” model not having a top-slot), more and more companies were encouraged to fill up the NES library.  For many publishers, ports of popular arcade titles seemed a safe bet.  Even during the games market collapse titles like Dig Dug, Pac-Man and Galaga were doing well on home PC electronics such as the Tandy machines and later the Commodore 64.  So, naturally the big brands who were limping along in Arcades sought to get as much of their software NES-ready as quickly as possible.  The question was, “How do we get all of these games ready for the NES by next Christmas?!”  Outsourcing, of course!  By 1986 (less than a year after the NES’s North American launch) there were dozens of ports of classic arcade games on the console, many developed by unnamed, third-party contractors.  Some were reworked from Famicom ports of arcade cabs that either had very limited releases in the US from Japan but others were pretty solid 1-to-1 ports of the most internationally-popular arcade games of the time; as best as the NES could manage anyway, due to the obvious hardware limitations of the console versus its arcade contemporaries.  Still, weaknesses of the console hardware aside, many of these arcade ports were very, very well done. Taito’s 1985 arcade classic Tiger-Heli received its NES port (redesigned by the short-lived Micronics) this very same year.  Micronics is an interesting company, having done NES and SNES ports of arcade games not only from Taito but Capcom, SNK and Activision.  They were not originally credited for their ports but Kazzo Yagi, the principal software engineer for Micronics, was open about the company’s involvement.  Nintendo, as well as a few of the major brands such as Capcom, felt that having the copyright owner’s label on the game (despite not actually developing the NES port) would help the game sell as many of the games they published from Japanese arcades actually did not receive a wide US release.

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Tiger-Heli is a very simplistic vertical shooter in the vein of Capcom’s 1942 (another Micronics port from the same period) in which you pilot a tiny helicopter through very long gauntlets of bullets and waves of enemies.  That said, I  believe Tiger-Heli is harder than 1942.  In fact, this is a prime example of “Nintendo-hard”.  Tiger-Heli’s difficulty stems from the slow-moving chopper you have to negotiate through scattering bullets and a global timer that often has all enemies on screen firing at the same time.  In terms of bullet hell games, this might seem like something that would make things easier, but not here.  You just do not move fast enough sometimes to get through the waves of bullets and your chopper’s hitbox is pretty large compared to that of other NES SHMUP’s.  

There are a few things to help you, though.  Your tiger doesn’t go “splat” on a single hit.  You have three health per life and when you are struck, bombs scatter around the place you were damaged, hitting enemies in a radius near where you were hit.  Powerups are also plentiful and include health pickups and support choppers who fly by your side firing either upward, expanding the width of your shots, or sideways to support taking out enemies who creep from the left or right.  Tiger-Heli also has destructible environments, so you can enjoy the comedy of flying over an unnamed suburban landscape and mindlessly blowing up all the denizens’ cars that are parked haphazardly in the grass near their tiny, 8-bit homes!

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Graphically Tiger-Heli doesn’t do much to impress.  It’s certainly more impressive than the endless waters of 1942 or the grey, black and blue anti-landscapes of Xevious, though.  There are just far more varied environments and slightly more detail to parts of the world.  This doesn’t stop things from getting repetitive, however.  Still, the game looks fine compared to its arcade counterpart.  In fact, the objects have an almost vector-style to them, a visual theme that was common in arcades at the time, but no so much on consoles.  The sound is also fine, but I hope you like the music you hear, because there are four songs you will hear in every stage, over and over again, and that’s it!  In terms of the sound, we are definitely not talking Konami-levels of audio variety and quality here.

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I would call Tiger-Heli a fun “score attack” game.  Pick it up and see how far you make it and see if you can improve upon your score.  There are two sequels as well.  The first, Twin Cobra, received an NES port but the third title, Twin Cobra II, did not.  In fact, the only port the final entry in the series ever saw was for the Sega Saturn in Japan that today ranks among the rarest and most valuable games on the system, and for the Saturn that is saying something!  Tiger-Heli on the NES though is a very, very common game.  You can typically find these lying in piles for a few bucks and, honestly, if you do not have it and you do see it, pick it up!  It’s certainly worth owning and is one of the better deals in terms of challenge and replayability in the “very-common” category.

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Review: Bleed 2

[et_pb_section admin_label="section"][et_pb_row admin_label="row"][et_pb_column type="4_4"][et_pb_text admin_label="Text" background_layout="light" text_orientation="left" use_border_color="off" border_color="#ffffff" border_style="solid"] Do you remember waking up early on a Saturday morning? Your parents are still asleep, you stumble downstairs into the kitchen and make yourself a huge bowl of whatever sugar rush providing cereal you can find. Plunking down in front of your television set, the sand fading from your eyes, the vibrant lights of cartoon action and wacky sounds engross your attention. With each bite you fall further into the void of childhood bliss. This familiar childhood dimension is where Bleed 2 resides. Bleed 2 is a fast-paced, arcade action game that never lets up.  Developed by Bootdisk Revolution out of Toronto ON, it is a follow-up to the 2012 release Bleed. First off, I have to give props to Ian Campbell and the rest of the small team for pulling this off. I love to see what quality can truly be produced out of a labor of love, and it is very apparent based on the dev blogs and just playing this game that there is a personal interesting in its development. Why keep you waiting, it’s time for my tried and true patented PSVG review breakdown!

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Story

The player assumes the control of young Wryn, the world’s greatest and apparently only remaining hero! You just had your latest video game session interrupted by space invaders bent on destroying the Earth! How dare they! Beyond this brief intro and some newsreel narration between each level, that’s all you get here. Honestly, you don’t need anything more. This game is not about the story, that’s merely a vessel to get you between each high-action and boss-butt-kicking sequence! Just jump in!

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Gameplay

Bleed 2 features 7 level with over 25 boss fights to take on. This is what the game is all about, the actual gameplay. Wryn has a couple different abilities that you will really to master (I haven’t yet), in order to succeed at this game: shooting, reflect bullets, triple-air-dodge, and slow time. Be prepared to have a ton of enemy fire coming at you all at once and you must chain together these skills to not only survive, but to also get that high score. Reflectable shots are color coded and it was always easy for me to tell what I would be able to reflect and what I couldn’t. After an initial control swap, the game feels tight and responsive. Any deaths were due to my own error and I never felt like the controls were to blame. I ultimately felt most comfortable with mouse/keyboard as I really needed that extra aiming precision to feel confident. Gamepad controlled equally as well on PC, I just did not care for the twin-stick layout.

Deaths may occur frequently, but at least on normal difficulty, the player has unlimited continues and can jump right back into the action where they left off. The key to progression is accurate control input combined with pattern recognition. Two very key components of this genre. Bleed 2 succeeds in this area. In addition to the story mode, players can also tackle arcade AND there is even a co-op option, which as of this review going up, your author has not yet experienced. Arcade is essentially the same game as the story mode, however, you only have 1 life and can claw your way up the leaderboard. New to mix things up further? The game offers 4 difficulty modes that swap up set-pieces, enemy placement, and boss patterns! Very cool stuff.

Bleed2_Review_2

With that said, I’m not sure there if there enough here to keep players coming back for more. I was rewarded with unlockable characters and weapons after completing the story and with it only taking around 45 minutes to do so, there is opportunity to enjoy this game repeatedly, but will they do so? I think this will weigh differently on each individual player. I personally would like to improve my overall performance and would love to be able to put the game through its paces on a higher difficulty. Will that drive you as well?

Audio and Presentation

Bleed 2 has a kickass soundtrack! That’s all I need to say. Each level gave me an accurate level of hype thanks to the tunes rocking in the background. Just watch this announcement trailer and you will get a pretty good idea of what awaits you:

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUloJK7nw7g[/embed] I’m very much reminded of classic flash games on Newgrounds when I play this game. Very gratifying, short bursts of action. The art style appears to be 16-bit pixels and I feel that it fits the game perfectly. There was no slowdown on screen and the game flowed nicely. The action ebbs and flows and Bleed 2 definitely does not take itself too seriously. Re-read my Saturday Morning Cartoon intro once more and all the pieces will fall into place.

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Final Thoughts

Bleed 2 is very enjoyable experience. The blast of music, colors, and action totally make this game a great palette cleanser to enjoy it short bursts. While it may not have the hooks to keep your attention in the long run, what you will be able to experience in short the term makes up for it. This is a great improvement on the groundwork that was laid during Bleed and I look forward to what this dev creates next!

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Quick Hits

+Gameplay             -Replay Value

+Soundtrack           

+Presentation

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Bleed 2 was reviewed using a Steam code provided by the developer. You can read additional information about PSVG’s  review policy on our disclaimer page here.

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