By Evan Norris 02nd Apr 2019 | 1,154 views
When the first Blaster Master Zero arrived on Switch on March 9, 2017, it was immediately one of the best games on the hybrid. This was due in part to the relatively anaemic Switch launch lineup—game-of-all-time contender Breath of the Wild notwithstanding—and in part because of the title's inherent greatness. Even now, two years later, it still ranks among the system's better games. While its sequel, the awkwardly-named Blaster Master Zero 2, is not quite a great game per se, it is a thoughtful, fun follow-up that pushes the Blaster Master formula in bold new mechanical, narrative, and structural directions.
Set several months after the events of the first game, Blaster Master Zero 2 follows the unlikely threesome of Earth teen Jason Frudnick, the android Eve, and magical frog Fred. Last time, Jason, Eve, and Fred saved the planet from powerful mutants using the mobile tank SOPHIA III, but during the final battle the Mutant Overlord infected Eve with a parasite and the SOPHIA was lost. Unable to discover a cure for Eve's mutation on Earth, the party builds a new Metal Attacker (MA) tank called GAIA-SOPHIA which is capable of traveling through space to Eve's home world. Their journey takes them to several systems and planets also under siege by the mutant menace.
For a game that looks torn from 1988, Blaster Master Zero 2 packs quite a narrative punch. Developer Inti Creates had already mined the emotional capital from the symbiotic relationship between Jason and Even in the first Blaster Master Zero, but in this sequel the studio introduces several new pilot and droid duos, each with their own peculiar relationship. This serves a dual purpose: it widens the series' universe and it injects a good amount of humor and pathos into the proceedings.
The game expands its universe not only in terms of story but also structurally. Blaster Master Zero 2 remains an action-platformer, but its backtracking Metroid-esque formula has been replaced with several smaller maps, spread out across the cosmos. You won't be backtracking among biomes in a large interconnected map; instead you'll be going back among planetoids, planets, and other outer space destinations. Think of the transition like Metroid Prime to Metroid Prime 3.
It's a clever tack. The inclusion of many self-contained locations gives players the sensation of outer space discovery and allows for some thematic experimentation—small planetoids act as discrete puzzle and combat challenges, for example. The structure of the game, as a result, is more ambitious, but also more fragmented. If you're seeking out a Metroidvania title, this isn't quite it. Backtracking is typically the result of an assignment, not one of those rewarding "oh, I know what to do with this power-up!" moments.
Inti Creates hasn't just added interstellar exploration and brand new MA pilots; it's also tweaked the mechanics of the game. Just as in the premier adventure, players will alternate between a side-scrolling vehicular view when controlling SOPHIA and a top-down view when manipulating Jason outside of the tank. Each phase of the game has a new gimmick. First, GAIA-SOPHIA replenishes spent energy (used to fire sub-weapons and perform hover moves) by taking damage or by falling from great heights. This conceit is provocative on paper, but in execution it's not especially interesting. Because energy modules are easy to find and because the meter will automatically fill once empty, the game doesn't really take advantage of the mechanic. It's neither a restriction that demands clever problem-solving nor an extra layer of tactical depth. It's just sort of there.
Jason's new move, the counter, is much more desirable. The protagonist's top-down dungeon-crawling segments are all about fighting off mutants in 360 degrees, and brand new counters make the action much more exciting and strategic. When an enemy flashes an orange box, that's Jason's cue to press X to perform one of several different counters, one of which has him pirouette out of danger and fire a shot backward.
These novel systems notwithstanding, Blaster Master Zero 2 plays a lot like its ancestors—which is a good thing. The action is fun and fast, whether on wheels or on foot; boss creatures are giant and formidable; and upgrades come early and often. Toward the end of the game, and especially in the final chapter (you'll have to discover three special objects to see past the "bad" ending) things start to stagnate—repeat bosses, a flaw from Blaster Master Zero, begin to appear, and an extended scenario with a previously-unplayable character sees a lot of trial-and-error puzzle-platforming—but overall this is a solid action title worthy of the franchise.
On the artistic side of things, Blaster Master Zero 2 delivers graphics more sophisticated and music more diverse than its immediate predecessor on Switch. Those nostalgic 8-bit images and sounds are still here, but refined and polished.
Inti Creates' revival of the Blaster Master series continues. With novel mechanics, new characters, and an ambitious expansion of the franchise universe, Blaster Master Zero 2 ranks among the better indie games so far this year. Its fragmented structure and repeat boss encounters are downers, but its entertaining action-platforming gameplay is more than enough to outweigh them. Here's hoping for Blaster Master Zero 3.