How Blaster Master Zero Perfected an 8-Bit Great
By Jeremy Parish
The original Blaster Master shipped for NES in 1988—more than 30 years ago!—and instantly put publisher SunSoft on the map. It also became an instant favorite of thousands (if not millions) of young gamers, who found themselves entranced by the game’s vivid visuals, excellent music, and genre-bending multiformat gameplay. It was like a Metroid game where you controlled a tank, but then you’d hop out of the tank to explore top-down dungeons like something out of The Legend of Zelda.
Blaster Master also had a strange story, as well as some incredibly frustrating design choices, which combined with the limited continue system to make a game that few players managed to finish in the days before Game Genies and emulator save states. So when Inti Creates remade Blaster Master for Switch and 3DS as Blaster Master Zero, they had their work cut out for them: The need to recapture the fond memories so many players had of the NES game, while also smoothing over the rough patches to create something that plays more like people expect from a modern action game.
Unsurprisingly, given their pedigree, Inti Creates pulled it off. And then they followed up by creating the first-ever great Blaster Master sequel, Blaster Master Zero 2. Producer Takuya Aizu and director Satoru Nishizawa were kind enough to pull back the proverbial curtain on Zero’s creation and share their own perspectives on the NES classic... and how they remade it to meet and exceed fan expectations.
Limited Run Games: How did the Blaster Master Zero project come about to begin with?
Takyua Aizu, Producer: Around 2015, the first contact came from Sunsoft who inquired with us at Inti Creates about developing a game that would be a reboot of Blaster Master. At that time, we were in the thick of the development cycle for Azure Striker Gunvolt 2 and were very busy, so we told them that we would “consider it”. It’s worth noting that in Japanese business, “considering” a project usually means it will not come to fruition.
Some time after that, I had a meeting at E3 2016 with Mr. Sakakibara, a producer at SunSoft, where it was decided that Inti Creates would both develop and publish the game. On Day 2 of the show, I bumped into Sakakibara, who had a meeting scheduled with Nintendo of America at that time, outside of West Hall looking troubled about something. His meeting was scheduled at the Nintendo booth before the official show hours began, but he couldn’t into West Hall at the time because he had a normal attendee pass and not an exhibitor pass. I found an exhibitor that I knew, and with his help, we were able to get the person from Nintendo to come out to meet Sakakibara.
Later on, I spotted Sakakibara and the person from Nintendo kicking off their meeting at a café outside of West Hall. Since I hadn’t eaten breakfast, I went into the café to grab something to eat, and took a seat nearby and listened in on the conversation. I got the feeling that things weren’t going particularly well, and without really thinking, I ended up joining their meeting. That’s when the person from Nintendo asked me “Does Inti Creates have something to do with this project?”, and Sakakibara quickly responded with, “We had asked them to develop it”. This really piqued the Nintendo rep’s interest, who said that with Inti Creates’ track record with the Gunvolt games, if Inti were to develop and publish the game, it would turn out well. As a result of that meeting, Inti Creates became the official developer and publisher for Blaster Master Zero.
LRG: The original Blaster Master (Chou Wakusei Senki: Meta Fight in Japan) is a bit of a cult classic in the U.S., but how is it seen in Japan? Were the BMZ team members fans of the original?
Satoru Nishizawa, Director: To be honest, I don’t think the fact that Meta Fight was released outside of Japan as Blaster Master and that it gained the large fanbase it did was very well known among Meta Fight fans here in Japan. I imagine that it was some “Blaster Trivia” that only hardcore fans knew anything about.
As to whether people on the development team are fans of the original game, naturally there are some people who are fans from back in the day, but I would say a decent amount of the younger team members didn’t know anything about Meta Fight or Blaster Master before joining the project.
However, with that being said, we have a tradition here at Inti Creates: “Research a title more than anyone else, and become its new #1 fan”. So, after copious amounts of thorough research and analysis by team members, you could say that we developed this project working as one big “fan club”.
With the development of BMZ1 and BMZ2 in the rear-view mirror, I’m very proud to proclaim that there are no fans out there who are crazier about the Blaster Master series us here at Inti Creates.
LRG: The U.S. version of the NES game made a lot of changes to the plot that appeared in the Japanese game—how did you reconcile the very different storylines between regions?
SN: “A young man follows a giant radioactive frog (Fred) down a hole where he discovers a battle tank, takes the wheel, then embarks on a subterranean adventure!”
...To be honest, I really didn’t have a good answer when I first asked myself how I would remake this game, but considering the fact that what I just said is such an integral part of what Blaster Master fans imagine when they think about the story of the game, that no matter how weird I thought it was, the was no way on earth I could cut this piece of the story from the game.
With that in place, I was looking at the fact that Blaster Master was released after Meta Fight, and taking that into account helped me come up with the idea to use that as the chronological order of events for the story. I then went to the later entries in the Blaster Master series (the novel, the PlayStation game, etc.) to help figure out how we were going to introduce SOPHIA-III, Fred, the heroine Eve, and more.
I think that by doing this, we created something that is not a completely independent story that is based on Meta Fight, but rather a story that is a part of the Chou Wakusei Senki/Blaster Master lineage that fans of the series from around the world is able to enjoy. That’s about all I can really say on this one, so I hope that answer was sufficient.
LRG: Can you talk about the changes you made to the top-down sequences? Was it difficult to rebalance those portions of the game, especially their gun mechanics?
SI: There’s an in-game Gun Level mechanism that allows you to change the way you fire your gun (aka Blaster Rifle) and tackle the enemies and hazards in each stage in different ways.
Reconstructing the gun level system itself wasn’t all that difficult, and by the time we had the first prototype ROM completed, all of the gun levels were more or less completed, and fully implementing them after that went pretty smoothly. However, after the final tweaks were implemented, we realized that we went a little too easy in certain areas... Things like this always remind me just how tough it is make games, you know?
LRG: Exploration has always been a central part of Blaster Master’s gameplay loop. In what ways did you try to update that aspect of BMZ? What elements of the original game’s exploration did you think needed to be changed, and what was worth keeping?
SN: I think the most appealing thing about Blaster Master is the ability to ride an all-terrain battle tank (SOPHIA-III), discovering dungeons as you explore areas on the side-view maps, navigating those dungeons and defeating the bosses that lurk within to obtain new power-ups for SOPHIA-III, then enjoying all the new places you can explores thanks to those power-ups you just got. The side-view maps and top-down dungeon maps really complement each other and blend the gameplay well.
Even though times have changed since the original game came out, I don’t think any part of what I just talked about needed to be changed.
After that, while playing through the original game, I thought of features that I wished that game had and added those to BMZ. Features like new weapons, ways to make use of new stage gimmicks and mid-bosses, boss battles in side-view mode while aboard SOPHIA-III, and stage designs that would give the player not just the sense that they were advancing through the story but give them the desire to explore the areas/dungeons more—those were just some of the things I implemented.
At the end of the day, I guess you could say that not much really changed, and that just about everything was worth keeping. (I’d even go as far to say that if you added a save feature and a retry function, Blaster Master would be a perfectly enjoyable action adventure game even by today’s standards.)
LRG: Beyond BMZ, what do you think is the main appeal of exploratory action games? What is it that draws consumers to play them, and inspires developers to create them?
SN: I think more than simply “defeat enemies and progress”, what makes exploratory action games so appealing is the fact that you have to overcome obstacles and find ways out of increasingly difficult situations. It feels like the character and the players are growing and getting better together, which gives you the power and motivation to face even tougher challenges. As a developer, I dunno...maybe it’s the desire to create an exploratory action game that allows players to experience that ultimate catharsis at the end of the journey (but I’m really not sure).
Blaster Master Zero and Blaster Master Zero 2 will be available for preorder from Limited Run Games beginning this Friday and will be available through June 28.