As I prepare to dive down the Persona 5 rabbit hole for the next few weeks, I've been having a lot of fun dabbling in a couple of recent smaller games that are hitting my nostalgia nerves pretty hard. Specifically, I'm talking about Blaster Master Zero and Thimbleweed Park, for the Switch and PC, respectively.
Both of these titles are taking a similar approach in that they're plucking very specific references from gaming's past and doing new things with them. I'm a few hours into each at this point and am trying to decide how I feel about them. Maybe I can work through them a bit here and get some opinions from some of our dear readers.
I love the original Blaster Master. It's one of those games I played in my youth and it holds a special place in my heart. It takes me back to the NES's hayday, when every game we played seemed original and exciting, something we'd never seen before. Even though the story of protagonist Jason chasing his pet frog down a radioactive hole and finding a totally alien world underground made absolutely no sense once I thought about it as an adult, and was very different from the story told in the Japanese version, I had a fantastic time with it. The non-linear level structure, the combination of cool-as-heck tank combat and top-down dungeon shooting, and, of course, that killer music Sunsoft had such a knack for, all made for a game I poured dozens of hours into. I never did finish it, but I did manage to get all the way to the final level and master it to the point where I can still blow through the first five or six levels on muscle memory alone.
Second screen in the game and there's already a save point. Bah!
Upon first booting up Blaster Master Zero, I tried to keep my expectations in check. My rose-tinted glasses ensured that this new game would have to be pretty special to measure up to what I remembered. It turns out that Zero makes a pretty great first impression right off the bat. The first level is, as far as I can tell, exactly the same layout as in the original. So much so that, aside from the addition of pads laid in the ground to save your game (*shakes fist* back in my day, if you wanted to save your game you had to leave it on pause until you came back to it and hope your parents or brother didn't turn off the console!), I breezed through the first level without exploring or even opening the menu. Even the first level music is a decent remake of the track I remembered, almost as if I'd pulled it from OCRemix.
As I ventured into the second level, though, things started to change. I noticed additional dungeons, I stumbled upon a map (something else we didn't have back then, unless we busted out the graph paper and made it ourselves) that not only revealed where I was, but also marked more added dungeons where I could find special items that did who-knows-what. The level layouts and music began to deviate as well. As an example, here's one of the early tracks. You can hear the old Sunsoft sound, but there's also some clear influence from other game music of that era.
Anyone else hear the Batman and Mega Man influence?
At this point Blaster Master Zero is retaining just enough of what I remember playing as a child that it's familiar, but is changing enough that it's also a very different experience, and I can't decide how I feel about that. Some of the changes I don't mind so much. Adding more dungeons - and incentives to go explore them, which was totally absent in the original - gives it more depth, and changing the level layouts effectively means Zero could be considered DLC; new content for the game I know and love, and that is a great thing. Also, the boss battles have become more involved and exciting and the new music, while not the mix of classics I hold so dear, is still pretty darn good. On the other hand, some of the design decisions feel to me like they make the game a lot easier, and veer a bit too far from the spirit. Bombs are now a finite resource, your tank's hover power slowly regenerates over time, and while you still collect gun power-ups when you're in top-down mode and lose them when you get damaged, the gun powers themselves are new and you can freely select any one to use at any time, provided you've collected enough gun power-ups to retain them. Finally, that bomb pause trick we used to use on all the even-numbered bosses? Gone. That right there is enough to make me call shenanigans on the whole thing.
No longer a pushover with limited bombs and no pause glitch to exploit
I'm still playing and am trying to be open-minded. It's not that I actually dislike Blaster Master Zero; there's in fact a lot to enjoy about it. However, it's definitely causing the typical video game remake push/pull effect, where I haven't quite reconciled the changes and modernization it went through yet.
This game takes place in 1987. I mean, just look at that cell phone!
In some ways, Thimbleweed Park is starting off with a leg up on Blaster Master Zero. It too is built on the foundation of something old and beloved, but rather than reinventing something that's already a known quantity, it's using the pixelated look and SCUMM verb interaction of old Lucasfilm adventure games to make something brand new. In fact, if you didn't know any better, the only thing giving away the fact this isn't a game from the late 80s or early 90s is the quality of the character dialogue and soundtrack. But more on those in a bit.
From adventure game pioneers Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, creators of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, Thimbleweed Park is a point-and-click-fest that knows exactly what it is, and is very intentionally being very careful about the tweaks made in the interest of modernization, for better or for worse. It opens with FBI agents Ray and Reyes investigating a dead body in the town that is the game's namesake. Your job is to investigate and solve the murder by talking to people and clicking on everything you possibly can to Look At, Pick Up, Push, Pull or use a bunch of other verbs.
That clown isn't Krusty, but he sure reminds me of him
Adventure games never really went away. Telltale Games have re-invented the genre to great success, and games like Deponia and The Book of Unwritten Tales have kept adventure game fans happy in recent years, but none of those games has deliberately mimicked the look and feel of titles like Day of the Tentacle and Space Quest like this one. I've built up an inventory full of useful and seemingly useless items, I've used items on other items and given them to other people, and it's been kind of a surreal trip down memory lane. I'm really enjoying playing a new game in this style, especially since the game's writers have filled it with all kinds of references to other adventure games and fourth wall-breaking jokes. Early on, Reyes asks an NPC if he should save often, and she proceeds to tell him that this isn't really necessary with these games because they're made with no fail states. A convenience store clerk even admits to being related to Bernard from Day of the Tentacle.
Oh Nurse Edna, still as creepy as ever
Thimbleweed Park is such a throwback and a clear love letter to Lucasfilm adventure games of a bygone era that I'm very curious to see if younger gamers will have the patience for it's archaic look and feel. I haven't gotten stumped yet, but I've read that others have eventually hit points where the "using a completely random thing on another completely random thing" structure has made them bang their heads against their keyboards until stumbling upon the right combinations. Personally, that's part of the charm of it for me, as I'm sure it would be for many others my age. But I can understand why someone coming to this genre with a modern perspective might think it's just too nonsensical and obtuse to stick with.
For now though, I'm having a great time with it. The characters are wacky, the plot is mysterious enough that it's holding my interest, the writing is good so far, and the soundtrack I mentioned earlier is especially well done. It's all suitably light-hearted in spots and creepy in others, but never takes itself seriously enough that it loses the goofiness inherent to these kinds of games.
Such perfect pause menu music
I don't know if I'll have the time and patience to stick with Thimbleweed Park to the end, especially with Persona 5 arriving any day now, but I'd very much like to spend more time with it, as well as with Blaster Master Zero. If anyone else has played either of these I'd be curious on what you thought of them. If not, are they on your radar? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments.
Very nice! I'm really hoping that Blaster Master Zero hits other platforms soon, as I passed it up because I have as much interest in the Switch as Crabby and Mike have in digital gaming. But man, does it look nice! Does it address some of the issues that the original had (useless levels of weapon upgrades as Jason, for example)?
I completely forgot about Thimbleweed Park. Thanks for reminding! I think I assumed that it was just another indie game when I saw it on the front page of GoG. I don't have the nostalgia regarding the lineage of Maniac Mansion, but that won't stop me from enjoying it! Thanks, zophar.
@EngineerMike: Let me know what you think if you give Thimbleweek Park a shot. Although, it's digital only as well so you may not be up for it. And nice profile pic lol, very apropos.
@bombatomba: Have you tried a Switch yet? If not, you might be surprised. It's actually a pretty slick system and feels pretty great in the hand. The switching from TV to handheld and back is really fast and smooth too. It just need more games, like most Nintendo consoles. And yeah, Thimbleweed fell off my radar for a long time too, until I just realized about a week ago that it was finally coming out.
@bombatomba: From what I remember the gun power-ups in the original were useless just because the bombs were so much more powerful and you had an infinite amount of them. With Zero, having a limited number of bombs means you have to rely on the gun a lot more. The power-ups I feel are more useful, but tailored to different situations. Like, the flame gun is powerful but sweeps left and right in slow arcs. They're more interesting to use for sure.
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