Studio Pixel’s follow-up to the seminal Cave Story has been a tortured process. The one-man development wunderkind Daiksuke Amaya has been through a series of reinventions and trials through the many years of Cave Story re-releases, churning and dumping prototypes to avoid the weight of expectations upon his shoulders. Rumours of a sequel have rattled around the internet for years, concepts for new games thrown away without any public showing. Retro-tinged shooter Kero Blaster was finally released this year to little fanfare. The years have dragged through countless copycat games, the basic ideas behind Kero Blaster too well-worn to garner much excitement. It feels like Daisuke is shaking off the sophomore slump by releasing an EP rather than evolving himself with a new album entirely.
Kero Blaster rests in the shadow of disappointments, but still manages to be one of the best games of 2015.
You are a custodial frog, cleaning up the muck and grime for C&F Inc, a company whose only product appears to be work. Your boss, and the world around you, is succumbing to a mysterious evil – grab your automated, bullet-spewing, clean up tools and earn your minimum wage. From here, we all worship at the pixelly teat of Daisuke. Shoot your way left-to-right, jet packing around the varied killer bees, monstrous fish and angry refrigerators. Kero Blaster is dedicated to restraint in the face of its own goofiness, especially when compared to the sprawling exploration of its predecessor. Blast across the small screens until you reach the boss.
Luckily, that blasting feels near perfect. Neither too floaty nor too restrictive, every bullet is dodgeable and you quickly pick up on the perfect time to continue shooting on your descent. The two button controls become a natural extension of your finger tips. Learning the uses of the few, upgradeable, weapons in your arsenal is a fully intuitive experience. Twenty years of my video game experience synthesised atavistically into one of the purest examples of run-and-gunners I’ve ever played. My mind switched off, all that was left was the instinctive interplay between my controller and the littering of dead monsters.
Judging the game from a distance, there’s been a constant issue wrestling inside me. I’ve been critical of the trending retro-fetishistic deluge that Cave Story was partly responsible for, what makes Kero Blaster any different from the many imitators who replicate the past so shamelessly? Why does Kero Blaster leave me with a smile and a chiptune track still silhouetted across my day whereas something like Odallus: The Dark Call, a game which does more to separate itself from its forebears, leave me cynical? Somehow Odallus feels like a cheap mock-up of the past while Kero Blaster feels like a warm memory.
Kero Blaster‘s retro aesthetic isn’t merely an appeal to nostalgia, it’s genuinely the best way to represent Daisuke’s personality. In a lesser game, pixel art and NES hero worshipping come across as simply pragmatism or nostalgia bait. Similarly, the slurry of games lovingly mocking old-school story tropes are just jokey simulacrums. In Kero Blaster, the style, narrative and gameplay are all the ideal conduit for Daisuke as an auteur. There isn’t any copying of what we enjoyed as children, this game actually gives you those emotions again. How you remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles making you feel, rather than what it actually was re-watched through the bitter eyes of adulthood.
This presents itself through many minute details. Your frog’s celebratory image, his mouth wide open in joy. The adorable leather jacket he’s given to wear in the inevitable ice level. The cold opening of the title screen where you move the character to a ringing phone to begin your journey. How every minor character has a concisely drawn, loveable, personality. How every enemy burns itself into your mind by being so gosh-darned cute. The only accurate comparison I can make is to my dog-earned VHS of The Muppet Movie from when I was a child. The highest praise anything can receive.
My only complaint from when Kero Blaster was originally released was of the lack of any real challenge. Even for comparative amateurs like myself, the game could be breezed through over a weekend. The odd death at one of the captivating bosses was the only hint of any risk. The fresh Steam release fixes that with the new ‘Zangyou’ mode. It takes the place of a hard difficulty level, telling a new story of our beloved frog attempting to clear the world of the nefarious piles of paper-work that have been springing up.
This is more than simply ramping up the enemies on-screen or steroiding their health bars, ‘Zangyou’ remixes the entire structure of every stage – extra monsters, bosses, levels. There’s precision platforming to test your skill and bullet-hell bosses to test your reflexes. The more painful difficulty and even more cutesy plot turns Kero Blaster into a more accurate representation of what Studio Pixel was attempting to achieve.
If it seems like I’ve not spoken much about the base mechanics of Kero Blaster, it’s because there’s no need. You’ve played this game a thousand times before. It’s a run-and-gun platformer with pixel graphics and plinky-plonk music. But this is one of the purest, most addicting forms of that genre. It’s the best parts of Megaman and Contra distilled through the brain of a man who only wants to bring you joy, to make you feel that sepia-toned happiness you thought had ceased to exist. There’s a part of your heart that’s become calloused throughout the years, let Kero Blaster make it feel fresh again.
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