Let’s take an in-depth look Blaster Master for the NES, an underrated action game with an unique localization history.
Fans interested in the history of video games are familiar with the days where Atari ruled the gaming scene. During the mid eighties the market became extremely over saturated. This created a situation where one bad video game could potentially collapse the entire thing. Atari’s video game adaptation of E.T. finally tipped the scales and sent the whole industry into a nose dive. E.T. Has erroneously been blamed as the cause of the crash and the subsequent death of the American video game industry. In actuality, the claim is a Post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. The industry was already on its way to a crash, and E.T. was just the final straw. This event still earned E.T. the title of ‘worse game ever.’
The video game market had crashed, and home game consoles, for all intent and purposes, were dead. That is until Nintendo capitalized on the disaster and released the Nintendo Entertainment System in the West. Nintendo’s success ushered in a golden era of video gaming; perhaps the most important era of gaming of all time. To make a long story short, Nintendo’s system saved the video game market. I grew up in this golden age of gaming, and enjoyed the Mario games and Mega Man games, just like my peers. But, there’s a game that stuck with me throughout the years as my favorite NES game: Blaster Master, developed by Sunsoft. This game isn’t only worth looking into because of it’s unique game play mechanics, but because of its interesting localization history.
Blaster Master’s Gameplay
Blaster Master is a platforming shooter. You start out in a tank, named Sophia the 3rd , with the ability to shoot enemies and jump around. If you press the select button the character, Jason, will jump out of the tank and can be controlled independently. The tank will stay in the place you left it until you jump back in. The levels are littered with smaller entryways that can only be accessed as Jason. Once inside, the game’s perspective shifts to a top down shooter. The meshing of these two types of perspectives gave the game an immense depth I never seen in a NES game until then; it created an actual living, breathing planet. The game also wasn’t linear at all.
Blaster Master’s world has much in common with Metroid. There is not a linear path to follow, instead the game encourages exploration. There are some overhead areas that lead to nothing but a few power-up items. It takes a lot of exploration to find out where exactly to go.
Jason can collect gun items and increase the firepower of his weapon. It starts out as a measly pea shooter, but when fully upgraded it becomes a very powerful spread gun. If Jason takes any damage, the gun becomes downgraded. This is a pretty cool feature that makes sure that you are never too overpowered. There are a couple of rooms where you can farm for the gun enhancements, but you still have to be careful. All your upgrades can easily be taken away if you misstep a litte. He also comes equipped with an unlimited supply of grenades. When thrown, the grenades explode on impact several pixels in front of Jason. While powerful and essential to defeating the bosses, it takes some skill to make sure the grenades will land in the correct area.
The goal of each level is to find the boss. Once the boss is defeated, you are rewarded with an enhancement for Sophia the 3rd, which will help you reach the next area. For example, in the first stage, there’s a wall blocking the exit. You can’t destroy the wall until you get a missile power up from the first boss. Like Metrod games, Blaster Master requires a bit of back tracking to complete. But why is Jason here in the first place? This is where it gets intriguing.
Discussing the story of the game is a little more complicated. The Japanese and the Western versions have completely different story lines, but the exact same game play. It’ll be useful to discuss the Japanese version first.
In Japan, Blaster Master is known as Chō Wakusei Senki: Meta Fight or Super Planetary War Records: Meta Fight. The main character is named Kane Gardner, and the tank is called Metal Attacker. Kane finds himself as the Metal Attacker’s pilot in the midst of a galactic battle. His home planet, Sophia the 3rd, is being invaded by evil emperor Goez and his forces. The Metal Attacker and Kane are the last hope to turn away the invasion. From the aforementioned information, one can already see some of the differences in both releases. In the West, Sophia the 3rd became the name of the tank instead of a planet, and Jason was the main protagonist instead of Kane. The story described in Meta Fight’s game manual is pretty involved and epic, as a whole planet’s fate hangs in the balance. The Metal Attacker was built on a nearby satellite in a last ditch effort to fight off an evil emperor who calls himself the “God of the Universe.” It’s all pretty high stakes, anime esque stuff. The fact that Meta Fight has no reference to a contemporary setting, or Earth makes the localization even more mind boggling.
Back to Jason. Blaster Master takes place in New York. Teenage Jason Frudnick is the proud owner of a pet frog named Fred. Suddenly, the frog decides that he doesn’t want to be a pet anymore and escapes through an open window. Jason gives chase and witnesses Fred touching a radioactive chest and growing into an giant frog. Immediately after, Fred and the radioactive chest fall into the ground. Jason does the only sensible thing in this situation and jumps down the newly formed tunnel. At the bottom, he finds the tank, Sophia the 3rd. Jason takes it upon himself to wage war on the radioactive beasts that dwell underneath the earth’s crust. It’s up to him to take down their leader, The Plutonium Boss.
The localization not only changed the entire story, it added an entire new opening sequence. When you turn on Meta Fight and press start, you are greeted with a quick introduction of the Metal Attacker blasting off from Nora to Sophia the 3rd below. In Blaster Master, we are treated to a cool slide show introduction, with some haunting music. It’s usually fruitless to point out plot inaccuracies in a game made before narratives were a priority, but I still cannot figure out why the plot was changed so dramatically from its source material. Meta Fight’s plot was definitely not a story for the ages, but it still made sense within the context and aesthetics of the game’s world. Jason has no investment in the fight other than finding his pet frog, and somehow Sophia the 3rd was just sitting underground with a flight suit available. Even though this is the first time Jason ever saw Sophia the 3rd, he’s somehow an expert pilot. Despite these small issues, a teenage kid fighting radioactive monsters to find his pet frog was quirky enough to stick out in many minds, even retconning the rest of the series.
Changes to video games created in Japan are nothing new. A lot of religious imagery had to be erased from the Castlevania games before it can be sold in the United States. Nintendo of America has a strong stance on religious and potentially provocative imagery. Devil World, a competent puzzle maze game designed by Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka never made it to America’s shores because of the imagery of crosses and bibles. However, Devil World did see a European PAL release. These distinctions made the localization of Blaster Master even more unique as the original game featured no imagery that would usually warrant censorship by Nintendo of America. In the end, the story of Jason and his frog would eventually prove to be more popular than original story, it got expanded on.
In the early 1990s, a series of novels were published, titled Worlds of Power. Each novel -there are ten in all – focused on a specific video game ans were loosely based on the stories of the respective games. The first novel to be released was a adaptation of Blaster Master. In order to improve readability, and create a more compelling story the author, Peter Lerangis (writing under the pen name, A. L. Singer), added the characters Eve and Alex. Eve would eventually become Jason’s wife. A feature article on 1up.com stats that, “The most challenging title for Lerangis to write was also the first in the series: Blaster Master. Citing the game’s lack of a strong middle plot, he had to invent many details to flesh out the story and connect the game’s beginning and ending.” The books usually deviated from the game’s story lines in fun ways and are good reads. The Worlds of Power novels are remembered as odd footnotes in video game history; they’re a novelty along with Super Mario cereal and The Legend of Zelda cartoon series. The Blaster Master novel stands out as an exception as it heavily influenced the future of the game series.
Meta Fight failed to gain notoriety in Japan. Even though it was an excellent game, it just wasn’t very popular. Overseas, Blaster Master became a staple game in the NES library. With that said, Jason’s journey to find his frog and beat the Plutonium boss was more well known than Kane taking his planet back from Goez. The brand was so recognizable in fact that a Game Boy Bomber Man sequel spinoff, Bomber King 2, was altered to be a sequel for Blaster Master, titled Blaster Master Boy. Similar to when a Saga Frontier game was re-titled as The Final Fantasy Legend, because the Final Fantasy brand was more well known. In the end, Blaster Master Boy bore little resemblance to the original game. There were a few other Blaster Master games released, but none are as noteworthy as the PlayStation title, Blaster Master: Blasting Again.
Not only was Meta Fight completely re-branded under the Western release title, the story was a continuation of the novelized version. There was no mention of Goez or the planet Sophia the 3rd, instead the Worlds of Power novel was referenced. Larangis would later say that it was, “quite an honor!” to have his work acknowledged by the developers. It is almost unprecedented that in an effort to reintroduce the Blaster Master brand to the Japanese audience, Sunsoft chose to adapt the localized western version, instead of bringing back any of the characters or situations found in Meta Fight. The gamplay sill revolves around driving around Sophia and jumping out and controlling Jason when the situation calls for it; it’s pretty much Blaster Master, but in 3D. This is a unique localization story, and is especially fascinating when viewed through a contemporary lens, where original versions are almost always preferred.
Localization issues and censorship have been viable topic lately. Whenever a game is released in the West that doesn’t match up with the Japanese version, fans are usually upset. There’s a desire to play a game, or watch a movie or television show in it’s original format. Even though they may make some minor concessions when it comes to language, fans prefer the gameplay and other features to be wholly intact. One of the recent controversies surrounded Xenoblade Chronicals: X and the revealing outfits one of the main characters can wear. Players could also adjust the bust size of the character. The perceived sexuality was toned down, much to the chagrin of the Western audience. Blaster Master was a unique situation where the Western version of the game’s popularity eclipsed the Japanese version and wholly altered the canonization of the game.
There are things that happened in the 8-bit, 16-bit era of gaming that will always have repercussions to this current age. Like E.T., there are games with bloated budgets that are rushed out the door with tons of hype. Even though there hasn’t been a major crash as of yet, people have lost jobs and major game developers have taken hits to their reputations. The localization of video games have become a much more debated issue than it was in the past. The internet has created a very globalized society where we can easily keep an eye on the development of Japanese games in tune with Japanese fans. Players are more wary about localization and censorship now more than ever. Even though the localization of Meta Fight was not a result of outright censorship, it remains an oddity in the history of importing and redesigning games in America.