When the name Daisuke Amaya or his nickname “Pixel” is mentioned, you would probably think of Cave Story and for all the right reasons. Cave Story is a love letter to anyone familiar with the Metroid-series, containing an excellent story, entertaining gameplay, and tunes that will get stuck in your head. Not perfect by any means, but definitely a great game that is available now on everything except your toaster. Although, after all of these rereleases, Pixel made another game featuring old graphics known as Kero Blaster. I am going to be honest: I only wanted to look at this game because of its retro presentation, but also because I knew Pixel would not just use this to be a cash grab like some other developers (DYA games). With that said, let’s blast off!
The game’s story starts off with a minimal introduction. You play as the cute frog known as Kaeru, who works at the Cat & Frog inc. After a meeting with the company’s president and not understanding a single word she utters, you meet up with a cat in a white coat and a pink blob who guide you to your next destination as a custodial scientist. It is never fully explained what that involves except for killing creatures that causes disturbances within the areas, including black things with red eyes that are rather a symbolic element to Kero Blaster.
It is nice to see how the world is affected by these creatures, and what the black blobs represent is interesting. However, the symbolism is shallowly implemented throughout the first playthrough. There will be an unlockable mode which will shine more light on what is truly going on, but it is a strange setup where the subtlety lacks impact by being too vague at first. Forcing the player on a second run for more info is also a strange design-choice. Though the characters, such as the relaxed cat and the pink blob that just wants her workday to end, are adorable and I do find myself wanting more out of the story just because of how much I enjoyed my time with them. Sadly, the story does feel unfinished and I really wish more could have been done to expand upon this world and the game’s symbolism. If not, I believe the story could have worked fine without the latter.
Story Score: 6.5/10
Basic, but solid
Yupp, Kero Blaster is in many ways as simple as it gets. You run and shoot in three directions (up, left and right) while moving towards left or right through linear stages, fight a boss before ending the stage and moving on to the next one. You can climb ladders and swim using the jump button, though not much more is provided at first. This includes your selection of weapons, as you start off with only a blaster with a short range.
However, you will soon acquire more weapons that have unique designs and come with their own strengths and weaknesses. The green weapon can cover a lot of ground, the bubbly shots will attack alongside the ground and float straight upwards when used underwater, and the lovable flamethrower can outright destroy projectiles, but it is not waterproof. This is a fantastic idea implemented in order to make every weapon have clear uses, and by being simple to switch between them with the press of a button, it is easy to see that the developer wanted the player to experiment and change up their setup. They have unlimited ammo for a reason!
There are also vendors in each stage where you can level up the weapons to make their shots longer, stronger or add more unique elements to them, with the max level being different for each. These vendors also include a desk were you can buy refilling hearts, a jar of hearts that restores you on the spot if you die, and hearts to upgrade your max health. While you can also buy an extra life, it costs so much that it is definitely meant as a joke. Money is not easy to come by, but there is a decent amount dropped by enemies or found in chests throughout the levels, forcing you to use them wisely.
At first, I was really not on board with this game. The first two levels are structurally bland and dull with nothing to really talk about them. This might be because of the limited amount of weapons or that they are meant as basic introductions, but they are a weak part of the experience. Thankfully, every level following afterwards are wonderful stages taking advantage of varying up the weapons you have gotten. Some levels will feature parts with water to swim through, a claustrophobic train to fight inside or travelling downwards inside a hotel with enemies below, making it important to switch up the weapons and act accordingly to the threat presented.
The platforming is also tricky, but not just because of tiles moving back and forth or platforms that fall after you have landed on them. Your jump is affected by how you left the ground, meaning jumping while standing still will make you leap high up. Meanwhile, moving simultaneously will result into a jump shorter vertically, but further horizontally. The same goes for the jet pack you will acquire that functions as a double jump. While it will give you a boost, it is also affected similarly to how you hold the D-pad. This is a nice way to make the simple platforming engaging and fun by having your jumps being not movable in the air, with the design of the levels taking your abilities in acrobatics into according with different and diverse layouts.
Actually, the overall challenge comes more from the environmental structures rather than the enemies themselves. They are decent obstacles, but forgettable in their approach as they do not change much in terms of unique behaviours. There is a clear variety, such as moles throwing bombs and blobs charging towards you, but there is not much else besides them and they are defeated similarly, making it hard to really be fond of these encounters. Luckily, every boss fight is amazing and I love how each takes advantage of the different weapons Kaeru gets, come with different tactics, and makes you be on your guard at all time.
Should you bite the dust and not have a jar of hearts, you will start at one of the many generous checkpoints. Losing all lives will result into starting the stage over, which is a fair punishment. The stages are never too long and you will keep all the golds you had upon death, which can make the next trip easier with a stop at one of the stores. It is a lovely way of having consequences upon death, but also provide a helping hand in case it is needed.
For a game lasting two hours and maybe half an hour more depending on your skills, Kero Blaster presents a short and sweet ride. It knows that it did not need to be longer and provides a lot of enjoyment through fantastic boss fights and mostly entertaining stages. The first two levels are dull and I cannot say the regular enemies are much to be fond of, but besides these hurdles, you will see why Pixel is a well regarded game designer.
Gameplay Score: 7/10
Something else than the NES-look for once
Kero Blaster is rather inspired by the Commodore 64 or even consoles that came before this one, making it nostalgic through its crude look. Areas tend to look bland with little details in the earlier stages, though by stage three and onward, things pick up and provide more creativity. The creatures are nicely detailed and have a clever charm to them, such as fish bones in the sewers jumping at you and the receptionists in hotels attacking you by throwing keys.
I believe more could have been done though, as there are some more traditional creatures mixed in with a world were a scientist cat, a pink undefined creature and a frog with a multipurpose gun exist. It is not bad, just underutilised. Picture this: you have traditional parts such as swamps and deserts, but also a creative train ride, and bosses that are bizarre and over the top. My personal favourite is a running clock with a bird on his head. It goes to show that while a clear art style can go a long way, it also needs a clear structure to its world and surrealism. Areas can also be empty of details or general constructions, but the game is still colourful and pleasing visually, with enough variety to keep you engaged.
Despite the visuals not being up to its potential, the magnificent bit-tunes done by Pixel shines here in all their glory. There are so many diverse tracks in this small title, changing between calm and soothing, hectic and intense, and some with mysterious echo to them, all providing a vast amount of emotions. Every song is long with good variety in notes and rhythm, making every single melody memorable. It is quite hard to do his music justice, but it is truly outstanding. The sound effects are also great, with the unique effects from the different weapons Kaeru fires being a highlight.
Presentation Score: 7/10
Overtime, and it will need hard work!
After you have finished the game, there is a Zangyou mode that features harder levels and different enemies, bosses, setup and even its own story that adds more content to the main game. It also adds more interesting visuals with strange colour pallets and more diverse platforming, making it a great time to sink your teeth in. If that was not enough, there is also a new game plus mode; the Omake mode. This one is insane with new stages, a new gun, and a boss rush mode at the end that will test your skills to the max. These are all brilliant modes for this solid game, as they do not overstay their welcome and are made for those who have already finished the game once and wish for more content. This is definitely more than enough.
Extra Score: 10/10
Kero Blaster is a sweet experience. There is enough extra content to make it easy to revisit and it provides a good main campaign with most of the levels being great, amazing boss fights, and creative takes on weapons at disposal. The characters are adorable, despite the symbolism feeling like an afterthought and the creativity never getting to live up to its potential. While the first part of the game can be rather uninteresting, the game picks up right as the third stage begins, making it hard to not smile while blasting away fiends accompanied by an amazing soundtrack.