Like many gamers, I have fond, albeit controller-hurling, memories of the original Blaster Master. It was classic side-scrolling action with a dual mechanic by taking the player to overhead dungeons. The music was catchy, the graphics were gorgeous for the time, and the difficulty caused me (on more than one occasion) to yell at bystander for breathing too loud. We received a couple of lackluster sequels, with only the gameboy adaptation registering just under decent, and the franchise was quietly put to rest. Whenever I pulled out the catridge, I always wondered why no other game attempted this sort of gameplay, or why Sunsoft never saw it fit to give Jason and SOPHIA another shot. I was ecstatic at the surprise announcement of Overdrive, and without any time for speculation on screenshots or video to form, I downloaded the title on day one.
So to get it out of the way right now, this isn't better than the original. But by no means is Overdrive a poor release. The tank control is as tight as the original, with the tank responding quickly to every inconceivable jump, while overhead control gives the much-needed improvement of being able to walk diagonally. Strafing in the original was accomplished by simply holding down the fire button; here it is assigned to the B button. While it is nice to have strafe as a separate button, the original setup worked fine, and wrapping a finger under the blocky wiimote while grinding a thumb on that little cross pad gets painful after an hour. This brings me to my chief complaint on the control: it's wiimote only. What the hell were they thinking?
On that note, there's the graphics. I actually like the direction they took with the tank and player, and the monster animation is nice and crisp. But the backgrounds are atrocious. The opening area has a subtle beauty, but that's the last you'll see of that style. Area 1 and Area 2 are basically interchangable, both in tank and overhead sections: bland grey caves. Areas 3 and 4 only have minor alterations to the same design. Area 5 does a little better, but it's still the same damn cave setup. In the original, Area 1 was a vibrant cave, teeming with greenery. Area 2 was a ruined castle, completely different from Area 1, and each proceeding Area continued in the same fashion. And as if the graphics couldn't get more bland, most of them suffer from blurring while the tank/player is in motion.
The flow of Overdrive is essentially unchanged: travelling from one area to another, seeking out the boss in each, and obtaining an ability that allows the player to advance to another area - it was basically the precursor to the Super Metroid style. The abilities are actually quite different this time around. Instead of a cannon upgrade to break blocks, the tank is given a drill which also makes an effective dash attack. The hover upgrade is still present, but is now used to glide over gaps instead of flying to unreachable platforms. That task is now accomplished by way of a grappling hook, which is a blast to use. The energy bar is no longer filled by hunting down rare refills, but now regenerates automatically, removing an unnecessary annoyance from the original. Another new set of powerups are HP-Up for both the player and the tank, and Energy-Up, which increase each respective maximum level. This addition makes exploration much more rewarding.
The weapons in the overhead segments were given a much-needed overhaul. Rather than relying on an upgradable cannon and a static grenade launcher, the player now has three weapon sets that all have five levels of power. A standard forward-firing rifle, energy balls that home in on enemies, and a missile launcher make up the new arsenal, and can be switched with a button press. As in the first title, taking a hit reduces your weapon's level. This adds a new layer of strategy, as a quick-fingered player will be able to switch to a lesser-used gun when a hit is inevitable. Of course, this also means taking hits is extra frustrating, as you not only lose life, but you also lose your ability to damage the enemy. While the bosses encourage different weapons and strategies, chances are you will just be firing the homing weapon nonstop in the overhead segments.
Which brings me to the biggest problem in the overhead areas. This enemies here are all about cheap shots. At first, the enemies are bearable, allotting a fair amount of reaction time. Somewhere around Area 5 the game gets a little carried away. After taking on a field of fast moving squid-like creatures that fire a barrage of revenge shots upon dying and serpents that spit a stream of fire that is nearly impossible to avoid, you'll be inching your way through every screen mashing the homing weapon, making for incredibly boring segments. Bosses better allow for strategy, and will be a high point for anyone who enjoys the classic style of always dying the first time to learn their pattern, then going back again and kicking the everloving shit out of them. It's just a shame that they got lazy and gave some bosses a second appearance with slightly altered aesthetics.
Blaster Master on the NES delivered some of the better chip tunes of the era. They were epic, catchy, and even a bit haunting. Overdrive is hit and miss at best. The water cave theme is my personal favorite, morphing the original into a graceful piano melody. The boss music made a good transition as well, but tracks such as Area 5 (which was Area 7's music in the first game) are a mess. The most unforgivable offense though was reducing the legendary burp in Area 4's music, and the game over theme, to a barely-audible blurb. Actually, the worst was having the music reset whenever you go from an overhead to a side-scrolling area. It's incredibly jarring, and completely unnecessary.
I mentioned at the start that the challenge was a big factor in the original. The same can be said about Overdrive, but not exactly in the same manner. As previously stated, the overhead segments are full of monsters that will strike from across the screen before you have a chance to dodge. This means the challenge is in trying to keep the monsters just off screen so that they can still be hit by your fire. The bosses are a genuine challenge, pitting player skill against enemy patterns. The tank segments offer a fair challenge on occasion, but outside of mastering the grappling hook and other abilities, it's rudimentary platforming. When outside of the tank, the player is especially vulnerable - your health depletes constantly, and enemies can drop you in a couple hits. Thankfully, player health also regenerates while in the tank. The addition of save points and a map system similar to Super Metroid makes the game much more bearable in terms of repetition.
It may seem like I've really torn down this title, and there are things about it that drove me crazy, but overall it isn't a bad piece of reimagined game. The biggest pratfall is the lack of polish. Everything about Overdrive screams that this title was pushed out the door too soon. Graphics that should have been placeholders, reseting music between segments, no classic controller support, and a total lack of death animation. Yeah, when you die in the tank, it flashes, then goes to the game over screen. If I screw up so bad that my tank dies, I at least deserve a satisfying explosion. In the overhead sections, your suit starts to spark as health drops, but at death, you sort of spin, then again the game over screen appears. No woo-woo-woo-woop death throe. Anyway, if you enjoyed the original, chances are you'll get a good nostalgic boost out of Overdrive. Just don't expect it to be a replacement for the classic title. If you never played the original, give it a shot, but you may be wondering what the big fuss is all about.
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