Try not to croak
Kero Blaster stands directly in the shadow of not one but two other games by creator Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya. First is Gero Blaster, the original build of Kero Blaster which was announced back in early 2013. Gero Blaster was based on comics that Amaya drew in college about himself as a frog and his girlfriend as a cat. The cat is kidnapped by cyclops aliens and the frog must head off to rescue her. The game looked to be a lot of fun, and was quite far along before Amaya reportedly scrapped the whole thing and rebuilt it as Kero Blaster.
The other game that Kero Blaster has hanging over its head is Cave Story. Released in 2004, Cave Story changed the way many people viewed independent game development. It took Amaya five years to develop the game, and he released it for free. Later, it would receive enhanced ports for WiiWare, DSiWare, 3DS retail, 3DS eShop, and Steam. Fans of the game will tell you that it's one of the greatest Metroidvania titles ever made.
Seeing that Kero Blaster is the first action-platformer that Amaya has released since Cave Story, expectations are understandably high. Ironically, it's diehard fans of Cave Story who may be the most disappointed with Kero Blaster, as they are in for a much shorter, less ambitious experience. That's not to say it's any less worthwhile. If Cave Story is a rock opera, then Kero Blaster is an album of energetic, perfectly paced pop songs. As long as you don't go into one expecting the other, there's no reason you can't enjoy both in equal measure.
Kero Blaster (PC [reviewed], iPhone)
Developer: Studio Pixel
Released: May 11, 2014
MSRP: $7.99 (PC) $4.99 (iPhone)
Kero Blaster tells the strange, simple story of a strong, silent frog who works in "custodial sciences" for the Cat & Frog company. Is he co-owner of the company? Perhaps, but you wouldn't know it based on his interactions with "the boss," a purple cat in a power suit, adorned with stylish sunglasses and striking green locks. She speaks to him in a combination of gibberish and squiggly lines, commanding him to clean various local environments of impurities. Before long, events unfold in a surprisingly surreal, sometimes dark, consistently sweet adventure.
That's one of the many similarities between Kero Blaster and Cave Story. Amaya has a signature style in level design, graphics, music, and storytelling that he likely couldn't shake if he tried. The biggest different between the two games is backtracking, or lack there of. Cave Story requires the player to retread through familiar areas two, three, four, or more times in order to progress. Kero Blaster only forces you to replay an area if you die, and even then, there are multiple checkpoints per level that help to minimize the repetition. If you lose all your lives, you'll need to start a level from scratch, but you'll keep all your money, weapons, and any mid-bosses you may have defeated will remain dead, which allows any time with the game to feel like it resulted in progress.
Instead of exploring the environment in multiple directions, the emphasis here is on exploring ways to interact with the games enemies and natural hazards. For a relatively short game, there's a huge bestiary of a wide variety of level-specific environmental curiosities to discover. Regardless of an enemy's size or strength, your strategies revolve around matching the right enemy to the right weapon and dodge pattern. It feels rare for more than 30 seconds to go by without bumping into a new kind of enemy or obstacle, and it while they can usually be dealt with fairly quickly, it may take you a while to discover the method to dispatch them in the most efficient and empowering way.
There are four main weapons in the game -- the weak, short-range blaster you start with, and three more you acquire from bosses as you progress. Each weapon can be powered up two to three times, giving them completely different properties. A wide, shield-like shot transforms into a Contra-style multi-bullet barrage. The balance between the weapons is very well thought out. Each is best suited for a number of situations, though true to form for the genre, the laser and the spread shot are the two that are easiest to master. It's hard to argue with the classics.
For the most part, the platforming in Kero Blaster is fairly tame. Level one has almost no need for precision jumping to speak of, and while things ramp up in difficulty from there at an extremely well paced rate, the platforming never gets quite as intense as the combat. The game's free demo and semi-prequel Pink Hour (now updated with new endings and difficulty levels) had some pretty severe and exciting platforming difficulty. Little of that is seen in Kero Blaster. Other than a few interesting jumps later in the game, almost all of the deaths here will come from taking hits from various cute little jerks.
The graphics are a little more detailed than the original Cave Story, with more unique visual touches like couches, Wily-style "W" boxes, and various other flourishes strewn about. Enemy and character design is simple, animations are minimal, but all manage to be expressive in a minimalist, personality driven way that fits perfectly with the game's overall design. The music is as bouncy, infectious, playful and passionate as you'd expect from Amaya. The level-one song has been bouncing into my brain on a regular basis since I first heard it about a week ago, and it makes me feel great every time.
Despite the minimal need for backtracking, it still took me about three hours to complete my first playthrough. That was with a few deaths and a little grinding to get money to buy additional heart containers before a tough boss or two. I've tacked on about two hours on top of that with the game's of additional post-credits content. Like Cave Story, this content isn't just handed to you. You'll have to make at least one arbitrary decision to unlock most of it, and even then, you may not see it all without some digging. Just today, as I was fact checking this review, I discovered a way to power-up the secret fifth weapon that I previously had no clue existed. While the first playthrough doesn't focus on exploring, those who are willing to poke in every corner and fall in every hole during New Game+ are much more likely to be rewarded.
If I have any complaint about Kero Blaster, it's that they may have trimmed the fat a little too much. More than five hours in and I haven't spent a single boring second with Kero Blaster. Instead, I'm looking for excuses to jump back into the game. Work isn't work when you love your job, and a fetch quest isn't a chore when you love the game. We can hope that like Pink Hour, Kero Blaster will be updated with achievement-style challenges or other new assignments from the boss to complete. Maybe she'll even ask us to play through Gero Blaster, the game that Kero Blaster could have been. That's some work that I'd pay good money to be asked to finish.
If Cave Story was Amaya's answer to Super Metroid, Kero Blaster is his Mega Man X. It's dense and perfectly paced, just begging to be replayed over and over. If I were to have to introduce someone to the genre of 2D action/platformers, it is probably the game that I'd give them, as it starts off easy-yet-engaging, and ends with giant bosses, swarms of enemies on screen, and everything else you could want in the genre. It's a game you may beat in a day, but will be playing off and on for a lifetime.
Kero Blaster reviewed by Jonathan Holmes
A hallmark of excellence. It may have some flaws, but they are negligible to what is otherwise a supreme title.
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