By Ethan . May 18, 2014 . 5:00pm
I really like Kero Blaster and I think you will, too. Normally that’s what I would write at the end of a playtest, but in the case of Kero Blaster it’s necessary to start at the end. Why? If I were to start at the beginning I would make the game sound like a bore.
Stop me if this seems overly familiar to you: Kero Blaster is a side-scrolling action game with throwback sprite graphics and throwback chiptune music. The player shoots and jumps through a handful of themed stages gaining new guns, upgrades, and a jetpack. There is a story, but it’s fairly vague and never much interrupts the action.
Those are all truthful statements and a responsible playtester ought to tell you those things about the game. But what did that last paragraph actually tell you? Nothing important. That game could be Dark Void Zero or Cave Story or Super Time Force. By embracing action game design from 20 years ago, Studio Pixel has made it very hard to introduce the broad strokes of their game without making it sound generic and derivative. I don’t think it does this game justice to present it through the lens of a genre, an amount of content, or any other standard “review” criteria. So I shan’t.
I like Kero Blaster. I like the way that it juxtaposes the fantastic with the mundane. Yeah, the player shoots and platforms through levels en route to mini and main bosses as a frog, but levels include a train station and an office building. Your motivation is not to save the world, but just to fix some malfunctioning teleport pads. Frog’s ultimate reward upon beating the game? Less overtime.
I like the jetpack controls in Kero Blaster more than either of the jetpacks in Cave Story. I also like the way that Kero Blaster presents its characters.
There are only four of them, and none of them ever get names. This is not an accident. Studio Pixel exercises a particular economy of characterization in all their games. The sprite animations are simple and the conversations are brief, but the plot (such as it exists) always emphasizes the characters in ways that make them resonate more than many characters with hundreds more lines.
There’s a cat in Kero Blaster. He carries a clipboard and wears a lab coat. No gender is given, but I think it’s a he. He’s the serious one. He moves more slowly than other characters. When Frog is hurt, Cat picks him up and carries him to the hospital. He calls most of the shots for your division of Cat and Frog Incorporated. I feel like I would get along with Cat.
I like the way that holding the jump button down through the entire jump arc gives Frog a little extra float but slows down his horizontal motion.
I like that sometimes Kero Blaster gets playful. Frog is baited into one boss’s lair by an enticing treasure chest. After beating the boss some happy victory music plays and Frog can finally open that treasure chest. Surprise! That chest held only one of the mud monster’s minions. Frog’s disappointment is clear—when the little mud monster pops out of the chest the happy music stops.
Maybe really what it is I like about Kero Blaster is that even though it reduces side scrolling action game design to the most basic principles, those basic principles don’t fairly represent it. Kero Blaster uses tradition and genre as a canvas on which can be painted silly moments and earnest moments and exciting moments. Kero Blaster is a goofy everyday adventure that sometimes gets a little bit grim and sometimes gets a little bit absurdist and it just happens to be a side scrolling shooter. I really like it. I think you will too.
Food for thought:
1. Stuido Pixel likes to hide secrets and secret modes in games. In Cave Story, some of them were so obscure that nobody knew the full extent of the game until well after it became available. I personally made it into a New Game Plus mode and a boss rush mode. I feel confident that there is more to be found.
2. There’s a free demo of the game available on publisher Playism’s website. It’s a chapter called “The Pink Hour” and it stars a character who isn’t given too much to do in the game proper. It’s worth checking out if you’re on the fence about the game, or if you’re definitely going to get the game and are invested in seeing and doing everything there is to see and do.
3. There’s some imagery in this game that makes me think that maybe there’s a little bit more going on narratively than is apparent on the surface level. For example, I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that our salaryman Frog catches the train and then has to fend off an accelerated giant clock boss. It’s nothing the game bashes you over the head with, but I think that if somebody enters the game with the assumption that it has something to say they will have been told something by the end.