It’s Spring Break, that time of the school year where I constantly switch between playing video games and lying in bed, just sort of disassociating. I finished Nier Automata and that’s a fantastic experience that I consider a must play. You know what else I consider a must play? Kero Blaster!
Kero Blaster is a 2014 game by Studio Pixel, published by Playism. That’s right, the same Studio Pixel that made Cave Story, one of the most well known indie titles, a cornerstone in games, probably Nicalis’ main source of revenue when they’re not milking The Binding of Isaac. So yeah, those are some high expectations to live up to.
The title screen when you first start up (shown above) is a good introduction to the game. There’s all these pesky shadowy creatures hanging around the title screen, but thankfully, you’re playing as a frog with a gun. Following the controls, you learn the game’s basic movement to clear the screen in this simple tutorial and after the clean-up, the phone starts ringing and you can begin the game proper.
The title screen/tutorial sequence is a sign of things to come, as your frog character works for a company that operates teleporters that’s unfortunately getting hassled by those shadow creatures. While your co-workers deal with some issues (mainly the fact that the boss keeps one of the creatures as a pet, for some reason), you must do some run and gun action on your webbed feet to get things working again.
The game is structured in linear stages to progress through, culminating in a boss fight. While you can find treasure chests and extra lives by going out of the way, exploration isn’t a huge factor. Instead of looking for upgrades in the environment, you naturally get new weapons and abilities from beating bosses and you can buy upgrades for those and your health with the money enemies drop. Cave Story die-hards would probably be disappointed by the lack of exploration, but to me, it just makes the action more seamless.
Kero Blaster is one of those game’s that just feels good to play. Moving around is responsive and it feels just right. Weapons are satisfying to use, sound effects accompanying their firing and impacts. My personal favorite weapon to use was the bubble weapon. It’s impractical against flying threats since the bubbles obey gravity, but there’s something mesmerizing about seeing these orbs bounce across the ground, bowling over enemies like a deadly bubble bath.
Of course, the levels do get harder as you progress. For me, the fifth stage was where things started spiking in difficulty. Thankfully, there is some mercy in game overs. Any mini-boss that you’ve beaten stays dead on level retries and your money is never affected, so you can grind things out to buy weapon or health upgrades. No matter how many times you die, you’ll be making some kind of progress, which encourages you to get up and try again. It becomes a hard game, but it’s a welcoming kinda hard.
After beating the main game, you unlock “Zangyou Mode”, which is basically the game’s hard mode. This mode was added in a Nov. 2015 update, presenting a story where your frog is supposed to go on vacation after the main story, but alas, work is piling up in an unordinary way, so you must do some overtime work. The level design is tweaked to put more emphasis on platforming skills, architecture built around different enemy placement and new enemies, with improved bosses waiting at the end. As for the final level, it’s also completely different from the main game’s last level, topping everything off with new final bosses that gives one last, fresh challenge. Everything is harder, yet different. It’s a hard mode that has actual thought and effort put into it, as opposed to, say, a hard mode built on the artificial difficulty of removing all heart containers and missiles while not changing anything else.
Does Kero Blaster bring anything groundbreaking to the table? Not particularly, unless you count “actual good hard mode” to be groundbreaking. However, it makes up for it with quality and personality. Kero Blaster sets out and succeeds in doing a run and gun game well, mixing it all together with its aesthetics and charm. And speaking of the aesthetics, I love the art in the game, especially its use of color. I think the character designs are cute, though, my favorite is the frog himself. Just look at him. This is a frog that’s tired of his job but just deals with it anyway. Given the nonsense that goes on the story, I don’t blame him for being all like, “just another day on this bitch of an earth.”
Also, goddamn, do I love the soundtrack. I feel that some aspects of the game might be stuck in Cave Story‘s shadow (especially if you liked that game’s exploration elements), but, I sincerely feel that Kero Blaster‘s soundtrack is as strong as Cave Story‘s. Pixel ain’t rusty with his chiptune making, I can tell you that. There’s an overall whimsical feel to the soundtrack that makes the game feel playful and energetic, it’s something that really fits the gameplay and overall tone.
I found myself wondering after I finished my playthrough, “why don’t more people talk about this game?” I thought of two answers. The first is the obvious one and that it’s because of Cave Story. Cave Story is a quintessential indie game so Kero Blaster‘s pretty much doomed to be in its shadow. And you know, it doesn’t help that Nicalis keeps re-releasing Cave Story and doing crossovers with its characters (like Curly in Blade Strangers or whatever the heck that basketball game they’re making is), keeping that game fresh in everyone’s minds. Like look, we here on the internet rag on Bethesda re-releasing Skyrim all the time, but Nicalis has and will continue to release Cave Story on everything past the Wii. I looked up the Steam Spy stats between the games and I found that the number of people that owns Kero Blaster is around a fourth of Cave Story‘s, which I think is a shame.
The second is that it didn’t come out in the same circumstances Cave Story did. Cave Story came out at a time when the indie game scene was small and so it became a monolith to the independent scene that would come to grow – it originally coming out as freeware certainly helped. When Kero Blaster came out, it arrived in a scene that’s thriving, with a whole bunch of games on the market. It’s a good game, yes, but it’s a good game in a tide of games that now exists.
And so, I say that this game shouldn’t be lost in that tide. Kero Blaster ain’t “Cave Story 2,” but it’s a damn fine run and gun game on its own merits. At a default price of $9.99 ($13.99 if you also want the soundtrack, separately sold for $5.99), I feel that the game’s worth the base price. In you’re on the fence about getting it, consider trying out Pink Hour and Pink Heaven. They’re short free games where you play as the frog’s co-worker, where she’s also dealing with inexplicable danger. While there’s definitely shared content with Kero Blaster, the levels in these games are original, so you’ll be getting a taste of the experience without being spoiled on it.