Kero Blaster is a side-scrolling action platformer from Studio Pixel, the makers of Cave Story. The game vaguely reminds me of Mega Man and other retro action platformers in that it has the player go through a series of stages with multiple rooms full of enemies, with each stage ending with a big boss fight that usually leads to a new weapon or mobility tool. Kero Blaster taps into a feeling of nostalgia in every facet- from looks, to sound, to gameplay- and because of this I found myself, for better or worse, comparing the game with archetypical design choices made in retro action platformers like Mega Man. When looking back in time to previous games of the genre, some of Kero Blaster’s shortcomings stand out even more starkly than they would otherwise. Even when viewed on its own, issues with pacing and difficulty spikes blemish an otherwise solid entry into a genre with games that Kero Blaster seems so intent on calling back to.
Though new weapons are attained in a similar fashion to Mega Man, they are differentiated by the fact that they can be upgraded at stores found in each stage with coins that are randomly dropped from certain enemies in each level. These weapons also seem a bit more random, not aping any attacks of key bosses or enemies, but rather standing out as unique within Kero Blaster’s world. Using these unique weapons feels very well balanced, with each having their pros and cons, making them more suitable for different sections of each level. The player’s jumping feeling a bit floaty but not too much so, making most sequences comfortable to traverse, letting the player focus more on dispatching enemies than on making key jumps . The majority of Kero Blaster provides a level of difficulty that is certainly above average compared to most modern games, but fair in most cases. The majority of the game is easier, though, than some of the most challenging titles the action platforming genre has to offer, which I personally found to be a nice compromise in making a modern entry into a genre that has in some ways become archaic. If not for the last stage of the game, where most of my problems with Kero Blaster are found, it would have left an extremely good impression on me. Unfortunately, the more time I spent with the game, getting more and more frustrated by the shortcomings found in the finale, the more the nostalgic joys I had initially felt began to wear off, and some of the systems such as the game’s upgrading system began to feel more and more problematic. The game truly started to stand out on its own in my mind, but sadly, in a mostly negative way.
Kero Blaster centers around Cat & Frog Inc., a vaguely defined cleaning/testing facility whose boss is a cat that can’t speak English, unlike the handful of other characters in the game which provide a small bit of written dialogue. Your voiceless, nameless frog avatar is given the task of cleaning up various areas of any and all “negativus legatia,” a dark force that is slowly spreading throughout the world. This force drives a wide variety of enemies in Kero Blaster, which all have slightly different methods of attack to keep the player guessing. There are crabs that speed up and jump more frenetically the more you shoot them, some very familiar fireball spewing plants, swooping birds, flying fish, giant rolling tires of death, snowmen with ice breath, and moles throwing napalm bombs, just to name a small portion of the enemy types one will find throughout the 6 to 8 hour experience.
To fight all these enemies, the player is initially equipped with nothing more than a pea shooter and two hit points. Your arsenal quickly expands to include weapons such as a green multi-beam laser with a comparatively wide spread and a bubble shooter with bubbles that roll along most surfaces, giving the player a longer distance option. The final weapon type and upgrades for each weapon type won’t be spoiled here, but it’s needless to say that you will have more than enough power by the game’s end, if you are willing to grind through certain areas multiple times in order to earn enough coins to buy upgrades. I found this upgrade system to be fine early on, as upgrades don’t seem unreasonably priced at first and I was able to earn enough coins with only a handful of area replays. Near the end, though, as the player approaches the final stage that is unbalanced in general, the high level upgrades that are practically made necessary spike in price for both weapons and health, making dozens of area playthroughs necessary in order to face the final obstacles of the game.
It was this final level that really downgraded the overall experience for me, as it took me roughly four times as long to get through as any of the six stages before it. Some of the worst last minute difficulty spiking in the action platforming genre can be found here, and not in a good way that fairly tests a gamer’s skill. The end stage doesn’t make the player feel as though it is on them when they die, or get a game over and have to restart the whole level. Instead, you are left feeling as though you are fighting the developers’ last minute decision to throw everything at you at once, regardless of pacing or fun, just to accentuate the fact that you are at the end of the game.
This kitchen sink approach to the game’s ending is made worse by the aforementioned grinding that is necessary to beat the final boss, and the fact that when the player runs out of lives and gets a game over, they must start from the very beginning of the stage instead of taking over from the last room they entered, with all enemies aside from big bosses respawning in every room. It felt really unfair to lose all my lives countless times at the final boss, and have to replay the entire final stage to make it back and lose all over again, until I repeated the cycle enough times to max out every health and weapon stat. Kero Blaster’s final stage boils much of the player’s success rate down to luck and attrition. At first, the game over system that had me restart entire stages came off as charming and exemplary of the game’s difficulty and old school acclamations, but the final couple of hours saw the difficulty that had been so well paced and escalated artificially turned up in a way that made this system feel cheap.
With all that being said, the first six of seven stages found in Kero Blaster are fun, well-designed, and challenging in a good way. Bosses found at the end of each stage, and some found in the middle of stages later on, are mostly fun to fight and have different stages of patterns that can be overcome via trial and error, but not to an unfair degree. The art style throughout is pretty, simple, and retro, with a chiptune theme that, while somewhat repetitive, is mostly enjoyable. If not for the games final stage, I would be hard pressed to find things I didn’t love about this game. Unfortunately, the pacing issues and the unfair nature of the upgrading system with regard to the final boss keep this game from being truly great.
[+ Tight platforming and shooting gameplay] [+ Old school challenge with a mostly fair upgrade system] [+ Wide enemy variety] [+ Fun, varied boss fights] [+ Nice retro style] [-Frustrating final section] [-Difficulty spike is too steep at the end] [-Flawed upgrade system]