When I first heard of Kero Blaster, I read that it is Studio Pixel’s spiritual successor to Cave Story. That’s a tall order, considering that Cave Story is a legendary game amongst the indie community. So, how do you create a follow-up that’s supposed to be better than one of the most critically acclaimed metroidvanias? Well, I think Studio Pixel knows that it doesn’t have to; it can just create a great platformer that is well balanced, controls nicely, and emits its signature charm. And I’m ok with that.
Kero Blaster operates at a smaller scale compared to Cave Story. The latter allowed players to speak with other characters, make game-changing decisions, and explore for extra items. Kero Blaster eschews most of these features in favor of a compact side-scroller with NES influences. There are total of seven levels that you progress through linearly, and there’s little room for exploration apart from a few hidden crevices; however, each level is close to perfectly designed and offers plenty of challenges that retro gamers will cherish.
With Kero Blaster, Studio Pixel performs a masterful balancing act, which makes sense considering its plot. The protagonist is walking frog who is the head of custodial sciences at the Cat & Frog business. His feline boss—who is acting much stranger than usual—sends him out to exterminate the Negativus Legatia—slimy, cancerous creatures. He’ll use various weapons as his tools of the trade to exterminate these foes—each of them serves a specific purpose. You won’t find deep characterizations of appalling plot-twists in Kero Blaster, but there is something compelling about a frog saving the world just so he no longer has to work overtime.
It’s fitting to think of the frog’s four weapons as merely tools of the trade, as each one is designed for a specific situation. The Lazer Uzi is able to shoot farther than the rest, although it isn’t very helpful against multiple enemies. The Ninja (picture the Spread-Shot from Contra) is more useful against multiple enemies; however, it doesn’t shoot very far. The Star Mine seemed useless at first until I realized that it is perfect for clearing out enemies below me, and the Melter works best when used on uphill terrain. Each weapon can be upgraded with a certain amount of coins, and Studio Pixel does a fine job of making sure each weapon remains useful as you focus your upgrades on a particular gun.
As mentioned above, such finely balanced weapons require specific terrain, and I can safely confirm that Studio Pixel has a fine eye for level design. Each of the seven levels has its own distinct feel; yet, Studio Pixel offers different environments to explore per level. A level might begin in an underground cave but may eventually have you climbing towards the sky. Paths that seem straightforward may change to uphill or downhill terrain, forcing you to adapt to your environment. Even the enemies have their own weaknesses, which means you’ll constantly have to switch weapons.
Each of these levels are presented with NES-like graphics; and while that’s no longer a fresh selling-point, Kero Blaster infuses its own charm into the style. Enemy sprites are as expressive as the ones in Mega Man. They could be perfectly docile one moment, and then turn vicious when they sense your presence. You’ll even see pain in their eyes as you shoot them. The soundtrack is catchy and fun, although it sounds like it consists of bonus tracks from Cave Story (still good). Similarly, the backgrounds seem at times like they were recycled assets of Cave Story. However, these issues are addressed later in the game, as Studio Pixel creates an identity for Kero Frog—particularly when things become weirder.
Kero Blaster is available on PC and iPhone, and while I can’t tell you which one is the superior version, I can say that the latter is fine-tuned. The touchscreen’s directional and jump buttons are large and responsive enough so that I can only blame myself for my errors. There isn’t a traditional button for shooting. Instead, you have a switch that you flip left, right, or up. The frog will continue firing in the direction of your choice as long as the switch is in place, and you can flip it seamlessly at any time. The only catch is that the frog will always face the direction in which he is shooting; however, this never poses a problem because he moves backward at a similar speed as when he moves forward.
I originally was going to give the game a lower—albeit still great—score because I had thought Kero Blaster didn’t have additional content post credits. I was wrong. Turns out there is a certain choice that you’ll make which allows you to begin the game anew with all of your upgraded weapons; the only catch is that you only have one heart. This means that you can use all of the guns, which you would have unlocked at different points throughout the game, at any point you want. You have to do a bit of searching—Studio Pixel doesn’t give out any hints—but you should discover a a new, powerful weapon and bonus content that makes the game re-playable. Even without the additional content, I managed to clock-in 4 hours during my first play-through, and I can see myself playing again on a plane or bus. It’s also appropriately priced for the iPhone at $4.99, while the PC version is $7.99.
While Kero Blaster is touted as the spiritual successor to Cave Story, I wouldn’t recommend you think of it as a sequel—you’ll be a little disappointed. It’s more like an excellent NES game that was released too late. But it has flawlessly designed levels, easy-to-use controls, balanced weapons, and undeniable charm.
This review of Kero Blaster is based off a PC digital copy which was provided by Studio Pixel.