Kero Blaster is a game by Daisuke Amaya, or Pixel, the same guy who made Cave Story. It’s almost impossible not to mention and compare Cave Story when talking about Kero Blaster, despite the games sharing few similarities. The influence of Cave Story basically redefining the indie game industry, and leading to the overabundance of platformers with pixel graphics. That overabundance led to Kero Blaster flying under the radar for many, myself included. And the game itself doesn’t have too much in terms of unique mechanics, deep story, or complex challenge, as Cave Story did. On the surface, Kero Blaster is an underwhelming, unoriginal game which would have been a free flash game 10 years prior. Playing the game itself, however, proves otherwise.
Before I start, I should talk about why Cave Story is so good. While the pixel-art graphics are now a tired trend in indie games, they help keep all visual elements clear on-screen. Each enemy will have a distinct, recognizable outline, with a distinct, predictable set of attacks and moves. A lot of games do this, but Cave Story makes sure to teach all of these patterns, before eventually combining everything into a hectic mess to test the player’s knowledge and skill. That hectic mess is something no 4th-gen game console could handle, yet feels completely in line with the philosophy of challenge from that time. There’s also a solid story, multiple endings, good pacing, and constantly unique encounters. The backtracking and some of the checkpoints (which force you to read through a cutscene each time you retry a boss) are a little questionable, but are extremely small marks on the whole package. I can’t recommend it enough, it’s something everyone should at least try. If you haven’t, do so after this article, or even now. I don’t care if you don’t come back, just play Cave Story already (and make sure you play with the original graphics and art, at least your first time around).
So like I said, Kero Blaster has few similarities to Cave Story, and that whole last paragraph was not necessary. Except that Kero Blaster has every ounce of DNA from Cave Story, while reversing just about every surface-level quality. Gone is the dramatic story, any sort of exploration, alternate endings, problem solving or puzzles, or the unique level-up/down mechanics of Cave Story. Kero Blaster has linear progression, with a set number of unavoidable pickups, an upgrade shop with permanent upgrades, and a set number of lives, which forces a level restart upon game-over. It’s not just a different game, it’s an exactly different game, the antithesis of everything Cave Story had. Even the graphics are a downgrade in pixel density, though it’s hard to tell which console limitations it has in mind.
This reversal of Cave Story works to its merit, exploring everything Cave Story couldn’t. Each of the linear levels feature a steady ramp-up in challenge, introducing mechanics and mixing them together. The lives system makes platforming more punishing, further tying into the linearity. A lighter story with less characters lets more humor into the cutscenes, keeping every scene memorable and rewarding. Permanent upgrades forces a balance in top-tier weapons, so each upgrade makes the weapon more powerful, but not overpowered. I could go on, but the point is, there seems to be a deliberate recognition of everything that makes this game different from Cave Story. And that recognition is what makes the game special.
Okay, I got a little ahead of myself, and jumped straight into analysis before summarizing the game itself. Kero Blaster is one of the few, special games where the premise is simply to “go to work” (like Monster Hunter, Deus Ex, and arguably Devil May Cry). Kero’s uh… wait, the main character doesn’t have a name. I’m gonna call him Kerotan. Anyways, Kerotan’s job is described as “custodial sciences,” which basically means shooting things. On the quota for the day, Kerotan has to clean up 4 teleporters, which are preceded by 4 different levels.
You start the game with two hearts, and one gun. Levels are generally a mix of platforming and shooting, similar to Mega Man or whatever else you want to use for comparison. The platforming isn’t brutal, but there are some tricky segments that require thinking on your feet. As you make your way through each level, you’ll come across upgrade shops, where you can pay to get more hearts, or upgrade your guns. Since every enemy only deals one heart worth of damage, it’s entirely possible to go through the game without buying extra. This is a nice, invisible approach to difficulty, since you can inflict this challenge on yourself without something explicitly forcing it.
At the end of each level, you get a new weapon (or a jetpack), which usually varies enough to justify switching between them. For example, the third gun shoots bubbles which bounce around, making it useful for reaching slopes and pits. This solves a deliberate gameplay limitation: the inability to shoot down. Directional shooting in Kero Blaster is fairly unique, since holding the fire button locks Kerotan’s direction to right, left, or up. This is kind of like the moonwalk function of Super Metroid, but it’s actually useful. All of this fits together neatly, and works as intended. It’s one of countless nuggets of design decisions in Kero Blaster which makes it more than just a standard indie platformer.
Once the game is over, Kerotan takes the train back to work, and ends his day. But the game unlocks an “overtime” mode on completion. Going back in the game lets you play through complete, harder version of the game, with a different plot, remixed levels, and everything else. Just adding more optional content, postgame or not, is a sign of a really good developer. It’s one of the things I forgot to include in that article from last December, could’ve been a 4th option or at least mentioned or something. When a developer knows the gameplay itself is fun, they’ll include more stuff, even if it’s not original or unique. Resident Evil 2‘s Arrange mode and We Love Katamari‘s Million Roses challenge are prime examples of this.
Speaking of extra content, Studio Pixel released 2 (two!) free demos for Kero Blaster, which aren’t really demos at all, containing new levels and a unique story. Pink Hour and Pink Heaven follow the pink office lady character who is stuck with 2 hearts and one weapon. There’s one level per game, a bonus hard mode (which means an alternate level), and a few different endings based on choices made during the game. If I haven’t yet convinced you to play Kero Blaster, try these demos first. If I have, still play them, because they’re just as charming as the proper game.
Yes, I do want to give up and head to the hot spring
Also published on Medium.