It’s raining cats and…frogs?
The Switch is increasingly criticised for the abundance of ports coming to the hybrid system, yet the video game scene has never been one to escape hypocrisy, as the arrival of Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya’s side-scrolling platform-adventure game Cave Story was warmly received, despite it being the umpteenth port of the game. Now we have Pixel’s follow up finally making its way to a Nintendo system; four years after it arrived on PC and iOS.
Initially, it’s difficult to escape the similarities between Pixel’s Cave Story and Kero Blaster, both share the same pixel aesthetic (visually and auditorily) and both require you to shoot your way through tough enemies. Thankfully this is where the similarities end. Cave Story, whilst not a long game, did fall into the broader Metroidvania genre which often saw you backtrack across its intricate cave system to move forward. Kero Blaster, meanwhile, has been streamlined immensely in comparison. There is no backtracking here, the experience is completely linear, as you control “Frog” from one stage to the next.
Despite the linearity, you will likely be replaying each stage multiple times. Due to the game’s difficulty, you will lose all your lives during a stage more than once, be it around the halfway point or during the boss fight of a stage. Ordinarily, this would be extremely off-putting, especially as the game clearly takes inspiration from the main gameplay mechanics of earlier side-scrolling platform-shooters. However, Pixel has looked to both the past and the present (that being when the game was first released) when designing Kero Blaster, as losing your lives isn’t the punishment it would have been during the late 80s/90s. When this happens, the game does not send you back to the very beginning, instead, you must restart that stage, but you do keep all the upgrades you have earned throughout your play time, as well as all coins up to the point of being hospitalised (which is where you resume from). This gives the game a roguelike feel, but without the frustration that comes from randomly procedurally generated levels.
The level design is spot on, you constantly feel like the game is gradually increasing the environmental challenge, causing you to improve and take advantage of new unlocks you have earned. The utilisation of unlocks is also why the game can only work as a linear experience, after a few stages you are rewarded with a jetpack, suddenly everything you knew about the game is upended. Traversal now presents much more of a challenge and embraces the platformer genre designation. This also greatly affects combat, noticeably boss battles, that become as much about movement as they are directly offensive moves.
As noted, Kero Blaster certainly provides a challenge, which, for the most part, it generally fair. There will be times when you lose a heart and know exactly why it’s your own fault. Other times won’t be as immediately obvious, but through experimentation with the other unlockable weapons, you will discover the most effective method. It is worth mentioning, however, the game feels much more responsive whilst using a Pro controller than standard Joy-Con inputs, for some reason it doesn’t feel quite as floaty.