Homebrew games are somewhat of a rarity on the Nintendo Entertainment System (or Famicom, depending where you are reading this), so it's understandable that High Level Challenge's awesome Blade Buster caused quite a stir in the indie gaming and retro scenes when it was released earlier this year. Hailed by many as 'the new Recca', fans of Nintendo's popular 8-Bit were bowled over by the amazing production values - and with it's winning combination of insane speed and a ludicrous number of sprites on screen at once, I had to remind myself over and over that I was playing a NES game whilst writing this review.
Owing a lot of it's inspiration to Hudson Soft's Star Soldier series (in particular the Japanese " timed-competition editions), Blade Buster is a score attack shmup that comes with two game modes; two and five minutes, each ending a epic boss battle. This short game-time may initially sound off-putting to classic shooter fans, but believe me, there are hours of fun to be had with this deceptively little game as you attempt to beat your high score over and over again.
From a technical point of view, Blade Buster is amazing. With dozens of sprites on screen at once, super smooth high-speed scrolling, destructible scenery and massive bosses, there's no doubt that it pushes the hardware to the edge (but without ever causing any noticeable slowdown) and you can see why it is often compared to the aforementioned Recca. The graphics are particularly well drawn, with excellent use of the machines limited palette resulting in the in-game action always remaining clear despite the colourful sprites and backgrounds, matched equally by the quality of the arcade style sound effects and music.
The most important aspect of a competition-style shmup is of course how well it plays, and Blade Buster is a winner in that department as well. In addition to the user-defined time limit you start each game with three ships, and the game uses a mechanic by which you collect stackable weapon power-ups that also act as a shield; if you take a hit when upgraded, you drop a power level instead of instantly losing a life. This means that even novice players should be able to experience the entire game with a little practice, although only veterans will master it.
Aside from the collectable gemstones there are tons of hidden bonuses too - some are awarded when you destroy certain enemies before they attack, other more obvious ones are achieved by destroying special blocks of destructible scenery marked by what looks like a cute pink alien. There's also a massive bonus for beating the game in less than five minutes, and in it's final death throes the first boss vomits out gemstones like a bullet-hell shooter spits out flak (you'll need to turn up your ship's adjustable speed to catch them all). It's a hi-score frenzy that never becomes tiresome.
Blade Buster may get nil points for originality (virtually everything here has been seen before in a Hudson Soft shooter), but when it comes to style and sheer blast-em up fun the game is an out-and-out winner. High Level Challenge have crafted a modern masterpiece, and I'm sincerely hoping that a publisher like RetroZone gives it the proper physical cartridge release that it deserves.
Download the game here (from the High Level Challenge website).
Run it using Nestopia (freeware).