Reviewed: July 7, 2008
Released: June 10, 2008
Blast Works: Build, Trade, Destroy is a new Wii game with a retro edge. Using bright colors and simple shapes, it's the first title in years to really add something new to the beloved scrolling shooter genre.
Shaped by games like Galaxian and Space Invaders, and refined by such classics as Raiden, R-Type and Gradius, these games were staples of every good arcade from the '70s up into the late '90s, and they're no less fun to play at home than they were in the arcades. However, the basic mechanics of these games is so simple, it's rare to find one that really shakes up the norm. Blast Works does just that.
At the core, Blast Works is a side scrolling space blaster in the vein of R-Type, with a twist inspired by the modern gaming classic Katamari Damacy. Players take control of a small, unremarkable ship and fly forward into brace after brace of enemies, blasting away at hostile targets like helicopters, tanks and stealth bombers with a single machine gun weapon.
However, when an enemy ship is destroyed, it (or parts of it in the case of larger vessels) tumbles end over end in a slow arc across the game screen, and touching the destroyed vessel will attach it to the base ship. Some parts simply serve as armor, absorbing hits from oncoming gunfire and kamikaze ships. Many provide additional firepower in and of themselves as well. A simple color code helps differentiate enemy (red) from friendly (not red) fire, which is a good thing, because after a minute or so, skilled players will find themselves in control of a lumbering monstrosity that covers more than half of the screen, often from one end to the other.
It is this amazing visual overload that gives Blast Works much of its charm. After playing hard for a few minutes, players are suddenly reminded that it is a game, meant to be enjoyed: a 20-inch-long ship firing showers of bullets in every possible direction at once is not really useful for technical strategy. It's a dazzling spectacle of zany, Rube Goldberg-esque fantasy engineering that only makes the barest hint of sense. However, even if the game is whimsical in the extreme, it would not be nearly as good as it is if it were not founded on solid core play mechanics.
The "sticky ship" idea has been seen before, in an online game by the same creator called Tumiki Fighters. Part of what makes it work is that this mechanic generates its own unexpected strategic elements. Catching a ship at an undesirable angle may cause its weapons to fire in a completely useless direction, especially considering that many of the collectible parts have a very short weapons range.
Also, using a large, powerful captured ship as a bulkhead for blocking enemy missiles will prove effective, but only for a little while before the part is destroyed and tossed away from the player's conglomerate ship. Learning when to hide behind a wall of junk and when to use precision flying is an important part of the strategic element of this game. And the game's creators left this choice wonderfully easy to make: pushing a button hides everything from the screen except for the base ship, creating a much more vulnerable, but much more maneuverable, target.
Which button is pressed depends on what controller setup is used--plain Wii Remote, Remote and nunchuk, and the Classic Controller are all supported. Flying without any extra offense or defense recalls classic scrolling shooter games more closely than any other modern title, with their unique emphasis on twitch reflexes and a steady hand to guide a player's ship to victory--a welcome challenge for anyone who remembers playing Twin Eagle or similar games in an arcade years ago.
The basic mode of play in Blast Works is Arcade mode, in which up to four players can work together simultaneously to clear each stage. It doesn't take a lot to imagine the kind of chaos that fills the screen during a four-player session. The incomprehensible visual noise brings Blast Works from an arcade-style game solidly into the realm of a party game (in a good way). There's little chance for strategy as innumerable parts and scads of colored bullets fly every which way. Four-player mode is an invitation to revel in the zaniness of the whole endeavor. It's unapologetic and fun.
Aside from the four-player madness, one or two players can engage in Arcade mode or Campaign mode (the main difference being that Campaign mode allows players to unlock content, while Arcade mode does not). At the two-player level, strategy plays a more important role: one ship can hide under the captured junk of the other when needs be, or each ship can cover a different part of the screen in order to clear enemies more quickly and efficiently. Teamwork is very important in two-player mode: if one player's ship is destroyed, the other player should hide his or her extra junk to allow the newly spawned ship to accrue some of its own first, and so on.
Blast Works offers some online connectivity via WiiConnect 24, but falls short of actually providing online cooperative or competitive play. Instead, by visiting the Blast Works website (www.blastworksdepot.com) and queuing user-created content, players can add new ships, weapons and levels to their libraries for enjoyment at home.
This, of course, brings us to the last important mode of play in Blast Works, the Editor. Although hardly user-friendly, the Editor's interface (which is explained fairly well in the instruction booklet) is infinitely flexible, particularly for CAD fanatics.
In this mode, players are allowed to alter, or create from scratch, various enemy and player ships, weapons, environmental objects and even entire levels. Using a toolset of geometric shapes and camera views, practically any new object imaginable can be created. However, the process is painstaking and requires excellent spatial reasoning. Personally, I found it to not be worth the effort to create something completely new, but adding edges, angles and planes to existing objects felt much more rewarding.
Regardless of the player's level of interest in this mode, it's a great addition to the game that, in theory, allows for infinite variation and replayability. As previously noted, player-created content can be posted to the Blast Works website for others to download and enjoy, or sent to friends who also own the game, if public works aren't someone's cup of tea. Additionally, the game comes pre-loaded with a handful of levels designed to show off the capabilities of the editing system, which also turn out to be very entertaining to play. In particular, the level done in black-and-white lines, with paper planes as enemies, was lots of fun, recalling the bygone era of the Casady and Greene classic, Glider.
Let no one accuse Blast Works of being the most visually advanced game on the market. At a glance, the game appears as though it would fit right in on one of the last-generation systems. Colors are done in wide swaths, textures are nonexistent and polygon counts are almost criminally low. However, given the sheer amount of stuff on screen at any given time, it is a testament to the coding of the game that even at the most hectic of times, slowdown is nonexistent. This game would not have fared as well on an older system--the number of moving objects can become very intense, especially during boss fights.
Overall, the effect of Blast Works' simplistic, unabashedly geometric shapes is to give the game a retro look reminiscent of the early Virtua-series arcade games by Sega. It also helps broaden the game's appeal that almost all of the ships look like block toys. The colors are bright, the game moves fast and the spectacle of it all in motion is actually much more impressive than any screen capture could really illustrate. Despite the lack of flashy particle effects or dynamic backgrounds, this is a game that comes off looking professional and current.
Tiesto it isn't, but the pulsating, ambient techno-style soundtrack of Blast Works adds a lot to the game in its own way. None of the songs are particularly catchy or memorable, but they provide a good sonic backdrop for the fast-paced action, with aggressive beats that get players in the mood for blasting through enemies even at the main menu screen. It is also nice that the song selection is randomized--players will never have to slog through listening to the same song every time they want to tackle a particular level. In keeping with the rest of Blast Works' aesthetic, the system is stripped down and streamlined, and it works.
Sound effects are surprisingly minimal for such a weapons-heavy game--none of the weapons have effects attached to them. This is a sensible decision considering the amount of weapons fire on-screen at any given time during play, but some sort of basic effect for the main gun would have been a welcome addition. When a player's ship is destroyed, the associated Wii Remote vibrates, but the explosion sound is fairly small otherwise. The best use of a sound effect in the game is probably the siren that warns when a boss is approaching--it gives players enough time to get psyched up for the fight and take their starting positions.
The more geometrically minded the player, the greater the value Blast Works offers. With its limitless Editor mode, this game offers creative opportunities of the sort normally reserved for development teams alone. Everything aside from the basic physics of the game can be altered, provided players have the patience to do everything meticulously, one step at a time. Even for those of us who shiver at the thought of geometry (like me), this title still offers much more than the average scrolling shooter game. It's a tough yet whimsical arcade game in the hands of one person, a strategic endeavor in the hands of two, and a no-holds-barred party game when all four players are engaged at once.
The unique "sticky" play mechanic ensures that no fight is ever quite the same twice. In addition, even people who never create anything in Editor mode can still get access to what promises to be an endless amount of user-created content via the Wii's wireless internet connection. Last but not least, no less than four full, separate video games (including the original Tumiki Fighters) are featured as unlockables in the main game! For $39.99, it would be hard to find a better deal currently available for the Wii. For gamers who like this type of shooting game at all, Blast Works is highly recommended.
It is rare when a new game is released for a major platform with no discernible connections to any other franchise on the market. This is unfortunate, because some of the best games ever released have been largely overlooked by consumers in favor of endless sequels--gems like Ico, Rez and Intelligent Qube. I won't go so far as to say that Blast Works: Build, Trade, Destroy is one of the best games ever released--it isn't.
But it is a very good game nonetheless, one that is bold and unafraid to try new things, and which, in doing so, advances the entire scrolling shooter genre. Simplistic appearances aside, this game offers a great balance between technical difficulty and goofy, unabashed fun. It even ups the ante with a content editor and extra unlockable games.
To pass it up in favor of something less original would be a crying shame. It is important that we as players continue to support smaller releases like Blast Works in order for even more unique and interesting games to get published, and this is one game that's very much worth the money. The next time you're considering what game to purchase, don't forget about it.