Kero Blaster stars a frog with a completely neutral expression on his face. Mouth agape and gun at the ready, the frog takes damage and blasts through wave after wave of enemies without so much as a blink or inflation of his vocal sac.
Stoicism is completely normal for a game of Kero Blaster’s low graphical fidelity, of course, but there’s something striking about the frog’s vacant expression as he moves through the game’s linear, expertly designed areas fraught with bullets, strange enemies, and obstacles of all kinds. A decade ago, Kero Blaster’s creator, Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, used a similar (but, strangely, slightly more sophisticated) art style to hurl a couple of robots named Curly Brace and Quote into the pantheon in his unforgettable breakthrough game Cave Story. He also chose to put the word “pixel” right in his name. What I’m trying to say is that the meticulous visual styles of Pixel’s pre-Kero Blaster games both command and reward respect.
So why that blank-stare frog?
Throughout its multi-year development, Kero Blaster was called Gero Blaster (This gets more interesting, I swear). It’s said that Gero Blaster was loosely based on a series of comic strips Amaya made around the turn of the millennium depicting his then-girlfriend as a long-haired white cat and himself as a bumbling frog. The English translations of the comics leave a lot to the imagination, but they seem to depict the frog attempting strange, extreme attempts to win the cat’s favor followed by the cat performing endearing, magical-realist non sequiturs. The characters from the comic have made cameos in Amaya’s work since then (Azarashi still rules, okay?), and were set to take center stage on Gero Blaster, Amaya’s first side-scroller in a decade and proper follow-up to Cave Story.
The story of Gero Blaster seems like it was similar in scope to that of Cave Story, featuring the frog rescuing the cat (and other, similar-looking cats) princess-style from a shadowy Dr. Wily-style organization. That story will, in all likelihood, remain a mystery: About a year ago Amaya scrapped nearly all of Gero Blaster, hired help for the first time in his career in the form of level designer Kiyoko Kawanaka, and remade his game from the ground up, changing its name in the process. One of the only pieces of Gero Blaster that seems to have persisted is the design of the frog; the cat, now recast as the frog’s co-CEO at a custodial company, now looks completely different from the comic, Amaya’s previous games, and Gero Blaster.
Kero Blaster’s cat is purple, with stringy light hair and sharp sunglasses. She and the frog seem to co-own Cat & Frog Custodial, but the game consists of the cat angrily sending the frog on increasingly dangerous missions from behind her desk on the top floor of their headquarters. The frog’s employees/coworkers, a smiling pink blob and a big black cat who wears a lab coat and boasts one of my favorite character designs in recent memory, slog through their technician duties in between complaining about the overtime that the cat has been laying on them.
The frog never talks back to the cat (or at all), carrying out his orders with an expert’s efficiency even as the cat’s appearance begins to grow stranger and the purpose of her missions somehow begins to come off as both less apparent and more urgent. The blob and the cool lab coat cat presumably need their jobs, but the frog, with his presumable 50% stake in the company that bears his name, seems fueled by a mysterious loyalty to his cofounder. Ordinarily, the expression here might be “grin and bear it,” but there’s a certain abjection in the devoted frog’s face.
None of these details are fleshed out in the game, which paints its story in broad, funny strokes in between straightforward 2-D shooting and platforming in a Contra/Mega Man/Gunstar Heroes mold. The things that need to be good in order to make a game like this good (difficulty ramp, level design, boss fights, weapon choices, upgrades) are good, because this is a side-scrolling shooter made mostly by Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya who, in spite of his exceedingly humble public image, has used his work to make it abundantly clear that he is detail-oriented as hell and does not fuck around in the side-scrolling shooter department.
All these weird loose ends, though—the overtime and the facial expressions and the enemies that are said to represent persistent memories—are what set Kero Blaster apart from Pixel’s other, far more airtight games. Knowing him, some of these things get explained if you beat the game without firing a bullet or by discovering a hidden area in the game’s New Game+ or whatever, but Kero Blaster feels like Amaya coming to terms with a kind of creative—and, given the semi-autobiographical nature of the comic that birthed these characters, maybe even personal—uncertainty. Cave Story was undoubtedly the product of a creator with a clear end-to-end vision. Kero Blaster might be Amaya proving to himself that you don’t need something so overwhelming in order to make something great; following your muse is equally valid, if a little scarier.
When Amaya hard-reset Gero Blaster, his cat went from romantic interest to boss, from passive to active, and from friendly enough to be worth rescuing to domineering enough that her speech bubbles contain stuff that looks like whatever Q*Bert says when he dies. Her appearance changed for the first time in Amaya’s career. During the Gero/Kero era, Daisuke Amaya and the frog both put themselves at the mercy of something unknowable—something which changed lots of their surroundings, but not themselves. Going by the Gero Blaster trailer, it seems to have began with the frog bringing the cat flowers. Without giving too much away, Kero Blaster ends with the cat bringing the Pixel-surrogate frog flowers. All’s well that ends well.
Joe Bernardi is a writer living in Brooklyn. He follows his cat’s orders several times a day. He tweets.