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Blast Corps is locked in time, but what a time it was

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It can be hard to go back to playing classic games.

Blast Corps, as it exists in Rare Replay and its original form, wouldn't be tolerable today. It's easy to forget how conditioned we've become to having nearly full control of a game's camera, and the camera is Blast Corps is an unwieldy beast. It never seems possible to get exactly the view you're looking for.

It can also be a relentlessly frustrating game. Here's Eurogamer on one of the trickiest levels of the game:

Suffice to say, to pass the nuclear carrier across the first of the Harbour's three major sections, players must judge the arc necessary to fire rockets into a mass of stacked crates, negotiate a cliffside path, jump in a bulldozer to mop up remaining obstacles, use said bulldozer to load crates of TNT (on a timed fuse) onto a crane, then finally, before detonation, operate the crane, dropping several explosive boxes onto an inconveniently placed wharf. That's before you've got the canal boats involved.

That all being said: Blast Corps is so good, everyone. It's just so good.

A relic

Blast Corps had, at its height, only seven developers working on it. Most of the time it was a team of four. So you had a tiny team working on a new platform, the Nintendo 64, which required a huge investment in expensive cartridges which could only be purchased through Nintendo.

Forget digital distribution, Rare couldn't even rely on the relatively low cost of CDs at the time. Creating and shipping a Nintendo 64 title required an enormous upfront cost, making it even more surprising that such a high-concept game was able to come from such a small group of relatively green developers.

But what's what made it so delightfully idiosyncratic; none of the game's goofy ideas were sanded down by committee. There was an out of control nuclear missile that had to get from one side of the level to the other. You had to control an increasingly strange collection of vehicles to knock down every obstacle in its path.

"Our lead artist at the time, Ricky Berwick who is now with Codemasters, was just fantastic," Martin Wakeley, who was then a developer at Rare, told Retro Gamer. "He came up with some really cool ideas for the vehicles and we basically retrofitted them into the play dynamic afterwards."

This is, of course, an ass-backwards way of designing vehicles. One should start with the idea that you were destroying buildings and then think of ways to do that well. Instead, the lead artist just came up with cool ideas and then the team made them work in the game. This is why you have a mech that flies into the air and slams into buildings. This is why there is a motorcycle that fires missiles. It didn't have to make sense, it just had to be cool. They found a way to make it work.

Mastering each vehicle, learning how to beat each level and then explore it without the timer to find all the secrets and then improving your time gave what might have been a simple game a surprising amount of depth. We've already talked about how tricky some of the levels were, but the scoring system was designed to be almost impossible.

"There wasn’t a chance that players could get all the medals, it was just insane," Wakely explained to Retro Gamer. The punishing difficulty actually came from inter-office competitions.

"The platinum thing came about from our QA department. I set the times for the golds, but they wanted a representation to show how well it could be done. It escalated a bit and the Japanese and US QA departments got involved, so it became this intercontinental play off, each QA department outdoing the other. Some of the times were crazy. In truth, I could only get four platinums. Just as a word of warning, if you do get all the platinums it just says ‘you can stop now!’ which I thought was funny, not sure if anyone got to see it though."

So you have the best people with intimate knowledge of the game racing each other to create these punishing goals, and then left a single message for players who were good enough to do it all. This is how the game shipped.

Playing through the game again via Rare Replay I'm struck by the strangeness of the game's details mixed with the simple idea of timed destruction at its core. You have to knock down buildings so a missile can move across each environment without being touched. That's it. Rare was able to take that idea and, with a small team and a willingness to stretch the boundaries of what the players would find tolerable, they made something special.

This sort of thing would never be able to exist as a $60 game today, and certainly not without a number of concessions to difficulty and player control. But as a time capsule from a different world of gaming it's still worth your time.

I'll never be able to beat it, but having it back on a current-generation system is a gift.