Games nobody talks about anymore: Eric And The Floaters

You probably remember Bomberman. But what about Eric And The Floaters, the very earliest entry in the series...?

These days, the now defunct Hudson Soft is probably best remembered for such games as Bomberman, Star Soldier and Adventure Island. But this unassuming Japanese company, which sadly closed in 2012, was arguably one of the most important in the medium’s history.

Originally founded in 1973, Hudson became one of the first companies in the world to publish and sell games software, initially for computers like Sharp’s MZ-80. When the Famicom launched in 1983, Hudson became the first third-party developer for Nintendo’s debut console. Hudson was also responsible for launching one of the world’s first videogame celebrities – Takahashi Meijin, who became famous in Japan for his superior ’16-shot’ button-tapping skills.

Although founded in the 1970s, Hudson Soft really found its feet in 1983 – the year it began producing games for the Famicom, and when the first iteration of Bomberman first emerged to an unsuspecting audience.

Bomberman’s long-running success is such that almost everyone who’s played it will have their own favourite. Some might favour the various iterations which appeared on the PC Engine. Others may have played it on the SNES, or the superb incarnation for the Sega Saturn. All told, Hudson created more than 70 iterations of Bomberman for a variety of systems, from consoles to computers to mobile phones.

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Bomberman first achieved widespread success on the Famicom in 1985, leading some to assume that the action maze game made its debut on that system. In fact, Bomberman got its start two years earlier on several computer platforms, including the NEC PC-88 and MSX. Called Bakudan Otoko or Bomber Man in Japan, the game even made it to Europe, where it was released on the MSX and ZX Spectrum under the unlikely title Eric And The Floaters.

Although rudimentary from a visual standpoint, the key elements of the future Bomberman games are present and correct. You’re presented with a simple maze of blocks. Some blocks can be destroyed by the bombs you can drop as you roam around, while others are indestructible. The central objective is to destroy enemies – here an army of balloons, or ‘floaters’ – while avoid being killed by either their touch or the fiery aftermath of your bombs, which scythe out in devastating tongues. 

In retrospect, Eric And The Floaters looks and feels like a pared-back prototype for the superior titles that came later. There’s no music, few bonus items, and the central character is a cheerful yet anonymous-looking chap wearing a hat and braces. The balloon enemies are uninvolving blobs, and little match for the cartoon-like characters in subsequent editions.

Interestingly, both Eric and his floating enemies can walk straight over bombs – a detail which completely changes how the game’s played. Later versions of Bomberman allowed you to use bombs to trap enemies (or opponents, in multiplayer mode) in corners and blow them up. Alternatively, a poorly-placed bomb could also see clumsier players destroyed by their own explosions. It’s a play element  that is both frustrating and a key part of Bomberman‘s global appeal – without it, Eric And The Floaters becomes more about timing than strategy. The game remains a playable one (and provided hours of fun in its day), even if it does lack the more absorbing elements of later instalments.

Eric And The Floaters was one of a string of games created by Hudson for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and MSX. Others included train-riding action game Stop The Express, Bubble Buster (a game which appeared to inspire Capcom/Mitchell’s later hit, Pang) and Driller Tanks, an interesting variation on Bomberman‘s maze game theme.

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While those games were avidly played and admired in the west, Bomberman was being ported to the Famicom in the east. In fact, programmer Shinichi Nakamoto is said to have created the Famicom version of Bomberman in a single, mammoth 72-hour coding session. Despite all that bleary-eyed coding, Nakamoto’s version of Bomberman was a massive hit, with game mechanics closer to those of more modern incarnations, and superior graphics and sound. 

Where the earliest version of Bomberman (or Eric, or Don Pepe in Spain) wears  a hat and braces, the Bomberman in the Famicom incarnation is entirely different. Distinguished by a white helmet with a little antenna, the character originally came from an entirely different Hudson Soft game – its Famicom port of Lode Runner, also programmed by Nakamato and released in 1983. The army of robot guards in that game are clearly the same sprites as those in Bomberman.

The hidden connection between Lode Runner and Bomberman didn’t end there, either. Get to the end of Bomberman, and you’re treated to a brief sequence where the Bomberman sprite turns into the central character in Lode Runner. “Congratulations,” an accompanying caption reads. “Bomber Man becomes Runner. See you again in Lode Runner.”

As Bomberman became a hit series in its own right, the Lode Runner connection was quietly dropped. In its place came a frantic five-player mode, which made its debut in the PC Engine version – and with it, one of the greatest multiplayer games of its era was born.

The simple power of the Bomberman template – a grid of obstacles, the sublime chaos of the bombs and their ribbons of flame – is such that it has barely changed since. Indeed, attempts to tinker with the format inevitably failed. (A little-played first-person incarnation called 3D Bomberman appeared on the MSX in 1984, one of several spin-offs which never captured the imagination as the main series did.)

From the hit Famicom version to the more recent portable versions, the Bomberman series owes a huge debt to Eric And The Floaters. Shinichi Nakamoto, who programmed the Famicom port, is widely credited with fathering the series. But look again at the earlier incarnation for the ZX Spectrum, and two programmers are listed: Y Tanaka and T Sasagawa. It seems that we have them to thank for the ideas that would later make Bomberman such an addictive classic.

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