Let’s start by stating the bloomin’ obvious: Bomberman’s concept is brilliant in its simplicity. So brilliant, in fact, that it’s barely changed since the original Bomberman emerged in 1983. You’re a little guy whose bombs disintegrate enemies and obstacles alike; the only downside is, he’s also vulnerable to the tongues fire that shoot out from each resulting blast.
It’s when you add other players to the mix that Bomberman‘s effectiveness becomes apparent. Every bout hovers between victory and humiliating defeat; with anywhere from five to ten players running around planting explosives around each single-screen map, it’s possible for even the most seasoned player to make a mistake. Get stuck between a wall and a bomb, or simply stray around a corner just as an explosion goes off, and you’re out of the game. The result is one of the noisiest, most chaotic and sweariest local multiplayer experiences in gaming.
When series creators Hudson Soft wound up as part of Konami’s portfolio, however, things started going a bit quiet in the Bomberman series. We’ve seen the odd download-only entry appear now and again, like Bomberman Live on the Xbox 360 and Bomberman Ultra on the PlayStation 3, but nothing close to a proper sequel that takes full advantage of the series’ manic possibilities.
Things seem to have turned a corner with Super Bomberman R – a launch title for the Nintendo Switch, and the most lavish-looking Bomberman game in years. If you buy it from an old-fashioned shop, it comes in a proper box and everything. Bomberman and Nintendo have had a longstanding and fruitful relationship almost from the beginning; aside from the NES version, which came out roughly around the same time as the 8-bit computer editions in 1983, there were a string of great sequels for the Super Nintendo, which allowed four or five friends to blow each other up – assuming you had a multitap and enough controllers lying around.
With its anime-style opening cut-scenes and upbeat music, Super Bomberman R initially appears to be a throwback to those 90s golden years – and with an asking price of £49.99 in the UK, you’d certainly expect the definitive version of Bomberman for all that money. Beneath the slick exterior, though, you’ll find a competent yet disappointingly bare-bones rendition of the Bomberman formula.
As ever, Super Bomberman R’s divided into two parts. There’s the story mode, which sees one or two players fight cooperatively through a series of themed worlds. Each of the 50 stages are full of likeably dim enemies that plod about the map; there are also ramps, tunnels and odd little traps to negotiate as you blast your way to victory. Konami’s added a bit of variety by changing the objective on each level – blow up all the enemies, activate all the switches and so on – plus there are a few boss fights that recall some of those in Saturn Bomberman – for this writer, the entry with the best single-player mode of the entire series.
In terms of level design, Bomberman R sadly lacks the intricacy and imagination of that 90s Sega Saturn game. While the characters, now rendered in 3D, are personable enough, the mazes they roam about in are stark and disappointingly colourless – there’s none of the softness and charm, of, say, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, an example of a game that turns 2D characters into 3D with precision and flair.
Put it this way: Saturn Bomberman’s first world was set in a surreal theme park where mice gave out balloons, dogs rode a ferris wheel and a hippo wallowing in a pond went boggle-eyed in fright every time you set off a bomb. Super Bomberman R’s opening world contains grey boxes. Lots of them.
The somewhat drab backgrounds and blocks are all the more surprising given just how bold those anime cut-scenes are – we’d have happily traded Bomberman R’s flat boxes with something closer to those anime-style graphics. Something similar to the adorable pastel design of Namco’s Mr Driller from the late 90s would have perfectly suited Bomberman’s wide-eyed characters.
Visual stylings aside, Super Bomberman R‘s use of 3D brings with it a further drawback, at least in its story mode: the action’s viewed from an odd, canted angle rather than the time-honoured top-down perspective. While this doesn’t always make the game more difficult to play, it never feels quite comfortable, either – the slightly awkward angle, which isn’t quite at 45 degrees but somewhere closer to 25 or 30 degrees, feels far less natural than the old 2D look or even a forced-3D perspective. Most annoyingly, a quick trawl through the visual options reveals that there’s no option to change this; you’re basically stuck with the canted angle whether you like it or not.
Thankfully, the multiplayer mode brings the viewpoint closer to the traditional top-down viewpoint. It’s still not 2D, but it looks and feels far more akin to the Bomberman of old, which makes us wonder why Konami didn’t use the same perspective in the solo campaign.
At any rate, it’s as a multiplayer game that Super Bomberman R finds its feet. The game supports up to eight players, either online or, best of all, locally. In this respect, the experience is perfect for the Switch’s unique hardware; simply unclip the Joy-Con, hand one to a friend, and you can play against each other on the console’s little handheld screen. If you have eight friends and three more Switch consoles, you can connect them all together wirelessly for your own Bomberman LAN tournament, which is about as wonderful a use for Nintendo’s new console as we can think of.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t test out Bomberman R on multiple Switch screens and eight players, but we have tried the game with two players, each holding one of those dinky Joy-Con – and it works brilliantly. The simplicity of Bomberman‘s controls – plant bomb, special ability – means the diminutive size of the controllers shouldn’t be an issue for all but the most ham-fisted players. The polygon graphics aside, the Bomberman concept also remains unchanged, and it remains as fun and competitive as it ever was.
Konami’s also taken the interesting step of paring things back a little from the Bomberman games of old. As you blast your way around each stage, uncovering power-ups that can prove pivotal to your loss or victory, you’ll quickly notice that the items on offer are relatively small in number. There are the speed-ups, more powerful bombs and kick abilities of old, but the Yoshi-like mounts of Bomberman ’94 – or Rooeys – have gone the way of the dinosaur. The result is a more streamlined, easy-to-grasp game, but also one that feels a little skimpy.
What Bomberman R does add, though, are a few lists of items to unlock. These are found in a “shop” category on the opening menu screen, which briefly made us wonder whether – shudder – Konami had sneaked micro-transactions into the mix without us realising it. Rest easy, though: these items are purchased with gems, which are basically the points you earn for blasting through the story mode. With them, you can add extra maps to the multiplayer game, or buy cosmetic items to personalise your Bomberman character – hats, electric guitars, things of that ilk.
All the same, Super Bomberman R is unmistakeably light on features. What’s here is competently put together, and the eight-player local mode offers all kinds of promise. But for such an expensive, relatively high-profile release, we’d have liked to have seen Konami add a bit more bang for our buck: a few more camera options here, a proper 2D pixel art multiplayer mode there.
The good news, though, is that Bomberman’s back. The package may not be perfect, but it’s pleasing to see Konami dust this classic series off; after more than 30 years, Bomberman R still provides one of the most accessible and entertaining multiplayer games money can buy.
Super Bomberman R is out now for the Nintendo Switch.