In the sad goldfish bowl that is my workaday life, there are few things more exciting than the arrival of a new parcel from Japan. The latest box of delights to appear on the doorstep contained copies of Bomberman and Bomberman ’94 for the PC Engine, my current retro system of choice.
It’s strange, given my personal infatuation with all things old-school, pixelated and bleepy, Bomberman is one of the few major games from the eighties/nineties era that I’ve never managed to play until now. This is doubly surprising when you consider that the Bomberman series has appeared on just about every system known to man; Hudsonsoft introduced their incendiary concept over twenty-five years ago on the ZX Spectrum, where it lurked under the unfortunate appellation Eric And The Floaters.
As you’d expect from a game of its vintage, the Bomberman concept is simple in the extreme, and essentially a more anarchic reworking of ideas originally introduced in Pac-Man: monsters float around a maze of blocks while the player exterminates them with high explosives. While the NES version of Bomberman spiced things up with power ups, it wasn’t until the PC Engine iteration that the series really found its stride, with a ferociously addictive five player death match mode, an addition that created a pace and sense of steadily ratcheting tension entirely absent in the series’ single player campaign.
Indeed, it’s only against flesh-and-blood opponents that Bomberman‘s more strategic nature comes to the fore, with split-second decisions making the difference between life or death.
And it was while playing my first multiplayer death match that I realised something else about Bomberman: I’m absolutely terrible at it. While Better Half Sarah glided around the maze, blowing up enemies and uncovering power ups with apparently superhuman ease, I merely succeeded in accidentally destroying myself with my own explosives. “It’s easy,” Sarah said with a casual air. “Just practice, that’s all.”
And so practice I did, and I’ve still yet to win a single match. With frustration rapidly setting in, I decided to try Bomberman ’94 instead. While the Bomberman series evolves at a truly geological pace, Hudsonsoft still managed to introduce one or two new concepts for this ninth instalment. Yoshi-like mounts give players the ability to kick bombs across the screen, leap over walls, run at high speed or, less usefully, do a little jig.
But for all Bomberman ’94’s improvements (including a far more varied and forgiving single player mode), one fact still remains: I can’t play for more than a few seconds without accidentally destroying myself. And just to add a further dent to my pride, Sarah is even better at this version than the first one. After completing a good third of the game with little obvious effort, Sarah sheepishly admitted that she’d spent several hours playing the Megadrive version (imaginatively called Mega Bomberman) in her youth, and already knew the game inside out.
Defeated, I cast my controller aside in a childish sulk. There’s clearly some special gene required by Bomberman that I lack, probably the same missing gene that causes me to become suddenly lost in shopping centres, or makes me fail to recognise a street because I’ve walked down it from a different direction. It’s the gene that makes me catch my coat sleeve on a doorknob, or become stuck between two rocks in an online game of Halo 3.
Because despite its apparent simplicity – which at first glance is only one notch above Hungry Hungry Hippos – the Bomberman series requires an attention span and an eye for detail that places it far beyond the ken of ordinary mortals such as myself; like piloting an aircraft, or performing a delicate brain operation, Bomberman requires a particular mindset, which can recognise patterns and danger within a split second. I clearly lack these skills, but this doesn’t stop me from picking up the controller and trying again, refusing to believe that I can be outwitted by a handful of blocks and an explosion. The minutes quickly stretch into hours.
“Are you still playing that game? It’s 3am,” Sarah pleads from the depths of her dressing gown. “Can you at least swear a little more quietly?”
Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.