Available On: PC
Released: July 31, 1997
“How I Learned To Love The Bomb”
By all accounts, Super Bomberman R for the Nintendo Switch is a generally serviceable Bomberman game that’s simply overpriced for what it is. That’s a shame, because it was one of the Switch launch games I was considering getting for review, but there is no universe in which I’m coughing up over $70 for a Bomberman game.
Still, the mere existence of Super Bomberman R did have one positive effect, it made me really nostalgic for Bomberman. With that in mind, I dusted off my old copy of Atomic Bomberman to see if it’s as good as I remembered it being or if my rose-tinted glasses were obscuring a total dud (pun definitely not intended).
I was nine when Atomic Bomberman came out and as such it was one of the first games I ever played. I’m happy to report that while Atomic Bomberman really shows its age, it’s just as fun to play today as it was in 1997.
Many otherwise hardcore gamers could be forgiven for not being totally familiar with Bomberman, the series has kept a somewhat low profile over the years. For those who don’t know, Bomberman is a top-down strategy game where players try to take each other out with cleverly placed bombs. Before you can blow up your opponents though, you actually have to get to them by blasting your way through the destructible blocks that make up each level, collecting power-ups along the way to give you an edge.
The relatively dynamic nature of the destruction means that players shape the combat arena as they go, keeping the gameplay fresh.
Power-ups are hugely varied, from minor increases to your blast size or speed, to the Gold Flame that grants infinite blast range or the Glove, which lets you pick up bombs, freezing their timers until they hit the ground.
Then there are the Skullz and Ebola. The Skullz is basically a wildcard, granting random temporary effects that can either be extremely helpful or extremely detrimental, granting upgrades like extreme speed all the way to quarter-second fuses. Ebola on the other hand causes multiple negative effects, and both can be passed on to other players by touching them. Interestingly, all pickups act as physical objects where bombs are concerned, stopping a single blast and being destroyed in the process. This can be used strategically, to deny an opponent a power-up or safely remove an Ebola or Skullz from the field.
What I like about Atomic Bomberman is that you can be just as much of a threat to yourself as you can be to your opponents. Many, many times, I’ve been killed by failing to get out of the way of an explosion I created, trapping myself with my own bomb or by placing a bomb within range of an enemy bomb, annihilating me in a chain of explosions. By the same token, many of my victories came because my opponents killed themselves with no input whatsoever on my part.
At a basic level, every map in Atomic Bomberman is the same rectangular room filled with destructible blocks, though nearly every level has some distinguishing characteristic that sets it apart. Inner City Trash for example has a conveyor belt that moves bombs and players along it, while the destructible blocks in Haunted House will randomly regenerate one at a time.
The levels are all done in 90’s pre-rendered graphics that look good by themselves, but have a tendency to clash with the game’s other art assets, most notably the power-ups as well as the bombs themselves, which are 2D sprites and sometimes don’t look like they belong in the same game.
At the end of every match, the winner is designated the “Gold Player”. When entering a new match, a quick minigame starts that takes the form of a spinning wheel of power-ups; granting one to the Gold Player for the duration of the next match.
It’s a neat idea, but it’s implementation is glaringly unbalanced. Firstly, the power-ups it’s possible to win are some of the best in the game, like infinite blast range or the ability to kick bombs. More egregious though, the idea of granting significant bonuses to the winner of a competitive multiplayer game is flawed at it’s very core. If I’m already dominating match after match, the game shouldn’t be doling out upgrades that make it easier to keep winning. Of the six power-ups in the bonus game, one is a speed-reducing downgrade, but the effect is so paltry that it only takes a single speed power-up to bring the affected player back to normal. In order for the bonus game to really work, there needed to be less significant upgrades and more chances to get a downgrade. It’s possible to turn off the bonus game entirely in the options menu, but it would have been nice if it had simply been a little more balanced.
Atomic Bomberman was clearly conceived as a “Cool” version of Bomberman with plenty of 90’s attitude. Visually, this Bomberman bears a lot of resemblance to his classic look, but every part of him seems to be made up of slightly more realistic gear or materials. His helmet in particular, though still rather cartoonish, affects a vaguely militaristic look with his eyes visible through a visor. To my mind, Atomic Bomberman ends up looking much more aesthetically pleasing than the pink and white fashion disaster that is the original Bomberman, with his overall appearance landing somewhere between bomb squad and astronaut.
Despite the visual overhaul, Atomic Bomberman never tries to be gritty or serious, a mistake that some developers are still making to this day. Instead, Interplay did their best to try to give Bomberman a comedic tone, which is probably the best direction for the character. To the extent that the other games have ever tried to characterize Bomberman, he’s usually come off as good-natured and determined but nothing more than that; pretty much your average mascot character, like a completely mute Mario.
The developers did an admirable job of imbuing the game with a sense of humor, with dialogue written for nearly every occurrence, such as picking up and item, being infected with a Skullz, victory and of course, death.
Luckily, these lines don’t trigger every time their associated events happen and there are enough of them that they don’t start to grate. Many lines are more manic than outright funny, but do a good job of infusing the game with a fun energy.
I would be willing to bet that the developers used recordings of their own voices, taken while playtesting the game. Most of them are perfectly adequate, but some are of lower quality and sound like they were taken from someone’s home video, specifically one line of a man seemingly demanding a rematch that gets cut off towards the end. The worst thing you could accuse the dialogue of is not being is particularly funny (depending on your personal taste of course), but it never crosses over into being annoying or obnoxious.
One of the biggest surprises I had coming back to Atomic Bomberman was the fact that when I started up the game, it just worked. If you don’t realize exactly how impressive this is, keep in mind that Atomic Bomberman is 20 years old this year. For comparison, Blizzard had to work long and hard to get Starcraft to run on modern PCs, but Atomic Bomberman benefits from having seemingly been coded by literal wizards.
Even more surprising however, was my discovery of the existence of a hidden campaign mode and a level editor in Atomic Bomberman; seriously, I’ve owned this game for two thirds of my life and had no idea that either of those features were there.
From the player select screen, press the C key five times to enter the campaign. Don’t expect any high quality cutscenes or a finely crafted narrative, in fact, don’t expect much at all. This campaign is more like the story mode of an older fighting game, just a series of matches against one or more AI players, and notable only for the presence of the presumably legally-safe, blue ghost enemies that wander the maps as you battle.
The level editor is much more impressive and paradoxically even less intuitive to access. From the main menu, holding Ctrl and pressing E six times will launch the level editor, which a surprising amount of work has gone into. Players can choose a theme, delete and create different kinds of blocks, change spawn points and even imbue players with power-ups from the start of each match. It’s seems clear that just as much work went into creating this editor as the main game.
It’s just a shame that almost nobody will ever know it exists.
Despite a reasonably positive overall review, I’m not entirely sure I can ultimately recommend Atomic Bomberman. The game’s sense of humor, while not terrible, is a little dated. The mishmash of 2D and 3D graphics may turn off some and the multiplayer is local only, barring a fair amount of legwork, an IPX wrapper and multiple people with copies of the game.
Good luck finding a copy, by the way. Atomic Bomberman is the very definition of abandonware and no Google searches I made turned up any legitimate methods of obtaining it.
Still, for those able to get their hands on it, Atomic Bomberman is at its core a classic Bomberman game and as fun to play as ever. Battles are fast and frantic, the levels are nicely varied and having been programmed with basically the Damascus Steel of code definitely doesn’t hurt either. I wouldn’t exactly call Atomic Bomberman a hidden gem, it’s a little too rough around the edges for that. But my friends and I had a few good afternoons with it and you might too.
+ Classic Bomberman Gameplay
+ Creative, Distinct Levels
– Clashing Graphical Styles
– Unbalanced Between-Match Bonus Game
Also Try: Duck Game, Worms W.M.D.