“Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
-Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore, Apocalypse Now
What this? A second Nintendo Switch review in a single week? A game developed by Konami in 2017? And it’s a Bomberman game, the likes of which we haven’t seen in seven years? Believe it.
But is this Nintendo Switch exclusive, developed by both Konami and HexaDrive in the stead of a dissolved Hudson Soft, real dynamite or merely a blast from the past? Beneath the bombastic explosiveness of Bomberman R, underlying its sugary, energetic loudness, there’s a core aspect of the game series which remains intact and as fun for couch co-op as ever. The anime-esque presentation, hit and miss voice acting, and baffling 3D environs may detract from the experience for some but fans of the series will immediately feel at home with gameplay that’s remained essentially unchanged. This alone keeps it from being a total bomb but if you’ve tired of the limited Bomberman play-style before, chances are you’ll have a short fuse for facelifted Bomberman R, as undoubtedly as you’re growing tired of these bomb puns (sorry).
It’s a good thing then that this core gameplay is as fun as it is, as it’s always been, because that’s just what we expect from a Bomberman game. I was pleased to know, despite dusting off the name and sprucing it up, that this Bomberman hasn’t changed much at all and R tosses to the wayside some of the cluttering frills that the series has picked up over the years.
It’s a case of not fixing it because it isn’t broken. On the PS3, I had a heck of a lot of fun playing Bomberman Ultra with friends. There’s an eight year gap between Ultra and R but they’re both rather similar. Think of the difference between Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World and that’s just about right.
Super Bomberman R is an action-maze game in which player characters navigate miniature labyrinths and drop bombs to entrap and blastigate their opponents. Some of the walls in the maze can be destroyed, ensuring the playing field is constantly changing, and this also reveals the occasional power-up. Power-up items come in many varieties, though there are a few missing from previous Bomberman games. A new one, at least on me, is the Goo Bomb (not sure what else to call it) which will bounce off walls when kicked.
R boasts both a story-mode for one to two players, and a battle mode that hosts up to eight characters at once. Eight players locally would be amazing, if you could actually get enough Joy-Cons together for it. R’s main draw will be its multiplayer, Bomberman’s characteristic feature. If you’re playing it alone, you may need to rethink your social tact. If you need a friend, call me up: 1-900-RED-MAGE. Please deposit 1000 gil.
The multiplayer battle mode is the meat and potatoes of the game. We’ll get to that familiar aspect later since I want to delve into the quaint story-mode, which played a large part in R’s marketing.
The game begins with the rictus grinning patriach, the evil Emperor Buggler, calling up from a dump heap his the dastardly five, a quartet of cool-factor bombers dedicated to destroying organic life. Sound horrific? Well, the subsequent cutesy cutscene which introduces you to the adorable eight will reassure you. The eight Bomber Bros. are due to undergo rigorous training, all to maintain their status as the protectors of humankind, except they are all pretty much slackers.
The only Bomber who isn’t lazy or indifferent is White, the eldest and the leader of the group, evidently the one in charge of training this motley crew. Next in hierarchy is the Black Bomber, described on the official website as “Vain and narcissistic to the point that it’s a little embarrassing, Black tries to act the cool pragmatist, but in reality all he really excels at is coming up with excuses for slacking off.” So of course, Black become my go-to character, despite the fact I’m a red mage. My lil brother even said I sounded just like Black when he brags at the end of a round. It’s like looking in a mirror!
Pink, the third eldest, is a friendly girl who loves sticking her nose into other people’s business, though she means well. Blue is a perpetually fatigued narcoleptic whose sleep disorder masks a talent for computer hacking. Red is a quick-tempered monster self-styling as a hero. Yellow is the kind of dude that life can never get down, infinitely happy and very naive. Aqua is a well-mannered pacifist who wishes for nothing but peace, until her temper gets the best of her. And Green, the youngest of the Bomber Bros., is the cute little baby of the group who abuses his adorability to manipulate others.
When Emperor Buggler announces his plans for intergalactic conquest, demanding the obeisance of all life-forms, it’s up to White to spearhead an assault and lead his reluctant siblings on the offense. The Bomber Bros. will need to travel to each of the planets in their solar system to defeat the Five Dastardly Bombers, until they reach the Emperor himself.
For those expecting a graphic, rated-R bloodfest because of the title, I’m sorry. It’s a cheesy, tried but true story with little in the way of twist or intrigue, but it’s there to provide a framework for a brief but enjoyable campaign. Completing the story mode will earn you (spoiler: highlight to reveal) the ability to purchase any of the Five Dastardly Bombers from the Shop as playable characters.
The Shop allows you to purchase cosmetic items and additional stages for the battle mode. In-game currency (NOT micro-transactions, thank you very much) is collected by simply playing the game’s different modes.
The most fun to be had from the story mode are the boss fights. At the end of each planet, a duel with one of the Five awaits. This initially plays out as a 1v1 or 2v1 encounter, until you reach the boss’s second form. This kind of blew my mind, since playing outside of the mazes and corridors and facing a huge boss monster was something I hadn’t experienced in a Bomberman game before, at least not that I remember.
As for the multiplayer battle mode, this is where Super Bomberman R has its replay value. Local multiplayer is streamlined and as enjoyable as ever, and the Nintendo Switch seems perfectly accommodating for that experience. To be clear, I only own a single set of Joy-Cons so my local multiplayer experience has been fairly limited (except for that one time I found someone else with a Switch at work, which was awesome), however the ability of the Switch to seamlessly switch from single to multiplayer is of tremendous value to R.
I even played a little online multiplayer today, just to say that I did it. I’m usually pretty adverse to online multiplayer.
I don’t care for playing against strangers. I don’t particularly enjoy being smashed by that one Korean guy that hangs out in all the rooms. I’m not keen on being called any number of inflammatory slurs by a preteen. Luckily, I didn’t experience any of that today. I guess that means I was the one doing the smashing of strangers, but of course winning feels better than losing even though we all know that sportsmanship is the key to true happiness… right? …Right?
Ahem. Because the Switch features minimal online networking, the kind where you apparently can’t even send a friend a message, there’s no need to worry about being called a name you weren’t born with. Heck, my online multiplayer bouts even ran pretty smoothly, which is a miracle considering I have the reprehensible Time Warner Spectrum. I’m not at all sorry for putting them… on blast.
The 8-bit Review
The graphics in Bomberman R accomplish one thing really well and fail pretty miserably in a completely different area. First what the game does well.
The new character designs are wonderful. The comic book look that dominates the game’s cover is translated into the game itself and the developers did an excellent job of updating the stumpy, frowny characters in Bomberman that we’ve been used to for quite a while. Here, they look as iconic as emojis and they display quirky personality traits reminiscent of the most self-indulgent animes. If it seems like there’s too much going on in some of these images, that’s because there is. Sometimes there’s so much to look at that small details like the pseudo-3D perspectives on the cartoonish bombermen bodies might go unnoticed. I thought it looked like a really high quality flash animation. That’s not going to impress everyone but wait there’s more.
The busyness of the graphics work alright for the cutscenes but it’s when you’re actually playing the game that all of the hubbub, strobing colors, acid-tones, lighting contrast, and unusual angles become disorienting. I’ll go so far as to say that every three out of four deaths I suffered in story-mode were due to not being able to see the enemy right in front of my face, or trapping myself because I couldn’t tell the difference between a platform and a ledge dropping down to a lower level. At times the camera pans out so far and aims at such a perspective that it becomes almost impossible to see what’s going on and I had to slow my progress to a crawl. I told myself I had to focus in order to make it through this game. I even had to turn the difficulty down to Beginner. It wasn’t until after I beat the story-mode that I found a setting which fixed the camera. Hopefully that remedies some of the game’s over-dynamism.
As flashy and attractive as the visuals are, when any game’s graphics become an obstacle to actually playing that game, then they’re just not good, even if they look good. With a little practice, I surmounted this threat to gameplay, but it’s there nonetheless and it made the story-mode an occasional drag.
This soundtrack is like a sugar-high. Its bubblegum techno-pop treatment of the repetitive Bomberman theme (above) sums up the totality of this soundtrack. Not much of it is memorable while at the same time being catchy. There’s a fine line there somewhere. When you hear it, you know it’s going to be stuck in your head but that’s not the same thing as being a landmark in terms of music.
This is the kind of stuff I’d expect to hear in some pastel-colored fro-yo place, and thus it’s perfectly at home in Bomberman’s hyperactive universe of unending and harmless explosions. The song above, from the cyberspace planet, is the only story-mode song which got my toe tapping. Just one toe, mind you. It’s not too often this happens but the song sounds like an old school 80’s rhythm variation. Actually, I immediately thought of this song (skip to 00:52) from Whitney Houston circa ’85, and I have no idea why. My mother was a fitness instructor when I was a child, so the repetition of these aerobic songs has never fully left my brain.
And then there’s the voice cast. I’m sure many of these folks are talented… in other productions. For some reason, and it’s not too hard to imagine why, it sounds like the cast is taking nothing seriously. Actually, I thought it sounded like a bunch of grown ups pretending to play with their kids and their action figures, “doing voices” for the characters. Maybe it had to do with the direction, or maybe this is the kind of vibe they wanted for this game, but the voice work isn’t terrible, it’s insincere. I suspect that’s even worse.
Lots of gameplay elements will look familiar from the power-ups to the bombs that explode in vertical and horizontal columns of fire. They made a few attempts to mix things up with varying enemies in story-mode, as well as mazes that feature slippery patches of ice, elevators and moving platforms, columns of stacked boxes, and switches and hidden keys. Luckily, these quirks and perks don’t overtake the core of the gameplay. R feels like a Bomberman game should feel, provided you can see what you’re doing among all the high resolution detail.
The bosses are perhaps the most welcome variation to the classic Bomberman blueprint. I really enjoyed having to think on my feet and find the boss’s weak spot in each battle. The Five Dastardly Bombers nicely frame the game in this way, feeling like the robot masters from the Mega Man franchise. They are Magnet Bomber, Golem Bomber, Phantom Bomber, Karaoke Bomber, and Plasma Bomber, in case you’re curious.
These encounters also tested a different skill set than the one typically employed while navigating mazes and blasting smaller enemies. Not all of the boss fights are these incredible, transcendent experiences hailing back to the glory days of bosses, though. The last boss and the fight against the Karaoke Bomber are both kind of a chore.
I’m not sure that anyone will care immensely if the story of Bomberman R is spoiled for them, but just in case, I’m dropping this SPOILERS warning here. I’ll be talking about the tiddly bits of this game’s narrative in this portion. If you’d like to avoid it like a ticking time bomb, then hit Ctrl+f Multiplayer to jump to the next section.
After completing the story-mode, I’m not too sure that this game really needed a story at all. It’s there, but it won’t be the most memorable thing about the game. That’s relegated to the multiplayer experience. This is just your typical “bad guy wants to conquer existence and then blow it all up and only the heroes can save the day”.
Also, Buggler is a weird villain. I’ve a sneaking suspicion he’s a recurring franchise villain but I can’t be sure, based on memory alone. The game is plenty of fun and as mentioned the Five Dastardly Bombers phrase the game nicely until the final confrontation which just seems a flat.
Rather than merely making a complaint, I’d say that what would’ve been cool is if the Bombermen were vying for control of separate quadrants of the galaxy and the game played out almost like Risk but with bombing encounters between the players and their factions. That would’ve been plenty more interesting and it would’ve played up on the different bombers and their personalities. I think it also would’ve felt more modern too and less like a Saturday morning cartoon, provided they still kept it lighthearted. Oh well. Maybe they can reserve that concept for Super Bomberman S.
There are two interesting points in the storyline to take note of. In both instances, the story does nothing to prey upon emotion or dive too deep to really make the revelations worth while. This might be another missed opportunity or it could just be filler for a game with a story-mode you won’t care about anything.
The first instance of interest is the surprise that Karaoke Bomber happens to be none other than the missing bomber sister, Pretty Bomber. Not much explanation appears as to why she specifically went rogue or walked away from dutifully protecting the organics, but there it is anyway, and the good guys ponder at her identity for a moment until deciding upon her true identity mere seconds later.
The second instance of interest, and one which is much more fascinating to me, is the revelation that the Five used to be protectors of humanity and heroes before they turned evil. It appears as if they’d had some kind of forced amnesia, probably thanks to Buggler, who revives them from a junkyard planet where it seems they’d been discarded before the start of the game. Plasma Bomber recalls that he used to love humans and be loved by them in his youth, but some sort of realization that they were like robotic toys meant to be eventually thrown away made him turn against the organics.
There’s an engaging bit of philosophical back and forth between Plasma and White after you defeat the foe, where Plasma asks White why he insists on defending mankind despite the fact that humans make machines, then eventually grow tired of them and throw them away like trash. White responds “Protecting the universe is the reason we exist!” Essentially, it’s a non-answer.
The concept of free will coupled with robotics is one which has been bandied about through much of video game history, to varying success, but here it’s only given a passing glance. That’s a bit of a shame, though you can’t really expect much of a dissertation on determinism vs. free will in a Bomberman game. I was surprised they even touched on the issue at all. For White to essentially say “I chose this because I was programmed to choose this” is an interesting answer in what it reveals for the bombermen, that they’re not autonomous automatons. The realization that the Five were just Buggler’s puppets in the end seals the deal. You were playing with fatalism the whole time since none of your characters are free agents. Depressing! \ [ ^_^ ] /
Though the actual battle mode remains consistently straightforward, namely without much variation beyond “blow up your enemy in this maze”, there are several different ways to organize a multiplayer match in Bomberman R. There are the different set ups with the Joy-Con and Switch itself, pairing up multiple Switches or dropping several players onto a single console at once for an epic local bout. There are also different online modes, as well, such as league battles and free battles. League battles focus on earning BP (bomb points?) to graduate to higher tiers from Baby to Novice to Champion and up. If you lose, you’ll lose some BP so that can drop your league level. I presume this helps evenly match players with different amounts of experience playing the game and hence skill. The free battle mode simply lets you set up a room or look for a quick match with custom rules.
Multiplayer actually got my heart racing a few times. Nothing beats the sheer thrill of trapping your best bud and watching them get blown to digital smithereens. Multiplayer is going to be the definitive reason for this game’s existence and this game is currently the best multiplayer game on the Switch, in my opinion.
Without too many bells and whistles, and with the option to play on a single Joy-Con, needing only to press one or two buttons plus the d-pad, it’s pretty easy to pick up and play a match with friends. Even if those friends have never played a Bomberman match before in their lives, it’s easy enough to teach them how in less than a minute. Bomberman R is one of those games that’s so well balanced in its multiplayer matches that it’s easy to learn and it’s easy to develop your skill while playing it. Masters aren’t made overnight and your brain will have a lot of fun trying to work out the radius and bisecting lines of the bomb blasts, but you might just get hooked.
With Super Bomberman R being as unchanged as it is from the classic Bomberman formula, it may come as something of a disappointment to those who were looking for something new from the series after so much time has passed. Since I own Ultra, in retrospect I only bought R because there wasn’t much else to purchase for the Nintendo Switch at launch and I wanted a party game to play with friends. And I wasn’t about to breakdown and buy 1-2 Switch! Familiarity meant R was immediately accessible and as engaging as ever, but as they say, to some extent familiarity breeds contempt. A few more significant alterations to the basic formula might have put this game on the proverbial map.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
All in all, Super Bomberman R is a great multiplayer game with a weak campaign mode, some fun visuals for cutscenes and some feeble voice acting. Interest in it won’t last to the same extent as other Switch titles (*cough* BotW *cough cough*) but it remains a great game to own for that pick up and play value when friends come over, or if you’re out and about a social gathering. Those still happen for some of us, you know.
I’m not convinced that Super Bomberman R is really worth its price tag. It’s just not that big of a game and most of us have played it all before. I’m confident I’ll return to it now and then for a quick match, but the experience won’t stick with me five or ten years down the road. It’s like the temporary rush of eating too much candy. Bomberman R is impermanent.
Bomberman is now the same age as Jesus at 33 but Bomberman is a lot less accomplished. You know what’s even worse? I wrote thirty-five hundred words here and I still don’t know what the “R” stands for.
Aggregated Score: 6.6