Boom goes the dynamite!
Some say that if you’ve played one Bomberman game, you’ve played them all. Although I wouldn’t go quite that far, I agree that the series has been nothing if not consistent over the course of its last 35 years and nearly 100 iterations. Sure, there’s been the odd experiment here and there, like 1987’s more exploration-focused Bomber King (aka RoboWarrior) and the much maligned “grim and gritty” reboot Act Zero from 2006, but the overwhelming majority of Bomberman’s outings have stuck close to the cartoony single-screen action of the original.
One thing I was surprised to learn while researching the history of Bomberman is that the very first versions Hudson Soft released for Japanese home computers in 1983 actually starred a proper bomber man (complete with suspenders and pork pie hat) rather than the iconic chibi robot that fans know and love. Human Bomberman got the boot in 1985 when Shinichi Nakamoto was converting the game for release on Nintendo’s Famicom and replaced the main character with a recycled enemy sprite from Hudson’s 1984 Famicom port of Lode Runner: A squat white robot with a single pink antenna sprouting from its head. Whether this was a deliberate creative choice or just a handy shortcut (the Famicom Bomberman was supposedly programmed in one marathon 72 hour work session), it marks the true start of the franchise as we know it and the birth of a mascot character that would remain synonymous with Hudson Soft all the way up until their sad dissolution in 2012.
For those few uninitiated, here’s the drill: Bomberman is plunked down onto a screen densely packed with blocks and enemies. The goal is to use his bombs to eliminate all the enemies and reach the level exit before a timer runs out. Bomberman starts out quite weak. He moves slowly and is limited to laying down one minimally powerful bomb at a time. Fortunately, some of the blocks (designated “soft blocks”) can be destroyed in order to reveal a host of power-ups that will speed Bomberman up, give him more bombs and bigger explosions to work with, and confer a variety of other useful abilities (such as repositioning bombs after they’ve already been planted). Players will need to careful how they deploy their arsenal, however, since Bomberman is just as vulnerable to his own ordinance as the bad guys are and it’s easy to get carried away and become your own worst enemy as his destructive potential mounts. One misplaced bomb or touch from an enemy is all it takes to cost you a life. Simple stuff, really. Later games added more enemy types (including proper bosses), more power-ups, and a variety of stage gimmicks like springs, conveyor belts, and teleporters, but it all still comes down to killing the baddies and reaching the exit before time is up.
Of course, any Bomberman fan (Bomberfan?) will tell you that the single player game is just the beginning. For a vocal contingent, the multiplayer Battle Modes included in most installments are the only game in town. While I personally adore blasting my way through screen after screen of computer-controlled opponents, there’s no denying that Bomberman with friends is one of the great competitive gaming experiences of all time. The desperate struggle to out-fox and out-maneuver your buddies as ever more massive columns of roaring flame fill the screen is virtually guaranteed to eat up hours of your life in what feels like mere minutes. It’s so good that Hudson themselves leaned heavily on the appeal of massive Bomberman brawls to market their multitap accessories for systems like the PC Engine and Super Nintendo.
Which brings me, finally, to 1997’s Super Bomberman 5. This final Bomberman release for Nintendo’s 16-bit system is presented as the grand finale to the Super Bomberman sub-series that began back in 1993. Despite the fact that only the first two were released in North America, five games in four years on a single platform still drives home what a huge deal these titles were in their prime. SB5 shoulders a rather large burden when it sets out to pay extensive tribute to its predecessors while still bringing enough new elements to the table to justify its own existence.
The story here is pretty lightweight. A mysterious villain with a clock for a face named Terrorin has busted a gang of notorious criminals called the Fiendish Bombers out of prison and recruited them to lead an assault on Planet Bomber that only our hero (and an optional second player in co-op mode) can repel. “A group of evil Bombers is up to no good” is Bomberman’s equivalent of “Mario must save the Princess.” As a minimalist justification for some silly fun, it does the trick.
The regular campaign includes a whopping 108 stages divided up into five worlds. The first four world are each based on one of the previous Super Bomberman titles and feature enemies, stage gimmicks, and remixed music specific to that game. The fifth (which is twice the size of any of the prior ones) is home to all new challenges and to Terrorin himself.
Debuting in this installment is the concept of branching paths between stages. Most stages have more than one exit, with a few featuring as many as five. It’s therefore possible to progress from one world to the next and only visit a fraction of the individual stages in-between. You can even find yourself finishing the game with a “bad” ending if you follow one of the easier paths to the final boss. This non-linear layout means that you’ll need to play through the campaign several times if you want to experience every stage and attain a 100% completion rating. Doing this unlocks a superpowered Golden Bomberman character for use in Battle Mode. Thankfully, the cartridge includes a save battery to record your progress, so you’re not required to 100% it in one go.
As for Battle Mode itself, it’s phenominal per usual. Up to five players at once are supported via the Super Multitap, there’s an abundance of arenas to pick from (including some old favorites like the snowy igloo map from Super Bomberman 3), and you have access to more power-ups than ever before. The kangaroo-like steeds called Louies also make a welcome return after sitting out Super Bomberman 4. These guys are Bomberman’s answer to Yoshi and come in six different varieties, each with their own helpful special abilities like leaping over hazards or laying down multiple bombs at once with a single button press. “Bad Bomber” mode is back, too. This allows defeated players to hang out along the edge of the screen and lob the occasional bomb down at the remaining combatants. This is useful for more than just petty revenge, as eliminating another player in this way will allow you to take their place back on the arena floor, effectively granting you a second chance to win the round.
The most significant new addition to SB5’s Battle Mode would have to be the ability to create and save custom characters. Drawing on a limited pool of points, you can purchase upgrades to your speed and bomb power as well as choose from a wide seletion of special powers to start the match with. If you’ve ever wanted to begin a battle with remote controlled bombs, homing bombs, or other awesome gear, now you can! You can also choose your custom Bomber’s sprite and color scheme. I made a speedy green pirate Bomber that can walk through walls. He’s quite the force to be reckoned with early on in the match when most of the other combatants are boxed-in with little room to dodge.
So does Super Bomberman 5 succeed at innovating while still paying ample homage to its predecessors? Is it the best in its class on the Super Nintendo? Yes and probably. As a sampler platter of everything the earlier Super Bomberman releases had to offer, it’s delightful. In terms of original features, the branching paths between stages in single player add a lot of replay value and Battle Mode is greatly enhanced by the new character customization options.
The game’s execution isn’t quite flawless, however. For starters, those same branching paths can also be a right pain if you’re trying for 100% completion. Since there’s no in-game map showing how every stage is connected, you’ll either have to create one yourself as you go or check a guide. If you don’t, you can easily find yourself in situations where you have every stage in a given world completed except for one or two, but you have no idea which path you need to take to actually reach those last few stages. The trial-and-error backtracking necessary to resolve these questions can get obnoxious.
In addition, the way that the boss fight are implemented here felt a step back to me in terms of presentation. Most are against rival Bombers that are also on foot and play out similarly to standard multiplayer battles. As a result, the screen-filling death machines you frequently had to take down in the earlier games are absent here, except in the case of the final battle against Terrorin. These boss characters are still fun to fight. They have their own unique personalities, special powers, and so on. They’re just a lot less impressive visually.
Finally, the game gates off some of its content in what I consider to be a rather sleazy fashion. There are thirteen total combat arenas included in Battle Mode, but three of them are only available if you unlock them first using a cheat code. A cheat code that can only be successfully executed on a Hudson Joy Card controller! That’s right: The standard Super Famicom/Super Nintendo pad just won’t work! Alternatively, you can seek out a special gold cartridge edition of the game that comes with these extra stages unlocked by default, as long as you don’t mind that these are incredibly rare collector’s items that sell for hundreds of dollars on the odd occasion they’re available for sale at all. This was some ultra tacky nonsense on Hudson’s part either way. Boo.
Even with these blemishes, Super Bomberman 5 remains my pick for the best Bomberman experience on the system. Though all five deliver the same timeless blend of addictive gameplay, adorable art, and seriously funky music, this final entry holds the edge over its peers thanks to the sheer volume of the content on offer. It has more levels, more enemies, more power-ups, and really just more of everything that makes Bomberman so great.
The fact that Konami chose to revive the Super Bomberman moniker specifically after a 20-year hiatus when they published the most recent main series entry (2017’s Super Bomberman R for the Nintendo Switch) is a fitting testimony to just how superb and fondly-remembered these games are. Hudson Soft is no more, but that very first bomb they set off back in 1983 still echos across the gaming landscape.