Overall Rating: 4/5 Stars
The original Bomberman video game on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console was released in 1989 by much-beloved developer Hudson Soft and launched a franchise that would see many subsequent sequels and spin-offs on future systems. It did take four years to see Bomberman II take shape, though, as it came out in early 1993.
Bomberman II is an action puzzle game, where completing stages means using strategy while also making split-second decisions for survival. The best way to beat a level is not always the fastest, and as the game progresses, it grows in complexity. There is a thin plot involving a rival Bomberman framing our hero Bomberman for a bank robbery, necessitating a prison escape and eventually attaining freedom through traversing cave, forest, and other areas as well.
From the top-down perspective, the player maneuvers Bomberman through the grids using the directional pad. Pressing A lays a bomb. Each bomb explodes after a couple seconds; unless Bomberman has gotten the Detonator item, which allows the player to explode bombs by pressing the B button, and they will no longer explode by timing. The Start button pauses the game.
That is it, as far as controls go. The bombs explode a flame horizontally and vertically outward, destroying “soft blocks” in the path of the explosion. Permanent “hard blocks,” which can never be blown up, are distributed evenly throughout every level, forming the resulting grid corridors that Bomberman must walk through. The goal of every stage is to destroy all enemies and find the exit, which begins hidden in a soft block.
Every level also has one hidden power-up item, such as the aforementioned Detonator, found on stage 1-4. These items vary from a simple upgrade to blast radius or amount of bombs to lay, from powerful advantages like being able to walk through bombs or soft blocks. However, just as Bomberman grows stronger and more sophisticated in his techniques, so too do the enemies, moving in differing patterns at varying speeds and often able to move through bombs and soft blocks.
There are six areas in the Normal Mode game, each with eight levels, meaning that Bomberman II has 48 stages in total, with 6-8 being the final. Each area usually begins with a few levels that just occupy the entire screen, but later levels within that area will go beyond the border, scrolling to reveal more blocks and enemies on a wider scale. Bomberman always begins the level in the upper-left corner. He may start out on his jailbreak adventure with only a single bomb with a measly blast, but will soon grow to be quite formidable.
Bomberman starts out with a few lives, and upon losing them all, is given a password for the level, which can be entered as an option at the title screen. Score is also kept, and is increased by defeating enemies, including special “Bonus Round” stages about once per area as an interstitial portion, during which Bomberman is immune to fire, there are no soft blocks, and the goal is just to blow up as many of the generated enemies as possible within the time limit. Every level, in fact, has a time limit, although it should only be significant to new players on the first few levels, as the frenetic intensity of later stages largely renders it a moot point.
Although this action-puzzle hybrid is a little more action-oriented that someone as cerebral as, say,Solomon’s Key, Bomberman is still a very tactical, method-focused game. Its unique formula distinctively delivers challenging puzzles of timing, concentration, pixel-perfect maneuvers, and other nuances, all of which just happen to be packed with lovable explosions. The Bomberman games definitely have a signature legacy, and as such a unique entity, are going to fall into the “not for everyone category”: Some people may never quite understand the appeal, but many fans will continue enjoying the grid-based pyrotechnic demolition within.
Bomberman II includes the addition of multiplayer gaming, which was not found in the original title. Vs Mode pits one human player against another, in a one-screen simple grid that starts them off with minimal firepower and demands they find upgrades and kill the other first in a best-of-5 head-to-head series. Battle Mode is tweaked to offer more firepower on the front end, since it includes a third human player and grows very heated very quickly.
For better and for worse, Bomberman II’s main gameplay remains remarkably similar to the original 8-bit Bomberman game. This means that newcomers can saddle right up and dive in without really having missed much in terms of introductory experience needed, but in this reviewer’s opinion, it also represents a sad failure to tweak some of the flaws of the original. For example, both games have a fun feature where, if the exit door is revealed, it will generate a handful of enemies whenever it is inadvertently blasted. This makes sense and adds a thoughtful element; however, due to the timing of the explosions in chain reactions from one bomb detonating another, it is still possible to, in a split-second, have one bomb reveal a hidden item only for another to blow it up, all before the player has a chance to retrieve the item.
This is a fundamental design flaw, in that it discourages the player from forging ahead in explosive exploration, discovering the most efficient ways to eliminate clusters of soft blocks, and playing against the time; instead, it forces bombers to make sub-par placement decisions and play over-cautiously if they absolutely wish to avoid such frustration. A very simple solution: Have items be invincible for a moment upon their appearance. While, ultimately, this is not a crippling issue, there are other minor flaws like this throughout, or some matters that are debatable (example: some levels begin with an enemy that can move through blocks moving straight toward Bomberman, which results in a cheap death or two until the player learns to immediately deal with the threat – is this ploy cheap or clever on the part of the developers?) as to their merit. Essentially, if you strip away the visual updates, the gameplay is not only very similar to the original, but so identical as to still have its flaws as well, to which one can ask: Within those four years time, did nobody think to at least examine the core gameplay and try to improve it, rather than provide what basically amounts to just a reskin?
Of all the tweaks to the original Bomberman NES game, major and minor, the most noteworthy is probably the visuals. From the in-your-face title screen to the overhaul of the main quest looks, Hudson shows off their artistry with crisp, colorful, cool pixel pieces from beginning to end. Every eight-stage Area has a different theme, which determines the color and appearance of the soft blocks, permanent blocks, border, and background color. There are still-frame cutscenes between each areas, showing Bomberman’s continued progression to true freedom. Many of the enemy designs from the original game return fairly faithfully but with an appropriate touch-up. While other elements shine as well, like the fantastic frame-by-frame explosion animation, there is definitely a bit of slowdown when a lot is going on at once on-screen. This is unfortunate, especially later in the game.
Bomberman II sounds great. Hudson was among the highest-quality developers for quite a while, with many player-favorites among that repertoire in the NES days that includes classics like the Adventure Island series, the platforming powerhouse Felix the Cat, etc. One mark of their production value is their sound, which is engineered with pop, precision, and proper pacing in Bomberman II. The main Bomberman theme is back, and the music changes with on-screen events, like discovering the hidden item and signaling additional urgency.
Whereas in many other NES games, the soundtrack sounds as though the programmers had a lot of trouble dealing with the console’s hardware limitations, Bomberman II sounds like the composers were genuinely able to have fun rocking the available channels to their limits. Each Area has its own theme, effectively enhancing the setting and fully encapsulating the environment presentation. The sound effects are subtle, with the exception of the actual bomb explosion, a wonderfully rich effect that sounds like a classic PC-gaming .wav file, multi-layered and complex in its throaty execution. Basically: The sound in Bomberman II is delightful.
Outside of its visuals and multiplayer additions, Bomberman II can hardly be considered original, since it is basically the same game as the original Bomberman on NES; however, it should not necessarily be penalized for such lack of innovation either. The Bomberman formula works: It is a fun way to present the player with action elements in a manner that demands thought, and at a rapid rate of speed at times. The series went onto cross-platform multi-generational success for a reason.
Fans of the original Bomberman game will be unable to find any true reason to dislike Bomberman II, while those who never “got” or liked the first outing will not have much incentive to like the second. It does look much better, but at the cost of what feels like a little more slowdown. It does introduce multiplayer, though in a very basic, experimental sense. The plot of the original was much more compelling: A mining robot escaping his subterranean captivity in its desire to become human. In the sequel, we have a Bomberman framed for a bank robbery; which, while thematically intact, is not quite as grand. Then again, do gamers care about storyline?
All nuanced nitpicks aside, Bomberman II remains a very solid 8-bit video game. Critics will cite repetitive gameplay, fans may see it as the ideal NES action puzzler, and gaming historians can note its firm place within the hallowed legacy of the Bomberman canon. The sequel, the stepping stone to the franchise becoming a true series, blows up four stars out of five.