Bomberman, like so many other franchises at the time, made the move to 3D on the Nintendo 64.
On September 29, 2021, the Nintendo 64 will turn 25 years old in North America. Throughout the month of September, I’ll be covering the console, its games, its innovations, and its legacy. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.
How do you make a 3D platformer work without a jump button? Hudson Soft set out to answer that question in 1997 by combining elements of the more traditional, overhead Bomberman experience with that of its side-scrolling platformer cousins, and the solution they arrived at was an explosive one: Bomberman would simply walk across bombs he had set, using them as platforms, before they exploded. In theory, anyway: the timing of it all was pretty integral to the success of this style of platforming, as you can imagine. Timing has always been the thing with Bomberman. You know, so you don’t explode yourself.
A story in a Bomberman game was nothing new. Even the arena-based games of old had a single-player story to them: it just played out in the same kind of stages that multiple players would attempt to blow each other up in, competitively, in the head-to-head mode of those titles. What set Bomberman 64 apart is that it still utilized the overhead view of those arenas, but in larger platforming stages and action-adventure bits, and all in 3D. The camera could now move around to multiple angles to peer around corners and follow Bomberman regardless of where you directed him, while the 3D environment could be utilized for hiding items or switches or what have you: typical 3D platforming stuff. Seeing it in a Bomberman game, though, wasn’t so typical!
Is Bomberman 64 the best Bomberman game? No. Is it the best fifth generation Bomberman game? Also no: Saturn Bomberman exists, and might also qualify as the best overall title in the series, too. (The “might” is because it’s hard to make a pronouncement like that and have it be universal law, considering over 70 Bomberman games have been released since the original in 1983: I have played many a Bomberman, but I have not played anywhere near all of them.) Bomberman 64 was the first of the 3D Bomberman games, however, and negative reaction to it at the time was almost universally centered on how its multiplayer was a bit of a disappointment: what made the game work in 3D in solo mode made the Bomberman experience a bit more aggravating and less fun in multiplayer. That made Bomberman 64 something of an oddity for a console release of the series, since you could always rely on the multiplayer to be, at the least, a good time, and with the right combination of tweaks and rules and items, it could be a fantastic time. And yet, with this first N64 release, the opposite was true: after reviews made it clear multiplayer wasn’t quite right, you bought Bomberman 64 because you wanted a fulfilling single-player experience.
I should point out that the multiplayer isn’t terrible by any means: it’s Bomberman, and there is an inherent goodness there. It was more obviously disappointing to folks who were familiar with Bomberman and expecting the series’ traditional rules to apply, such as movement in four directions in a more enclosed space, rather than the anything goes, eight-direction movement of 3D. But if you weren’t, well, this could be a lot of fun for you still, for sure. If you were already familiar with the series’ predecessors, if you had already sunk a ton of time into Bomberman ‘93 or or Super Bomberman or what have you, then maybe you felt differently about what was supposed to be an upgrade on a new console.
Regardless of whether you liked or disliked the multiplayer, though, I imagine the single-player campaign is what you liked the best from this game. The story is this: a group of baddies are stealing the energy of various planets using some kind of all-powerful device, and they made the mistake of turning their attention toward the home of our titular hero. Bomberman learns that the only reason he has time to stop the theft of his planet’s energy is because these space thieves aren’t particularly good at using the full power of the device, but hey, whatever works, right? Four environmentally distinct stages and a final stage later, Bomberman has saved the day.
To clear those stages, you’ll need to master the game’s various systems. Bomberman doesn’t just drop bombs, but he can also kick them — an extremely useful skill, since you can strike enemies with a kicked bomb to knock them out, which will make it much easier to catch them in the coming blast — or throw them. Bomberman can “pump” up bombs to make them stronger, which is exceptionally useful for quickly whittling down the health of the game’s bosses, but beware: the blast radius is much larger, and the way you die in this game, as with any Bomberman, is by accidentally blowing yourself up. A larger blast means more opportunities to accidentally off yourself. At least, in this 3D debut for Bomberman, the explosive radius is circular, instead of the traditional cross shape, so it’s a little easier to figure out and avoid on the fly.
Bumping into enemies won’t kill you here, unlike in the traditional arena-based Bomberman titles, but it will knock you out for a spell until you wiggle the control stick enough to get moving again. If a bomb you’ve dropped happens to blow you up while you’re knocked out, well, try not to get knocked out next time, you know? You can fall from any height and not even get knocked out, which is certainly welcome, but Bomberman can’t swim, and he can’t float, either, so try not to walk off any platforms into an endless abyss while you’re exploring.
You’ll be doing quite a bit of exploring in Bomberman 64, too. The game’s setup isn’t like that of its predecessors, in which your goal is to defeat all of the enemies in an enclosed space and then blast your way through obstacles until you find the exit. Here, enemies are secondary: you want to blow them up to clear your path a bit and to collect the gems that help you earn extra lives, but they respawn after you leave the area, so they’re kind of an ever-present threat to be dealt with or avoided, rather than the point. Your goal in these stages is instead to make your way to a giant crystal that’s being protected in some way or another: sometimes there are switches you need to trip in order to open up access to the giant crystal and the end of the stage, sometimes the crystal is being protected (or moved around) by enemies, and so on. Complete a world by defeating its boss, and then you move on to the next one.
Each world has the same setup: stages one and three are the action-adventure/platforming stages, while stages two and four are boss fights. Each stage is hiding five Gold Cards, which in the platforming levels are scattered around the stage, hiding in blocks you need to blow up or held by enemies or what have you: these are often hidden in spots you might not need to go to if you’re just trying to play as efficiently as possible in order to complete the stage faster than the suggested time to completion, so you’re unlikely to collect all the cards and post the fastest completion time in the same playthrough.
In the boss fights, it’s more often about causing damage to specific spots on a boss. Like the Winged Guardian of the first world (seen in the video above), for instance: you get these Gold Cards not necessarily by causing this dragon’s life energy to deplete, but by setting its various body parts on fire. So you can’t just go for the kill if you want to get all of the cards in these fights: the task requires more strategy and better timing and accuracy than that, since you will need to, in the instance of this dragon, set its tail and wings on fire in addition to actually hitting the parts of it will that cause you to win the battle.
Collect the 100 Gold Cards scattered across the game, and you open up a secret world, the Rainbow Palace. Collect the 20 Gold Cards in the Rainbow Palace, and you’ll not only get a fully powered-up Bomberman as the default option for solo mode, but you’ll unlock additional multiplayer stages as well. So, if you’re planning on spending a lot of time with Bomberman 64, getting all of those cards is worth the effort.
Bomberman 64 can be frustrating, but it’s frustrating for the same reasons every Bomberman game can be frustrating in the wrong hands. If you are not patient, if you do not pay much attention to detail, well, Bomberman is going to drive you mad. That’s because it is a game about handling explosives. If you aren’t going to take the time to take a breath and consider your actions when they involve explosives that can kill you, then yeah, you’re not going to have a good time. Take your time, plot out your bomb throwing and kicking and placing, though, and Bomberman 64, like Bomberman in general, feels extremely rewarding.
Bomberman 64 is the first of four Bomberman games on the Nintendo 64, three of which released outside of Japan. Bomberman Hero was the follow-up but not actually the sequel to Bomberman 64. There was no multiplayer at all in Bomberman Hero, with the focus exclusively on the single-player experience. If critics were not thrilled about a comparatively lackluster multiplayer offering in Bomberman 64, you can imagine how well they received the news that there wasn’t any multiplayer at all in Hero. In this game, Bomberman can actually jump, instead of having to plant bombs that he then uses as springboards, and has a life meter, too. It’s more arcade-focused, too, with the goal mostly being to best your previous scores. It was not as well-received as Bomberman 64, but I still would have liked the game to have stuck on the Wii U Virtual Console’s service longer than it did: it was removed before I could buy it to see what it was like for myself, even though Bomberman 64 remains on the shop to this day.
It’s even more confusing of an issue, because Bomberman Hero, like its predecessor, was published by Nintendo worldwide: any rights associated with that might have expired by now, and Konami, the current rights holder of all of Hudson Soft’s properties following their usurping of them, apparently has plans for Bomberman Hero that do not involve it being available to purchase. And yet, Bomberman 64, also published by Nintendo back in the day, remains. Weird.
The actual sequel to Bomberman 64 is Bomberman 64: The Second Attack, which was not especially beloved, either. Reviewers found it to have its bright spots, but didn’t find it as “revolutionary” as its predecessor, and believed the puzzles were all a little too simple, making the game both too easy and too short. The Second Attack is mostly notable for being a late-release N64 game, coming out in May of 2000: it is one of the rarest N64 titles around because of it not selling particularly well and existing so late into the system’s life-cycle. I wish I could see for myself how easy the puzzles are and if the game is more enjoyable today without the Bomberman fatigue that might have existed in 2000, but I’m not going to spend $300 on a copy of the game on Ebay to find out. Spending $10 on Bomberman 64 on the Virtual Console, on the other hand, was an easy decision in order to see if late-90s reviewers were being accurate or whiny with their complaints.
And the fourth Bomberman on the 64 was… also called Bomberman 64. That’s because it was a Japanese exclusive, and what those of us outside of Japan know as Bomberman 64 was called Baku Bomberman in Japan. It’s a shame we didn’t get this other Bomberman 64 in North America, as it was a fully 2D Bomberman like its pre-N64 predecessors, but it didn’t even release in Japan until after the GameCube had already been released in both Japan and in North America, so focus for everyone had shifted from the fifth generation to the sixth at that point. Hudson probably would have needed a publishing partner for an international release — Nintendo published the first two titles on the N64, and Vatical Entertainment published the third — so whatever extra paperwork that would have entailed was deemed too much at that point in time.
I was a bit of a latecomer to Bomberman, so I don’t have childhood memories or any nostalgia attached to Bomberman 64. What I have is a Wii U and an internet connection, and the ability to pick up this game for $10, and I’m pretty pleased with what I got for my money. I have plenty of other Bomberman games — other Bombermen? — to choose from when it comes to multiplayer options, but as far as single-player experiences go, this is a pretty good one. The formula was basically always shifting in single-player after this, so it retains some unique charm because of it, and is worth the effort even if this mode is all you experience. Just remember: you have to be a little patient and thoughtful, or you will blow yourself up.
This newsletter is free for anyone to read, but if you’d like to support my ability to continue writing, you can become a Patreon supporter.