A couch co-op classic celebrates its 40th birthday. Sadly, Super Bomberman R 2 fails to add anything explosive to the formula. Our review:
Not every game needs a story, though they’re often saddled with one regardless. Pac-Man doesn’t need a story, but the medium’s earliest icon eventually grew legs and donned his red, feathered cap to roam Pac-Land. Rampage doesn’t need a story, but Hollywood tacked one on to it anyway to deliver a second-rate kaiju movie that even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson couldn’t salvage. And Bomberman, as surely as its hero’s explosions spread in a neat, equilateral cross defying all conventional notions of physics, doesn’t need a story.
But it’s the 40th anniversary of the greatest couch-multiplayer concept ever devised and there’s money to be made from milking the beloved franchise built around it. So here we are with Super Bomberman R 2, the series’ latest entry, which – as the official website promises with barely-contained enthusiasm – features “incredible amounts of content”. Story very much included.
The single-player campaign provides Super Bomberman R 2’s main attraction as well as (questionable) justification for its premium price: a race to save the universe from total annihilation as envisioned by your latest nemesis. The wicked, semi-corporeal entity known as Fusell has found a way to harness the near-limitless energy produced by Ellons – mysterious blue beings found trapped throughout the worlds you explore – and it’s up to you, playing as the White Bomberman, to locate and liberate as many of the amiable creatures before he channels their powers toward his nefarious schemes.
There are three planets to visit, each with fifteen gradually unlocking areas and a distinct theme: Fulvita is a sprawling desert; Aquastar is a lush underwater forest, and the Black Moon hosts Fusell’s cold, mechanical lair. Blasting rocks will open pathways and occasionally reward you with experience pick-ups to earn levels and upgrade your core powers, such as the number of bombs you can simultaneously deploy and their blast radius, as well as various abilities familiar to series veterans – kicking a bomb in a line straight ahead, punching it over obstacles, or carrying it in your hands to hurl it wherever you see fit. Scattered enemies pose a modicum of challenge but their predictable movement patterns combined with the spaciousness of the environments means they are rarely more than a passing concern.
Therein lies the problem with this incongruous instalment’s raison d’être. The classic Bomberman experience thrives on cramped spaces, a ticking clock, and being surrounded by enemies single-mindedly focused on eliminating you, a relentless ordeal where every choice matters and every misstep is punished. Everything that elevated Hudson Soft’s simple core loop from 1983 into the perfect couch-multiplayer deathmatch (either in one of its SNES or Sega Saturn iterations, depending on which one you first came across) hinges on this delicate balance.
Contrastingly, the solo mode in Super Bomberman R 2 unfolds at an almost leisurely pace, the expansiveness of its level design allowing you to simply sidestep enemies none too bothered with your presence. Instead of scrambling for cover as the world explodes around you, the pedestrian task mandated by Konami’s approach entails traipsing around the 2D overhead sprawl and blasting static obstacles, occasionally rescuing a captured Ellon wherever you happen to locate them. There’s no sense of tension, no challenge – it’s almost the complete antithesis of the series’ traditional qualities.
To address the issue, Konami has introduced several new elements. Liberated Ellons will follow you around in an orderly queue like a brood of confused ducklings and are vulnerable to your blasts, meaning you must steer them out of harm’s way since they’re needed to unlock warp points and puzzle rooms, the latter another way to inject variety into proceedings. But Ellons perished due to your carelessness can be instantly replaced by popping back to camp and puzzles tend to be either tediously simplistic or frustratingly opaque so neither addition brings much to the table. Meanwhile end-of-planet bosses, while thankfully breaking up your monotonous ramble, fail to offer any truly memorable moments, their design uninspired and their offensive choreography so familiar you’ll anticipate attacks even before your first encounter is over. There’s a certain inelegance in the way each of these concepts is implemented, the impression of disparate ideas and mechanics thrown together without too much thought just to see what sticks.
Somewhat more engaging – at least early on in the game – are the combat scenarios where you either invade an enemy base or defend your own. Tied to the much-advertised new Castle Mode, these sieges are more typically hectic affairs where you race against your allies to acquire a key that unlocks a chest located on the other side of a level protected both by elaborate security systems and numerous patrolling guards. A tactical layer is added when the roles are reversed, as you have to deploy your limited defences in a way that will obstruct intruders for the time needed to complete the mission. Even here, however, early excitement gives way to ennui as there are obvious ways to game the system in either role: on offence you can safely lurk near the chest and blast any key-carrying ally, while on defence it’s exceedingly easy to bamboozle opponents in a maze of indestructible barriers. Again, a potentially exciting idea is delivered half-baked.
What remains relatively unspoilt are the game’s various multiplayer modes, four in total. There’s the traditional free-for-all; Battle 64 sees you moving from room to room trying to survive a new set of obstacles and a new batch of opponents in each; Grand Prix pits two teams against each other in a dash to collect the most crystals; and Castle recreates the aforementioned siege scenario in a multiplayer context. Inevitably, there’s a ton of customisation options available for purchase with points earned by completing various challenges and participating in online matches. My experience in those was surprisingly hassle-free with lobbies aplenty and no noticeable lag, even on my spotty internet connection.
But the question kept coming back to me: is there a point to this? To the formulaic narrative and the unnecessary characterisation (we get to learn the personality quirks of all eight bombers and the deeper mystery of the Ellons’ existence in a series of forgettable cutscenes) or to the meandering exploration with its humdrum distractions? Sure, you can always replicate the joys of, say, Super Bomberman 2 by inviting a couple of friends and blasting each other til the early morning hours while a half-eaten pizza shrivels over by the TV table. But do you need a new game for this? That experience, perfect, distilled, has already been available since the 16-bit era and Super Bomberman R 2 does not enhance it in any meaningful way. It only smothers an already perfect core with an excess of unnecessary content.
The classic Battle Mode remains the platonic ideal of the competitive couch multiplayer game, a two-minute rush of pure adrenaline punctuated by last-moment escapes and split-second triumphs. You can still replicate the experience in Super Bomberman R 2, though one wonders whether it makes sense to pay a premium price for the privilege.
Forty years after the Hudson Soft classic, Super Bomberman R 2 adds nothing of value to the formula.