Version tested: DS
There is a confession I have to make, and it's as well that I get it out of the way now. I suck. At Bomberman 2. I am endlessly found hanging around just inside the blast radius of my own bombs, joyfully entering cul-de-sacs in front of hungrier, more talented players and gleefully toddling over to poison skulls to savour their various debilitating flavours. I'll loiter quite blithely on floors flickering with the ominous orange of impending flames and stare, entranced, at the sparking laser warming up just in front of me. And this is just single-player - traditionally the relatively sedate and simple cousin of the main, multiplayer, event. The Stephen to multiplayer's Alec.
Starting up a multiplayer game is a whole other world of ownership, trounced regularly into last place against 'super easy' CPU opposition and the likes of the Eurogamer tech team. The tech team.
You know what? While I'm at it, I have another confession to make. I have very little patience. With almost everything but Bomberman 2.
Because, despite regularly watching my adorable avatar roasted cruelly inside his suit like a tiny, wide-eyed pig-in-a-blanket, the tide of verbal effluent that usually pours forth when I lose at stuff never transpires. There are no tantrums, nary a pout, snarl nor stamp of the foot. For me, and I would guess for a lot of regular gamers, this is pretty unusual.
Because, to a point, even losing at Bomberman 2 is actually pretty fun. Obviously, being handed your arse on a plate has its limitations as entertainment, but rarely do I find myself so eager to re-enter a fray which I fully acknowledge I have a very good chance of losing. That's not to say the game is particularly easy, because it's not - it's fair and consistent, but the later single-player stages are often bastard-tough. However, for someone without the dexterity and reaction time of a starfish on Valium, the basics are not a massive challenge.
Take the single-player campaign. Ignoring the bobbins plot about viruses and virtual bombermen, players are presented with a sequential mission selection, a path which branches later on and allows for back-tracking. Usually, each mission is formed of three sub-sections, which each consist of a separate goal. These are the pretty staple achievements of killing specified enemies, finding keys and hitting switches. Once each third is cleared, a door opens and players continue. At the end of the third stage is a 'warp gate' that clears the level.
The sub-sections are short, generally a screen or so each, and rarely take more than about 45 seconds to complete - handy when each level is on a three-minute time limit. Occasionally there'll be a stricter, sub-section-specific time-limit to beat as well. Every so often, at the fifth and tenth stages of each themed area, there'll be a special one-section puzzle or boss. Each theme adds a specific twist to arenas, such as bomb-magnets, conveyor belts and huge frickin' lasers.
However, the main evolution of the single-player mode is the addition of the RPG elements. Completing levels grants players experience points, accumulating toward experience levels that open up better equipment for use. This is where things get interesting/sacrilegious, depending on your viewpoint. Occasionally, during the due course of making things explode, parts pop up in arenas, in helmet, suit, glove and boot varieties. Collect these, and finish the level and they'll become available for the next mission. Each affects Bomberman's stats to varying degrees, according to their function, and can offer special skills when combined in sets.
XP, levels, equipment, skills, armour sets. Doesn't sound very Bomberman, does it? Well, yes and no. It is a bit odd at first. Especially adapting to the health bar in the bottom left of the screen. Walking into a flame or enemy and surviving seems a bit wrong somehow. Less immediate. I got over it. For someone as pyromaniacally retarded as myself, it quickly becomes a welcome boon. Before long it's apparent that the bells and whistles, the gaudy decorations on one of gaming's most pure trees, are an actual improvement.
Once a decent and varied enough armoury has been amassed, I find myself switching between sets and specifics to fine-tune the statistics of flame, power, armour, bombs, speed and tech. Stats are fairly self-explanatory, apart from tech, which boosts the effectiveness of life and time packs. It's surprisingly in-depth, without ever dulling the joy of frantic detonation, and gives an extra level of immersion to the experience. Levels are quick, fun and frantic in the best of Bomberman traditions, with boss battles reprised with their familiar hand-clapping/tooth-grinding lunacy. Despite the added complexity, very little of the original's simple charm has been lost.
If that still all sounds a bit D12-rolling to you, then stick to multiplayer, because this is where Bomberman still shines brightest. Here the action is stripped back to the essentials which made the series so popular in the first place. You, in a maze, with people and bombs, plus a slew of power-ups. Not even the silly power-ups, just the basics of flames, bombs, TNT (meaning your flames penetrate destructible blocks, rather than being stopped by them), speed, kick and throw. The health bar is abandoned in favour of traditional one-hit-kills harshness. Pure.
Of course, there's a plethora of different game modes and ridiculous arenas to play around with, with mixed success, but essentially multiplayer remains as it was when it was best. Some recent additions are excellent, though, such as the revenge mode, where being knocked out puts you on the sidelines in a movable, bomb-launching chair, pelting the field of play with golden explosives. Take someone out with one of these and you're back in the game in his or her place. Perfectly apposite to the Bomberman ethos. If you're playing with CPU opponents, the game speeds up once all human players have been expunged, meaning that lengthy AI standoffs are a thing of the past.
Generously enough, there's an option for 8-player local wireless matches operating from just one cart, and of course it's during the hectic free-for-alls that ensue that the game's most wonderfully sadistic, humiliating and frantic moments can be found. Playing online is limited to four-player only.
It's not perfect. The slightly analogue feel of the non-snapping grid, combined with the slightly imprecise nature of the DS's d-pad, can lead to accidentally peeking out from behind the cover of the indestructible blocks, and getting roasted face for your troubles. There are annoying quirks to some of the campaign areas, overly tough enemies and occasionally infuriating spikes of difficulty. Many of the multiplayer modes and maps are similar enough to not warrant separation. But not once did I cry "Unfair!"
It oozes charm, accessibility, silliness and fun. It's both hardcore and casual at once, encompassing all that really defines the common perception of gaming. Beeps, cutely digitised characters, simple grids, explosions, power-ups. This is one of the most undiluted and traditional experiences that gaming has to offer, and it's all the better for it. Quite simply the best handheld iteration of the series, and one of the greatest overall.
8 / 10