Version tested: DS
In ways, we're amazed that Bomberman has never become a victim of this politically correct era. In an age when whipping out a camcorder in many parts of London can earn you a lecture from a police officer on the dangers of terrorism, when wearing the wrong kind of shoe on a transatlantic flight makes you into a prime suspect for the security forces and when a miscalculated pun could probably see you on the front page of the Daily Mail so fast it'd make your head spin, it's astonishing that the violent pyromaniacal urges of the aptly but terribly inappropriately named Bomberman still pass muster.
Bomberman is simple, you see. He likes making things go boom. He has two pleasures in life. One is to plant bloody huge bombs that make things explode in a fiery maelstrom of death; the other is not getting caught in the aforementioned fiery maelstrom of death himself. In this, he hasn't changed much since the days of the SNES, the Saturn, or any of the many, many other platforms on which he's appeared. It's just as well, too; we're not sure we could handle the concept of one of our childhood gaming heroes, dubious morality or not, having his bombs replaced with more media-friendly water balloons and his named changed to Pansyman.
When we say that Bomberman hasn't changed much since the SNES, we're not kidding. Even if you haven't touched a copy of the game in any of its incarnations in the last decade or so, you'll find little in Bomberman DS that isn't instantly familiar. Your job is to guide a small arsonist around a level laid out in grid form, planting bombs to clear a path for yourself and reveal power-ups, and ultimately breaking through to the sections of map which house your enemies - be they human or computer-controlled - and blast them to kingdom come in the same manner.
The power-ups in question are also familiar; you get the basic speed-up, bomb-up and fire-up tokens, which increase your speed, the number of bombs you can drop and the length of your explosion respectively. Then there's the ability to kick bombs away from yourself, lob them over distances, set them off remotely rather than on a timer, drop mines, or power up the explosion so that it passes through multiple walls. Conversely, some tokens will make you drop bombs like a peculiar form of grenade dysentery, or hamper your ability to control your tiny terrorist. The only power-up really missing from the arsenal is the dino mount, which has appeared in many Bomberman games but doesn't pop up here, for whatever reason.
Single-player mode will also be familiar to anyone who's played a previous incarnation of Bomberman, which is to say that it's a bit tedious and feels very much like something tacked on as an afterthought to the multiplayer. As ever, you progress across a number of screens taking out the enemies, collecting the power-ups and uncovering the gate to progress to the next level, before ultimately fighting against a boss and some minions - unquestionably the high point of the single-player, but still not exactly world class stuff. This mode gives a faint nod of the head to the DS' unique hardware, putting the action on the top screen and your cache of power-ups on the bottom screen; tap a power-up to activate it, but be careful to keep some in reserve so that you can get your character back up to a decent level quickly should you die, especially in a boss fight.
You'll bore of single-player fast. It's not that it's spectacularly dreadful or anything, it's just quite uninspired and suffers badly from the fact that rather than trying to set up any particularly entertaining puzzles for you to solve explosively, the designers seem to have wanted to replicate the hectic action of the multiplayer mode - but without the key element of other humans at whom to direct your righteous fury and/or copious swearing.
So then. Multiplayer.
There are those who would argue that Bomberman on the Saturn remains the finest and most unadulterated console multiplayer experience of all time. These people are quite mad, but they do have a point in some ways. Bomberman multiplayer starts off slow, with players all in their own corner of the map and needing to excavate their way out, but once the barriers are coming down, it's incredibly fast and requires not only superb reflexes but a great ability to think on your feet and make split-second decision to lure your opponent into traps and dead ends. Starting to play is easy - a four-year-old could grasp the basic gameplay in seconds - but mastering the game could take years, if you happened to have years to spend on it.
None of that has changed in Bomberman DS. The basic gameplay remains the same, because it wasn't broken and clearly nobody needed to fix it. However, Hudson has made a few improvements - some major, some minor. The most important of these improvements is also the most simple; namely that you can play Bomberman DS, eight player, with just one cartridge using the DS download play function. One cart, no wires, eight players. If you're a Bomberman fan with a few DS-owning friends, that's probably all you need to know.
On the other hand, since it's not in the shops yet, you can't run out and buy it now, so let's talk a little more about what's on offer. Multiplayer games span both screens of the DS, connected by tunnels in the middle - which offer a convenient place to drop hidden bombs, and sometimes form choke points on maps with a limited number of tunnels. As in the single-player mode, the touch-screen doesn't get much use, since you control your character with the d-pad and face buttons of the DS - but there are a large number of game modes, some of which are designed solely with the various unusual abilities of the DS in mind.
For example, many game modes offer the ability to lob bombs in from the side of the play area after you die. You use the stylus to throw the bombs, judging distance according to how long and fast you stroke the tip across the screen, and if you manage to kill someone, you take their place in the game. Two further modes see you using the microphone in the DS, one to detonate your bombs, one to plant them. In theory, you're meant to blow into the microphone of your own DS, or just say something innocuous like "Kaboom!" at it. In practice, a room full of eight people playing Bomberman DS are altogether more likely to end up shouting rather less innocuous things at each other in an attempt to set off each other's bombs remotely. Childish? Too damn right. It's not a game mode you'll want to play for long, but since the game allows you to play multiplayer in a manner which selects a random mode for each level, it's a great addition to the mix.
Bomberman DS is going to be a marmite game, and whether you appreciate its yeasty goodness depends entirely on your own situation. If you've got a bunch of mates to play this game with on a fairly regular basis, it'll win pride of place in your collection and will probably be the best DS investment you ever make. On the other hand, if you're the only DS owner in your village and are accused of witchcraft by your neighbours every time the tiny men appear on the enchanted glass, you'll be bored of the single-player in no time flat.
As such, this is a really tough game to give a score to - but ultimately, you wouldn't rate a pint of milk based on its appeal to the lactose intolerant, and it seems silly to rate Bomberman based on its appeal to those who aren't in a position to play multiplayer. Just take it as read that you shouldn't buy this game if you're not going to play it with friends, and assume that the verdict is based on those who will be making their pals go pop on a regular basis - for whom the fact that this is a near-perfect Bomberman title, with eight players off one cartridge, should be a suitable enticement.
8 / 10