Having a blast with an old friend.
It's been a bloody freezing week in February. Snow dominates the headlines, but aside from the inevitable collapse of Britain's public services under the weight of a few flakes of frozen water, the other story on everyone's mind is a letter bombing campaign. Seemingly driven past breaking point by a heady combination of snorted petrol fumes and indoctrination from radical clerics Jeremy "The Mad Mullah" Clarkson and Richard "Abu" Hammond, some mentalist has taken to expressing his desire to drive his brum-brum motor very fast without being told off by means of blowing the faces off office workers around the country. It makes for grim reading.
Tucked up with a hot coffee and the central heating turned on, I've also had my mind on bombing this week - but the spectacle of maimed secretaries has rather taken the wind out of my sails when it comes to amusing bomb-related puns or metaphors to throw into a review of Konami's latest return to the venerable Bomberman franchise. That might be just as well. We've had more than two decades to try and wring the funny out of a game concept which involves you setting mad cartoon villain bombs to blow up both obstacles and enemies; perhaps we should admit that this stone don't bleed no more.
Which leads to a pressing question. If we've played (and god knows, reviewed) Bomberman so many times in the past that we've come to the point where only mud is drawn up from the bottom of the funny-well, surely the gameplay must be as tired as our humour? After all, the first thing that becomes obvious when you pop Bomberman into your PSP is that not a lot has changed since 1983. In your hands, you clutch a portable console which is probably more powerful than every computer in the world combined in 1983 or some such guff, but the game you're looking at hasn't really changed an iota in gameplay terms. There's a grid of indestructible blocks, some "soft" blocks which you can blow up, some enemies you need to kill (be they human opponents or just computer-controlled nasties), and a limitless supply of bombs which explode in a neat horizontal/vertical cross shape.
To help you out, there are a load of power-ups (we count 18 in this iteration) which can do everything from letting you drop more bombs at once or making the explosions bigger, to allowing you to walk through soft blocks or drop timed mines. Granted, many of these power-ups didn't appear in the 1983 original, but none of them are actually new to the series either. One thing which actually is somewhat novel is how you use those power-ups - in single-player mode, the power-ups don't activate immediately. Instead they're stored in a toolbar on the left hand side, and you can scroll through (using L and R) and deploy the ones you want, keeping the rest for a more opportune moment. Power-ups that are stored in this way carry over when you die, which is very useful in later levels since starting out as a sluggish bomber with a crappy single bomb is a recipe for (further) disaster.
However, while you can activate them from the level-select screen - which is useful, doubly so because you can also read a description of the effects of each power-up - the interface for selecting a power-up when you're actually in-game is somewhat frustrating, since you need to scroll through the entire list of 18 to find the one you just picked up; not exactly the sort of immediate, intense gameplay you might expect from Bomberman. There's also a feeling that the whole system makes the single-player game too easy, since you'll rapidly end up with huge stacks of power-ups to execute at your leisure; there are so many of them scattered around the levels that you'll rarely run out of any of them. In multiplayer, though, power-ups activate as normal as soon as you pick them up.
There are 150 levels to blast your way through in the single-player mode of the game - 100 new levels designed specifically for this iteration, along with 50 levels from the original Bomberman which have been re-created using the PSP version's slightly-tilted-3D graphical approach. The graphics, by the way, are quite nice in a functional sort of way - everything is very smooth and crisp looking, but then again, everything is also very simple, and the most taxing thing demanded of the hugely powerful handheld console is rendering a screen full of textured boxes. Both sets of levels have a well-balanced difficulty curve, but the previously mentioned power-up system messes the whole thing up a bit - so while the levels do get appreciably more difficult, your hefty supply of power-ups means that even a fairly average Bomberman player will probably blast through everything the game has to offer in single-player mode in a few short hours.
The one thing which does keep the game nicely broken up is the use of boss encounters - which also serve to progress some kind of nonsensical plot, clearly created by grown men who have spent rather too much time watching Japanese Saturday morning television. Each planet you play through has a specific art style, and a boss to go along with it; these encounters are short but quite entertaining, especially since the game wisely turns off your access to certain power-ups during the encounter, thus preventing you from taking the cheap option of just hammering on the invincibility power-ups until the boss dies.
Of course, while the incredibly short single-player mode is a bit of a disappointment, Bomberman has never really been about single-player; ever since its earliest iterations, the game has been designed for multiplayer fun. In this regard, Bomberman PSP tries very hard not to disappoint. It has a huge range of options available for setting up multiplayer games, by far the most welcome of which is the ability to play with three friends using game sharing from a single UMD. The game-sharing mode transfers the code pretty quickly, too, so you won't be sitting around for ages waiting for the game to be ready - there are some rather suspect load delays on the "client" machines when the "server" machine is navigating around the setup menus, but that's an incredibly minor niggle.
A rather less minor niggle is the matter of lag during gameplay. While it's still unquestionably bloody good fun blowing seven shades out of your mates in the multiplayer mode, the input feels sluggish and unresponsive - not massively so, but enough to be somewhat frustrating in a game which is all about pixel-perfect positioning and careful timing. It doesn't ruin the game, but it did make us dig out our copies of Bomberman DS for comparison - and indeed, the version of the game on Nintendo's handheld manages near-perfect multiplayer, with practically no lag. The PSP version may look prettier and benefit hugely from the larger screen format, but the slight lag on the network mode definitely relegates it to being the second choice of anyone who plans to play Bomberman multiplayer - which, realistically, is probably just about anyone who intends to buy the game.
The answer to our original, somewhat rhetorical, question is no; Bomberman is still bloody good fun, despite being a familiar part of the gaming landscape which has evolved little in the past 20 years. It remains a simple, addictive and hugely enjoyable game concept, and that alone makes Bomberman PSP into what you might call a "fairly good game" - nothing remarkable, but a nicely presented repackaging of a much-loved original.
On the downside, though, the new item system makes the game too easy, and could definitely have done with a rethink - and the real killer is the laggy multiplayer, which quite simply makes Bomberman PSP into a "fairly good game but not as good as the DS version". A decent effort, then, but still hard to recommend to anyone who wants some truly explosive fun.