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Saturn Bomberman

Genre: Puzzle Developer: Hudson Publisher: Sega Ent. Players: 1-10 Released: 1997

When news broke on USENET that Toys ‘R Us had slashed the prices of those last few Sega Saturn releases to $20, I immediately went out to hit the local stores. Panzer Dragoon Saga, Shining Force III, House of the Dead, Burning Rangers… It was sad to see such great titles liquidated so soon after release, but it was awesome all the same. Now people are probably asking themselves: Toys ‘R Us? USENET? News? But yes, these were all things us older folks enjoyed back in our day.

I had rented the NES game and briefly tried Mega Bomberman’s multi-player, but the franchise never grabbed. Still, seeing Saturn Bomberman there on the shelf next to all the other heavily discounted games for $20? Sure, I’ll give it a shot. Oh, Bomberman is still doing the same bomb-dropping, maze-running schtick he’s known for, but it truly feels as though the franchise needed the power afforded by the Saturn to make Bomberman the frantic, action-packed game it always wanted to be. Hudson pulled out all the stops to make this the definitive Bomberman game, and alas, that still holds true some two decades plus later.

The game opens with a cute FMV introducing Mr. Meanie and Dr. Mechado and their search for crystals to gain control of an ultimate weapon, since that’s just what villains are wont to do. Our Bomberman duo are directed to obtain the crystals before the bad guys can do bad things, which makes a convenient framework for the game: five stages with one crystal and boss per stage. That leads to the game’s biggest surprise, and a welcomed one to be sure, for Saturn Bomberman has an absolutely fantastic story mode.

Starting at an amusement park, either one or two players (co-op!) can begin their adventure taking on the Meanie Gang. The stages are all linked together, expanding organically from one scene to the next across the world’s general theme and with each level having its own unique backdrop and enemy assortment. While the adventure begins with the typical full screen rectangle arena, players are soon whisked away to all kinds of layouts including scrolling levels which add some long-needed variety to the game. Yes, Mega Bomberman/Bomberman ’94 essentially did this as well, but the new scenes showing our heroes traveling from one stage to the next and the huge assortment of themed enemies truly make it a memorable journey.

There are some nice interactive details, too, like the bomb blasts swinging the saloon doors in the western world or cannons on the pirate ship which you can use to shoot leaping squid in the distance. Don’t waste too much time playing around though as you’re on a timer and will need to dispatch all three Zarfs (re: towers) to move onto the next stage, which gradually becomes more and more difficult as the stage obstacles and enemies become more and more treacherous. Saturn Bomberman isn’t shy about throwing a dozen or so enemies your way later on, and you’re going to need all the power-ups you can get to see the end.

Thanks to the Saturn’s onboard memory (or cartridge), the game lets you replay any stage you’ve beaten which comes in handy for returning to earlier, easier levels to boost your Bomberman should you kick the bucket and need some extra firepower and speed. There are bomb icons that will let you drop an extra bomb, flames to increase the bomb’s explosion, skates to make you run faster, controllers for remote detonation, bouncy bombs, sticky bombs, gloves, and so on. Most of these will be familiar to any Bomberman fan. The addition of creatures to ride, each with its own special ability, were a relatively new addition to the Bomberman formula and can be a point of contention for some Bomberman purists out there. I think they’re a fun addition, and Saturn Bomberman’s evolving dinosaurs are a heck of a lot cuter and better designed than the kangaroos in Bomberman ’94. While purists will have to stomach them in story mode, they’ll be happy to know that they can be turned off in multi-player mode.

In fact, just about everything can be toggled and adjusted in the game’s incredible multi-player mode. Extra stages, secret characters, the ability to configure teams, and – drum roll – TEN-PLAYER SUPPORT make this the definitive Bomberman experience by far. It is worth noting that ten-player mode is restricted to one special arena running in the Saturn’s high-resolution mode, but it is absolute blast. Some of my happiest video game memories are of Saturn Bomberman parties with ten people all together in a room playing on a single screen, something no other game can match, and I miss that dearly. It’s a bit of an investment – you’ll need two multi-taps, ten Saturn controllers, and of course the console and game – but it’s so very much worth it. The characters are super tiny on the ten-player area, but they are still identifiable, and it’s better now since “everyone” has a widescreen and access to sharper displays.

Ten players blowing up the map is crazy fun, but the standard eight-player arenas are nice as well. You’re getting full-sized Bomberman action on those, and the stages have some fun gimmicks. I love the soccer one where you can kick a bomb into the net on either side and send flames across the entire map. Larger characters do leave less room for gathering power-ups, and the stage obstacles and blocks take up further space on the screen, leading to less chaos and quicker matches than the ten-player mode overall.

We’re not done yet, though, since Saturn Bomberman also has a Master Mode, a new single player addition that will test your abilities through a series of tough challenges. The game will grade you on how well you complete its 20 stages, and… that’s it. This is before unlocks and other carrots were used to motivate players into playing games, so you’ll just have to be content with wanting to be the very best like no one ever was. There is a high score board, for what it’s worth, and technique points keep it interesting if you really want to dig in. Master Mode really is a nice single-player bonus for a game which doesn’t really need it since the default mode is so satisfying, but it’s worth a run through for sure.

It’s worth noting is that Saturn Bomberman supports the Saturn Netlink allowing for dial-up multi-player, which I recall working well enough to be playable. I’ve read a bit to see that dial-up emulation is a thing but unfortunately am not currently able to test to see if Saturn Bomberman remains Netlink playable using these means. Regardless, Netlink matches are limited to two players per console, so direct dialing another console limits the game to four human players even if a faster, modern workaround is possible.

Apart from the absence of slowdown from all the chaos on-screen, there’s little here that’ll wow most modern audiences, but it’s a credit to Hudson that the game still looks great and remains just as fun now as it did some 25-plus years ago. Pushing the technological envelope may help a game gain notice in the short term, but longevity truly demands a developer work within their limits to deliver their best game possible, and that’s Saturn Bomberman. Sure, the FMV still isn’t MPEG clean, the animation could be better, the occasional scaling can look messy, and some of the songs in an otherwise fantastic soundtrack may challenge some people’s tolerance (looking at you, Dino World); but these are trivial complaints easily buried under all which the game excels. Saturn Bomberman remains not only the best rendition of Bomberman but also one of the best Saturn exclusives and party games around. Yes, this is sadly why you now need to sell one of your kidneys to buy it second hand. It really is that good.

Score: 10 out of 10

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