Welcome to Part 3 of my look at early online console gaming. This is more of an “epilogue” post than anything, as I'll be going over a Saturn NetLink compatible game that I myself own. If you'd like to view the first two parts, click on the links below:
1997, Sega and Hudson Soft
Before I begin this review, I must confess I'm not much of a connoisseur in the ways of the classic Bomberman games. Depending on who you ask, I might be in an even worse category; I grew up on the N64 games.
Now, don't get me wrong. Bomberman 64 is a game I'm very fond of and one of the very first Nintendo 64 games I ever owned (I got it on the very same Christmas I received my Nintendo 64 console, alongside Diddy Kong Racing). I'll definitely get to that one someday. But for purists, Bomberman 64 was considered a large departure from the classic playstyle. Instead of explosions going in a 2D “plus” shape where you only had to worry about the explosion stretching along the floor, explosions took place in an actual burst that had vertical height and circumference to it. As you could guess, this transforms the game considerably. Having skill at the classic Bomberman games didn't mean jack when you got your hands on Bomberman 64. And likewise, being good at Bomberman 64 didn't mean jack when you got your hands on a classic-style Bomberman game. And Saturn Bomberman was definitely a game for the Bomberman fans, with easy enough gameplay for newbies to pick up and have a blast (let's just get the pun out of the way now). Many people have even hailed this as the best game on the entire Sega Saturn console, bar none. While I haven't played enough games on the Saturn to make such an incredibly bold claim, I can definitely speak of it being a quality piece...for the most part.
Saturn Bomberman was pretty late to the Sega Saturn party. By the time it was released in mid-late 1997, the ice in the coolers had already melted, the cheese was at room temperature, the “party jams” mixtape was already at the end, and damn near everyone had either left for Playstation's party across the street or was making the trip to the other side of town for Nintendo's kegger. This game got such a limited release, that on any other system it would put it in “crown jewel of the system” territory. But of course, since we're talking about the Sega Saturn, being a game worth triple-digit prices just makes you part of the family. Strange how Bomberman games either tend to be super-common (“Bomberman World” on PS1, “Bomberman 64”) or incredibly rare (“Saturn Bomberman”, “Bomberman 64; The Second Attack”).
However, it came out at the time that the Saturn NetLink was in as much of a prime as it was ever going to have. Saturn Bomberman was a hell of a killer app to have on the service, providing not just 2-player vs. mode support, but it would also allow two players per console to connect to an opponent, allowing 4-player online. This did come with a caveat however; having 2 players per console was the only way to do a 4-player match. There was no way to have 4 different consoles in 4 locations battle each other, likely due to the 28.8k speed of the NetLink modem. Having to draw a live location from 3 other players was probably asking the world from the modem (cut the modem some slack...wait, how much did it cost again?). And as I mentioned last week, this game can still be played online using the Saturn NetLink and is one of the more popular games due to how well its aged (more on that in a bit). A quick YouTube link can net some footage of online matches, and it's one of the more popular games (if not the most popular) on the NetLink League boards.
And the game doesn't just shine on the online multiplayer front. Oh, hell no. The local multiplayer “Battle Mode” is an absolute gem. Providing several maps and characters for players to use (though only providing cosmetic differences between characters), the game is totally frantic even when facing off against CPU opponents. Add in even one friend, and you'll have a hard time finding a good stopping point.
As if that isn't insane enough, the game can actually support up to 10 (TEN!!!) players in the multiplayer mode. While this is difficult to pull off (a copy of Saturn Bomberman, two Saturn multi-taps, and 10 controllers are all required, and a TV large enough for everyone to see what's going on is recommended), those that have experienced this madness have professed it to being an incredible gaming experience, and is a common staple within gaming convention game rooms and events. I've never played a Saturn Bomberman match against 10 live opponents, but I hope to someday. It might sound like I'm simply trying to hype this up to high heaven, but the multiplayer is where this Bomberman game makes its mark.
Saturn Bomberman's multiplayer was so fantastic, it received Electronic Gaming Monthly's “Best Multiplayer Game” award for 1997, over highly-acclaimed multiplayer masterpieces Mario Kart 64 and Goldeneye 007 (March 1998, Issue 104, Page 94).
The graphics in the game have a pretty simple sprite style, and don't really do much to push the Saturn. There were games at the Saturn's launch that had more going on than this. It almost feels like you're playing a touched-up SNES or Genesis game, and that the game could have been pulled off on those systems with minimal liberties taken in terms of graphics. That having been said, the cartoonish sprites and anime artstyle of the game still look decent in this day and age, they've certainly aged much better than the polygon-based graphics of many games during the Saturn/PS1/N64 era. Just don't expect some graphical masterwork, even by 2D or sprite-based standards.
The sound effects are pretty cartoony but do the job just fine without being overly obnoxious or repetitive. The voice-work within the game itself is minimal without being overbearing. And the voice acting within the cutscenes is on-par with anime dubbing from the mid 90s. That is to say, it's incredibly obnoxious and overdone. Either you'll like the charm or totally cringe at the heavy-handedness and awkward delivery of every single line.
The music on the other hand, is fantastic. From start to finish, June Chikuma delivers an Electronic soundtrack that is good at worst, and amazing at best. This is par for the course when it comes to Bomberman games, as June Chikuma was also responsible for the soundtracks to previous Bomberman games, and would go on to compose the highly-acclaimed soundtrack for the N64 entry, Bomberman Hero. But I would argue that these tracks are the best ones out of those games. In fact, you can check out the vast majority of the game's soundtrack in it's original form on June's SoundCloud page (https://soundcloud.com/junechikuma/sets/saturn-bomberman-june-chikuma). For as much as you'll play the Battle mode, “No. 13 (Jungle Techno Mix)” blends in well without becoming a song you phase out completely or find annoying. The track from the game's Master mode (which unfortunately isn't available on the Soundcloud page) is an intimidating track that stresses the hard road you have ahead. “No. 15 (Breakbeat Bossa Nova Mix)” is a good credits theme, and of course I gotta mention “No. 2 (Over Drive Guitar Mix)”, which totally hasn't been my phone's ringtone for the past few months, I promise.
Now, if I could cut the review off right here, I feel I could justify a five-star rating and move right along. However, there are a good handful of shortcomings with this game.
If you're buying this Bomberman game for its single-player component, then you've made a bad investment. This isn't to say the single-player game is horrible. But it's not the gem that the multiplayer mode is.
“Normal mode” simply puts you through stage after stage where you simply need to clear the enemies, take out certain markings on the stage, and reach the exit within the time limit and without getting killed either by your enemies or your own bombs. The boss stages can provide a decent challenge, but aren't too varied in how to hurt them. In fact, there isn't too much strategy in the enemies in this game. Each one only requires being in the path of one, sometimes two bomb explosions in order to be defeated. A few enemies might counter simple “plant and run” strategies by as shielding or absorbing explosions, but there's not a whole lot of deviation from that setup. It does get some bonus points by having a 2-player mode within it, but you'll both find yourself itching to just go back to the Battle mode.
As well, the game's “Master Mode” is a fun little distraction but falls short of the other two modes. This mode is single-player only, and consists of a tower climb. Once you lose a single life, your run ends and your high score is tallied. The enemies in this mode are even less varied, and in the runs I made in the mode, the true “test” seemed to be less in the types of enemies and more trying to overwhelm the player through the number of enemies or the designs of the room. The HUD of this mode also displays the statistics in a different layout than Normal mode, which can be a distraction (likewise if you just went from playing Master to playing Normal mode). A high score board is appreciated, but a little more enemy variety (or having the variety appear in the earlier floors), as well as an element of randomness or a hidden rogue-like mode (the layout of the floors never change, making it possible to just look the floor layouts up and follow a guide) would have made Master mode as much of a home run as Battle mode.
So now we've reached a true conundrum within this review. As a multiplayer game, we have a masterpiece. As a single-player game, we have a good not-great game. The conundrum comes with the price of the game.
Now, with this being the first uncommon/rare game I've reviewed, I want to stress that the price/value of a game will NOT affect the final score I give to the game. But I do want to discuss whether an uncommon/rare game is worth the cost to obtain it and what to consider if you want a copy yourself.
First off, the import version of this game can be obtained around the $30-40 mark. So if you have the means to play imports on your Saturn (which requires little more than an Action Replay cart, which can be obtained for around $30 on eBay), importing this game is a much more sensible move if you don't really care for the collectors value. The American version of this game is a whole nother story. Complete in-box, with the case and instructions, this game is a bank-breaker, going for over $300. Now, I didn't pay near that much for my own copy, but I also didn't get mine CiB. In fact, it's kind of stunning how much the case makes a difference, as the game can be obtained for under $100 without the case and instructions.
As for whether it's worth that price, it really depends. If you don't intend on exploring the multi-player aspects of the game, I'd argue the game isn't even worth it to import (especially if you don't already have the means to play imports). If you have a friend or family to play it with though, it would certainly be worth it to import. And of course, if you find it in the wild at a thrift store or flea market on the cheap, it's a no-brainer. I'd just recommend either finding friends with their own Saturn controllers or collecting the equipment for 10-player battles as you go instead of snagging everything at once (even though some eBay sellers will try to bundle everything needed into one auction).
In the end, Saturn Bomberman's greatness is reflected in how you play it. As a multiplayer game, it's a masterpiece that very few games have touched even to this day. As a single-player game, well...I'll just stick to Bomberman 64.
OVERALL – 4 out of 5