Having not paid a huge amount of attention to the announcement of Super Bomberman R Online, it came as something of a surprise to discover exactly what it was. This wasn’t, as I thought, some extension of Super Bomberman R that had launched with the Switch despite the hugely similar key visuals, but instead an all-new Bomberman battle royale.
Taking cues from Nintendo’s Tetris-defining Tetris 99, this is how you keep a small scale game small, while also turning it into a large scale one. 64 player Bomberman sounds insane and unwieldy, but what we’ve got instead plays on the strengths of what the series has done before, while opening it up to a new generation of players. It’s a blast.
So Bomberman is a man who likes bombs, and likes placing them down on the ground with a short fuse where they will then explode, taking out blocks, items and players that get in the way. The ultimate aim has always been to blow up everyone else, while not blowing yourself up, and that remains as true here as ever.
The interesting new aspect to Bomberman Online isn’t simply that it’s online, but that it can now play host to 64 players in one instance, increasing from the series regular 8, and shattering the previous maximum of 10 in the iconic (and arguably never bettered) Saturn Bomberman. 64 tiny Bombermen running around on one screen sounds horrendous, and I’m sure it would be, but here you begin with 16 stages hosting four players in each, and a two minute action round. At the close of this round, four of the stages disappear, funnelling more and more players together until there’s only one left standing.
To the game’s credit, it doesn’t have to do much more than that in order to be the best Bomberman game we’ve had in a while. Every stage of the action feels like classic multiplayer Bomberman, and it only gets more and more frantic as you head towards the final stage, with some intense mind-games and fraught encounters as you try to make it to the end.
As ever, it can be frustrating and fun in the same measure. The action starts out fast – this is certainly greatly tuned up from the opening portions of previous games – and only gets faster as you collect more pick-ups, but it feels more like an inevitable step for the series rather than forcing a frantic pace upon you.
Those pickups will be the key to victory, and the classic triumvirate of bombs, firepower and speed remain at the heart of Super Bomberman R Online. However, there’s now character-specific limits to how far your diminutive avatar can go, with some only able to gain two extra bombs, but max out their speed, or vice versa, further balanced out by all-new character-specific abilities.
Super Bomberman R Online doesn’t do a particularly good job of explaining this to you, leaving you to dive into the meta of character set-ups and potential abilities for yourself. There’s also the addition of special characters, all drawn from Konami’s wealth of series. Fancy playing as Snake or Raider? You can. There’s also Pyramid Head from Silent Hill, and a Belmont signing in from Castlevania, with swords and whips intact and usable, utterly shaking up the way the game plays. It opens things up in an utterly new way, and while this is still a real Bomberman game, it isn’t one that’s resting on the franchise’s laurels.
Super Bomberman R Online is all tooled up to be a multiplayer game that you’ll keep coming back to, and it’s old-school charms work surprisingly well attached to some new-school thinking. There’s a Bomber Pass, with unlockables available as you increase in rank, and a grading system that has you trying to move up to the top tier of competition during that season of play.
The game also has more conventional options available to you beyond the 64 player survival mode, and if you hop into a Private Match you can customise things to take you back to the way things were. Standard Mode allows for up to 16 players, and drops you into a conventional Bomberman setup, with Revenge Carts lining up along the walls for the downed players to seek some revenge by dropping in extra explosives to the mix.
Besides that you have the option of Grand Prix mode, where two teams of up to three players aim to score more points than the opposition. There’s two different rulesets; Basic Bomber is essentially Bomberman deathmatch, with your team earning points for downing an opponent, while Crystal has the teams trying to collect the most gems by exploring the map.
They’re decent enough diversions, but they require you to have a bunch of Stadia-playing friends as the rooms are all locked behind access codes. Sadly there’s no searching for a particular game type and hopping in. On top of that, you can’t create a room if you don’t own the Platinum Pass, locking away a fairly integral feature of the private multiplayer options.
One of the downsides to Super Bomberman R Online is the whiff of current and future microtransactions. While the current Shop tab is knowingly empty of content, it surely won’t be long before there’s an array of cosmetics available. There’s also the possibility of more characters, which will need to be judged they don’t alter the game in any meaningful way.
The other major downside is waiting times, which can be pretty lengthy while the game tries to find enough players. Its position as a Stadia exclusive at the moment probably doesn’t help in this regard, and despite all Stadia Pro players getting the Premium Edition for free, you’ll often find that spaces in your game have been filled with woefully stupid bots. Much like PUBG’s recent bot faux pas, these bots are so far removed from the way a real human being plays, you might imagine that their code was created by a stray dog meandering into the Konami offices and licking a keyboard.