Saturn Bomberman

Saturn Bomberman (サターンボンバーマン) - Saturn (1996)

This entry is part 20 of 22 in the series Bomberman

Bomberman has, for the most part, consistently improved over the years, but it all feels like a warm-up for this particular game. In 1996, Saturn Bomberman was the first entry to hit the fifth generation of consoles, and instead of going head-first into a 3D adventure like many other franchises were doing (or were planning to do) at the time, Hudson Soft kept things close to what they knew. Though Bomberman in 3D would end up working out just fine over the years, Saturn Bomberman was the culmination of 2D Bomberman up to this point and is often considered the best entry in the series for its excellent 10-player battle mode. Despite its sterling reputation amongst fans, it wasn’t a unanimous hit with every critic at the time. Some reviews from websites and magazines like Gamespot, Gamepro, Next Generation, and Saturn Power criticized the game for being too much of the same compared to Super Bomberman 2, the 10-player mode being too zoomed out to view comfortably, and for having graphics that felt unremarkable on a 32-bit console. There was also some disdain and confusion towards the large gap in localization; it took about a year for the game to arrive elsewhere, which led some to importing it in advance.

Saturn Bomberman’s storyline introduces a new villain by the name of Mujoe, who would become one of the franchise’s most recurring villains alongside Bagura. He’s the leader of the HigeHige Bandits, which mostly consists of an army of underling robots not unlike the Servbots in Mega Man Legends, and Dr. Mechado serves as his scientist assistant who provides the tech. This game also serves as the first appearance for Dr. Ein (called Dr. I here), a friendly scientist who plays the role of Bomberman’s commander and gives him his missions in various games. Mujoe’s crew discovers the Crystal Tower and awakens a sealed monster known as Crator with the intention of controlling it for their nefarious purposes. As always, it’s up to White and Black Bomberman to clean up the mess by collecting the crystals needed to seal away Crator and defeat Mujoe and the HigeHige Bandits. Outside of Japan, Mujoe’s name was changed to “Mr. Meanie” and the HigeHige Bandits were referred to as “The Meanie Gang”, though their names would be reverted from their next appearance onward. Though still conceptually straightforward, Saturn Bomberman offers the strongest story presentation yet through beautiful anime-style cutscenes provided at a few key moments throughout and is the first entry to feature voice acting beyond grunts and shouts in both English and Japanese.

Reviews at the time weren’t wrong about this game being mostly iterative, but it still provides some new wrinkles worthy of note. Louie has once again been replaced by a new type of creature, this time being the Tirra, dinosaurs eager to help Bomberman out. They function the same way and offer the same types of abilities, but they have a basic leveling system that provides additional perks for players good at avoiding damage. As you defeat enemies, collect items, and clear stages, your Tirra will gain “experience” towards leveling up into a more mature form, which will improve the effectiveness of whatever ability it has. Tirras can be upgraded twice, but regardless of their state, they’re always destroyed after one hit, so losing a fully grownTirra stings even more than losing a Louie does.Thankfully, the highest growth level for each color of Tirra that you’ve reached is retained across any future ones that you find, so engaging with the system is worthwhile even if you’re prone to taking damage. Levels are also more complex and interactive than usual, sometimes providing little easter egg-like moments that allow for extra scoring opportunities and even unique screen transitions when moving between levels. If the next level in a world takes place inside a building, you’ll see Bomberman walk inside, and if there’s something blocking his way, like a carriage in the Wild West World, he’ll move it aside with force and continue onward. These smaller details do a lot to make Saturn Bomberman feel contemporary with its peers at the time, telling more of a story both through cutscenes and gameplay alike within internally consistent worlds.

Beyond the usual main game, there’s also the Master Game, which serves as both a score attack mode and a secondary campaign of sorts. Adorning a givery similar to the one worn by Dragon Ball’s Goku, Bomberman is tasked with climbing 20 floors of a tower that’s home to an entirely exclusive batch of bosses. This mode changes some of the rules compared to the main game, reintroduces some of Bomberman’s oldest foes, removes the ability to carry some power-ups between levels and gives the player only a single life (but lots of easily obtainable hearts) to complete all 20 floors in one go. It’s not as challenging to complete as it sounds and the five Bomber Instructors are some of the most unique bosses yet, including a Bomber literally made out of bombs, a Bomber that uses a staff similar to that of Sun Wukong, and a Bomber capable of turning into a dragon. Upon completing the mode (or failing), you’re given a rank based on your performance, encouraging you to clear it faster and faster to obtain the best one.

Saturn Bomberman’s battle mode takes ideas from Hi-Ten Bomberman alongside entries like Super Bomberman 2 and 3 to create what many consider to be the definitive Bomberman experience. Featuring 8 stages with multiple variations accessible via button code and the ability to play with up to 10 players (though this restricts the map selection to one specific mapwide enough to accommodate everyone),Saturn Bomberman prioritizes unbridled chaos above all else. Many of the stages have gimmicks designed to mess with every player, including soccer goals that emit explosions if someone kicks a bomb into them, tornadoes that indiscriminately harm players, see-saws that can be used by two players for launching shenanigans, and tatami mats that can get in the way of otherwise well-planned kills. Some of the new items are a real highlight as well, such as mines that turn invisible upon being placed, a merger item that forcefully combines players into one entity, and the Devil, which inflicts every player with one of the curses from the Skull item at random. If you manage to grab the new Bomura item in the Bomber Catcher mini-game in between rounds, you’ll have to deal with a Godzilla-like creature that destroys everything in its path! Most of the playable characters from Hi-Ten Bomberman return as well alongside two new additions, Manto from Tengai Makyou and Yuna Kagurazaka from the Galaxy Fraulein Yuna series, who both have unique perks (starting with the Power Glove and increased speed respectively). Three more characters, Pretty Bomber, Jiraiya, and Challenger (from the game of the same name) have victory announcements meant to be used for the battle mode in the Japanese version’s data, but they are otherwise unplayable.

Saturn Bomberman is the first game in the series to incorporate online play, but Japanese players needed to buy a separate XBAND version two months after the original version’s release to play online, whereas this functionality was built into the North American version and made to be usable with Sega’s NetLink modem, which contributed to the aforementioned year long delay. The online mode is not playable with the PAL version of the game or any other Japanese releases beyond the XBAND version. By using Sega’s NetLink adapter or XBAND modem cart, up to four players (two per console) can connect to play Saturn Bomberman online through dial-up connections. The online mode restricts many of the options normally provided, only allowing for 1v1 or 2v2 battles and using one specific set of rules, but computers can at least be used to fill in slots if needed. Character choices are also limited to White Bomberman, Black Bomberman, Honey, and Kotetsu depending on which team you’re on. Since this only requires players to connect directly to each other and not a server, it’s actually possible to still play online using either a VoIP setup or a NetLinktunneling script to connect to someone else doing the same thing. The online functionality also included niceties outside of the normal gameplay, like the ability to communicate with (and taunt) other players, email players or use chat rooms, rematch someone you just played against, and an option to create an account with a corresponding profile image.

Saturn Bomberman is a wonderful culmination of everything that has made Bomberman special up to this point, so its reputation as one of the best Saturn games is no surprise at all. Its visuals hold up excellently and demonstrate the 2D finesse possible on the console, its jazzy soundtrack laid the general foundations for future entries like Bomberman Hero to become legendary for their music, and its battle mode remains nearly unrivaled to this day. Despite it being the perfect template to use going forward, most of the entries that succeed it (including its direct sequel) either go in a much different direction or scale back the battle mode to some degree to allow for other features, so this game still very much feels like a singular experience even amongst the rest of the franchise’s 2D entries. If you can manage to gather up 10 players, it’ll make for a multiplayer session that you won’t soon forget.

Links – The Cutting Room Floor article for this game – Announcement and guide from Sega Saturn, Shiro! on how to set up the NetLink tunneling script – Review of Saturn Bomberman from Next Generation magazine – GamePro issue #109 with a review of Saturn Bomberman (on page 146) – Gamespot’s review of Saturn Bomberman – Sega Retro scan of the US manual, which details all of the NetLink options – Information on unused content in the game from The Totally Bombastic Bomberman Shrine Place

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