I’ve never played Bomberman sober.
My encounters with the long-running franchise have always been the same: I’m at some kind of retro-themed video game meet-up, we’ve all had a couple of drinks, and someone suddenly hands me a controller. “Your turn,” they say encouragingly, and I look at them like something has suddenly become lodged in my throat. I know the basics — drop bombs and hope someone else gets caught in the explosions — but I’ve never played long enough to understand the game’s strategic nuances. Unsurprisingly, I’m usually the first person to be eliminated and all-too-happily pass the pad to someone else, muttering under my breath that I’ll actually practice someday.
Well, that day has finally arrived.
My bomb-dropping dojo is Super Bomberman R Online. It’s a timed exclusive on Google’s Stadia streaming service, and if you’re a Pro subscriber you can pick up the Premium Edition — which adds some special characters and private matchmaking — for free until November 30th. The Premium upgrade will then cost $9.99/€9.99/£9.99, and a complete version of the game will be sold to a la carte Stadia customers for the same price at a later date. It’s a needlessly complicated launch strategy that’s obviously designed to incentivize Pro sign-ups. You can think of it like Google’s version of the Fall Guys giveaway on PlayStation Plus.
Like Mediatonic’s smash hit, Super Bomberman R Online revolves around a single winner-takes-all multiplayer mode. There’s no campaign like the original Super Bomberman R that was released for Nintendo Switch in 2017 and PC, PS4 and Xbox One the following year. Instead, the sole offering is a 64-player battle royale that takes place over 16 interconnected stages. Each one is a classic Bomberman maze littered with a mixture of breakable and indestructible blocks. You drop bombs to remove the former, find power-ups and, ultimately, open-up pathways that expose your enemies.
The goal is simple: eliminate other players and be the last Bomberman standing. Combat isn’t your only concern, though. The game alternates between battle and movement phases where no-one is allowed to drop bombs. The screen flashes red, a 15-second-or-so timer appears on-screen and then, once it’s expired, some of the outermost stages are removed. Once the movement phase is over, the game will distribute some fresh blocks and power-ups for people to fight over.
It’s an unusual structure for Bomberman, but one that effectively replicates the storm, or ‘circle,’ that slowly traps players in Fortnite, Apex Legends and other traditional battle royale games. I was particularly impressed by the map overview that’s shown on the left and right-hand side of the screen. It’s large enough that you can easily glance across, check if your current stage is safe and, when necessary, decide where to go next.
If you get hit by something, you’ll lose one of two lives and drop everything you had collected since the start of the match.
The result is beautiful chaos. Players are spread evenly across the interconnected stages, so you always have a few quiet moments at the start of every match. Once people start collecting power-ups, though, the action quickly escalates and the screen is filled with fiery cross-shaped explosions. If you get hit by something, you’ll lose one of two lives and drop everything you had collected since the start of the match. Take damage twice and you’ll be eliminated for good. There’s no revival system and nothing like the last-chance saloon gulag found in Call of Duty: Warzone. Once you’re out, you can simply pick between spectating and jumping back to the main menu.
Maddeningly, Super Bomberman R Online doesn’t have a tutorial or training mode. An “Online Manual” is listed in the game’s menu, but the webpage it pointed to was dead during my testing. Bomberman veterans will recognize most of the power-ups and instantly feel comfortable. As a relative newcomer, though, I was bamboozled by most of the items and had to slowly figure out their utility on my own. I learned that the fireball pick-up, for instance, increases your bombs’ blast radius, while the rollerskates improve movement speed. You can gain new abilities, too, that let you punch, lift and kick bombs that haven’t yet donated.