As a dedicated console gamer, the time I look back on most fondly has to be the early nineties. This was when all the console games started to look good and play good; gaming kicked off in a bigway. We were bombarded with new experiences, genres were defined and new phrases coined, like beat’em up, shoot’em up, platform, racing; these styles were starting to find themselves, spurred by the growing battle for dominancy by Sega and Nintendo and ever increasing game budgets. Did you own a SNES or Megadrive? Did you play Sonic or Mario? Street Fighter or Mortal Combat? Mario Kart or, Err…
Of course, that was the point, there was no alternative, you just played Mario Kart, everybody, over and over again. There really was nothing like it, it was a simple and yet genius idea. Take one set of well known video game characters and put them in cute little karts that are easy to control, but quite nippy, add a selection box of comedy power ups, a few cups to play over a load of courses, a couple of nifty extra multiplayer modes and bob’s your uncle, arguably the most ground breaking game in history.
Unfortunately, that was the last time anyone ever associated the words Kart racing with ground breaking, as far as video games were concerned, it appeared that Mario Kart had it so on the money that not since then has anyone produced anything quite as unique, they’ve just regurgitated the idea. List them, Looney Tunes racing, Muppet Racers, Mickey Mouse Racing, Crash Team Racing, Street Racer, Diddy Kong Racing, Mario Kart 64, Super Bombad Racing, Wacky Races (which kind of gets away with it a bit), even WipeOut blatantly robbed the Mario Kart set up when it started out (eight craft, some fast but hard to steer, some slow but easy, powers ups littered over the track, three different sets of slowly-getting- harder cups, come on…)
No, despite all the years of reinvention, the Kart racing genre has gone a bit stale of recent times, so I had low expectations for Bomberman Kart. In fact, I nearly gave up on the first hurdle; i.e. it’s only out in Japan.
Now, for those of you who’ve never owned a Japanese game, let me explain what you have to expect. Firstly, the instruction manual is in Japanese, but that’s no big loss because you don’t read them anyway. Secondly, the ‘O’ button is the main select button on menus, rather than the usual ‘X’, which ironically is often cancel (try navigating character and vehicle select screens with 3 enthusiastic mates, without raising your voice). Talking of menus, get used to them because you spend forever trying to work out what all the options mean, and then you always have a feeling you’ve missed something. In fact, the only thing that is easy to work out, is the memory card manager (load, save, auto-save, how hard can that be?). Oh, and finally, remember that Japanese games, especially brightly coloured ones, come with the obligatory crazy Japanese synth pop soundtrack, which eventually starts to grate wee bit.
But enough cosmetics, is it any good? Well, let’s talk about the game mechanics.
The first thing you notice is that the graphics are bright, clean and crisp and the frame rate and resolution are both high, with no slowdown in sight, not the we expect anything less from any game nowadays. You could argue that the graphics are a bit sparse and that some of the backgrounds are a bit barren, but this isn’t really fair. Yes, I did spot that the seagulls on the early shore side level don’t flap their wings, just kind of float about, and all the pyramid level had was, err, a big pyramid to drive through, but it didn’t bother me. Watching the replay, like you have to when you first start a new game, I really didn’t care since the little Bombermen in their karts are animated so beautifully that I couldn’t take my eyes off them. So, all in all the graphics are perfectly functional albeit not amazing or anything. Except, that is, on the haunted house level, which I really liked. Floating poltergeist style chairs in the house section, then creepy mist when you drive out into the woods. Then, a spooky pirate ships slides into view as you round the dock (or was it a case of cleverly disguised pop up? Nah…)
Now, on to kart handling. No racing game is ever going to be played more than once if the car handling is rubbish, but I sympathise with developers; they have to make the cars easy to pick up but hard to master. Not easy, with Kart racers the emphasis is on cornering and power slides, or at least it should be. This was where Bomberman Kart really surprised me; the handling is more akin to Gran Turismo than most Kart racers I’ve played before. For example, you’re burning down and long straight at full revs, but can see a hard left turn coming up. You know full well there’s a Kart right behind you and that if you muck up this corner he’ll fly past. What do you do? Well, in your standard Kart game you’d come in wide, tap the handbrake, power slide it, pull out half way round the corner, squeeze the gas pedal to feel the tyre traction bite the course and power out. In normal racer you’d go wide, applying the brake while cutting back across the bend, hit the gas at the apex and power out, at no point loosing grip or hand braking it. Now, Bomberman Kart sits halfway between those two. It does have a handbrake which can throw you into a power slide, but you never feel like you really have control of them and much better results can be achieved by applying a bit of brake and then powering out with traction intact. So, we have a Kart racer that takes itself very seriously, which is a welcome change. In fact, that’s one of the things you notice while playing, it handles like a simulation but looks like an arcade game, and you spend too long concentrating on hitting the racing line to notice the rockets, bombs, flying sharks and what have you.
That brings me on to all the other stuff you associate with Kart games. There’s the obligatory turbo start and power ups around the course but thankfully no Mario Kart style coins to pick up or anything like that. The power ups are good though, green rockets which bounce off walls, red shark rockets which home in on the leader, bombs to drop behind, zips to give you a turbo, and the generic invisible shield thing. Unfortunately, that’s about it. I was hoping for a bit of variation here but no, same old same old.
Finally, what game modes do you have? Well, this quite simply makes or breaks Kart games. It’s as simple as that. I’ve played Kart racers, which look okay, but you can’t play two, three or four player championships. That’s rubbish and is disappointing enough to turn the thing off and never play it again. Bomberman Kart has the championship mode as the number one slot on the menu, and I panicked when I saw this option disappear when you select multiplayer mode. The other options are there, single race, speed race (i.e. no power ups) time attack mode, crazy Japanese mini game mode and party mode.
Now, this is when I have to stop you and explain something. Bomberman Kart lifts itself head and shoulders above all it’s competitors (not that there are many, though) with the inclusion of the last two modes. Crazy Japanese mini game mode is very funny. A battle mode, where you collect coins against the clock take your fancy? How about two on two soccer? Jump the bombs? A long jump game? Did I mention two on two soccer? That’s amazing. Oh, one word of warning about this games though, I have to admit on some of them (and there are quite a few) we couldn’t work out what you had to do. For example, on of them involves you driving off a pier into the sea, err, as fast as you can I suppose. Rubbish, but since it’s Japanese and you’re all expecting something much grander, it turns into a hilarious disappointment. There’s also some kind of ski jump game where you have to hammer the buttons to flap and get a longer jump. I kid you not…
Party mode, quite simply, takes a few race levels, mixes in a few mini games, and scores them like a multiplayer championship, and is the selling point of the game, at least it was for me. When you have 3 other mates this mode is fantastic. Race, collect coins, big flapping jumps, race again (in a big straight line was one course, bizarre) play tick (you don’t want the bomb when the time runs out!) and so on. Then, before you know it, it’s all over.
But don’t worry, you can play all over again! And you will, because Bomberman Kart is a fine Kart racing game with all the quality that you expect from the brand name. It can’t decide whether it’s a serious racer or a fun Kart racer, but it’s still very good anyway. Multiplayer games haven’t been this much fun since Bomberman on the old SNES, a game I missed dearly when the 16 bit age died away.
At least I did miss it, until I worked out that the second option on the main menu of Bomberman Kart leads you to an authentic recreation of the Super Nintendo’s Super Bomberman in glorious 2D. It’s like being a teenager all over again, and I’d pay cover price just for that!
Happy bombing, bomb fans ;)