With any new hardware release people look forward to new games, but are also excited to see what will be done with an existing game series. Due to the short amount of time the Virtual Boy was around before Nintendo gave up on it, very few series received an entry on the system, although Tetris managed two. This is a shame, as its unique nature could enhance the game-playing experience. A Bomberman game could have worked really well, perhaps with stages made up of multiple levels, and in fact there was a normal Bomberman game in the works but Hudson decided the character’s first (and in the end only) VB appearance would be in a falling block puzzle game. In a way this is disappointing, although Panic Bomber itself is by no means a disappointment.
Groups of three blocks fall down from the top of the screen and the aim of the game is to line up the same type of blocks to make them disappear. Three of a kind will do it and you can have horizontal, vertical or diagonal lines. Upon clearing blocks, unlit bombs appear at the bottom of your screen. Drop one of the lit bombs that fall from time-to-time nearby to light the fuses, detonating your bombs and sending them over to your computer controlled opponent’s screen. Of course they can do the same, and whoever’s screen fills up first loses.
Like all good puzzle games, Panic Bomber quickly becomes addictive as you start looking for the best place to slot blocks as you build up your lines, hoping to get multiples if possible to give you more bombs to detonate and cause your opponent more trouble. It’s unfortunate though that there is just the one mode in the game. When you really get into it, and exploding bombs cause blocks to start falling, creating more and more lines, the game is a lot of fun and it’s sometimes disappointing to have it end because you’ve defeated your opponent. The inclusion of a Tetris-style “endless” mode where you just try to clear as many lines as possible before your screen fills up would have been a welcome addition.
There are three worlds where you battle against two characters before facing a boss character. To make things a bit more varied boss battles include “Skull Items”. Here clearing bombs causes bricks to appear on the other screen, and blasting bricks causes a Skull Item to appear. These can affect gameplay in a number of ways including lighting all bombs, removing blocks and reversing your controls. If for some reason you don’t like this bit of variety, it can be turned off in the options menu. After clearing the third world there are two more characters for you to take on – one of which is a best-of-three battle. In total there are eleven opponents in the game and they all play differently (to varying degrees) to keep things interesting.
Also affecting gameplay are powerups. After playing for a while you may get a “level up” or “flame up” message. The latter (as in regular Bomberman games) increases the range of your blasts whilst the former means that blocks start to fall faster. As you clear lines a meter fills up: once full you are given a “decker bomb” which you can use to remove a large area of your piled up blocks.
Visually this is a very good-looking game, with everything drawn in the recognisable Bomberman style. The blocks have a little animation applied to them, and eyes move and bombs pulsate. The sparks from lit bombs come forward slightly towards the screen, which is a good effect and not overdone so it doesn’t distract.
Your opponent stands between the two playing fields, moving about slightly and their mood changing depending on how they are doing. They have a 3D look to them, not flat at all and there is a variety of great character designs such as the sea creature Kraken, Frankenstein’s monster look-a-like Partz and Count Dracu-boom.
There’s a different background for each world including ruins, a forest and Dracu-boom’s castle. They’re well drawn and made up of multiple layers and are in 3D, giving a good sense of the distance between various objects. It’s all very impressive looking but seems a bit wasted as you can’t really stop to admire the backgrounds when you’re busy trying to build up lines in the playing area.
The sounds of the game fit the visuals well with cartoony noises and powerful explosions whilst the music is superb. Fast and exciting, it changes with each world and the boss characters get their own slightly more sinister track. The audio and visuals really do fit together well, so as you battle the mummified Rahtut, it is done against a backdrop of pyramids and sphinxes and the music has an Egyptian flavour to it.
Things start off easy, giving you plenty of opportunity to make lines as you get used to how the game works. Your opponents gradually get more difficult to beat and you’ll find a greater variety of blocks fall, making it more difficult to build up those lines and you’ll also notice your screen getting dangerously close to full as you wait for that much needed lit bomb. There’s four difficulty levels to help extend the life of the game but again, a couple more game modes would have been welcome and of course (stock Virtual Boy complaint no. 3) there’s no two-player option.
Your progress is saved by the use of passwords, received after defeating each boss, but you may decide it’s best to go back to earlier, easier opponents to practise and improve your game.
Probably not the Bomberman game most players wanted but it’s a good ‘un, and the varied opponents and multiple difficulty levels help to keep your interest in this fun puzzle game that has excellent music and great visuals – even if the impressive backgrounds will largely go unnoticed. Extra modes would have been a benefit and like Mario’s Tennis it’s harmed by that non-existent link cable, but on the whole it's another fine puzzle game for the Virtual Boy.