Bomb Jack, released in 1984, was one of Tecmo's early hits, a single-screen arcade game that had players rushing to diffuse bright red bombs planted at major tourist attractions around the globe. By the time its sequel rolled around in 1987, the Super Mario Bros.-induced side-scrolling craze had taken hold of the gaming world, and Tecmo took note; Mighty Bomb Jack combines the arcade stages of its predecessor with basic platforming in-between, and sets it all within one enormous, secret-filled Egyptian pyramid. It's a tough, esoteric game that won't be for everyone, but for keen explorers and old-school adventurers, this overlooked expedition holds its own unique appeal.
After plunging into the pyramid from the game's title screen, players guide Jack - a red and blue superhero with a sky-high jump that makes Luigi look like a lead weight - through sixteen levels on his way to the top. Each stage is split up into two sections: a passageway and a "Royal Palace Room". The passageways are short, side-scrolling levels of straightforward platforming, with bombs to collect, treasure chests to open, and all manner of hopping, flying, meandering, and bouncing baddies to avoid. The enemies spawn randomly as you move through the level, which keeps things interesting but can make for some seriously tricky situations if you dawdle too long near a tight spot - a single hit is all Jack can take, and it gets crowded very quickly in these catacombs. You won't want to linger too long anyway, however, since there's always a timer ticking; when the clock runs out, it's curtains for Jack.
Jack can't actively attack his enemies (what exactly is he doing with all those bombs?), so keeping out of their way and staying alive requires deft use of his über-floaty jump, feathering the 'A' button to slow his descent when needed, Tanooki suit-style. And while Jack's jump is inordinately high by default, you can 'cancel' it by hitting 'A' to stop the ascent at any time during the arc. It's a subtle and satisfying manoeuvre which adds quite a bit of finesse to the game, and deciding on the exact moment to send Jack earthward again is a big part of surviving the claustrophobic chambers.
A hearty hop is also how you'll open treasure chests, which liberally line the pyramid's passageways and hold riches such as extra points, extra bombs, extra time, and the extra-useful Mighty Coins. By pressing 'B' and spending one Mighty Coin per press, Jack can power up to three successive forms: a blue suit which lets him open locked treasure chests, an orange suit which grants him the (surprisingly handy) power to open any treasure chest from the side, and a green suit which - in addition to the previous levels' effects - turns all on-screen enemies into gold coins for five seconds.
At the end of each passageway you'll find a Royal Palace Room, holding a single-screen trial straight out of Mighty Bomb Jack's arcade ancestor. Here, your objective is simply to pick up all the bombs, open up the exit, and make it out alive - but there's also an interesting risk/reward mechanic hiding in plain sight. After you grab the first bomb, a fuse will light up on one of the others. If you pick up this lit one next, another will light up after it, and another after that, creating a sometimes-tricky sequence that will score you big bonus points for each lit bomb at the end of the round. If, on the other hand, you save the initially lit bomb for last - often even trickier to do - you'll warp straight to the next level's Royal Palace Room, foregoing the intervening passageways entirely. You can keep doing this all the way to the top of the pyramid, but there's a catch - if you die anywhere along the way, you'll be sent reeling back to the last passageway you actually set foot in.
This level-skip mechanic isn't the only secret in the game, either. Mighty Bomb Jack is loaded with invisible treasure chests and secret rooms, so there's plenty to find on each run through the pyramid. That's important, because with no continues to speak of and a difficulty level worthy of its quarter-munching arcade roots, you're likely to see each stage quite a few times in your quest for the top. In addition to the ticking timer and the steady stream of enemies emerging from the ether at inopportune moments, you'll also have to contend with the game's cruel cautionary tale of video game greed. Pick up too many Mighty Coins or add too much time to the timer, and you'll wind up in the transparently-named "Torture Room", where you'll have to jump around avoiding enemies until time runs out and you're sent back to the beginning of the passageway you so thoughtlessly plundered. The Wii U Virtual Console's save states are a huge help with the difficulty, of course, providing a very welcome lifeline of ad hoc continues.
Visually, Mighty Bomb Jack is basic but bright, and easy on the 8-bit eyes. There are a few different themes spread throughout the passageways (watch out for the rare subterranean species of palm tree!), and the NES' colour palette is better represented than you might expect for a game which takes place completely inside a pyramid. The sunny soundtrack is also a highlight - there are only a few short tracks, but they're gloriously catchy, with the main theme reminding us of the cheery melody from Yoshi's 'Star' BGM.
Even with its upbeat presentation, however, it's hard to shake the feeling that there's something missing from Mighty Bomb Jack. There's a lot of skill involved in perfecting your runs, taking advantage of the fuse sequence in the Royal Palace rooms, and mastering the hero's signature high jump, but unless you're invested in finding the pyramid's secrets or setting high scores - both of which can certainly be addictive endeavours - there's just not that much to the basic gameplay. You can blow right through the passageways without opening a single chest, if you'd like, and while the fact that they fit together to form a pyramid is intriguing, the level design in the individual stages is nothing to write home about. The Royal Palace Rooms present a more concrete objective, but they're still quite straightforward: enter, collect the bombs, exit. There's definitely fun to be had here - especially if you appreciate old-school arcade games - but it comes from finding secrets, exploiting loopholes, and rising above the game's considerable challenge, rather than simply working your way through the levels.
Mighty Bomb Jack is a unique, enjoyable game, with a hybrid platforming/arcade gameplay style, a high-jumping hero who's fun to control, a treasure trove of secrets to uncover, and a skill-based level-skip mechanic that will have daredevil players on the edge of their seats. That said, it isn't for everyone; the constant barrage of randomly-spawning enemies can be frustrating, the absence of continues means the Game Over screen is never far away, and the level design is largely uninteresting unless you're looking for secrets. There are plenty of top-tier platformers and arcade classics on the NES, and for most players those will be better options. But if you've already played the best and are ready to explore the rest, this quirky 8-bit B-side is well worth a try.