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Panic Bomber

In this industry, a mascot hasn't matured until he starts popping up as the star in genres he wasn't originally made to be in. Five years ago, this franchising idea wasn't quite so popular, but it was definitely a sure way to make a game sell. Since then, a successful title featuring a cartoon-like character or characters nearly guaranteed the star would branch out into other lucrative types of games. Sonic the Hedgehog has Sonic Shuffle and pinball, among others. Crash Bandicoot has his "bash" as well as a racer. Pokémon has run the gamut. Even Final Fantasy's Chocobos have gotten their own kart racer.

So why shouldn't Bomber Man have a puzzle game?

I guess that's what Hudson Soft asked itself before making Panic Bomber. But this isn't just the result of cheap over-franchising of a character. This is actually an extremely well made and fun game; it seems to transcend its genre. Not just puzzle fans will like this one, it's something virtually anyone can pick up and have fun with.

The game takes place on the island of "Ever-Mist." Your charge is to search for the Golden Statue of Bomberman, but you first have to collect three "celestial medals of power." Then you'll be able to access the statue. Not a half-bad plot for a puzzle game.


visuals

The game is played in 2D. There aren't any special tricks that affect gameplay, which begs the question, "Why does this need to be on Virtual Boy?" However, there are some cool-looking 3D effects used. Blown up tiles bounce off the playing field in a fun manner. The intro and the island you're battling on looks exceptional. The backgrounds also give your eyes something to stare at (while blocks pile up from your negligence).

The menus are done nicely. The enemy portraits also look good. The game lets you choose from five different block themes, although each one results in identical gameplay.

After seeing Panic Bomber's straightforward 2D nature, it's clear that the title didn't need to be on the Virtual Boy. Yet, as a game also released on SNES and Neo Geo, it provided a little extra marketability for the virtual reality console.


audio

The sounds are repetitive but realistic. There aren't really that many sounds needed, but the sound of the bombs exploding is done just right. The music keeps the pace of the game's battles, and is actually entertaining in its own right while you play.


gameplay

While the visuals and audio certainly get the job done, the gameplay is where this title really sparks. To this day, Panic Bomber remains one of the most addictive puzzlers I've ever played.

Rather than offer various modes of play, Panic Bomber straps you down and forces you to play through its story mode every time. That means you won't be able to play this puzzle in Tetris-esque "marathon" modes; you're going to be stuck battling AI.

To be fair, it would have been difficult to make a non-battle mode based on this game, since the game is really centered on attacking and getting attacked by an opponent. This is certainly unfortunate, though, since the requirement of having to type in a password every time you want to play against an apt enemy redefines tedium. The game's replay value would have been significantly increased if you could just plug it in and play a quick solo game.

The gameplay is stereotypical "link three or more identical items together to erase them" concept of puzzle gaming.

Every "turn," three conjoined items fall in a boomerang shape. Your job is to rotate them and try to match them up best with what you already have on the ground. Obviously you want to get rid of as many blocks as possible, in order to have an opportunity to attack your enemy. Pulling off chain reaction combos is rewarded, as well. Odds are, you've played a puzzle title something like this before.

Where this title separates from most of the pack is how it deals with the whole "mess up your opponent" feature that most puzzlers now have. Rather than just make a wicked combo be enough to fill your adversary's screen with junk, Hudson Soft included Bomberman's favorite item: bombs! When you pull off a tricky deletion of blocks, unlit active bombs are placed along the bottom row of your screen. Every-so-often, a lit bomb will drop. Drop it near an unlit bomb, and you can blow up all the other nearby active bombs. It has the immediate effect of clearing your space and possibly setting off chain reactions of block clears. "Bombing yourself," as I like to put it, has the added bonus of adding varying amounts of scorched bombs (that are harder to explode) all over your opponent's playing capsule.

There is also a larger "decker" bomb that drops occasionally, that acts more like a wrecking ball than a bomb. You earn one after clearing enough blocks to fill your "decker" meter. It effortlessly knocks over a good number of blocks, depending on where it hits. This bombing feature cranks the pace up to a level that will not only have you frantically cramming blocks in every direction, but simultaneously looking at your opponent's screen and crossing your fingers that he doesn't get the next decker bomb.

The game has four levels of difficulty (and a "Bonus" difficulty level, that is even harder than "Hard") and is easy enough (on "very easy" mode, at least) to just pick it up and play. If you're looking for more challenge, the "Hard" and "Bonus" modes each offer a good deal of it. The range of the difficulty levels in Panic Bomber isn't extremely wide, but its useful to have the option, especially with the gameplay being limited exclusively to "battle-style" duels.

The game starts out with a not-too-challenging enemy and only a few of the blocks (of the 5 from whatever theme you chose). After each of the beginning battles, new blocks are added, slowly increasing difficulty (on top of better AI). As you crank up the difficulty, bricks appear instead of scorched bombs (this only occurs in the default "skull" mode). Blowing up bricks will give you an item, most of which are debilitating, but some help you out. The items end up being a creative twist and add to the "mess up your opponents" action.

The game lacks a save feature, meaning you're going to need a pen and some paper for the password-save system. This is one of the game's larger setbacks. But, since the Virtual Boy is one of the least portable "portable" systems ever made, odds are the thing will be on the same desk in-between sessions anyway.


multiplayer

None. This game is screaming to be let out of its single-player cage. The lack of multiplayer cripples a lot of the game's potential. Of course, this is just wishful thinking, since multi-play would have been impossible.


overall

This title isn't necessarily a "must-have" for the Virtual Boy, but it's the only traditional puzzle game ever released in the US for the console. It is a great source of hours of fun, whether you're a puzzle game fan or not. The frantic pace of the game keeps it entertaining rather then frustrating, as its stressful battle action gives it the all-important "just-one-more-time" feel.

No matter who you are, Panic Bomber would make a fine addition to any Virtual Boy library. Quips like the game being story-mode only and the lack of a save feature don't prevent Panic Bomber from being a marvelous puzzle game. I'm still angry I can't play against somebody else, whether it's the Virtual Boy's fault or not.


final score

8.0/10