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.
The game’s complexity increases when you consider the various Bomberman characters. The base game comes with eight basic Bombers — White, Black, Blue, Pink and so forth — that have slightly different attributes. Black starts with level five movement speed, for instance, that can be upgraded mid-match to level eight. He can only lay a single bomb at the start of the game, though, and his maximum bomb-laying capacity is two. Red, meanwhile, starts at fire level five and can reach level eight by picking up fireball items throughout the game. On the flip-side, his movement speed starts at zero and tops out at two.
The Premium Edition, meanwhile, adds 14 characters that are loosely categorized as Attack, Speed and Unique types. They’re inspired by classic Konami properties and have unique abilities that drastically change how you should approach each match. Castlevania hero Simon Belmont, for instance, has a whip that can pull in bombs and characters. Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head, meanwhile, can trigger a ‘Judgement’ effect that kills anyone he comes into contact with. My favorites, though, were Symphony of the Night star Alucard, who can turn into mist and safely pass through bombs, and Gradius’ Vic Viper, which can dash forward at high speed.
These abilities should put the classic bombers at an unfair disadvantage. Every Premium Edition character has a notable flaw, though. Pyramid Head, for instance, can’t pick up five of the game’s six power-ups. His movement speed is stuck at zero and he can’t raise his bomb capacity or blast radius above level one. Every special ability has a cooldown, too, which stops you from spamming it throughout the match. I had to save Vic Viper’s dash, therefore, for when I was about to take damage or recognized that someone else had just dropped all of their power-ups.
Experience points feed into the clearly Fortnite-inspired Bomber Pass.
At the end of each match, the game will give you some experience points based on how long you survived for, the number of blocks you destroyed, the items you collected, and how many players were eliminated before you. These affect your grade — an in-game rank that will periodically reset, similar to Overwatch and Valorant — and general player level. Experience points also feed into the clearly Fortnite-inspired Bomber Pass. For now, it’s free to go through the Start Pass, which slowly unlocks new outfits, accessories, entrance and victory poses for your characters. Other digital goodies include background music, profile icons, and a selection of taunts and text-based quips that you can trigger mid-match.
Thankfully, there’s nothing in the Start Pass that affects gameplay. Super Bomberman R Online does have a Shop, though, that will presumably stock items that require some kind of premium or real-world currency. Konami hasn’t revealed its post-launch plans, though, and for now the Shop simply states that there are “no items available for purchase.”
I’ve enjoyed my first few days with Super Bomberman R Online. The battle royale format is addictive and, surprisingly, feels like a natural evolution for the decades-old franchise. For now, I’m driven to get better and develop more sophisticated strategies that take advantage of the premium characters’ special abilities. Will that excitement wane? Perhaps. Like every battle royale game, it’s dependent on the developer adding new cosmetics, stages and mechanics at a steady clip. If Konami keeps releasing characters and outfits inspired by its classic franchises, there’s a good chance that I’ll keep popping in for the occasional match.
The big question, really, is whether anyone else will give it a shot. Stadia has struggled to capture the public’s attention, despite Google’s best efforts. The Stadia Store is expanding, but its selection of games feels woefully limited compared to Steam, the Epic Games Store, and everything available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Switch. There isn't much of a price incentive, either. You can buy titles a la carte but they're rarely discounted to the point that it's worth switching ecosystems. Stadia doesn't require a console, but if you want to play on a TV you'll need a Chromecast Ultra and Google's own controller, which aren’t cheap.
It doesn't help that Stadia is still missing some basic features, too, like parties on mobile and the ability to search inside the Store. These omissions make Stadia Pro a tougher sell against NVIDIA's GeForce Now, which recently expanded to Chromebooks, and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which lets you stream numerous titles on Android hardware.
Stadia needs many, many more experiences like this.
Super Bomberman R Online is a blast. It’s also one of the first games to support Crowd Play, a live-streaming feature that lets viewers jump in and play with their favorite internet celebrity. If the experience takes off, Bomberman could be Google’s answer to Fall Guys, or — a more realistic comparison, perhaps — Tetris 99, which pulled off a similar battle royale reinvention on Switch. It’s more likely, though, that the game will be forgotten about within a week. Not because it isn’t compelling or thoughtfully designed. But because it will take something monumental — or a deluge of small but exceptional exclusives — to make the average person pick up a Stadia controller.
Battle royale Bomberman is fun, but Google needs many, many more experiences like this to make people care about its streaming service.