Bomberman has always been one of those franchises that I respected but never really cared about much. The TurboGrafx-16 was basically a myth in my little corner of Virginia when I was growing up, a legend spoke of in the pages of games magazines. I knew of the Hudson Soft multiplayer mascot but had never felt the need to seek out the maze-based explosion fest. I must have been in my twenties by the time I played a Bomberman game for the first time, with roommates and friends shouting gleefully at the ensuing detonation derby. I never considered Bomberman to be a candidate for a solid single-player adventure game, but Bomberman 64 has shown me otherwise.
Bomberman 64 starts innocently enough, but the first major difference in gameplay that I could see was the three-dimensional explosion. Bomb blasts are no longer a straight line, they now erupt within a radius that can be expanded by familiar pickups in each level. The next major difference is that this game features a very expansive and exploratory adventure that contains a wealth of challenges. Levels are now sprawling 3D environments, with secret paths and tricky collectables in the form of Gold Cards.
These cards can be earned in a multitude of ways. Every level contains five of them; one for completing the level under a certain time, one for defeating 35 enemies, and three that are hidden throughout in sometimes obvious but usually well hidden locations. Boss encounters also hold five potential Gold Cards and also have various conditions to earn successfully. All five must be obtained during your fight or you're stuck repeating the battle until you figure out each boss's ideal strategy.
By obtaining every Gold Card in the five worlds featured in Bomberman 64's Adventure mode, a sixth and final area can be unlocked, which holds all the secrets to the game's true ending. I've heard this final area is very difficult, and I imagine it would be. The overall challenge in Bomberman 64 is not too terrible, some levels were quite frustrating but with practice comes confidence. After a few attempts, I found that most levels could be beaten in swift order, as the Gold Card time trials would infer. Even when a level was sometimes frustrating, the cheerful visuals and stellar soundtrack kept me coming back for more.
The art and sound design in Bomberman 64 is the epitome of pitch-perfect. The game isn't exactly hailed for its deft handling of the tumultuous 2D to 3D conversion that so many franchises failed to grasp on their initial attempts. I think this is somewhat of an oversight. The adventure mode in Bomberman 64 is an excellent transition from sprite-based art to polygonal representation. With so many games struggling in this respect, it's nice to see this series was able to find its footing with grace and so early in that awkward burgeoning 3D graphics era.
Bomberman 64 was a pleasant and welcome surprise, but maybe one that I should have seen coming. It's charming, clever, tricky, and immensely replayable. And I haven't even touched the multiplayer yet.