Anyone who has played video games in the last twenty years should be aware of the name 'Bomberman'. Anyone who has experienced any of its classic incarnations will have instant recollections of frantically hiding from blasts of flame rushing by only a few pixels from your character, or the sheer ecstasy of trapping your friend between a wall and your bomb to slay him and finally claim victory.
Bomberman has had a home on nearly every gaming system ever made as well as incarnations on some systems not designed for games, such as graphing calculators. It runs to a simple formula for a game, which is why it's held up so well over the years: Four (or in later games, five) bombermen start in the extremities of a square room made up of destructible and/or indestructible blocks. Each carries bombs which can be dropped at will to both destroy blocks to gain a possible powerup and to destroy one of the opposing bombermen. When bombs explode, they release a blast of flame which travels in the cardinal directions until it is stopped by a block. The last bomberman left standing is declared the winner, and a new round begins.
Bomberman Hardball takes on some new directions, by not only extending the original Battle Mode but also by adding Golf, Tennis and Baseball Modes as well as adding a special Life Mode. There's also the ability to customise your Bomberman's appearance with over two hundred clothing options to choose from, bought with coins earned from playing games.
Battle Mode comes in four distinct flavours, each with differing rules. Normal Battle has the familiar last-man-standing game play. In Point Battle you are awarded points for kills and deducted points for self-kills, and the player with the most points at the end of the timed round is declared victor. Star Battle has special star pickups available under destructible blocks, and any player killed will drop a proportion of their collected stars over the stage before respawning, with the victor being whoever has the most stars at the conclusion of the time period. Crown battle has all the bombermen starting on the left of the stage and endeavouring to be the first to pick up the crown on the right and claim victory, while the lack of respawning after death adds to the pressure of starting within blast distance of each other. Additionally there is a Random Mode which will choose random rules, maps and modes for each round in a match, for which the game programmers deserve extra Empathy Credits in the afterlife.
As with all good Bomberman games there are a whole host of powerups available. These can be found under destroyed blocks and can do anything from increase the blast strength of your bomb, increase the number of bombs you can drop at once or even grant you the ability to punch through blocks or jump over them. There are also a few blocks with negative consequences, such as reducing your bomb blast or slowing you down. However, there are two other ways to gain powerups in Bomberman Hardball; you can choose to have 'Slots' before each round, in which each player is granted three items via slot machines or you can use the handicap menu to manually give items to certain players. This can be handy for inducting a new player into the Bomberman legacy or making them continue despite continuing losses and an overdue University assignment. For most purposes though, powerups remain as they always have in Bomberman games. An exciting addition is the ‘Knack' option, where dead bombermen respawn outside the arena with the ability to lob bombs at the players still battling for the win, but lose any powerups they had while they were still clamouring for victory.
Golf Mode is fairly typical of a console golf game. It mainly consists of club selection, aiming, pressing X when your power marker is at the required position and pressing X again at the correct point to cleanly strike the ball. Repeat until ball is in hole. Repeat until all holes are completed. You have the choice of playing a full round, front or back nine holes, a random selection of three holes or the individual hole of your choice on one of four courses in a standard Stroke game where the player with the fewest shots at the end wins or a Match game where the player with the most holes won takes victory. There is also a Tour Mode where you compete over all four courses for victory, but this is only available for one player. The holes are all cleanly-designed, and the controls aren't too bad. It stands up well with human players, but the inability to skip the computer's turns makes it frustrating and time-consuming to play against the AI.
Tennis Mode is surprisingly very enjoyable. It feels a little like Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2 in its look, execution and button assignment, but never loses its Bomberman charm. As in Golf Mode it's available in a single player Tour Mode as well as a multiplayer Exhibition mode. There's a choice of Singles or Doubles rules, as well the ability to choose the number of sets per game (1, 3 or 5) and games per set (2, 6). There's also a choice of hard, grass or clay courts. The game play itself is fast-paced and actually thoroughly enjoyable, especially in a four player doubles match. The AI also provides a decent challenge if you don't have a multitap or enough friends to fill a match.
Baseball mode is very in-depth for what could be called a secondary mode. Full team substitution control as well as a full array of automation choices for your team helps to provide the exact kind of experience you want. I'm not a fan of baseball, and I was very discouraged by the fact you have to play the full nine innings instead of being able to experience small portions like you can with Golf and Tennis but I found myself enjoying the game at around the third innings and played the full game despite losing 10-2. The method for controlling players on the bases gets confusing, and I still haven't garnered any sort of mastery of batting or pitching, but it's still an enjoyable play if I have the time to dedicate to it.
Life Mode is an interesting and somewhat singular addition to the Bomberman universe. It's basically a minimally featured Tamagotchi-esque mode where you can watch the AI play demo games of the other four modes, change game options, view the time/date or look at a calendar, use coins gained from the other modes to buy clothes and apply those clothes and a name to your bomberman. It provides no real use other than editing and previewing your custom bomberman before using it in Battle (and only Battle) Mode but you can gain coins by leaving it in Life Mode for a while.
So that's the basic summary over. Let's move onto scores.
Three dimensional Bomberman wasn't really what I wanted out of a PS2 game in the series. I still enjoy the ageless 2D style of the NES and SNES incarnations, and was pleasantly surprised by the look and feel of Battle Mode in Bomberman Hardball. It's a three dimensional graphics engine, but it's a fixed top-down camera and still grants a faithful experience to the game. The other modes seem to use the same graphics engine to a much greater ability. The sweeping holes in golf are perfectly rendered in bright happy cartoon-style landscapes, with never the merest hint of a slowdown.
It's Bomberman; there should be explosions, screaming and above all the sound of your friends screaming in frustration as your trap them in a corner staring at the rapidly-burning fuse of your bomb. There's music - and it's cute - but you'll be focussing on the game play more than the tunes.
Game play (Battle Mode): 10/10
Battle Mode has been expertly crafted for the PS2 to maintain the traits that has made Bomberman such a successful franchise. On top of this are several additional modes, as well as a replay-saving option to save classic matches for later viewing. The options available for manipulation are vast enough that you should be able to rope anyone into a quick battle (“Come on… I'll start you off with extra bombs!”) for a quick self-esteem boost and an inevitable rematch.
Game play (Golf/Tennis/Baseball Modes): 7/10
The other three play modes are excellent games, but only in combination with each other. The Golf game is repetitive without much course variety, the tennis mode is difficult to consistently and effectively aim your shots in, and the baseball mode provides no relief in terms of match length. These are all gripes that are evident, but clouded by the variety of the other modes available. These faults are mainly forgiven by the fact that Battle Mode should be your main emphasis in any Bomberman game, and anything else is a gift.
Bomberman's legacy will never end. Wherever you have three friends, four controllers and a system with Bomberman then you have a party that will end in a combination of tears, laughter and exhaustion. The additions to Battle Mode alone are enough to provide an amazing amount of variety to such a simple concept, and the other modes provide welcome alternatives if for some reason you get sick of battling. The customisation features also add to the lifespan of the game. With over two hundred unlockable items at one hundred coins each, and ten coins per game rewarded in Battle Mode you'll be playing a while to get the full range of clothing choices for your colour bomberman. All in all, Bomberman should live forever