Sega's Bomberman Online, one of the last Dreamcast games to be released in the US, takes the quintessential party game to the realm of network play. If you're not already intimately familiar with what makes up a Bomberman game, it is generally a top-down battle game, in which four players armed with explosives duke it out on a grid. Bombs can be planted and then kicked, hopefully into the path of an enemy Bomberman. Blowing up destructible terrain can reveal power-ups that bestow numerous effects, like adding more punch to your explosions or speeding you up. Built around four-player matches, Bomberman games have strived to find the perfect balance between playability, depth, and simple fun. With the addition of online play, Bomberman Online takes an old standard and makes it feel at least somewhat fresh again.
The story elements introduced in this latest Bomberman game are attractive, dramatically styled pieces that have a pretty animelike feel to them. Bomberman and his foes are rendered with a cel-shading technique, while the bits of the world you can see during the prefight scenes are colorful and equally attractive. Bomberman is apparently a master of the martial arts nowadays and must compete in a diverse array of match types, against enemies who are masters of their chosen discipline, to win the coveted gold medal at the Bomb-A-Lympics. As the story would imply, there is no single-player quest game per se, merely a collection of CPU-controlled opponents with objectives that can be cleared whenever playing online isn't a possibility or whenever three friends aren't around.
The single-player game does remain fun for a good while, however, in that there are four possible winning rankings that can be achieved through each course. Plus, each match type has numerous attractive courses against an interesting cast of opponents. To get to the higher ranks, you'll need to follow some strict guidelines for victory. Some matches will ask that you plant only two bombs to take out both opponents, while others will ask that you plant explosives in the four corners. You are rewarded for nicely playing a round with complementary gifts, like pieces of sushi that can give you a rough idea of how well you've performed.
To keep the game from getting stale too quickly, a number of different play modes are available aside from the classic Bomberman survival mode, in which the object is to eliminate opponents with your exploding timed bombs. There is also a hyperbomb match, in which the objective is to blow up a number of targets and reach an exit gate before time expires; a paint match, in which your explosions mark grid squares in your color and you need to have the most area covered before the time runs out; a ring match, in which you need to send your opponents hurtling from the arena over the top ropes; and a fun new match type called submarine, which is essentially the classic game of Battleship, only Bomberman-style. Playing in a swimming pool or other aquatic venue, teams of Bombermen plant bombs in their own territory, which dip under the surface and emerge on their opponent's corresponding playfield. Being able to actually see where the opponent is planting doesn't make it any easier, as the pace gets extremely frantic. Winning one of the battle mode games also lets you participate in minigames like Bomberman Karate, in which you need to carefully press the right trigger to select the strength of a karate chop, gaining a power-up for your efforts.
Getting set up for an online game is easy. You select a personalized Bomberman as your avatar, which you can color-coordinate to turn into a menacing ninja Bomberman or, say, a feminine shade of pink. Items--which your Bomberman earns in online games and can be traded with other players--let you open up graphic surprises in the extras menu. The uncomplicated nature of Bomberman games allows for a good translation to network play, and lag never really seems like an issue, unless you have an extremely poor connection. Being able to find an opponent anytime is attractive enough in theory, but it will remain to be seen how well the servers will populate in the Dreamcast's last days.
If you're completely new to the series, Bomberman Online is a fine introduction to an explosive party game and performs admirably despite the many poor titles that have come recently before it. The control is spot-on, there are no perspective issues, and while the background music is a bit repetitive and voice bits are on the childish side, the audio presentation isn't half bad. The match types are fun in their own way, and some are so well conceived that they may even become as popular as the classic Bomberman mode. However, after playing each of the match types for a couple of nights on end, many players will be ready to move on to something with more substance with their limited gaming time.