Before I say anything else, I would like to reiterate that I love Bomberman, and although I am about to slam some of its games, this is not indicative of my opinion of the franchise as a whole. It’s not even really my opinion of the individual games I’ll be discussing here. However, even great works are subject to scrutiny, and, well… Bomberman has a whole lot to scrutinize. There have been so many games over the years, and so many interesting ideas thrown out in each title (well, up until the early 2000’s, anyway) that there were bound to be some mistakes here and there. Some of these mistakes came in the form of really weak bosses.

I believe that I can understand why some of the design choices were made here, particularly for early-level bosses, but despite the rationale, I fail to find much of a legitimate excuse for the end results. This is a case study in how not to design bosses, both in terms of unsatisfactory challenges and really stupid behaviours. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be comparing only traditional, grid-based Bomberman bosses, with the exception of one boss from Bomberman Quest, just because of a point I really want to hammer home here. So, without further ado…

5. Water Commander (Bomberman Quest)

Proof that good character design means little in the face of bad AI.Shogakukan

Proof that good character design means little in the face of bad AI.

Water Commander looks pretty badass. She’s dressed up in this cool ninja-esque attire, complete with a katana on her back. You can almost imagine those ribbons on her helmet fluttering in the wind as she slashes some dude in twain. Or at least, I can.

Unfortunately, her katana is just for show, and so is her flashy appearance. I really wanted to like Water Commander the first time I saw her. I really did. But make no mistake, this is one of the most inept villains ever faced in a Bomberman game. Even her personality is the same stock, recycled profile of an unfortunate number of female Bomberman characters.

"As amusing as this may be, can we have female villains who aren't flat and flirtateous?" - me speaking to the corpse of Hudson Soft.

“As amusing as this may be, can we have female villains who aren’t flat and flirtateous stereotypes?” – me speaking to the corpse of Hudson Soft.

The problem with Water Commander isn’t that she isn’t dangerous. She is dangerous, which is why she’s back here at the end of the list. The problem is primarily in the way her AI is designed. She has two basic moves, other than running around aimlessly: if you place bombs, she can spray water at them to defuse them, which is almost infallible, and she can issue two Rubber Bombs. In Bomberman, Rubber Bombs are basically bombs that bounce randomly around the room. She’s certainly not the first villain to use them, but she is the first one to use them without a shield. You can tell where I’m headed here. If not, watch this video (please excuse my rusty playing):

In the Bomberman Quest Official Guidebook, the recommended strategy against Water Commander is to place a Normal Bomb and use the Yo-Yo to push it toward her. This causes her spray attack to miss your bombs, and allows you to actually damage her. Without the Yo-Yo, it’s difficult to routinely deal damage to Water Commander with your own bombs because she’s constantly spraying them into oblivion. This isn’t a problem, though, because she’ll almost certainly end up killing herself with her own attacks.

If you didn’t watch that video, here’s what happened: Water Commander had six hit points. I took two of them away by using an effective strategy. The other four hit points were lost because she blasted herself with her own bombs. That means that 2/3 of the total damage she took during the whole battle was due to her own attacks, and I didn’t even have to do anything except not be an idiot and mess around in the line of fire. I didn’t even have to strategize beyond hiding behind a pillar every now and then. I, and many others, could defeat this boss without issuing a single attack.

Not only is Water Commander vulnerable during the entire battle, but the timing of her bombs is such that it’s incredibly common for them to detonate by the time they’ve bounced back to her. Maybe with better timing, this could have been mitigated during development somewhat. Or maybe she could have, I don’t know, jumped to avoid the blasts of her own bombs. Or maybe, just maybe, she could have had a movement pattern that wasn’t so random that it forced her to turn around 180 degrees and walk right back into the newly-created explosion of her own bomb. If you didn’t catch that, go back and watch the video again. That took her last hit point away.

It’s fine to have a boss that is supposed to be damaged with its own attacks by redirecting them or otherwise using them against the boss, or to have a boss that is so chaotic that it can be hit by its own attacks. I also completely understand that the first boss of a game is generally going to be much easier than the rest, just to get the player acclimated. However, having a boss that can be defeated by just standing around and idly watching it kill itself is never good design unless you’re intentionally trying to make the whole event into a farce.

4. Bomber Shitennou (Super Bomberman 4)

Yes, all four of them.Shogakukan (modified)

Yes, all four of them.

Yes, this entry is actually four bosses rolled into one. This seems fair as they all share modified versions of the same AI. Back in the Super Famicom era, Bomberman was just beginning to toy around with unique Bomber villains. The first to come were the 5 Bad Bombers. Their AI was rather lazily designed – they simply moved toward the player and placed bombs, and the only differences were in their speeds, bomb powers, and unique bomb types. That was back in Super Bomberman 2. We didn’t get any new Bomber-versus-Bomber duels until Super Bomberman 4. You’d have thought that Hudson Soft would have improved upon their ideas for these types of battles.

If you’d thought that, you couldn’t have been any more wrong.

Now, I like the Bomber Shitennou. They have really interesting designs, and their new special abilities brought a much-needed, fresh twist on the classic Battle Game formula. You could choose Hammer Bomber and stun your enemies with a morning star (or a, er, “hammer”, as all the official documentation calls it), or you could choose Bazooka Bomber and blast your foes away with… well, with a bazooka. So, given that these were the bad guys, their equivalent boss forms in the Normal Game should have been pretty epic, right?

Nope. For one reason or another, their AI is just the absolute worst. Take a look at this playthrough of the rematches with the Shitennou in the final world:

I intentionally chose to start off with no power-ups, and I only collected a few in the arenas – the arenas were designed to offer them to you anyway, and I wanted to demonstrate how the game plays if you’re just busting through normally. The first thing you should notice is that each boss has a weird habit of walking a few steps and then stopping for a while. I really want to know why this is, but I don’t. I assume that they’re pausing to calculate a new action or destination, but the pause is really unnecessary and just makes them behave like idiots. It also makes them fairly easy to trap. I mean, come on… even most normal monsters in the game don’t stand around in the middle of the field.

Let me just analyze what happened in each sequential battle:

  • Hammer Bomber – Dicked around a lot and got trapped in bombs because he moved too slowly and paused a lot. His hammer can screw you up if you’re not careful and you’re already standing by a bomb, because you’ll be stunned for a moment, but other than that, he behaves like a parent trying to play nice in order to ease you into the game. It should be unnecessary at this point, even though it’s the first boss.
  • Jet Bomber – He kept getting locked into the pattern of using his jet attack, which is easily blockable by placing a bomb and getting out of there. With the right timing, you can even hurt him by doing this. I must admit that his avoidance strategies were fairly intelligent, but all they served to do was draw the fight out longer because he wasn’t even making an attempt to attack. He was almost too cautious.
  • Lady Bomber – Like Hammer Bomber, she crumbled in close quarters. She just kept getting trapped between two bombs. It’s hard to get trapped between two bombs unless you just aren’t that good at Bomberman, or if your opponent is overpowered and/or far outranks you. I had multiple bombs, but she was trapping herself between one of my bombs and one of her own bombs. That’s just inexcusable for a boss that lies right in the middle of the game.
  • Bazooka Bomber – He’s made marginally more interesting because he moves a bit faster and likes to kick bombs around. Like Jet Bomber, his bazooka ability is easily blockable, but unlike Jet Bomber you can’t rely on the same technique to try to damage him when he uses it. I suppose you could get close and wrap bombs around him, but it’s not necessary. Just like the others, he died by making dumb mistakes, but, unlike the others, most of the time he kept damaging himself with his own bombs. It’s probably because his firepower was higher and his AI just wasn’t strong enough to deal with that. At least he’s somewhat challenging if you’re not on your toes, or if you’re a novice player, perhaps.

You’ll notice that I left out the final Bomber-versus-Bomber duel against Great Bomber, both because he is not a member of the Shitennou (they are not a gotennou, after all), and because he has a slew of power-ups, can temporarily become invincible, and is pretty aggressive. That last point is what I keep thinking about the more I consider what’s wrong with the rest of thes bosses. They’re just not aggressive. I’m supposed to be battling bad guys who are trying to alter history. It shouldn’t feel like they’re going easy on me.

3. Robo Bomber (Super Bomberman 2)

Sure, it's lazy, but a giant Bomberman? It could have worked.Shogakukan

Sure, it’s lazy, but a giant Bomberman? It could have worked.

So you blast your way through the fourth world of Super Bomberman 2 and you’re confronted with the vicious, cold-hearted Brain Bomber, rumoured to be the inventor of the Remote Control bomb detonation device. You know, that thing that you abuse in order to break pretty much every Bomberman game. I’m not actually making that up; it’s in the Super Bomberman 2 Official Guidebook, though since it only appears in the manga, and the manga differs substantially from the story presented in the manual, you could take it with a grain of salt.

Still, the guy has remote bombs. Well, one of them. One measly remote bomb with a fire range of 1 tile. I’m thoroughly convinced that this is an intentional joke boss. Once you basically bully the nerd into submission, he returns for revenge in a huge Bomberman robot. It is… okay, it is pretty disappointing. Sure, it walks quickly, but any old boss can just walk around. If you get really close to it, it might set a giant bomb. The bomb blows up in a weirdly-shaped blast. I’ll just show it to you:

Picture courtesy of a 20-year-old guidebook.Shogakukan

Picture courtesy of a 20-year-old guidebook.

Due to the sheer size of it, it’s entirely likely that he’ll linger within range or double back and walk right into the flames, blasting himself. I shouldn’t have to reiterate why this is an issue, as I dealt with it back in the sixth entry of this piece. What makes this guy easier than Water Commander is that his movement pattern is incredibly simplistic and predictable – all he does is follow you directly – and his bombs just stay in one place, so avoiding them is no real issue unless you have absolutely no Speed Ups. Here, let me just show you (I actually had to intentionally walk up to him to even get him to place a bomb, for demonstration purposes):

Brain Bomber would eventually redeem himself in Super Bomberman 3 and Bomberman Story by actually being as dangerous as he’s supposed to be, but this first outing was just sad all around.

2. Bananahha (Bomberman ’94)

Imagine how terrifying this would be if it were a plantain.

Imagine how terrifying this would be if it were a plantain.

There is nothing wrong with the concept of this boss. First of all, the design is pretty cute: it’s a little monkey with a controller, making some kind of big banana robot move around to attack Bomberman. Despite the weird premise, it looks good on screen, and it fits well enough with the jungle theme of the preceding world. Secondly, the idea of a weak and flimsy boss controlling a large and powerful boss is really cool, and, to my memory, it hasn’t been done before or since in the franchise. You can keep pummelling at Bananahha to destroy it, and then destroy the monkey afterward, but the monkey consistently heals the big guy, and if you take him down first, both bosses fall. This is really cool.

What’s not cool is how laughably simple the whole affair is. Bananahha itself just moves around like a normal monster. It has no particularly interesting movement patterns. It can’t break out of the grid. It can’t issue attacks. It doesn’t even really seek Bomberman directly. It’s pretty random. The monkey itself, though, is where it all falls apart. It stands still and controls Bananahha, which is fine. That makes sense. If you close in on it, it will run away and find a safer place, which also makes sense. However, if you kick a bomb into it, it will just stand there and take it. It has no ability to detect and evade bombs. This is… a serious problem. This means that you can just kick four bombs into the monkey and end the boss in mere seconds, which I did in this video:

I don’t know if this is an oversight or an intentional weakness, though whomever wrote the relevant strategy on page 123 of Bomberman Maniax, an official Hudson Soft book, described this exact strategy, so clearly somebody was aware of it at some point in time. Look, again, it’s fine to make an easy first boss, but don’t make it this easy. This is a two-mob boss in which one mob wanders around aimlessly while the other one stands there and just takes damage. This is a common enemy and an enemy that’s smarter yet so much dumber than the average enemy presented together as a boss fight. Make the monkey smart enough to avoid bombs the same way it avoids Bomberman. Make Bananahha fire some kind of projectile or jump to another row occasionally or at least spawn smaller, equally stupid enemies to create some potential of danger. Give me something.

1. G Ganzu (Super Bomberman 2)

"Surpreyes! Hahahah. I am begging you, please kill me."Shogakukan

“Surpreyes! Hahahah. I am begging you, please kill me.”

I like Super Bomberman 2. I really do. For all its faults, it accomplishes some interesting things. It introduced my favourite characters and it has interesting environments and its Battle Game introduced some cool new stuff, some of which has never been seen since. All around, it’s not a bad game.

The Normal Game is very weak, though, when you start to examine it.

After defeating Plasma Bomber and Skeleguard, the secret final boss emerges: a giant, floating one-eyed alien named G Ganzu. I assume that the “g” stands for “general”, though it’s not clear. It’s also not clear as to who or what it is. Like, was it supposed to be the leader originally, and then they retconned Bagura into the story? Or was it just some kind of low-level villain serving under Bagura? I suppose it doesn’t matter. It probably didn’t matter to Hudson Soft either.

G Ganzu floats around aimlessly and can only be harmed by bombs thrown directly into its body. This means that the player must have collected the Power Glove in Stage 5-7, which isn’t really a problem unless you allow it to get destroyed by a blast or if Plasma Bomber knocks it out of you with a thrown bomb.

Basically, what it all boils down to is tracking the boss down, throwing a bomb at it, and then continuing to toss a steady stream of explosives into its face until it decides to stop being alive. Because bombs thrown into bosses in Super Bomberman 2 disappear completely instead of bouncing away or landing beneath, you don’t even have to worry about the resulting explosions potentially hurting you. You can just stand in one spot and fire away. I did:

This boss concept was actually derived from the final boss of the previous title, Super Bomberman. That boss, however, floated around in quick circles, was harder to avoid, was constantly throwing skull panels onto the field, and could only be harmed by a punched bomb. The difference between a thrown bomb and a punched bomb is that a punched bomb has to be placed on the ground and punched from one side. It’s harder to pull off, especially on a fast-paced foe. Furthermore, in that game, punched bombs would land on the field after hitting a boss instead of being completely removed, and the bomb’s fuse wouldn’t reset after landing, so if you weren’t quick enough, you could easily be hoisted by your own petard. It was much better designed. G Ganzu, on the other hand, just meanders about and waits for punishment. Finally, the boss’ gimmick – only being vulnerable to thrown bombs – isn’t even unique or surprising within the game, as all previous bosses can also be damaged by thrown bombs, and it’s actually often more efficient to do so than to simply place bombs on the field. All of this is bad enough, but the fact that it’s a surprise final boss builds up the tension in one moment, as the beast appears, and immediately diffuses it once the simple and uninteresting boss battle begins.

Sources referenced/images taken from: Super Bomberman 4 Official Guidebook (Shogakukan, 1996), Bomberman Quest Official Guidebook (Shogakukan, 1998), Super Bomberman 2 Official Guidebook (Shogakukan, 1994), and Bomberman Maniax (Tokuma, 1995).

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