Thursday, 7 March 2013

Coin-Op Classics - Bomb Jack series (Tecmo 1985 - 1993)

Bomb Jack (Tecmo, 1984)

Bomb Jack has always been one of my favourite arcade games of the 1980's. With its bright, colourful graphics, jaunty tunes and simple, yet addictive gameplay, it is a game I can come back to again and again. Join me, as I take a look back at a classic 1980's coin-op, the many home conversions it received and the sequels that followed.

Original arcade flyer for Bomb Jack

The original Bomb Jack coin-op was released in 1984 by Tehkan, which would later become Tecmo. It was a fast paced, single screen platform game that enticed players with its bright and colourful visuals and quirky tunes. What awaited  gamers willing to part with their coins was a highly addictive and extremely challenging game that defied its cutesy veneer.

Taking the role of the titular Jack, a cutesy little guy in a multi-coloured superhero costume, you are tasked with defusing bombs at famous tourist sites. These cartoony single screen environments include such recognisable landmarks as the Sphinx, the Acropolis and even Hollywood. Each contains 24 bombs to defuse, though they never explode, no matter how long you take to finish the stage. You can collect them in any order you like, but one bomb will appear to have a lit fuse, and collecting this one will light another one (usually next to it). Collecting the bombs in the correct order will reward players with a high score bonus. Get all on-screen bombs in order without dying and you get a sweet 50,000 point bonus.

The colourful graphics are immediately eye 
catching and contain bags of charm

Sounds easy right? Well, unfortunately for little Jack, there are a plethora of enemies that patrol the platforms or fly around the screen - with one touch killing Jack instantly. These enemies come in the form of robotic monsters that resemble birds, turtles, mummies and orbs, and are relentless in their pursuit of Jack. Collecting bombs will often make a bonus item appear which, upon grabbing, will turn the tables, Pac Man style, allowing you to destroy them. Just like the circular dot muncher, this is very satisfying as well as giving you some much needed breathing space before reinforcements appear. It is a blast to play (excuse the pun), and will have you coming back again and again to better your score. Bomb Jack is a stone cold classic that shows that simple, but finely tuned, gameplay is timeless.

Jack visits a variety of different locations on his adventures

The Ports

Bomb Jack was ported to a large number of home computers and consoles at the time, with varying results. The Commodore 64 version is universally derided as being awful, thanks to overly large sprites which make avoiding enemies an absolute nightmare. The ZX Spectrum port, despite it's lack of colour, is surprisingly good - keeping the speed and pace of the arcade original intact - though its clicky sound effects will drive you nuts. The Amiga & ST ports were disappointing as, while maintaining the look of the coin-op, they had quite sluggish gameplay. Nintendo's handheld Game Boy console also received a neat port that was well suited to the small screen and for gaming on the move. The best way to experience Bomb Jack is, of course, to fire up MAME on your computer, or failing that get Tecmo Arcade Classics on the original Xbox console - it also works on the 360 and can be picked up for pittance.

 Despite replacing the colourful visuals well, the 
Amiga and ST ports lack the zippy pace

 The C64 version has huge chunky sprites, which
 completely wreck the gameplay

The Amstrad CPC in all its hunky chunky glory

Despite the Spectrum's inevitable struggle with the
 colour scheme, the port plays extremely well

 The Game Boy port is extremely nippy and fun. 
Perfect for gaming on the go

Jack is extremely quick in the SEGA SG-1000 version

The Sequels

Bomb Jack 2

The cover to Bomb Jack 2 - Commodore 16 version - 
Encore budget re-release

Due to Bomb Jack's deserved popularity, sequels followed. The home computers received Bomb Jack 2, a licensed follow-up by Elite Systems, who were well known for great arcade ports such as Ghosts 'N Goblins, Ikari Warriors, Paperboy and 1942. It is a strange title that completely changes the mechanics of the original game. Here you are confined to platforms that you run along to collect bags of treasure. You can move to higher or lower platforms should they reside directly above or below you and can even attack the enemies with a, pretty ineffective, karate chop. It was an average game that was reasonably fun, but couldn't hope to match the thrills and spills of the original's gameplay.

The C64 version of Bomb Jack 2 is a fun title, but the gameplay
 is no match for the original arcade Bomb Jack

The CPC version of Elite's sequel features the 
Amstrad's usual chunky graphics

The Speccy version can be quite visually confusing, 
especially when engaging in combat

Even the humble C16 gets in on the act

Mighty Bomb Jack

(NES) Another great example of how Western (left) box art differs 
from the Japanese originals (right)

The home computer (C64 / Amiga / ST) versions were 
granted this rather weird packaging. Completely at odds
 with the Bomb Jack franchise's usual cartoony art

The next sequel, Mighty Bomb Jack, changed things even further, switching the game to a side scrolling affair. Each level ends with a single screen section that resembles the original Bomb Jack, but for the most part you are allowed to explore the smoothly scrolling 2d levels, avoiding enemies and collecting coins. Treasure chests are dotted throughout and can be opened by jumping onto them, giving you bonus items and power pill style enemy killing abilities. It even punishes you for collecting too many of the special 'Mighty Coins', sending you to a torture chamber room in which you must jump a certain amount of times before being allowed to leave. This is not easy when the room is slowly filling with monsters. I enjoyed Mighty Bomb Jack when it first came out on the Commodore 64, so I recommend you give it a whirl. The NES version was released in the arcades in 1986 as a very rare Japanese Nintendo Vs. title, Vs. Mighty Bomb Jack which supports 2 players. The NES version is available on both the Nintendo Wii and 3DS download services.

Mighty Bomb Jack on the C64 looks great thanks to colourful 
backgrounds and detailed sprites

The Amiga and Atari ST versions of Mighty Bomb Jack look practically 
identical. But both are not as speedy as the C64 version

(NES) Mighty Bomb Jack is significantly different from the
 original game, but is still a lot of fun

Bomb Jack Twin

Bomb Jack Twin's title screen

Next up, and more closely sticking to the winning formula of the original arcade Bomb Jack game, is Bomb Jack Twin. Released in 1993 by NMK, not Tecmo, it puts an even more cutesy spin on proceedings. The characters look extremely 'Japanese' animé and even the power-ups have smiley faces on them. The gameplay is pretty much identical to the original Bomb Jack, so it's a joy to play and extremely addictive. Throw in a simultaneous 2 player mode, improved graphics and animation, celebratory dance moves from Jack, and a real sense of fun and you have a winner. It was never ported to any home systems, so MAME is the way to go to play Bomb Jack Twin today.

 Bomb Jack Twin's graphics are gorgeous. The backgrounds are 
especially vibrant this time around

It's classic Bomb Jack action coupled with improved visuals. 
What more could you ask for?

What next for our hero?

That appears to be the end of Bomb Jack's tale to date. Other than its release to the Wii virtual console in 2009 and Mighty Bomb Jacks release on 3DS in 2012, there have been no further exploits of the masked bomb defusing super hero. But when the original game is so good, even nearly 30 years after its release, it doesn't require them. It just gives us more time to spend with, and master, the frantic 2D platforming brilliance of the original, and best. That's not to say a 2013 revamp wouldn't be welcomed with open arms, but it would require delicate handling from a skilled development team able to capture the magic of this 80's classic. But for now, boot up MAME, buy Tecmo Classic Arcade, or download it for your Wii console and enjoy the nigh on perfect original game.