Friday, July 20, 2012

Third Rate Game Play: Bomberman: Act Zero

Game: Bomberman: Act Zero

System: Xbox 360

Developer: Hudson Soft
(Bomberman, Adventure Island, Mario Party)

Publisher: Konami

Player: Tony

Experience: Blind

Check the article after the jump!

Sometimes, a company takes a look at its prized franchise and decides to rework it for the current audience, and in a number of those cases, it works perfectly.  Bomberman: Act Zero acts as one scenario in which changing a character might be a poor decision.

The Bomberman franchise was created and developed by Hudson Soft.  Hudson was founded in 1973 by Yuji and Hiroshi Kudo, primarily to sell telecommunication and art photographs, but in half a decade, the company began to produce video games.  According to MobyGames, the company’s first release was Driller Tanks for the MSX and ZX Spectrum; the company’s first well-known release would be Bomberman, released in 1983 and subsequently ported to multiple platforms, including the Nintendo Famicom.  Hudson Soft was notable for being the first third-party developer for the Famicom, producing Nuts and Milk and Lode Runner for the platform during its first year with Nintendo as publisher.  Hudson Soft would continue to produce notable franchises during the generation, including the Adventure Island series, the Bonk series, the Star Soldier series, and the Japanese-focused property game, Momotaro Dentetsu.  Hudson Soft would also collaborate with NEC to produce the TurboGrafx-16 system and its many first-party software titles.

Besides developing its own franchises, Hudson Soft has worked with other publishers on major projects.  In 1998, Nintendo and Hudson created a joint venture called Monegi, focusing on the development of Nintendo 64 and Game Boy projects.  The Mario Party franchise would be the most significant result. By 2006, there had been seven main Mario Party games: three on Nintendo 64 and four and GameCube.

Regardless of what Hudson Soft made otherwise, the developer’s most well-known franchise was Bomberman.  The original story was that Bomberman was a robot being living underground who learned that he would become human upon leaving the facility, thus the game’s ending and apparent connection to Lode Runner.  Bomberman would see a release on many platforms: MSX, ZX Spectrum, Sharp MZ-700, NES, TurboGrafx-16, Amiga, Atari ST, MS-DOS, and X68000.  While Bomberman II was released on NES, TurboGrafx-16 got Bomberman ’93, seen by many retro gamers as the best Bomberman title in the series, and subsequently Mega Bomberman / Bomberman ’94 emerged shortly thereafter.  As years progressed, the series ventured onto Super NES (Super Bomberman 1-5), Sega Saturn (Saturn Bomberman), and PC (Atomic Bomberman, developed by Interplay Entertainment).  Hudson Soft occasionally tried to innovate with Bomberman in this era; one obscure unreleased Bomberman project, dubbed Hi-Ten Bomberman, was a special game which used then-new high-definition widescreen TVs for many more players per match.  Unfortunately, it was before the time of affordable HDTVs and remained a trade show product.

As consoles went 3D, so too did Hudson Soft and Bomberman.  Bomberman 64 started the franchise off with a full 3D experience, using bomb-based puzzles and more open areas than the series had used in the past, not to mention the ability to customize personal Bombermen for multiplayer matches.  A more single-player focused title (with platforming and transformations) emerged the following year through Bomberman Hero.  The non-jumping Bomberman would return in Bomberman 64: The Second Attack (published by Vatical Entertainment), and with it came the cute Charabom Pommy and elemental bombs.  Pommy and other Charaboms would be used to boost Bomberman’s abilities in Bomberman Generation (developed by Game Arts), and while it came out in the same year in Japan, the anime-inspired Bomberman Jetters would take a few years before emerging on the GameCube stateside.  Since 2004’s US Bomberman Jetters release, the series had remained dormant in America, but in Japan, the Bomberman Land mini-game series started to release.  All the while, Hudson Soft began to recreate their famed mascot to win over Western audiences and ended up with the game we see here.

Publisher Konami was formed in 1969 as a jukebox repair company.  In 1973, the company shifted to begin a focus toward arcade machines, although the first major release would not be until 1978.  During the arcade era, Konami’s biggest franchises would be Frogger and Gradius, followed by other lesser known arcade titles such as Super Cobra and Twinbee.  In 1982, Konami began working on PC games, and a year later, it worked on MSX games as well.  Like most games being released in home consoles at the time, Konami’s first endeavors were mostly ports of arcade titles, but eventually new franchises would emerge as the company moved onward with MSX and eventually NES projects.  Some of the more memorable franchises made during this era include Contra, Castlevania, and the Metal Gear franchises.  Konami was a big publisher of liscensed games, including those from Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, even The Goonies.  When gaming moved to 3D graphics, Konami would emerge with some of the more memorable franchises in the industry, including Metal Gear Solid from Kojima Productions and Silent Hill.  Winning Eleven (or Pro Evolution Soccer) games also became increasingly popular, skyrocketing Konami’s influence among the larger Japanese publishers of the era.  As the newest generation began, Konami had become a majority shareholder of Hudson Soft, and when the time came for a new Bomberman game for Xbox 360, Konami would fit the publishing role.  Other titles before Bomberman: Act Zero include Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence and Rumble Roses XX from Yuke’s Co.

The problem is, I think, when you look at the way the Japanese intended the game to be marketed, and how it was marketed, there is a disconnect. And I think it’s an unfortunate thing that happened, because Japanese Hudson and Konami U.S. don't speak to each other. So that needed to be properly explained, because the game is made as a multi‑player battle game, which is what the Japanese Hudson people thought American people really wanted.
Mind you, the game is really made for the Japanese market, but they do look to see what American tastes are. So I think, basically, without knowing those key selling points, then the message was lost, and if you play that game as a multi‑player game over the 'net, it's great. So in Japan, you can take a game like that and you can tell the market exactly what it is, and they will respond in kind. But you have to tell them. That's the problem. That kind of thing happens.
-John Greiner, President of now-defunct Hudson Entertainment, 2007
Deep within an experimental underground facility, humans are imprisoned as test subjects and trained to become soldiers. Equipped with armored battle suits, the subjects must fight for survival and eliminate each other to determine who will become the Ultimate Human Weapon. As Bomberman, your objective is simple: destroy your opponents before they destroy you.
-Official PR

Bomberman: Act Zero is a dark reboot of the Bomberman franchise which attempts to retain the classic elements of the series.  In a dark, underground facility, the machinery continues to test and create experiments in an attempt to develop the Ultimate Human Weapon, even though war on the surface has long since destroyed the land.  Players assume the role of a male or female Human Weapon, and it is up to them to survive a multitude of challenges in order to escape the facility as the ultimate weapon.

The basic gameplay is very much in-line with that of classic Bomberman games.  Players are placed in a large battlefield, consisting of solid blocks and destructible crates.  Every participant has the ability to drop pulsing orbs of energy which then explode in four directions, destroying any crates or people in the way.  The goal is to be the last survivor among all of the participants in the match, which requires destroying all others with explosions built up by power-ups and strategic placement of explosive cores.  If a victor has not emerged after a set time, unbreakable blocks begin to fall onto the battlefield, starting from the outside and traveling inward until time is up.

Act Zero contains two variants of this mode: Classic and FPB (first person battle).  In Classic, the battlefield remains in view at all times, and a single hit from an explosion will kill.  In FPB, the camera is closer to the player character and can be moved around freely as the battle progresses; each fighter is also given a life bar which depletes upon hitting an explosion.  Each mode has a set of levels leading up to a total of 99, ending the game, but if you die once in either mode, the game brings you back to the title screen to start over from Round 1.  The game can only save if you are online, requiring a Gold Account, and while there is an 8-player multi-player option, there is no option to play it offline in any way.  Other than these modes, players may examine the world rankings of all players, seeing several statistics for gamers worldwide.

Bomberman: Act Zero did not go over well with the vast majority of gamers.  Many saw right through the attempt to make the game appear more mature, and in the end, it made the concept of the game humorous in existence, not to mention the game’s lack of content for a full retail release.  Unfortunately for it, a fit platform such as XBLA would not allow larger games like it until some time later.

After Hudson Soft released Act Zero, the company retreated from major console releases that were not mini-game collections.  Bomberman Land released on Wii and PlayStation Portable in 2007, and Bomberman made his iOS debut at the end of the year.  The franchise would later have two unique iOS products: Bomberman Touch: The Legend of the Mystic Bomb and Bomberman Touch 2: Volcano Party.  Over time, Europe received a number of Bomberman titles for DS that the US did not: Bomberman Story DS, Bomberman Land Touch! 2 (both published by Rising Star Games), and Bomberman 2, otherwise known as Custom Battler Bomberman in Japan.  On consoles, Bomberman mostly stayed on the downloadable front.  On Nintendo platforms, Bomberman Blast released for WiiWare in 2008, and Bomberman Blitz released for DSiWare in 2009.  On XBLA, Backbone Entertainment developed Bomberman Live; the sequel, Bomberman Live: Battlefest, would be developed by Pi Studios and released in 2010.  On PSN, the in-house-developed Bomberman Ultra released in 2009.

The fate of Bomberman is tied with the fate of Hudson Soft, which is certainly not a good one.  Back in 2000, Hudson Soft entered the stockmarket, and within a year, Konami became the largest shareholder of the company in exchange for giving Hudson Soft the Sapporo division of Konami Computer Entertainment Studio.  In 2005, Konami Corporation became the majority shareholder of the company, but it allowed Hudson Soft to continue normal activities while attached as a second party developer.  By 2011, the company became a wholly-owned subsidiary, and a year later, Konami announced it would be absorbing Hudson Soft and all its assets into Konami Digital Entertainment, officially dissolving the creator of Bomberman on March 1, 2012.  The company’s last major titles would be Lost in Shadow, a puzzle-platformer adventure for the Wii, Deca Sports Extreme and Nikoli’s Pencil Puzzle for Nintendo 3DS.  Pi Studios’ Bonk: Brink of Destruction would be cancelled, along with the remainder of Hudson Soft’s 3DS projects, one of which was a new Bomberman game.  Bomberman and just about every other Hudson Soft property has yet to see any major releases since the dissolution, and most of the leads involved with the Mario Party series left to join NdCube, a Nintendo subsidiary, to produce Wii Party and Mario Party 9.

Other than the total absorption of Hudson Soft, Konami has since continued to build on its Metal Gear Solid and soccer franchises while shifting the development of both Castlevania and Silent Hill. In regards to Silent Hill, Konami disbanded the internal Team Silent and now outsources to western developers on the franchise.  Such games in the series include Silent Hill: Origins and Shattered Memories (by Climax), Silent Hill: Homecoming (by Double Helix Games), and most recently Silent Hill: Downpour (by Vatra Games).  While Castlevania remained internally-developed for a few more years (notably Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin and Castlevania: Order of Eclesia for DS and Castlevania: Harmony of Despair for HD platforms), Konami shifted lead development of the franchise to Spanish developer MercurySteam.  MercurySteam created Castlevania: Lords of Shadow to reboot the franchise, removing RPG elements and bringing more emphasis on presentation and a 3D world.  Meanwhile, Kojima Productions just about rounded out the Metal Gear Solid franchise with PlayStation 3’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and PSP’s Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.  More recent releases for Konami include Rebellion Developments’ NeverDead and Reverge Labs’ fighting title Skullgirls (co-published by Autumn Games).

While we have no word on any upcoming Hudson Soft IPs in the horizon, Konami is hard at work continuing to build its current main franchises.  MercurySteam is currently developing Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 and a 3DS project in the same world, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Mirror of FateWayForward Technologies is bringing Silent Hill: Book of Memories onto the PlayStation Vita.  Kojima Productions is finishing off Zone of the Enders HD Collection, and it is collaborating with Platinum Games on Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, a sequel following Raiden in a new era of warfare.  Finally, Pro Evolution Soccer 2013 is currently in development for just about every console available.

Tony wanted to try it out, and without much of a thought, we got it into our Xbox 360 for a quick playthough.  We spend a good amount of time playing a number of rounds in both Classic and APB modes, and we further explore the character creation modes and subsequently the game’s worldwide leaderboards as of the recording date (which was back in 2010, mind, but still WOW to some of those statistics).

Needless to say, our time spent with the game was as long as we could handle.

Bomberman: Act Zero is what happens when a Japanese developer decides to make a Western-focused game after watching a few action blockbusters.  The fact that they were rebooting the franchise in some way was not the problem; the problem was that the shift of the game’s style was so absolutely off-base from the original that the game’s premise immediately appeared preposterous.  The dark, apocalyptic world with a cold, metallic environment filling every crevice of the game was not what you would expect from a franchise previously shown having cute creatures assist you in Pokemon-like battle sequences.  While there had been some changes to the environment while we played, the world was still a dark and dank facility; who wants to play that same facility for hours on end without dying once?

Even without considering the style, the game itself is poor.  The game only has two single-player modes, both of which are just variants of the same game type we have known about since the series was created.  Yes, not dying instantly upon getting hit was good, but at the same time, the camera was pointless when it came to finding and hunting down your opponents on the far end of the battlefield.  We did encounter a special opponent partway through the game with a highly-powerful explosion, but by then the game was already becoming boring for the most part.  The inability for us to play any multiplayer just further worsened the experience for us.

Now, perhaps there is some fun one can have with this game, but that person would have to be willing to play a perfect game of Bomberman for dozens of matches or play purely for online multiplayer, as we saw with a number of people on the leaderboards.  For us, however, the single-player experience was shallow, needlessly difficult, and increasingly tedious with each round.  This game made us look back at the good ol’ N64 Bomberman titles and make us wonder what happened for such a transition to occur.  Thankfully, it did not kill Bomberman entirely, but it still will remain a stain on the franchise for many years to come.

3RM Says: Well, at least I have a blindfold to shield me
from the blast.

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