I’ve always enjoyed games that subvert your expectations in one way or another — be it narratively, mechanically or both. And Tecmo’s Mighty Bomb Jack from 1987 is nothing if not charmingly fast and loose with the definition of what you might expect from a NES-era platform game.
I wasn’t familiar with Mighty Bomb Jack back when it was “current”, but I did have a soft spot for Elite’s solid Atari ST port of the 1984 original arcade game. That was a much simpler game; what Mighty Bomb Jack does is take the base mechanics from its predecessor and apply them in an interesting and unusual new way.
Let’s take a look, shall we?
For the unfamiliar, the original Bomb Jack was a single-screen arcade platformer in which the titular hero had to clear screens of red bombs by touching them. You’d get more points for collecting lit bombs — each screen had a set order in which the bombs would “light”, allowing you to learn the sequence — and could increase your score multiplier up to a maximum of 5x by collecting special “B” tokens that appeared occasionally.
Bomb Jack’s big twist was in how you got around the level. Although dressed as a superhero that clearly took influences from both Superman and Batman, Jack himself could not fly. He could, however, leap a ridiculous height into the air — a little over half the height of the screen with a regular jump and the complete height of the screen if you pushed up on the joystick while jumping. He could also immediately reverse his vertical velocity in mid air by you pressing the button on his ascent, and “flap” his cape to descend slowly by repeatedly tapping the button on the way down. Mastery of all these tricks was essential to success.
Jack’s efforts to clear out the bombs were hindered by the appearance of enemies on the screen, each of whom moved in a distinctive movement pattern, and each of whom was immediately fatal to the touch. Jack’s only means of attacking them was through the “P” tokens that occasionally appeared; these temporarily turned all enemies on screen into coins, which both scored points and removed the enemy from the screen for a few seconds if Jack collected them.
What Mighty Bomb Jack does is take all these basic mechanics, then expands the overall game structure around them to produce something that, while feeling true to the original, is very much its own distinct experience.
The most obvious difference between Mighty Bomb Jack and its predecessor is that rather than unfolding over a series of single screens, the game now consists of “rounds” that alternate between scrolling “action stages” and single-screen “Royal Palace” challenges akin to the original Bomb Jack’s levels. In order to complete a round, you have to clear both of these without dying; getting defeated at any point, whether it’s partway through the action stage or right at the end of the Royal Palace challenge sends you right back to the beginning of the action stage to try again.
There are a few additions to the basic mechanics, too. Most significant of these are the Mighty Coins, which you can collect by standing on treasure chests, then jumping off them to open them. Jack can hold up to nine of these, and they can be used at any point in the action stage (though not the Royal Palace) to change his colour from red to blue to orange to green, costing one Mighty Coin each time. His basic red colour has no special abilities; his blue colour can open the orange “locked” chests in the same way as the basic ones; his orange colour can open all chests simply by walking into them instead of jumping off them; and transforming to his green colour has the same effect as collecting a “P” token — all of the enemies on screen will be transformed into coins for a few seconds, allowing you to “defeat” them while scoring points.
Success in Mighty Bomb Jack, particularly once you get beyond the first couple of rounds, is about knowing when to save these Mighty Coins, and when to use them. Having a green transformation ready to go so you can clear out enemies that are in the way of a narrow or perilous passageway is essential, and there are a number of situations in later action stages where chests block single-height passageways: if you can’t open them from the side, you’ll have to find another way around.
However, you can’t just stockpile Mighty Coins until you think you desperately need them. Picking up a tenth coin (or collecting enough Mighty Drink time-boosting powerups to cause the timer to exceed 99 counts) causes the game to brand you as “GREEDY” and send you to “THE TORTURE ROOM”, a completely enclosed space that you can only escape by either dying or successfully jumping fifty times. The latter option might not sound difficult, but four randomly selected enemies start harassing you almost immediately while you’re bouncing around, so you’ll need to make use of Jack’s various movement skills to nimbly leap over (or pass under) your foes in order to meet the quota.
There are a number of different enemy types you’ll encounter over the course of the game, and each acts with distinctive, recognisable behaviour. Each enemy has its own distinct silhouette and colour scheme, too, so you can immediately distinguish them and know how to deal with them — whether that’s by carefully avoiding them or making use of a “P” tokens and green transformations.
The format of the levels is mixed up somewhat over the course of the game. While the Royal Palace screens always unfold much like the original Bomb Jack, the action stages sometimes scroll sideways, sometimes vertically. Some of the later stages have multiple routes to the end; others have secret rooms that can only be unlocked by finding a hidden “Sphinx” item in a treasure chest. This keeps things interesting and often unexpected; the twists and turns through which you’ll proceed give a real sense of the labyrinthine nature of the pyramid in which the game unfolds.
Mighty Bomb Jack makes use of an unusual scoring system. While you have a fairly conventional score display during gameplay, at the conclusion of a playthrough you are rated with a grade called “Game Deviation Value” or “GDV”. This is, according to the manual, “based on the computer’s analysis of your reflexes, memory, judgement and application power”. It’s also supposedly measured on a percentage scale, but the lowest you’ll ever see, for some reason, is 47. Perhaps not coincidentally, you’ll need to get quite a way through the game before you’ll see this increase by even a single point at the conclusion of a playthrough — and even more strangely, the game keeps track of your highest GDV, not your highest score, on the title screen.
But as strange and annoying as this is, it ultimately doesn’t matter all that much. Mighty Bomb Jack isn’t really an arcade-style score attack game like its predecessor was; instead, it’s a game about surviving the various challenges the game throws at you, and reaching one of four different endings according to the route you take through the game and whether you found certain hidden items along the way. “How well you did” can thus be measured simply by how far you got in the game and whether you saw anything new; score and GDV is thus mostly irrelevant until you can comfortably clear the whole game and want to improve your skills or speed at doing so.
Mighty Bomb Jack is not an especially fondly regarded game in either the NES library or Tecmo’s back catalogue in general, but I’ve had a lot of fun with it. It’s interesting, unusual and unconventional, and it subverts a lot of typical platform game formulae — particularly the way you might expect jumping to work, and the usual sense of greed that adventures bursting at the seams with collectible riches tend to engender. For those reasons, it’s well worth giving a shot if you want something a bit off the well-worn path of retro games — or if you just want to see a good example of where Tecmo’s interest in “doing things differently” — exemplified by its more modern titles such as Deception and Project Zero — may well have stemmed from.
Now, get out there and save the questionably translated “KING PAMERA” from the clutches of the equally questionable “BELZEBUT”. You can do it, Jack!
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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