from email@example.com to firstname.lastname@example.org on 26 Aug 2023 09:15 +0000
I feel as if I’ve been hanging out at the arse-end of the 80s a lot recently, comparing ports on computers that had no business running them. I’ve long suspected that if you want to see 8-bit micros at their best, you’re better served hanging around in 1986 rather than 1989. Things were so much more achievable back then…
So, with a robust tailwind of realistic expectations at our backs, let’s take a look at Tehkan’s 1984 arcade hit, Bomb Jack.
<img alt="The arcade version of Bomb Jack" src="https://i.imgur.com/cqcu2TI.png">
Bomb Jack is one of those much-loved arcade classics that everyone knows but which never quite reached the same revered status as earlier hits like Donkey Kong or Pacman. It came at that inflection point in the arcades where single-screen, high score games were being replaced by more complex, sprawling coin-munchers. A kind of last-hurrah for wonderful simplicity.
And Bomb jack truly has simplicity. It is played over five backdrops, where you play “Jack”, a caped superhero, who is tasked with defusing a number of bombs that are sprinkled around the level. As you begin to collect them, a single bomb’s fuse will ignite. Collect this, and you get a 200 point bonus and cause another bomb to light. Getting the highest score becomes a matter of strategically collecting the fizzing bombs and avoiding the unlit bombs. Or you could just collect bombs regardless and forgo the extra points.
Standing in your way is an array of bad guys, from killer robots to um… birds. But you’re not entirely defenseless, as you can pick up a “P” power-up that renders all enemies vulnerable and stationary, kind of like the power pill in Pacman.
Ultimately, Bomb Jack is a game about movement. Jack can jump high into the air and, with a tap of the fire button, float slowly back down to earth, enabling you to collect the higher up bombs. This requires a bit of skill to master, and you’ll need to use the float mechanic to avoid the screen’s enemies.
To emphasise this vertical motion, Bomb Jack’s cabinet comes with a 3:4, “tate” mode monitor.
Overall, it’s a fun, bright score-chaser game, well worth a quick look. But how did it look on the home versions?
<img alt="The C64 version of Bomb Jack" src="https://i.imgur.com/GMVNP80.png">
Oof. Slipping sheepishly into the hated first slot is the C64 version, easily the worst of the bunch. There’s no reason why it should be, it just feels full of unforced errors. Like how chunky everything is. The Bomb Jack sprite and the enemies are just too big. It’s difficult to move, difficult to soar, difficult to sneak in for swooping bomb collection moves. It’s also muddy and grim, with some backgrounds being inexplicably the same colour as the bombs.
Uniquely, among the original home ports, this version has a clunky rendition of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Magnetic Fields playing in the background. But not even the Synth Pop King can save it from its grizzly fate.
<img alt="The C16 version of Bomb Jack" src="https://i.imgur.com/46AKbyU.png">
Listen, as an old ZX Spectrum advocate, I appreciate moxie. And the C16 version of Bomb Jack more than makes up for its technical shortcomings with a generous dollop of moxy and chutzpah. It’s ambitious in a way that 16k machines shouldn’t be, and for that, it merits a flamboyant doff of the cap.
But for all that it plays a surprisingly okay game of Bomb Jack, it’s not amazing. For a start, it cuts down the number of backdrops to one or two, with subsequent levels being rearrangements of the platforms over the same background image. It’s also very grey and dark, and it suffers the same chunky-monkey shortcomings as its big brother, the C64.
Still, B+ for effort.
<img alt="The Amiga version of Bomb Jack" src="https://i.imgur.com/iaKvWCZ.png">
A bad day for the Commodore brothers…
While the C16 achieved a lot with precious little, the Amiga does sod all with a great deal. It feels like one of those early Amiga ports where the devs weren’t quite up to speed with the powerhouse they were coding for, but it was actually released in 1988, two years after the 8-bit ports. For a game released in the middle of the Amiga’s life, it plays remarkably badly.
Movement is slow, laboured, stuttering. The graphics are bland. The three-bar theme music is infuriating… overall, a bad, bad port.
<img alt="The Atari ST version of Bomb Jack" src="https://i.imgur.com/Bb3WUre.png">
Sidling up alongside the Amiga version, wearing a self-satisfied smirk on its face, is the Atari ST version. Normally the sickly cousin of its 16-bit rival, the Atari ST somehow manages to win this inconsequential encounter. Its port looks virtually identical to the Amiga version, but it moves so much better. It is fast, fluid and plays largely the same as the arcade. Even the AY sound is inexplicably better.
Word to the wise: By default, the ST version has “Mouse” as its initial control scheme. Yeah, I don’t get it either. If you don’t spot this, you may almost write it off without realising it’s actually pretty good!
<img alt="The Amstrad version of Bomb Jack" src="https://i.imgur.com/oIA2Dhk.png">
What’s this? An Amstrad port sneaking ahead of the pack? Yep, it doesn’t happen often, but the Amstrad version of Bomb Jack is actually pretty solid. It’s appears to be based on the Spectrum version, but with a characteristically Amstrad-esque colour scheme (garish).
It plays well, fast and fluid and with plenty of space to enjoy the soaring movement. Overall, not bad!
<img alt="The Gameboy version of Bomb Jack" src="https://i.imgur.com/D4qE3Ss.png">
There’s something uniquely reassuring about a console port, especially when viewed alongside home micro ports. They tend to have an extra level of polish, a feeling that the devs haven’t just spent all their time working out how to get the thing to run, but also how it feels when it does run.
The Gameboy port is a lot like that. It’s Bomb Jack, sure enough, shrunk down, monochromed into that love-it-or-hate-it Gameboy green… but it feels so much better than the other ports. Movement is fluid, at a solid framerate. It feels more balanced. It has continues! Overall, it feels like a more modern experience.
Then again, this version was released in 1992, a full 6 years after most of the 8-bit ports, and a lot of “user experience” water had passed under the bridge in that time.
So for all that it is a great port, I’m going to have to mark it down slightly. Sure, it’s a fun version of Bomb Jack, but why wouldn’t it be? It was released in the same year as Streets of Rage 2!
<img alt="The Spectrum version of Bomb Jack" src="https://i.imgur.com/y6u5oDu.png">
Blimey! Taking the top spot, surprisingly, is the ZX Spectrum version… no, wait, hear me out…
I know I come across as a bit of a Speccy apologist and, I admit, I served my time in the Platform Wars of the 80s. I’ve made baseless arguments about the Spectrum’s capabilities that fly in the face of sense and logic at times. But, this time, I feel such hyperbole is warranted.
See, Bomb Jack feels ideally suited to the Spectrum. It doesn’t require any fancy scrolling, it is bright, it demands a reasonably high res screen and a fairly nimble CPU to move things around quickly. And those are things the Spectrum can do.
Sure, our rubber-keyed pal opts for “any colour as long as it is black” for the sprites and platforms, but it kind of works. It lets the backdrops be outrageously colourful, just like the arcade. And it plays well too, moving just like the original, or so it seems to me. It feels right in a way that the Amiga and C64 ports don’t. Even the humble 48k sound isn’t terrible… bleeps and bloops and warbling jumps.
I don’t say this often, but if you’re going to play a port of Bomb Jack, you should definitely check out the Spectrum version…