Bomb Jack: A Home Port Comparison
from to 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="">

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="">

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="">

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="">

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="">

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="">

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="">

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="">

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…

#retrogaming on 26 Aug 2023 10:28 +0000 next

So many great memories. This game and Ace were the two games that I received with my c64 many Christmas’s ago. Played Bomb Jack all through that Christmas night with my friend until sunrise. on 26 Aug 2023 10:30 +0000 next

A friend of mine had an Amstrad CPC 464 with a lot of cassettes, and Bomb Jack was a game that we really enjoyed. The problem with those games is that we have to guess the keyboard keys to use for the games (without having the manual), but it’s a minor issue. on 26 Aug 2023 10:33 +0000 next

In the interests of good comparison science, it’s worth mentioning that a couple of platforms also got homebrew ports…

<img alt="The Atari 8-bit version of Bomb Jack" src="">

Over on the Atari 8-bit platforms, we have “Gacek”, a kind of unbranded version of Bomb Jack. It’s really good, and really pushes the old Atari’s to their limits. Varied sprites and colourful backdrops, and a range of music throughout the levels. It feels really good to play as well.

There are oddities though - like the way it plays the theme from Gradius/Nemesis on the high score table. And the way it doesn’t mention Bomb Jack at all (understandable, given its homebrew nature). So it’s not so much Bomb Jack as Bomb Jack-ish. But it’s still very good!

<img alt="The Colecovision version of Bomb Jack" src="">

The venerable Colecovision also got a homebrew version, this time staying truer to the original. It’s also very good, and looks way better than a 1982 console has any right to. Control is fluid and fast, and the music is catchy and not annoying.

The bomb sprites are a bit large however, and the game tends to be a bit on the easy side, given there are fewer enemies on screen. But it’s still a tremendous achievement. on 26 Aug 2023 18:09 +0000

Are you posting this to a blog somewhere?

Seems very in-depth for a Lemmy post on 26 Aug 2023 18:27 +0000

Nope, Lemmy exclusive :)

Just want to contribute something to building the Retrogaming community, after years of being a consumer only on Reddit.

(mostly it’s just an excuse to play loads of games… you know, for science) on 27 Aug 2023 09:24 +0000

It’s amazing stuff, thank you.

Have you ever done Bruce Lee comparison? on 27 Aug 2023 09:33 +0000

I did a much smaller comparison over on Mastodon a few months back:

It’s one of my favourite games from that era, so I’ll maybe expand it and post here. on 27 Aug 2023 10:12 +0000

Yeah mine too, played it through so much on the Spectrum, it was such a unique multiplayer experience too. on 26 Aug 2023 10:52 +0000 next

You can say straight off the Amiga port is superior, as it displays “Elite” the whole time! ;) on 26 Aug 2023 09:58 +0000 next

What a great read for Saturday morning. I agree, Bomb Jack was an awesome game on the humble Speccy even though I had never played the arcade original.

It was one of the games that came free with my Atari ST when I upgraded but it just didn’t feel the same on my new machine. on 26 Aug 2023 11:01 +0000 next

I love these reviews, even though I don’t think I would ever play this. And that’s a compliment! on 26 Aug 2023 11:48 +0000 next

You should write for Retro Gamer. This would be right at home there. on 26 Aug 2023 11:51 +0000 next

Very cool review, thanks for the nice trip down memory lane. Played it on a pirated copy on my Amstrad cpc6128. Loved it. Never tried any other version though. on 26 Aug 2023 12:13 +0000 next

Thank you for continuing to write these reviews! As a relatively new 8-bit computer fan (I was team IBM PC back in the day) I adore the seeing the pros and cons of each port in each platform. I’ll be firing this up on my C64 later to experience it, and might try to get it going on emulators for the others. on 26 Aug 2023 13:25 +0000 next

This was immensely interesting, thanks for taking the time to put it together! on 26 Aug 2023 17:11 +0000 next

I’m a fan of this content. Keep on keeping on please.

🏆 on 26 Aug 2023 18:03 +0000 next

Love these write ups. I lived through the platform wars fighting on the side of Light (Spectrum) against the hordes of darkness (C64) and the one grey teary Amstrad user.

Loved Bomb Jack, it’s a great game and I think it’s going into the curriculum for the kids next week to show them a great game with a simple game dynamic compared to them playing tosh on Roblox all of the time.

I remember playing the arcade on a ferry to France as part of a school trip. Best part of the trip was this cab.

Thanks for the memories. on 26 Aug 2023 18:30 +0000

Ferries and other ocean-going vessels seem to be a rich source of arcade memories… I remember lurking around the sit down Galaxians cabinet on the Bowness to Ambleside ferry on more than one occasion. on 26 Aug 2023 19:19 +0000

That and taxi offices. They were my local go to when I couldn’t get to the beach to go to the arcades. on 27 Aug 2023 08:16 +0000 next

I load this up on my ST all the time but I have to turn the music off. All paradox developed games have annoying music that loops every 10 seconds and it drives me mad after only a minute of playing. One cool thing about the ST version is that it takes advantage of the MIDI ports so you can plug in a MIDI synthesizer and the music will output though that, but again, It’s the same annoying tune. on 27 Aug 2023 08:53 +0000 next

Man, you just sent me right back to childhood with this one. Like lots of 80s kids in the UK my first games machine was hand me down CPC464 with a huge box of tapes, and Bomb Jack was one of them. I had no context for the games arcade roots or ports at the time but I played that game so much on the Amstrad. Thanks for the flashback. on 27 Aug 2023 10:59 +0000 next

I love reading about and playing different ports just to compare them, thanks for the great content! on 27 Aug 2023 11:04 +0000 next

Spent so much money on this as a kid. Great game, great memories! on 27 Aug 2023 11:56 +0000 next

Spectrum ABSOLUTELY has the best looking pyramid after the arcade. For most of the others, it’s blah. For C64, I just want to ask the artist if they’ve seen any other depiction of this world famous cultural landmark. No? on 29 Aug 2023 02:06 +0000

There’s definitely something unique and beautiful about those Spectrum graphics/colors.