Long before the concept of coherent branding existed, Bomberman made a Game Boy appearance… under a different name.

This game, despite the title, has nothing to do with David Lee Roth’s screechy warbles or the Van Halen song “Atomic Punk.” Nope. Rather, this is a Bomberman game in disguise. And while I admire the tenacity of the series — nearly 35 years on from its debut, it remains the last Hudson franchise standing today, in this dark age of Konami — it doesn’t really do much for me personally.

For whatever reason, Hudson decided not to call this game by its Japanese title in the U.S. Over in Japan, it was called Bomber Boy, which absolutely speaks to its origins and nature: It’s a Bomberman game… for Game Boy… hence, “Bomber” “Boy.” Simple.

American fans, however, wouldn’t enjoy a Bomberman Game Boy release under the umbrella of its original franchise until 1998’s Bomberman GB. Just as Bomberman spinoff Bomber King on NES was retitled Robo Warrior here, Bomber King: Scenario 2 for Game Boy would be repackaged as a Blaster Master sequel. Even more pitifully, the game we received in 1998 as Bomberman GB was actually Bomberman GB2 in Japan. When the first Japanese Bomberman GB arrived here, poor Bomberman was reduced to second fiddle by Nintendo in a game retitled Wario Blast Featuring Bomberman! Sad indeed.

Anyway, Atomic Punk here is actually a straight-up Bomberman game. In fact, its Mode B is almost purely a portable adaptation of the original Bomberman, or at least the NES version of it.

Bomberman actually goes back a lot further than the NES original — that release was in fact a remake. The series began on MSX computers in 1983, and before that it was a sort of internal test product for Hudson programmers that eventually was made into a game (kind of like the way Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” started out as a guitar warm-up exercise and became their biggest hit ever). Hudson quickly abandoned the original game’s “fat guy in suspenders” aesthetic in favor of the familiar cute robot we know as Bomberman today, basing the redesigned characters’ appearance on the enemy robot’s from the company’s NES adaptation of Lode Runner.

Of course, that’s all just trivia; Atomic Punk has nothing to do with Bandai’s Hyper Lode Runner from 1989. It is, however, very much a Bomberman game. The aforementioned B mode is the classic NES game adapted to a portable format, and it presents the familiar action that has been the series’ template ever since. You control Bomberman, a guy running through a maze of monsters. Your only defense is to lay down bombs that explode in a cross shape.

This starts out pretty challenging. Your bombs only have a single-block range in each direction, meaning you have to time the explosions for when enemies come within that tiny range. It does become easier as you collect power-ups, though, allowing you to extend the range of your bombs or drop additional explosives. There are also speed-boosting items, and more arcane collectibles as well, like a detonator that allows you to select the timing of your attacks.

However, Bomberman’s empowerment comes with caveats. For one thing, he’s not immune to his own explosives. You can easily trap and detonate poor Bomberman if you’re not careful, and this becomes an even greater danger as you gain the ability to lay down multiple bombs with extended range — when one explodes, it can detonate every other bomb within range, potentially creating enormous bursts that clear the screen of bad guys and you.

Enemies become trickier to manage as you advance, too. They develop AI routines that demand exploitation and cunning. For instance, some monsters move away from a bomb as soon as they spot it, so you have to figure out ways to pin and trap them. And even if you do wipe out all the critters in a stage, you still have to nuke the scenery until you uncover the exit. And once you do find the exit, you still have to exercise caution: If you bomb the door, it’ll generate a ton of additional monsters. Those are the basics, and they should be familiar for anyone who has ever played a Bomberman game, up to and including last year’s Bomberman R for Nintendo Switch.

Atomic Punk also includes a competitive mode, though it’s strictly a two-player endeavor since F-1 Race and its four-player adapter were still a few months away. Most people consider multiplayer the heart and soul of Bomberman, but in the case of Atomic Punk I think it’s noteworthy because it represented a pretty significant leap forward in terms of play design for the series. Mode A of Atomic Punk presents players with a huge and rather involved adventure — a more expansive and free-form take on the series.

I guess Hudson was sort of uncertain of what to do with Bomberman all around at this point. Not only did they keep changing the games’ names in the U.S. and Europe, they seemed to cram the more adventuresome elements into spinoffs. Bomber Boy feels in many ways like an extension of Bomber King, aka Robo Warrior for NES. As in that game, you collect cash as you travel and can purchase power-ups in shops along the way. But this game is far more sprawling and free than even Robo Warrior. It contains eight different worlds, each containing anywhere from five to 10 stages apiece. 

By default, you have only a single life with which to take on these challenges… which would seem impossible. But you can choose the center spot on the world map, aka My Town, which consists of a shop where you can exchange your combat spoils for gear. The most expensive items here at the beginning of the game are Elixirs; when you die, each Elixir works as a 1UP. So if you stock up on them, you can take on a stage with a whole army of Bombermen. There’s also a smart risk-reward element to Elixirs. You can take Elixirs with you into a stage as active items, which means that they work as hit points rather than 1UP: If you take a hit, you use your Elixir and keep going rather than being forced to start over with your next life.

However, when you take an Elixir into a stage, you’ll lose it once you complete that level. So, you can take it along as insurance… but it’s a matter of use it or lose it, and given the expense of the items, you can’t just use them wantonly. You can also load up with other items that carry across levels so long as you remain alive: Blast extensions, speed boosts, and more. So there’s a real element of rationing and making smart use of a well-balanced economy here — the game allows you to empower yourself, but with enough of an expense attached that, again, you have to be mindful of your economy.

Each world has its own theme, some of which are clever, and some of which can be super annoying. There’s one world, Windia, whose every level contains gusts of wind that push you and your foes in random directions — potentially slowing you enough that you won’t be able to scramble out of range of an imminent detonation.

The world gimmicks, the enemies within, and the number of stages to conquer within each create a sort of natural difficulty curve for the game. But, as with a Mega Man game, you’re allowed to experiment with every world and get a feel for it. Only the final stage of the game can’t be accessed from the outset, but you wouldn’t want to go there right off anyway. It’s the one world that doesn’t provide players with a material reward for completion — so, yeah, the Mega Man comparison is apt.

When you conquer the other worlds in Atomic Punk, you earn a new goodie you can then purchase at the My Town shop: Remote controls, bonus time, even the fantastic ability to survive your own bomb blasts. The more worlds you beat, the greater the range of options you can take into battle… though you have limited inventory space, which means the game demands ever-greater strategic planning the further you advance.

All in all, it’s a pretty excellent game, and it definitely helped inspire the adventure modes in many later Bomberman games. Who knows why it was called Atomic Punk here in the U.S., but despite the ridiculous new name and cover art, it’s pure Bomberman. Like I said, I’m not a huge Bomberman fan, but even I can appreciate the care and quality Hudson invested into this portable spinoff. It’s a respectable evolution of a classic series… even if its weird localized name obscures that fact.

Thanks to Armin Ashekian for lending this game’s packaging for a Game Boy Works photo shoot.