The marketing campaign for Silent Bomber was cringeworthy. Massive cardboard cutouts of Jordan appeared in game stores up and down the country, depicting the glamour model clad in a skin-tight cat suit. Copies of the game stood in recesses beneath her heaving bosom, a comely gaze tempting passers-by towards the wares.
Even at the time it was laughable in its crassness. A relic from a time when ‘booth babes’ roamed the aisles of E3 and the gaming public, in the eyes of marketers at least, was all desperate, sex-starved teenage boys. There wasn’t even a link between the advertising and Silent Bomber: Jordan wasn’t dressed up as a character from it, and there were no tantalising glimpses of cleavage in a game that was actually about blowing things up.
How to market a videogame in the year 2000 (Image credit)
In some ways, it’s possible to sympathise with whoever came up with that campaign: the mantra ‘sex sells’ is oft-quoted for a reason. And the fact that I still remember this embarrassing piece of advertising all these years later proves that it was memorable - if only for the wrong reasons. And I suppose that, when it came to marketing an obscure Japanese game with a stupid name from an unknown developer, the advertising people clearly had their work cut out.
Problem is that such a desperate gimmick practically screams ‘this game is a dud.' But against all the odds, Silent Bomber is something of a classic.
From cute dogs to high explosives
Silent Bomber was the second game from Japanese developer CyberConnect, a ten-person operation mostly made up of ex-Taito employees who had worked on the fighting game Psychic Force and the shoot ‘em up Raystorm, both on PlayStation. CyberConnect’s first title was Tail Concerto, which featured a cute dog police officer called Waffle Ryebread who pilots a robot in a war against cats. It was well received by critics but commercially disappointing, selling only around 150,000 units worldwide.
Waffle Ryebread and chums (Image credit)
According to Hiroshi Matsuyama, who was a graphic designer on Silent Bomber and Tail Concerto and later went on to become head of the studio, there was demand from fans for a Tail Concerto sequel, but the team was convinced they could do better sales-wise with a different concept. They plumped instead to create a new IP that they hoped “would be accepted worldwide, would have lots of action, would generate a lot of fans across the world, and would sell well”, says Matsuyama.
Silent Bomber, which debuted in Japan in October 1999 and came out in Europe nine months later, is a far cry from the cutesy visuals of Tail Concerto. Its spidery robots are reminiscent of the Metal Gear series, and the game is set on an utterly enormous spaceship called Dante that has been hijacked by a maniac terrorist called Benoit Manderubro. Not to be outdone in the silly name stakes, the gruff-voiced-protagonist-with-a-troubled-past who is sent to stop him is called Jutah Fate.
But what’s really interesting about the game is its control system - unusually for an action game, there are no guns whatsoever. Instead Jutah drops bombs behind him to destroy enemies: think Bomberman. He can also target enemies with bombs and power them up with attributes like napalm or black-hole effects, and stack bombs on top of each other to create bigger explosions. But the delicious twist is that everything explodes only when you press the detonate button, and you get extra rewards for destroying multiple enemies in chains - so the skill is in planting as many bombs as you can while avoiding enemies, then destroying them all at once in a one-touch inferno.
There’s also a clever upgrade system in which you can switch collectable ‘E-chips’ between bomb, range and shield attributes. You can fiddle with the levels at any time, so if you find you keep dying on one section you can sacrifice some range or bombs for added shields, for example, or focus on having enough bombs to maximise your combos.
Apart from Bomberman, I can’t think of a single other game that has focused on this attack system - a surprising state of affairs, considering how well it works here. Because you’re limited by how many bombs you can throw at once, and because you have to wait until all of your bombs are placed before detonating them to maximise your score, the emphasis is on precise attacks and skillful avoidance of enemies. It’s heart-thumping stuff on the later levels, especially with the pulsating techno soundtrack - which only ever seems accentuated by the wonderfully meaty sound of explosions.
Fun it may be, but Silent Bomber is far from forgiving. The boss battles in particular are brutal, and it’s easy to rattle through all of your lives while attempting to figure out attack patterns. One particularly memorable encounter comes in mission 11, set on an oversized, rapidly rising lift. After rattling your way through a parade of lesser soldiers, their boss arrives in a huge mech straight out of Gundam. He attacks with what look like fluorescent green curling stones that pop out of his arm sockets, and it took me a while to figure out that you had to stack bombs on the stones and then detonate them when he retracts his arms. But then he starts hitting you with lasers and missiles as well, and it took me hours to finally scrape through with a whisker of health left. The guy in the video below makes it look easy:
The final boss is also particularly memorable. Benoit finally finishes his incessant bad-guy chatting and gets down to the business of kicking ass - in the form of a game of chess. Sort of. Set in the core of the ship’s AI ‘brain’, the level sees you facing off against waves of laser-spitting chess pieces. And in a nice touch, the robot chess warriors move around the board in the same way as their wooden equivalents, with the Queen being particularly devastating as she swirls all over the tiles. It’s brutally difficult, devolving into chaotic dodging for survival. As the battle progresses, an outside feed of the spaceship plummeting into the planet Hornet’s atmosphere is overlaid across the background, but every time you damage Benoit, the ‘real’ room you’re in flickers into view instead. It’s a beautiful trick and an inspired idea for a final showdown - take a look below.
Silent Bomber's fondness for massive lifts betrays a clear debt to Resident Evil, as does the arrival of fleshy bio-weapons halfway through. A more unfortunate similarity is the preponderance of cheesy voice acting, which tends to grate after a while. Still, clunky lines can have their own charm, and Benoit in particular comes out with some fantastically contorted bon mots. “So we’re merely pawns in some elaborate game that will determine the fate of the world, is that it? Then which player is going to be fortunate enough to checkmate fate, I wonder.”
But in terms of feel it’s miles away from Raccoon City - the closest game I can think of is the cult-classic GameCube shoot ‘em up P.N.03, directed by Shinji Mikami, a game that demanded precision and shared the aesthetic of endless grey corridors and threatening AI technology. Both also share a thumping soundtrack that has you nodding along as you blast away, the action at times feeling so well-choreographed it transcends the barrier between player and game.
The explosions are have incredible oomph (Image credit)
Visually Silent Bomber holds up pretty well, all things considering. The visuals have that characteristic PS1 jagginess but the animation is smooth, and that characteristic PS1 look, mannequin-like cut scenes and all, is almost its own retro aesthetic these days. It’s certainly a game worth checking out if you can find it: although it was only released for download on the PlayStation Network in Japan, it’s fairly easy to find a cheap secondhand copy in the UK (though of course you’ll need a PS1 to play it on).
And on that bombshell...
Silent Bomber tends to be fondly remembered by those who played it. But sadly despite (or perhaps because of) Jordan’s best efforts, very few did. According to Matsuyama, it sold less than half the number of copies of Tail Concerto. The CEO of CyberConnect left soon afterwards, and Matsuyama stepped in to take his place, radically transforming the company when he did so. Up until that point the employees had worked as a cooperative, with more or less everyone operating as an equal, but Matsuyama switched to a much more top-down approach, with much stricter rules on working hours. The company was renamed CyberConnect2, partly to reflect the changes.
The PAL box art for Silent Bomber was a big improvement on the naff North American cover (Image credit)
CyberConnect2 went on to develop the .hack series for the PlayStation 2, and at the time Matsuyama semi-joked that it was the developer’s last chance to prove itself with its publisher, Bandai. But the changes seemed to pay off - .hack was a massive success, and CyberConnect2 went on to produce a raft of well-received games based on the Naruto manga. This was like a dream come true for manga-fan Matsuyama, who has a habit of dressing up as Naruto for press interviews. Lately, the developer has partnered with Square Enix to work on the multi-part remake of Final Fantasy VII.
Unsurprisingly, Silent Bomber never got a sequel or inspired many imitators. It remains largely unknown, especially in the west. But years later Silent Bomber still shines as a forgotten gem from the early 3D era, when the possibilities for action games were just opening up, guns weren't essential, and Jordan still stalked the pages of FHM.