An Ode To Smart Bombs
They’re called by many names, but they only really need one. They are smart bombs. And if it weren’t obvious that a largely video game-focused blog would be talking about video games, well, there you go. I don’t mean precision-guided munitions, I mean the life-saving smart bomb.
While every game has a lot of different elements going on in the background, the essence of the smart bomb remains constant. They’re limited-use items that when triggered will obliterate all nearby enemies and put a sizable dent in most bosses as well. You generally start with at least one use, and you can always replenish your uses during play. However, they are still limited, with the odds being that you won’t get more than a handful of uses in a given level at best. You need to hold out until you need one, or you’ll be fresh out when they’re truly useful.
The important thing here, however, is that smart bombs are under player control. If you run out, you know that you used them up too fast. But they’re there when you need them, and once you understand how long you have between bombs you can work them into a strategy. In other words, they’re part of the core tension of the game, a resource to be used sparingly but still used as needed.
Shmups have become far less common as time has marched on- while there’s a fairly good selection on Kongregate, you’re left to browse on the downloadable stores on consoles if you want something a bit more professional. But the concept of the smart bomb hasn’t gone anywhere, as MMOs feature no shortage of them. Final Fantasy XI gives every class a smart bomb, generally referred to in the game’s parlance as your “two-hour” after the recharge time between uses. It lets you do something very powerful directly related to your class, usually for a very brief time, after which it fizzles out. World of Warcraft and its ilk don’t feature any recharges that are quite that long, but several do feature abilities with a recharge that’s too long for reliable uses — a Shaman’s Bloodlust, the final power for most Blaster trees in City of Heroes, and so forth. On the other hand, some games eschew bombs altogether — neither Final Fantasy XIV nor Star Trek Online make much use of them, and Guild Wars has a few as options with a lot of methods to make them more constant-use items.
Obviously, none of these are quite as powerful as the “destroy everything” you got in single-player days of yore. But they’re still vast power boosts for a short time, which is part of the problem. Bombs are horrible to balance simply because what makes them so appealing is their game-breaking nature.
Let’s look at Bloodlust, since I played a Shaman extensively. Bloodlust has always been a horror to balance, simply because it has to be powerful enough for players to want it without being so powerful that it’s required. In the earliest implementations, it was required, and a group of Shamans were required to essentially provide a rolling gate of Bloodlusts. In the strategy games, of course, the spell had been a big boost without being a bomb – probably because it was single-target and only lasted for a little while, forcing the shaman to really work overtime to keep it up. When it affected everyone and resulted in a vast haste increase, things started to get out of hand.
Changes were made, and as a result a shaman is now almost afraid to hit Bloodlust. The timer until it’s available again is prohibitively long, and if it goes off at the wrong time it won’t be there when it’s really needed. The problem is that encounters are designed with the expectation of smart bombs, which means that the bombs have to be balanced to fit into the encounter rather than deforming it. And the alternative isn’t cool either — no one really wants a single Shaman to trivialize an encounter via dropping Bloodlust at just the right times.
But we still like bombs, and I say we embrace them. Let’s embrace the spirit of these power-ups and skills and what-have-you that aren’t always there when they’re needed, but where we have the power to break the system. Even if just for one brief moment, we can go berserk and break the system to ensure that we make it to the next wave alive. Hooray for the smart bomb, and may it forever be available to players who want to clear a screen.