Wednesday 27 November 2019

Switch Review - Bubble Bobble 4 Friends

For those born in the eighties, ‘Bubble Bobble’ will be a joyous memory of cooperative bubble blowing fun. For those born in the last twenty years the same name will be synonymous with mediocrity. So does Taito’s return to game development symbolise a return to form for this once cherished franchise?

Developed by Taito
Released in 2019

The announcement of ‘Bubble Bobble 4 Friends’ stirred a huge mixture of emotions in me. I was nostalgic because the original ‘Bubble Bobble’ is a game that I have much affection for. As any child of the 80s will remember, growing up you didn’t have hundreds of games like the spoilt youth of today: You owned half a dozen, because you’d only get one for Christmas and one for your birthday each year.
As a result you played the games you had till you knew them intimately, and ‘Bubble Bobble’ was one of the few games I owned on the NES.  News of a new iteration also delighted me, because it was said to be multiplayer focused. It was to be a game “for friends” - the clue is even in the name! One of my daughters is six, the same age as I was when I played the game repeatedly as a child. However alongside my obvious excitement and anticipation was confusion. Were Taito really claiming this was only the fourth ‘Bubble Bobble’ game?

The original 1986 arcade title had a simple objective. Trap enemies within your floating bubbles, and then burst them before they’ve a chance to escape. Kill all the enemies on the screen and it’s on to the next. While the premise was simple the series’ release chronology is far from clear.

To some ‘Rainbow Islands’ is the sequel, other’s understandably consider  ‘Bubble Bobble Part II’ or ‘Bubble Bobble 2’ to be the rightful heir. Like the official ‘Legend of Zelda’ time line things get even more confusing when you try to work out what the third game is. ‘Parasol Stars’ is the sequel to ‘Rainbow Islands’ so does that not mean it the sequel to the sequel to ‘Bubble Bobble’? What about ‘Bubble Symphony’ or ‘Bubble Memories’, are they considered third entries, spin offs or something different entirely?

By my count there’s 17 different ‘Bubble Bobble’ games (which rises to 54 if you include spinoffs likes ‘Puzzle Bobble’) so the ‘4’ moniker here seems somewhat arbitrary. The developers may claim it’s a game that takes what was great in the past and modernises it, but even this has been tried before. ‘Bubble Bobble Plus+’, ‘Bubble Bobble Neo’, ‘Bubble Bobble Double’ were enjoyable but while made with an eye on the original they were bogged down with unnecessary gimmicks. But for each successful attempt to keep ‘Bubble Bobble’ relevant, there have been catastrophic failures that have sullied the once celebrated brand. ‘Bubble Bobble Evolution’ was plagued with slowdown, and excessively complicated puzzles. The GBA’s ‘Bubble Bobble: Old and New’ tried to give the original a (then) modern coat of paint.  But the end result was comparable to a botched face lift and reviewers advised people to only play the included original. But the real series low point was ‘Bubble Bobble Revolution’. Not only did the game have terrible box art but this infamous DS title was literally impossible to finish. The thirtieth level was supposed to be a boss fight but the boss in the stage never spawns. Without having someone to defeat the level can’t be completed meaning the remaining two thirds of the game can never be seen.

The recent ‘Bubble Bobble’ games have been a collage of mediocre and terrible and perhaps because of this, the success of this “fourth” game is such a surprise. Born in 1980, director Tsuyoshi Tozak may not have even been able to reach the controls of the ‘Bubble Bobble’ cabinet when it was first appeared in arcades. However, that hasn’t stopped him helming what may well be the best game to carry the ‘Bubble Bobble’ name in twenty years. For Tsuyoshi Tozak, success has come from knowing what Worked first time around. “The team first played the original version thoroughly and rehearsed it. “Keeping up with the tradition, the original game is included Of course but for once playing it isn’t preferable to playing the modern update.

At its heart ‘Bubble Bobble 4 Friends’ is exactly what you’d expect. You get single screen stages, inhabited by baddies. You trap them in bubbles and pop these bubbles to kill them. When all are defeated you move onto the next stage.  

While it may not be historically accurate, as the title suggests, four people can play locally together (pertinently there is no online play at all). Bub and Bob are joined by Peb and Pab and a total of eight lives are shared amongst those taking part. Based on the “Nintendo hard” original, when the game is played solo it features a one-hit kill system. But, when someone else joins you, rather than dying instantly when hit, if your character is struck by an enemy or ranged attack, you become encased in a bubble. As you float around the screen, you can be rescued by another player and retain a life. It’s a great device that allows for less able games players to be helped by those with more experience.

So many other subtle changes just make ‘Bubble Bobble 4 Friends’ more accessible and family friendly - something that’s certainly apparently when you switch between playing the new game and the included arcade original. The most obvious aide is the invincibility mode that is available if you see a game over screen more than three times on a single run. It’s optional of course but a godsend for people playing with small children. Every tenth stage presents a boss battle.
For an astute player schooled in ‘Mega Man’ games it’s easy to see their attack patterns and beat them with little worry. But these boss battles proved to be too tricky for my younger player companions, particularly the fourth who has a power to summon an endless stream of level enemies to assist him. I’ve no doubt that without the invincibility mode they would have given up, which would have been a shame considering how much they enjoyed playing. In fact my six year old even called playing with invincibility activated “happy time”, as the music changes and the characters sparkle in a way that mimics star man Mario. To make things easier still, successfully completing a world gives you a new character upgrade. Again, you can opt to not use them, but if you do your character will be given bubbles that explode after a set time, or bubbles that move further or explode horizontally. Adorably Bub, Bob and their two companions wear various accessories when such an upgrade is equipped. You no longer have to complete the game in a single sitting as the game is divided up into five worlds of ten stages. Once you’ve beaten the boss of a world you’ll be able to start from any World you desire.
Less obvious player support exists, but only fans of the series may even notice. Bubble riding for example is now an advertised skill and no longer requires you to hold the jump button as you do it. If you’re standing on a bubble it won’t pop, and to burst things beneath you you’ll have to consciously do a ground pound. In earlier games it was said that Bub and Bob burst the bubbles with their spikes and that’s literally the case here. Unless you jump directly under them, the bubbles will remain intact as opposed to the original game where any contact causes a burst. This flexibility is very much welcomed as not only does it make the game easier for children but it also makes the game more tactical. You’ll find yourself deliberately placing bubbles to create paths through the stages. You’ll fill chambers with them knowing that when an encased enemy enters it’ll be easy to create a chain reaction, maximising your score. It’s these chain reactions that will become the main player focus once all the stages have been completed.

It would be wrong to assume that accessibility has come at the expense of depth. Every world has three possible stars to get, and the number you get depends on your performance. The first games’ “Extend” bubbles are back, but now rather than appearing randomly they’ll be placed on specific levels in hard to reach places. You’ll have to get there fast enough otherwise they’ll vanish, but collecting all of the letters grants a world star and unlocks something in the games Gallery section. The remaining stars come from the speed at which you complete the world and your total score. To qualify for the Score star you’ll have to create a lot of bubble chains: and this means killing multiple enemies at once. “In the first Bubble Bobble all the connected bubbles burst at once, but this time there is a chain reaction with time delays, which leads to a better feeling when you make them burst” notes the development team.

 If it’s stars you seek you’ll find yourself pushing trapped enemies around to maximise chains, and screaming in frustration when the last Extend bubble you need vanished just seconds before you would have reached it. The levels are incredibly well thought out, gently increasing in difficultly without ever becoming obtuse like they were in games like ‘Bubble Bobble Evolution’ for example. Air currents control the manner in which bubbles will float around the level, one way walls and spikes all add to the challenge but the difficulty curve is so gradual you’ll be surprised at how much you can achieve by the end as you’ll never hit a difficulty spike.  
“It's a bubble action game, so we put a lot of emphasis on the presentation of bubbles” notes designer Tsuyoshi Tozak. “We've been thinking about how to make the bubbles look charming. We also put much value on the depiction of the softness of the bubbles. [...]  At first we tried realistic bubbles, but in order to adapt them to the atmosphere, they gradually changed in a more illustrative style. “ The 3D characters existing in a 2D world was an obvious go to, it was the same visual style adopted in ‘Mega Man 11’ and most “modern retro remakes” favour it. Pixel art has its charms but if the goal is to have a game appealing to younger players it needs to look comparable to other games they’re accustomed to playing. “This time it was decided that the game would be developed in 3D” says Tsuyoshi Tozak. "We made sure that becoming 3D wouldn't change the playability and entertainment level." ‘Bubble Bobble 4 Friends’ looks fantastic; screen shots don’t do it justice.
Every level is alive and vibrant, with showers of sparks and sparkles. If anything, too much is going on as in a handful of levels the platforms you can stand on blend into the background layers. The screen scales to cater for larger levels, but the zoomed out view does have its downsides especially when playing multiple player in table top mode though. Seeing more of a level naturally means seeing less of the player and with smaller playable characters and so much going on onscreen it’s easy to lose track of where you are. Docked this really isn’t an issue, and it’s hard to imagine when you would choose to play a four player game huddled around the Switch’s internal screen.

For many the iconic ‘Bubble Bobble’ theme is one of the most memorable video game themes ever made. This sequel would undoubtedly fail without its inclusion, and naturally it accompanied play on the first stage. Slightly remixed and modernised its familiar yet extended which makes it far more palatable on repeated plays. The rest of the music has a dreamy yet space like vibe, not dissimilar to that heard in the likes of ‘Super Mario Galaxy’.

Everything in the game is well done and lavish, but there simply isn’t much of it considering the £35 (digital) and £45 (physical) asking price. For your money you’re apparently getting “100 levels of bubble filled mayhem“ but that isn’t strictly true. As you move around a child bedroom that serves as a world map, you’ll get to play 10 stages in 5 different areas and after the 50th stage you’ll see the ending cinematic. You’ll then have the option to replay any world on the newly unlocked hard mode, but the reality is, apart from some visual changes it’s the same as before only with more and harder enemies. Apparently it’s 50 ‘family-friendly’ levels and 50 ‘challenging’ levels, but you may well feel short changed when you’ve seen everything on offer after less than 5 hours. There may be replay value unlocking music tracks by striving for three stars in all the worlds but  ‘Bubble Bobble 4 Friends’ is a light offering that lacks competitive modes. Of course it’s charming to always be working together with even your total score combined.  But a friendly head to head option would have extended the longevity of the game considerably. Yes it’s “for friends” but friends and family can compete without things always becoming mean spirited. However, competition was never originally seen as the ‘Bubble Bobble’ way.

At a time when arcades were filled with competitive games the first ‘Bubble Bobble’ was designed from the ground up to be enjoyed as a shared experience. In fact, it was only possible to get to the “good ending” when two people were playing. Designer Fukio Mitsuji once said he wanted to create a game that a boyfriend and girlfriend could play together. "Back then, women were rarely seen in Japanese arcades," Mitsuji said in an interview on the ‘Taito Legends’ compilation. "So I thought bringing more couples would help solve this issue. That's why I designed cute characters and included cooperative play in ‘Bubble Bobble’".

The cute characters still appeal to this day, and while Mitsuiji struggled to get people to play together at the arcades today the biggest obstacle faced by Tsuyoshi Tozak is getting people to play together at home. Online gaming has replaced coach co-op and the joy of getting many people gathered around a console has been lost. The lack of online play in ‘Bubble Bobble 4 Friends’ may be criticised by many but what it does is force people into one room. It’s a game purposely made for many to play together and indeed playing solo feels a very lonely experience.
You may not be playing for long together but while you are it’s a truly magical experience that I hope will entrance many young players in a way similar to how I was, 30 years ago.


A copy of this game was provided by the distributor for review. They have not seen or had any influence on the contents of this post prior to publication.

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