Revisiting Bubble Bobble on the NES Classic Edition takes me back to one of my earliest gaming memories. Back to when I would convince my younger cousin to play it with me so I didn’t have to endure the pain of watching yet another bloody Doris Day musical with her. It was a game so simple to understand that even she – with very limited gaming coordination – could grasp its simple but ingenious mechanics. I remember scribbling down level codes and stashing them in the plastic black slip folders that the cartridges would sleep in before save states became a gaming standard. In fact, I adored Bubble Bobble so much as a kid, that if I were to be asked to whistle something with a gun to my head it would almost certainly be the game’s melody.
Many years have passed since then, and now I get the pleasure of watching my own children’s minds ticking and developing their own fond gaming memories. As it happens, a brand new Bubble Bobble game has arrived exclusively for the Nintendo Switch where I can share both the arcade classic that resonates with me so dearly, as well as this swanky new updated version with my beloved family.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends stays true to the original’s form of bite-sized, bubble blasting action that the late Fukio Mitsuji once originally designed for Taito. But rather than just having the iconic Bub and Bob blasting through a collection of single-room stages, you now get to share the joy of four-player co-op with two new adorable allies called Peb and Pab. If you have never played Bubble Bobble before, the rules are very simple to grasp. The aim of the game is to entrap cute bad guys in orbs of dragon saliva then burst the little blighters off the screen to reap the tasty fruits and sugary desserts that they leave behind.
In this new iteration, bubbles are a bit tougher to pierce through than they were way back in 1986. It’s now much easier to hitch a ride on top of air pockets of spit to reach higher areas, as our little heroes confidently bounce rhythmically on them with a firm hold of the jump button. Pushing the direction down on the d-pad or Left Stick will allow the squishy dragons to tear through a whole heap of them in one fell swoop. The most practical way to pop them all, of course, is by using the spines sat on the cuddly little dragons’ back, which works wonders when hoarding enemies together in a cluster of suds.
Popping several enemies at once will kick off a combo multiplier in motive to contribute in grasping a three-star rating. Each one of the five segments that your score is measured across is made up of a collection of ten stages – along with some form of tubby boss that awaits you towards the end of a run. Completing a segment will reward the player with a new ability which can also be upgraded by collecting letters to spell “E.X.T.E.N.D” – very much like the way extra lives are earned in the original. Abilities include thunder bubbles that horizontally set off a pulse of lightning to eradicate foes, spit firing bubbles at a faster pace and at a greater distance, or even dispatching a time bomb bubble to ride jet streams towards a desired target, to name a few.
The jet streams that travel through most stages influence your bubble’s direction. They can be obstructive to our little dragon buddies during a hunt for bananas and melons, or be used as a high score tactic to gather enemies together for a cuddly mass execution. It’s a neat addition to the gameplay that can provide a more puzzle-like element when seeking to conquer and collect all of the E.X.T.E.N.D bubbles – especially when working out a route across the unlockable harder difficulty setting.
It’s all simple, arcade fun that pretty much anyone can pick up and play. The graphics are bright, bold, and colourful, the controls are squeaky tight, and the loading is an absolute non-issue. The gameplay itself takes place across a child’s bedroom where the plush of Bub and the mischievous magician Bonner (a.k.a Drunk) suddenly springs to life in the middle of the night where poor Bub then becomes the victim of a GBH crime. The spoilt kid who’s crashed out under the covers during the assault has a Bubble Bobble arcade cabinet sat neatly in the room. So, it’s clear that he (or she) is oblivious to the horrendous bullying taking place to poor little Bub. Lucky for us though, the cabinet works fine and allows us to play the 1986 arcade classic. A wonderful, if necessary addition to reintroduce two legendary gaming icons to a new generation, whilst recapturing that childhood nostalgia in a bottle for the old fogies like myself.
The multiplayer component is exactly like Gears of War when it comes to only having a few seconds to try and revive a comrade on the brink of death. Or, for those who really want to split hairs and keep it all Nintendo, I suppose a more accurate example would be the multiplayer bubble function in the New Super Mario Bros. games. Either way, it adds the rush and self-belief of being a good friend and ally. Especially if your teammates are a six-year-old girl and a significant other on a constant suicide mission.
While I absolutely do appreciate that Bubble Bobble 4 Friends stays close to its classical roots in regards to gameplay, I do think it may be a bit of an ask in charging £35.99 for the privilege. For starters, there’s only really 50 standard bite-sized stages, with another 50 harder ones that pretty much retread the same maps – with a few slight adjustments and more aggressive enemies. To put things into perspective, each level takes a little longer or less than a minute to beat on the standard difficulty. Which basically means, you will probably spend longer earning the cash to buy the game than actually playing it.
There’s also a fair bit of the charm that the original has to offer that is either absent from Bubble Bobble 4 Friends or has been toned down to a degree. The dreaded zombie whale, Baron Von Blubba, for example, is no longer sprinting to hunt you down like you owe him money when dawdling around a certain stage for too long. The enemies don’t get annoyed nearly as often as they used to either. Well, not unless they are already planted on a stage in a bad mood to begin with, or if they happen to break free from a bubble prison.
The fact that the game has an unlimited continue system is fine enough when playing with younger children or those who lack patience. Either way, it does undeniably hold back the magic of its challenge. The only real punishment for seeing the game over screen is watching your score reset back to zero. This is all well and good if you’re seeking to legitimately nail three-star ratings across the board as a test of skill. However, the generous continue system does massively contribute to diluting the longevity that you’re probably going to get with this sequel.
The continue system wouldn’t be an issue if Bubble Bobble 4 Friends had a survival mode added with an online or even local leaderboard attached. The proof is in the pudding of this missing feature when playing the included arcade version of the game. You can bang as many credits as you want with the original, but once little Bub and Bob go to dino heaven, all you can do is pray for first place on the scoreboard and start all over again.
It’s the matter of seeking just how far you can get and how many points a player can gather that makes classic games such as Bubble Bobble, PAC-MAN, and Donkey Kong so incredibly addictive and timeless in the first place. It’s that friendly rivalry of finding and discovering better score combinations to knock each other from the top spot where a game like this truly shines. A portion of that magic is still included here in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends with its faithful traits, three-star score system, and cuddly aesthetics to pitch towards a new generation of kids. It’s just unfortunate that the one thing that made the original genuinely special happens to be missing for the sake of playing it safe and being a convenient crutch for successful progress.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is a fun and approachable multiplayer game for players of all ages and a wonderful recreation of an old school classic. With that said, the Nintendo eShop price tag that accompanies it can be pretty hard to swallow, especially when you consider that most players with a bit of gaming experience will have it beat in a couple of hours at best. Perfecting its three-star demands will certainly add a few more hours to the clock, but it seems like a rather easy post to lean on when there’s far more potential in building upon the jetstream mechanics to contribute towards a higher level count.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by ININ Games