Bub and Bob return from years in retirement with a brand new sequel to one of the best co-op arcade games ever made.
The original Bubble Bobble is one of our favourite golden age coin-ops of all time. We would say its follow-up Rainbow Islands is even better but since we never actually saw it in an arcade, in our minds it’s more of a home title. Since there are three separate games that claim to be Bubble Bobble 2 the series has one of the most complex genealogies in gaming, and yet there hasn’t been a decent new one in over two decades. But to our delight Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is a surprisingly successful comeback.
One of the fascinating things about Bubble Bobble’s sequels is that the best ones have very different gameplay from the original. Rainbow Islands, subtitled ‘The Story Of Bubble Bobble 2’, might as well be a completely different game, while the excellent Parasol Stars (one of two games to be subtitled The Story Of Bubble Bobble III) is closer to the original but still very different.
Then there’s Bubble Bobble Part 2 on the NES (which we never really count), Bubble Symphony (which is similar to the original and is known as Bubble Bobble II in the West), and Bubble Memories: The Story Of Bubble Bobble III (which makes a final mockery of any numbering system).
That was the end of the good old days though and most of Bub and Bob’s best work since has been via the Puzzle Bobble/Bust-A-Move spin-off series. They have been dragged back into the limelight occasionally, but only for rubbish like Bubble Bobble Revolution – which has our vote for the worst box art ever. All of which complicated road lead us to Bubble Bobble 4 Friends and the franchise’s modern revival.
What we find especially exciting about this game is that it’s by original creators Taito, who were bought by Square Enix in 2006 and whose brands have rarely been seen again since. But they’ve recently woken from their slumber with the excellent scrolling beat ‘em-up The Ninja Saviors: Return Of The Warriors and a Darius collection that only got released in Japan. If that also augurs the return of Space Invaders, Arkanoid, Rainbow Islands, and the like we’ll be over the moon, especially given the consistent quality of the releases so far.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends works very similarly to the original 1986 coin-op, with you and up to three (offline-only) friends navigating a series of small platform-filled levels as you, err… try to kill everything in your sight. Despite being a dragon you don’t breath fire but instead bubbles, and so you dispose of enemies by catching them in a bubble then popping it.
You can also blow bubbles to use as ad hoc platforms to jump on, with the little spheres of liquid moving and acting in a slightly more realistic way than they used to. However, there’s less emphasis on power-ups than the original, which seems unwise, as one of the joys of the first game used to be the huge range of randomly appearing objects, some of which could be very rare.
Bubble Bubble 4 Friends instead concentrates on skills you can earn after boss battles, which do things such as extend the range of your bubbles or have them explode after a while. That’s much less interesting though and also usually ruins your attempts at score combos. But apart from that there isn’t an awful lot new added to the formula, although you do get Bubble Symphony style boss battles and you can now duck to pass under low gaps.
The versatility of your abilities is the hallmark of the Bubble Bobble series but the new game doesn’t emphasis that to the degree we would’ve expected. The scoring system is still more involved than you might think though, as the food rewards you get from popping an enemy increase in worth (and culinary complexity) the more you pop at the same time and there’s now a three-star rating to achieve in each of the five worlds.
The biggest problem with Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is simply that it’s very short and quite easy, which doesn’t help given the weighty £35 price tag. There are only 50 unique stages, but if you beat them (which you will in just a couple of hours) that unlocks a hard mode with rejigged versions of each stage that are a lot more difficult. You also get the original arcade game thrown in as well, but that’s really it in terms of extra content.
We’re also not super keen on the art style. It’s okay, as a modern 3D interpretation of the original 2D sprites and artwork, but it doesn’t have quite the same charm or distinctiveness. And although there is a visual language to what is and isn’t a platform you can jump onto or through it’s initially confusing and lacks the simple elegance of the original. The iconic theme tune faces similar problems but comes off a lot better in our view, which is saying a lot as we consider the original one of the best video game soundtracks of all time.
We’d love to say that Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is a full return to form for the series, but it doesn’t quite get there. The gameplay and controls are spot on, but the new skills system is underwhelming and the paucity of content (and lack of any kind of online options) is too serious a problem given the asking price. The developers at Taito have clearly still got the magic but this needed just a little more time in the oven. It’s certainly no disgrace to the legacy of the series though and that alone is a major achievement.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: ININ Games
Release Date: 19th November 2019
Age Rating: 3