In October 1987 a teenage Tuffcub rushed to WHSmith’s, cash in hand, to buy the latest game for the ZX Spectrum, a conversion of the Taito arcade smash Bubble Bobble. Over hundreds of hours in the following months my next door neighbour and I played the game constantly, uncovering the many secrets and slowly getting closer to level 100, the end of the game. Bubble Bobble was, and remains to this day, incredibly addictive with fast paced gameplay as you race to complete the level before the Baron Von Blubba, or “The Grok” as we called him, appeared on the screen and mercilessly hunted down Bub and Bob.
Suffice to say I love Bubble Bobble. I have the arcade port on my PS3 and PS4 and a cuddly Bub on a shelf above my consoles, so I was very excited to get my hands on Bubble Bobble 4 Friends. The Baron is back and the good news it has all the classic elements of Bubble Bobble. The bad news is that things have also been changed.
The gameplay remains very similar; you play as Bub, Bob, or one of two new characters and jump around platforms, capturing enemies by blowing bubbles at enemies. Once encased in the bubble, the enemies and any other bubbles you blow float around screen following wind patterns. You can then burst the bubbles to kill the enemies, but the idea is the pop more than one at a time to create a chain and get a higher score.
New for Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is the ability to crouch, which lets you slip between small gaps, and auto jumping on bubbles. In other words, when you jump on a bubble it won’t pop, you bounce merrily on top of it and you have to push down to pop the bubbles. This changes a key element from the original, making the game much easier. The power ups are roughly the same, but instead of appearing in the level as you play, you get them be completing a set of ten levels and then equip one at time. You also get a very limited supply of each power up to use and can only gain extra use by killing enemies, meaning that I barely used them.
The game is more like a traditional platformer rather than an arcade title, as levels require you to follow a set path to reach all the enemies. However, the level design is also very confusing. You can now only jump through certain platforms, and the game introduces spikes later on which will, of course, pop bubbles. Fooled you! Bubbles actually happily float straight through spikes, and they only kill cute green dinosaurs and their friends. Enemy patterns are also pretty basic, as many of the bad guys just stay completely still and wait for you to bubble them.
There’s more to annoying Bubble Bobble fans: The classic music is only played on the first few levels not during the entire game, and despite the full title of the game being Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron is Back, Baron Von Blubba is nowhere to be seen. As I write this review, I have had the game running for 50 minutes and left Bub standing still, but the Baron has yet to make an appearance and chase me off screen.
Complete a set of ten levels and you get a boss battle, a nod to Bubble Symphony, the arcade sequel. For most of these, it’s just a case of avoiding the boss, waiting until they are worn out and then attacking them with enough bubbles until you pop them. The game as a whole is very easy and you can swish the fifty levels in just over an hour. The one exception is the boss fight at the end of level four, which is much, much harder than any other level in the game for some reason and fires over a dozen fast moving enemies across the screen along with the boss itself.
One you’ve complete the fifty levels you can unlock a hard mode with remixed version of the levels, but while they are more challenging, they’re still not really that difficult. If you fail a level three times you also get the option to play and complete the level in invincible mode so the enemies can’t hurt you. You also unlock a mini arcade cabinet on which you can play the original 1986 arcade game, and that will take you much, much longer to finish than 4 Friends.
As the name suggests, you can play the game with up to four chums in couch co-op, and as with most games adding friends does make it a lot more fun. The game suddenly becomes more frantic and feels more like the original, and if you’re feeling particularly mean you can mess up another player’s plans with a well timed bubble.