Time for a review of a classic franchise's return. Wondering how Bub and Bob's latest adventure holds up?We've got the final work for you! As always, thanks for reading.
Review Notes: The team involved with supplying review codes asked me to share the review ASAP, even though I haven't had chance to play local multiplayer due to self quarantine. I said I didn't feel comfortable doing the review until I had a chance to experience 4-player, but they wanted me to move on anyway. As such, our review does not tackle that component of the game. Furthermore, the team wants you to know that Taito are currently developing and expanding the game’s content, which will include new stages, additional features, and "Baron von Blubba."
The Bubble Bobble series started all the way back in 1986 with the original arcade release. That arcade version certainly found some success, but things didn't really take off for Bubble Bobble until the NES port of the same game. I can't tell you what lead to so many NES owners playing Bubble Bobble, but it seemed like one of those games that found its way into many a collection. If you didn't own Bubble Bobble yourself, chances are you knew a friend who had a copy.
Perhaps the game found its way into so many homes due to its simple, yet addictive gameplay. The mechanics are extremely straightforward, as your only real goal is to capture all enemies in bubbles and pop them. Do that, and then you're off to the next stage. It's rinse and repeat for the entire game, but the short nature of the single-screens stages and frenetic action of the different enemies coming at you keeps things entertaining the whole way through. To this day, the original Bubble Bobble is still a joy to play.
The success of the original Bubble Bobble spawned countless sequels and spin-offs. They all saw varying degrees of success and failure, but the Puzzle Bobble/Bust-a-Move spin-off is definitely the most noteworthy. A good amount of people today know Bubble Bobble's characters from the Puzzle Bobble series, which saw multiple sequels itself. However people came across the characters of Bub and Bob, be it through the mainline series or spin-offs, the end result is a franchise that's still pushing ahead nearly 35 years later.
That brings us to Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, the latest installment in the mainline series. It's actually been quite some time since we've seen a new, traditional Bubble Bobble. As far as I can tell, the last one came about all the way in 2009 on WiiWare. That would make for the longest amount of time between new installments that the series has ever experienced. It's about time Bub and Bob got a chance to woo gamers once again, and this time they're looking to make their mark on Switch.
Rather than beat around the bush, I'll get to the point. If you like any of the traditional Bubble Bobble games, you're going to like Bubble Bobble 4 Friends. I really cannot see any circumstance where a fan of the classic titles would be hugely disappointed by what Bubble Bobble 4 Friends offers. There are some twists to the gameplay worth mentioning, but by and large, the core mechanics are still present. You're still clearing single-screen stages by bubbling up enemies. There's no major gameplay innovations going on, but with it being so long since we last saw Bubble Bobble, I don't think there has to be.
As with all previous mainline Bubble Bobble games, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends has you running through stages to clear out all the enemies. With the press of a single button, you'll spit out a bubble. The goal is to trap all of the enemies in the stage inside a bubble, and then pop the bubble to defeat them. Once you've defeated all the enemies, a big round of bonus fruit drops in. Grab the fruit before it disappears, gain a whole bunch of points, and move on to the next level. That's really all there is to it.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends aims to freshen things up slightly with some interesting ideas. Without a doubt, the most unique change is that of suits you can wear. These suits will give you different abilities, and they're earned by collecting letters than spell out EXTEND. Suits change your base powers in helpful ways, such as making bubbles that explode like bombs, bubbles that blast out an attack in a horizontal line, and so on. If you want to skip these skills and play without any boosters, you can do so. If you'd rather add in a skill to aid you in your battle, you can do that as well.
Another tweak to the traditional gameplay comes from how bubbles burst. You're now able to pop bubbles in much longer chains to defeat enemies. Back in the original, you'd have to be pretty close to a considerable cluster of bubbles to set off a chain reaction, but in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, as long as bubbles are touching one another, you can send a ripple through the entire lineup. Taking out a whole bunch of enemies with a long bubble chain is extremely satisfying, and can really come in handy when you're a long ways off from the last bad guy.
My favorite new aspect might be how the scope of stages has changed. Bubble Bobble 4 Friends still keeps each level on a single screen, but now that screen will shrink or expand before a stage starts. Sometimes you have a stage that looks pretty close to the size of what you'd see in the original Bubble Bobble, and other times your character will look pretty minuscule on a much bigger stage. This paves the way for challenges that are a bit lengthier and more involved than what was seen in previous titles. It can be a tad hard to see everything at times if you're playing in handheld mode, but it's nothing too troublesome.
Sadly, there are some features from the original Bubble Bobble that have been cut, and I honestly don't know why. It seems that unique level-based power-ups are complete gone. The older games used to throw in snacks or items that would give you a special ability for a stage or two, such as sneakers to make you run faster, candy to extend how far your bubbles shoot, a bomb that kills everything on-screen, and so on. These little bonus items added a little bit of excitement to the gameplay overall, and seeing them skipped altogether here is quite disappointing.
There's also been a change to interactions with bubbles. In the original Bubble Bobble, you couldn't bounce on a bubble unless you held the jump button. There were stages where you absolutely had to bounce on bubbles to reach enemies, and maneuvering on them was tricky, but satisfying. In Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, all the challenge has been removed. Instead of having to hold any buttons, you just jump onto a bubble and you automatically bounce on it forever. It'll never pop unless you press down on the d-pad/joystick. This is probably a frustration that only million-year-old gamers like me will be bothered by, but I still felt it worth bringing up.
The biggest issue in my opinion is the lack of threat from not destroying all enemies in a certain amount of time. Once again, in the original Bubble Bobble, you had to trap and defeat all the enemies in a time limit. If you failed to do so, "Baron von Blubba" would appear. This ghost whale would chase you around the screen and try to take you out. If he touched you, you would die and the timer would reset for a bit. When you heard his music, you knew you were in for some hectic action. It was both intimidating and fun! In Bubble Bobble 4 Friends...this extra threat just doesn't exist.
I started to notice during my playthrough that Baron von Blubba would never show up. As a matter of fact, there was no timer threat at all. I sat on stages and waiting MUCH longer than you could in the original Bubble Bobble, and nothing changed. The music played the same, the enemies didn't speed up, and Baron von Blubba was nowhere to be found. To be honest, I have no idea if there's a timer threat in the game at all. The game does keep track of time while you're playing, but I don't think it has any impact on sending in some sort of enemy to get you moving quickly. I waited over 20 minutes on one stage just to see what happened, and no extra threats showed up.
The only other complaint I have is another minor one, and it pertains to wind currents. Most Bubble Bobble games have wind currents that the bubbles travel along, and Bubble Bobble 4 Friends does that as well. The thing that annoyed me is that these currents come into play in almost every stage, and they are ALL over. I know most Bubble Bobble games have currents, but I swear they went overboard here. On top of that, you can actually see the currents now via little sparkly lines that draw out their directions. This is helpful for newcomers, but a bit jarring for someone who's use to not seeing them. Thankfully these lines can be turned off in the options.
Even with the elements I miss, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is still a lot of fun. The issues I have don't really take away from the base game, which again, is very similar to what was offered up in the past. There's also other elements that I really enjoy. The game is looking better than ever, with some nice animations and bright visuals. The original tune is included in remixed fashion, along with other tracks (1 song every 10 stages, 50 stages in total, or 100 if you count the harder difficulty option). Without a doubt, character control is leagues better than the original, as it's much more fluid and responsive. There are definitely elements here that enhance what was already a fun experience.
Even if you're a long-time fan who ends up hating Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, which I don't see how you could, there's another reason to grab this game. It includes the full arcade version of the original Bubble Bobble, and you can bring another friend along for your play session. If you loved the NES port of Bubble Bobble, you're going to enjoy the arcade version just as much. It looks and sounds slightly better, but it plays exactly the same. For serious fans of the franchise, the inclusion of the arcade original might go a long way in making the purchase worth it.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends might have some elements that are hit and miss over the original, but all the important stuff feels right. Anyone who's played and enjoyed Bubble Bobble in the past should end up quite pleased with this new installment. Everything from jumping around to popping bubbles feels really good, and its obviously a package that a considerable amount of care went into. In a day and age when most games strive for deep gameplay mechanics and flashy visuals, there's something to be said for a straightforward arcade-like experience that focuses on fun. Hopefully others out there feel the same way.