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Friday, November 13, 2020

Review: Touhou Spell Bubble (Nintendo Switch)


Review by Harvard L.

Touhou Spell Bubble is a tedious game which I do not particularly care for, but I imagine it does have value for fans of the long-running franchise. It’s an unorthodox mashup of the Vs. Puzzle and Rhythm genre, and the way Taito makes these two disparate gameplay styles work somewhat cohesively is a testament to clever design. So I feel like out of respect for ZUN’s property and the effort that went into this game, I’ll take some time to analyse it on its own merits, and perhaps those familiar with the Touhou franchise can make their own decisions on whether this is for them.


The core gameplay will be familiar to those who have played Puzzle Bobble. It’s a head-to-head puzzle game where coloured orbs advance downwards from the top of the screen, and players shoot their own orbs from the middle of the screen’s bottom. Orbs disappear when matched in colour clusters of three or greater, and larger conglomerates will send additional orbs to the opponent.

Now here’s where Touhou Spell Bubble iterates on Taito’s familiar formula. Normally in Puzzle Bobble, the second a player has orbs advance past their life-line at the bottom of the screen, they lose the game. But because this is a rhythm game, matches are instead set to music and last for as long as the song does. This requires an overhaul of the scoring system – now, when a player wipes out from their screen filling up, all the orbs on their screen get counted and added to their opponent’s score count. The score can also increase by achieving large combos and doing well in the rhythm mini-game: sometimes, when shooting an orb to make a big match, the game will stop entirely and players will need to hit the A button in time with the song, earning one point for each successful hit. Once the song finishes, the player with the higher score wins. 


Admittedly, the rhythm and puzzle hybrid does work. If someone had forced me to make a rhythm/Puzzle Bobble hybrid, I would’ve said it were impossible. But Taito has found elegant solutions to make the competitive aspect of the game fair and interesting. For example, when a player wipes out, they immediately get taken to a “counterattack” screen filled with easy combos, so they might be able to send a devastating salvo of orbs back to the opponent. Because matches are a predetermined length now, it’s also more advantageous to play aggressively rather than conservatively, in order to get a greater point lead. Thus, players can manually advance the orbs one row by pressing the X button, and because there are by default only three colours in play (compared to Puzzle Bobble’s six), it will be much easier to make a large combo. Just like with Puzzle Bobble, the better player wins in the end.

Touhou Spell Bubble only really becomes a rhythm game once the player initiates it. Once matching a large enough cluster (usually six+ bubbles), the game calculates and assigns certain rhythmic cues to some of them. On harder difficulties, these are stricter and more closely aligned with the song’s note patterns. But because it only happens when players are clearing a large combo, it means that each match is different based on when these rhythm sections are triggered. Depending on the characters players choose, they can also cast a variety of spells which either improve their own board-state or hinder their opponents – usually making large combos easier or harder to perform. I had thought these spells would be gimmicky, but I found most of them made the game more fun regardless of whether I was casting them or I’d had them cast on me – getting my colours shuffled up presented an additional challenge which I could come back from, and it meant I had to strategise slightly differently depending on which character I was playing against.

I found myself admiring how cleverly these two genres were melded together, but I couldn’t help but feel that overall, the elegant simplicity of Puzzle Bobble was being tainted. Taito’s original Puzzle Bobble was easy to understand, competitive, and yet had no metagames or convoluted instructions – it was a puzzle game designed to be shared. Touhou Spell Bubble, on the other hand, is complicated: while the graphics and on-screen text do a good job of explaining what’s happening, it’s hard to know exactly how to win or how to succeed without sitting through the game’s lengthy tutorial. I missed being able to cultivate my board and set up powerful combos in the original Puzzle Bobble – here in Touhou Spell Bubble, the spell powers meant that my board was getting wiped anew every few seconds; it’s more a game about instincts rather than planning. And the song lengths are far too long as well: some go up to five minutes, and it’s an awful feeling to be winning or losing by an impossible margin, and seeing there’s still two minutes left on the clock, so you’ve got to go through the motions before the game finally gets called. 


So, Touhou Spell Bubble is functional but bloated – the mechanics took a long time to articulate, and there’s a learning curve which doesn’t exist in the original Puzzle Bobble. And the entire reason for this is because Taito had to shoehorn in the Touhou characters and abilities into their existing VS. Puzzler framework – and even though they did so rather successfully, it’s hard to argue their inclusion improves Puzzle Bobble in any way. 


This is a spinoff or Gaiden game from the Touhou games, originally only released on CD on a yearly schedule at Japan’s famous Comiket convention. Touhou began as doujinsoft, or Japanese indie, running for more than 20 years at this point, and spawning a much-loved collection of characters. This makes Touhou a lucrative property and well suited to mapping to various genres – there’s a ready-made collection of characters, abilities, personalities, artwork and music, as well as an existing fanbase who are not sticklers for gameplay. While the original Touhou games started off as bullet hell shooters, a quick glance on the Switch reveals a Touhou action-RPG, a true roguelike, a kart racing game and a Dissidia-style 3D battler in addition to Spell Bubble’s Rhythm/Puzzle hybrid.

For those who are familiar with the work of ZUN and Team Shanghai Alice, Touhou Spell Bubble contains all the familiar characters and songs you’ve loved before. For those who haven’t played a Touhou game before, prepare to be confused. This game, especially its lengthy story mode, assumes the player is familiar with the characters and their abilities. And it kind of has to: there’s just so many characters to cram in, that there’s no other plot structure which could work for this title other than the good old-fashioned Anime-Tournament Arc. Players take the role of Reimu, a shrine maiden slash protector of… something… (I’m not too familiar with Touhou myself) who wakes up and realises that all her friends are suddenly playing Puzzle Bobble. Her friend Marisa, an “Ordinary Magician”, takes her hand and brings her to meet everyone else in the Touhou universe who also happen to have become addicted to this new puzzle game overnight. 


The plot makes little sense and can be easily skipped; I read through all the visual novel segments thinking that I’d understand some of it, and I largely didn’t. Characters are more their personalities and visual designs rather than feeling like actual people with goals and motivations. And I can’t shake the feeling that because this is a spinoff, the plot doesn’t matter, and so there’s no gravity at all in any of the story developments. The dialogue is mostly justifying why everyone suddenly loves Puzzle Bobble, and while there’s the occasional funny moment, there’s also an unfortunate amount of localisation slip-ups that hamper the experience. The artwork is nice, though not something you can’t find online, and the music is passable but I imagine more meaningful for someone familiar with the Touhou games. 

So if you like the characters, you like the songs, and you’ve for whatever reason always wanted to play Puzzle Bobble while occasionally hitting buttons to the rhythm of a Touhou track, then this game is for you. For designers, this is an interesting exercise in how to cram together two sets of clashing game mechanics and achieve a harmonic and synergistic result. I’m still so surprised that Rhythm Game and VS. Puzzler came together in such a deep and intuitive way. But when I’m done asking “what” this game is and I start asking “why” this game is, I only see it as an expensive curiosity, reimagining of Taito’s classic (and better) puzzle game which is available as a Neo Geo Archives title for 12 dollars on the Switch shop.



- Harvard L.
Contributor

The critic was provided with a copy of this game for review.


Review: Touhou Spell Bubble (Nintendo Switch)
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