Ask me what my all-time favourite game is, and I’ll tell you that it’s Bubble Bobble. Ask me for my top five, and I’ll list off five different variants of Bubble Bobble before expanding my tastes out to other titles. I can’t play Bubble Bobble all the time.
I mean, I have to sleep sometimes.
I am unashamedly in love with Taito’s classic 1986 arcade platformer, and have been ever since I first dropped a 20c piece into the Bubble Bobble machine in the Armidale bowling alley back in 1986. Yes, youngsters, games used to cost just 20c back then, and yes, I’m old enough to remember this kind of detail.
In the intervening years, Taito has done all kinds of interesting things with Bubble Bobble. Ask my better half what the best game of all time is, and she’ll probably answer Puzzle Bobble for example. If I’m after a different platform experience I might try my hand at Rainbow Islands or Parasol Stars. Bubble Bobble over the years has been many different games of varying quality.
For anyone coming in late, Bubble Bobble is an action platform game with a gameplay loop that involves capturing enemies in bubbles before bursting those bubbles to release shiny point-scoring prizes. It’s challenging, charming and has (as science has shown) the best soundtrack of any game ever.
Okay, science hasn’t yet shown that, but that’s only because I cannot get a research grant off the ground to prove it.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is Taito’s 2019 take on Bubble Bobble that expanded its core bubble and capture gameplay out to four players at once.
It should have been a masterstroke, but even I, as entranced by bubble dragons as I am, can admit that it wasn’t.
The changes made to the way the bubbles work, combined with just 50 short and mostly very easy levels, especially with four players at once made for a mediocre title at best. It absolutely didn’t help that you have a common high score, rather than individual ones. A huge part of the fun of Bubble Bobble is watching other players rack up huge bonus prize hauls with combo bubble bursting antics, only to slide in and steal them all. You can still do this, but when everyone gets the same score it’s nowhere near as much fun.
I mean, it’s still Bubble Bobble, and like pizza, even when it’s poor it’s still pretty good, but easily the best thing about Bubble Bobble 4 Friends was the fact that it included full emulation of the arcade game as well. It’s just that the arcade game’s been ported to every game system known to man, so it’s not like it’s hard to get hold of.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends was originally a Switch game, before jumping over to the PS4 in 2020. Now in 2021, Taito’s having another crack with Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron’s Workshop, a PC take via Steam that still includes the same problems as the original game, but tries to entice players in with the promise of a level creator.
That’s the Baron’s Workshop, you see, and it’s a rather Super Mario Maker style take on how to make Bubble Bobble levels… only again, not as good.
The core tools are smart enough, allowing you to place enemies, platforms and determine wind direction for bubble flow within each level. So for example, I could earn some easy brownie points with DigitallyDownloaded.net editor Matt by quickly whipping together a level that resembles the first stage in his favourite 80s era platformer Snow Bros to play (it’s the one that’s like Bubble Bobble, but actually good – ed).
What’s not so good here is that game components are unlockables that you get for clearing in-game levels. This is a just a dumb idea, because while Bubble Bobble 4 Friends isn’t massively hard, even on its higher difficulty settings, making it less interesting to make levels from the outset is poor form. I’d like to just be able to let my creativity flow without having to think about whether I’ve met some other kind of metric to allow me access to every block, enemy or bonus, Taito!
It’s also stuck with a somewhat inherent issue to any single Bubble Bobble level, in that there’s one of them.
One of the pure joys of Bubble Bobble is challenging yourself to a high score across as many levels as you can survive through. You can create more than one level, but you can’t link them together for a satisfying gameplay experience. You just create a level, play that level for a minute or so, and then you’re done.
While it’s true that original Mario Maker had this issue too, it at least iterated on gameplay styles and levels that could last longer, making it more interesting. Sadly, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron’s Workshop has none of that. You can download levels others have created, but based on the fact that some weeks after launch, more than half the levels you can get were created by the Bubble Bobble 4 Friends design team speaks volumes about how popular that’s been.
It’s also rather galling in 2021 that a PC title on Steam only has local play, and not online in any way. We live in a world where xCloud can throw high definition gaming at me over the Internet. Getting a few bubbles to fly around everyone’s screens shouldn’t be an insurmountable hurdle!
In theory, a Bubble Bobble game with Mario Maker tossed in should be occupying my every waking moment, whether I’m busy playing it, or working out smart new ways to build sequences of levels to play through with family and friends. Instead, what Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron’s Workshop represents is far more of a lazy cash-in title. Bubble Bobble, needless to say, deserves far better than that.
I do still love Bubble Bobble with my very heart and soul. But sometimes, love hurts.