Before there was Bubble Bobble, there was Snow Bros., and the original remains the best. I should explain. Bubble Bobble did actually come first chronologically, but Snow Bros. (the “clone”) was the first single-screen platformer I personally played. Way back on the Game Boy, there was a shrunk-down version of the arcade game called, Snow Bros. Jr, and I loved that game with a fiery passion. 12-year-old (or thereabouts) me genuinely cried the day I lost that cartridge. Very adult me almost cried when I found a copy at Super Potato in Japan and was able to play it again on my original hardware, rather than relying on an emulator. As they say, you always remember your first…
I digress. Sadly, the developer of Snow Bros., Toaplan, went out of business soon after releasing the sequel to Snow Bros. in 1994, and after decades, I never thought we’d see that series come back. It is back, now, with Snow Bros. Special, and while I don’t think it’s the perfect game, its very existence gives me warm and fuzzy feelings. It’s back! My childhood is back.
Snow Bros. Special is basically a modernisation of the original arcade game. The levels are the same design (well, the first 50 are – there are 30 additional all-new levels), and play much the same way. Same enemy patterns, same power-ups, and even the same strategies will get you through each stage. If you ever developed muscle memory for Snow Bros. at any point in your life, it’ll cut in within moments of loading the game up.
There are some new ways to play, though, and that’s a nice touch. The one-life survival mode will make an already challenging game even more challenging, and then there’s a time trial mode, which offers a different flavour of challenge. There’s even a monster mode, which flips the tables and tasks you with playing as an enemy and stopping the heroes. That mode is, both unfortunately and cynically, DLC, but the Snow Bros. faithful will get a kick out of that even at the premium. I know I did.
For those who haven’t played Snow Bros. before, like any good arcade game, it’s quite beautiful in its simplicity. As a single-screen platformer, your goal is to clear the screen of enemies, rather than making horizontal or vertical progress. Each time you clear a level you’re whisked away to the next, which has a different layout and set of enemies to defeat. Unlike its predecessor (and genre pioneer), Bubble Bobble, your goal in Snow Bros. isn’t to capture enemies in air bubbles shot by the heroes. Instead, you throw snowballs at enemies and, once they’ve been hit a few times, you turn them into a big boulder-ball. From that point, you can kick the ball down to the bottom of the screen, and any enemies that it bumps into as it crashes down will be instantly defeated and turned into points or a powerup.
This slightly different approach to balling enemies up does allow for some different approaches to the gameplay. For example, if you’re trying to knock all the enemies out at once (which grants a big points bonus), then you can temporarily freeze a few by shooting a couple of snowballs at them to set them up for the big avalanche that you’re about to unleash from the top of the screen. You do need to think strategically about some levels, too, as the default speed of the Snow Bros. is quite sluggish, so, rather than being a twitch arcade game, you instead need to map a pathway through the hordes.
Every ten levels there’s a boss battle, and these have their own quirks and patterns (and are generally pretty well designed and interesting). With Snow Bros. Special there’s a new bonus, too: a little cut scene at the start that explains the “story” of the game. It’s not much, but it’s a nice touch that shows that, along with the extra 30 levels, there is some kind of commitment from the developers to the future of Snow Bros., and that this is more than just a remaster with a cynical DLC bonus.
I just wish that it wasn’t so ugly. I should clarify that the developers have done a fairly reasonable update on the original arcade’s designs. The enemies in particular look just like you might expect those old sprites to look in 2022. However, I was never the world’s biggest fan of the aesthetics of the original arcade game. In my view, the Game Boy “demake” is superior. Perhaps due to the hardware limitations, it actually had character sprites that were cuter and more charming. I wish the developers had re-drawn the characters to be a little more inspired by that version… or just taken the initiative to give us new-look characters. These kinds of titles need their characters – that was what drove much of Bubble Bobble’s appeal over the years – and the borderline Adobe Flash-like treatment of the characters does this effort to revitalise Snow Bros. no favours.
One thing the developers did blessedly retain is the soundtrack. Snow Bros. has a very simple soundtrack, but it’s also one that I can recall to my mind to hum or whistle on cue. No matter how long it has been since I last played the game. It is boppy, charming, bright, happy music, and backed up by an exquisite set of sound effects. Toaplan might not have artists of the calibre of the team at Taito, beavering away at Bubble Bobble, but the sound team were unparalleled, and that soundtrack has been preserved in all its glory here.
For all I know I’m the only person left on the planet that cares about Snow Bros. and Toaplan’s legacy in single-screen platformers. Nonetheless, it is a bit of arcade history and this is preserving a property that was almost lost. I’ve had an absolute blast playing through this, the new levels are great, and now there’s an outside chance that there might be all-new Snow Bros. adventures on the horizon.