Puzzle Bobble is an amazing puzzle game. I use that tense specifically because it’s one of those concepts where the developers got it absolutely plumb right from the get-go, all the way back in 1996. Yes, that was a long time ago. But I’m right. Fire up a copy of OG Puzzle Bobble (or Bust-A-Move, depending on where on the planet you live) and it’s absolutely just as playable today as it was back then. Isn’t it nice when games developers polish an idea until it’s just about perfect from the first attempt? It certainly is, but it creates a huge problem for any subsequent sequels. How do you improve upon perfection?
Related reading: Another puzzle game from a vintage series (or, in this case, two series’) that’s worth checking out is Puyo Puyo Tetris. Our review.
That hasn’t stopped Taito over the years, with 18 official sequels or spinoff Puzzle Bobble titles by my count under its belt, and so many clones and rip-offs that they’re not even worth counting. Puzzle Bobble Everybubble! is the latest Puzzle Bobble title from Taito, and like its predecessors, it’s a great game – if a slightly over-familiar one for anyone who’s played a previous entry in the series.
On the very slim chance that you’ve never done so, it’s a match-three puzzle game where you fire bubbles from a cannon at the bottom of the screen towards a descending stack of bubbles. Matches destroy bubbles, and connected bubbles can be dropped without penalty if they no longer have anything else to cling to. Take too long and let the screen fill up, and it’s game over.
Sounding familiar yet? Probably so, because even if you’ve never played Puzzle Bobble, you may have played Snoods, Bubble Witch, Frozen Bubble, Magical Drop or even Ronaldinho Gaúcho: Bubbles to name but a few. Yes, there’s a Puzzle Bobble clone based around a Brazilian football player, because of course there is. But still, all of those are pale clones of the one true puzzle king in this space, in the same way (for example) that Snow Bros is a pale clone of Bubble Bobble.
That popping sound you heard is editor Matt’s head exploding at that statement, if you were curious (That’s it. This is your last warning about disrespecting the Snow Bros. – ed). But I digress…
Do puzzle games need a plot? Puzzle Bobble Everybubble has one. The Miniroons – tiny dragons on Rainbow Island – can’t blow bubbles like series protagonists Bubble Dragons Bub, Bob, Peb and Pab can. Then one day, a mysterious wizard offers the Miniroons the opportunity to do so, and chaos ensues as the entire island is engulfed in bubbles, trapping innocent creatures such as the Chack’n in the classic bubble formations of Puzzle Bobble.
That’s one hell of a paragraph just to get to the core Puzzle Bobble gameplay mechanic, but it is what it is. I will give Taito special credit here for integrating the Chack’n (from 1984’s Chack’n Pop, an effective spiritual prequel to Bubble Bobble, the greatest game of all time) into the gameplay narrative. Still, it doesn’t matter, because you’re here for the puzzle gameplay, aren’t you?
The new hooks for Puzzle Bobble Everybubble lie in the integration of four-player capability, across either the story mode as four-player co-operative play, in versus mode or in the new Puzzle Bobble vs Space Invaders mode. Yeah, you read that right. I’ll get to it in a second.
Multiplayer Puzzle Bobble is a lot of fun, but it’s very much fun that’s defined by the skill level of the people you’re playing with. If you’re all of a similar skill level there’s a definite fun hook to clearing story mode levels together, but equally, it can get frustrating if you have a mix of skill levels amongst your players. Skilled players can quickly get annoyed at the less tactical moves of the new players, and new players can feel a little left out if they’re constantly being complained at. It’s also a little disappointing in an age where other puzzle stalwarts like Tetris have expanded out to 99 players that Taito couldn’t figure out a proper every-dragon-for-itself 1vs1vs1vs1 competitive mode. 2 on 2 play is fine and can address some skill imbalances, but it’s not quite as good.
Then there’s Puzzle Bobble vs Space Invaders, the “new” mode for Puzzle Bobble games that sets you to bursting bubbles that proceed down the screen in that classic left-down-right-down Space Invaders style. You can only fire vertically, because it’s Space Invaders, and bullets randomly rain down on you, either bursting your fired bubbles or temporarily stunning you. Like the arcade classic, if the bubbles reach the ground, it’s game over.
Related reading: For a really niche but utterly joyful puzzle game, check out Funghi Puzzle. Our review.
Another quick digression, if I may. While there are countless Puzzle Bobble clones, Puzzle Bobble vs Space Invaders is effectively a clone itself. Not just of Space Invaders, but of Data East’s Magical Drop, which used the exact same vertical-only matching mechanism. Truly, there’s little truly original in puzzle game design.
Getting back on track, Puzzle Bobble vs Space Invaders a cute idea that scales up nicely with four players for simple party game fun, but it’s also a limited one. There’s little variance in play, and while you do get individual scores, you only see those full scores at the conclusion of each game. Between rounds, the score counters reset, which makes it really hard to track who’s actually winning along the way. It’s the kind of game mode that you might fire up every once in a while, in a game breather sort of way, but also clearly not a concept that Taito could hang an entire commercial game upon.
The Switch version naturally gains portability, though the smaller screen even on the OLED Switch isn’t ideal for this. It’s also pretty clearly not a well optimised game for Switch users, with some serious load times to deal with. On the not-quite-a-plus side, it is absolutely the ideal game to let you know that your Joy-Cons have drift problems, because the aiming lines will shift across quickly if you’ve got a dodgy controller.
Puzzle Bobble Everybubble! is a good game, and it’s absolutely fine fare if you don’t already own a version of Taito’s venerable series. The new quirks don’t break anything fundamental, and that’s for the best in terms of maintaining series quality. At the same time, the new modes don’t add a lot.