Back in the 1980’s I never was much of a Bubble Bobble fan. Back then, quarters were hard to come by for middle schooler, and I certainly was not going to drop one in to play some abstract puzzle game about two cutesy lizard boys blowing bubbles. I was all about blowing stuff up – Zaxxon, Galaga, Centipede – but the closest I would ever get to a game that involved bubble blowing and lizards was maybe a round or two of Dig Dug.
In fact, when I approached for this review, I really did not have a clue about what the original Bubble Bobble’s actual gameplay premise was – I have always confused it with its Taito-family spinoff franchise, the bubble-shooter game Bust-A-Move (aka Puzzle Bobble). I truly thought I was going to be playing a match-3 game, but that was not the case.
Bubble Bobble is a level-based puzzler in which two human brothers, Bubby and Bobby find themselves transformed into the reptilian creatures “Bub” and “Bob” by the evil wizard Baron Von Blubba in the process of kidnapping their girlfriends and taking him back to his lair deep in the Cave of Monsters. The heroes descend into the cave on a mission to save their girlfriends and transform themselves back into their human form.
Along the journey, the two “Bubble Dragon” heroes encounter a series of enemy “bullies” that must be felled. The boys’ only weapon is the ability to blow bubbles to encapsulate their enemies, which they subsequently pop, defeating each enemy and transforming into food items. The key to scoring big is to manipulate these floating bubbles together into linked groupings, then popping the entire grouping at once, resulting in huge combos and higher scoring food items. The catch to this is timing; if the player takes too long prepping bubbles for big combos, bubbles will begin to pop on their own, releasing their now-enraged inhabitants.
I keep mentioning the brothers as if they are a pair – and that’s because when Bubble Bobble was released as a game in the arcades, it was a shared-screen two-player multiplayer which was a bit of a novelty in the 1980’s. Single players were certainly welcome to play, but the game was really optimized for two-player cooperative play, which comes in handy as the difficulty increases through the 50 gameplay levels.
That’s the crux of the Bubble Bobble gameplay experience – what it was upon the game’s original release in 1986 – and what it is twenty-four years later with Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron is Back!. Like I said, I had no idea about the 1986 gameplay until now – but given that 4 Friends includes the original arcade game, I am now confident in my assessment.
How does this gameplay hold up nearly a quarter-century later? Surprisingly well, to be honest. In fact, I found that I really enjoyed my time with Bub and Bob. Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron is Back! takes place after a pair of Bubble Bobble plush toys are mysteriously brought to life on a child’s bed. This simple act kicks off the 200-level adventure through various areas of the child’s bedroom, leading to the final boss battle versus the invincible Baron Von Blubba.
In the earlier stages of the game, the levels’ designs and enemies’ attacks are rather straightforward and easy to manage, but as the game goes on all becomes increasingly more complex, with players having to craft and manipulate bubble platforms to jump on to avoid enemy projectiles and reach higher areas. There is an increasing emphasis on speed and efficiency, taking the simple leisurely gameplay and amping it up to a frantic pace.
The visuals sport the same flashy upgrades we have become accustomed to with these retro arcade classics, with fully rendered 3D characters worked into 2D levels and massive screen-filling effects to celebrate successful combo chains and level completions. It takes what could be a rather staid experience and makes it fun and exciting, even if it tends to be over the top at times. The audio is pretty true to the original, with an appropriately updated soundtrack.
Stating 200 levels is a little misleading as this really includes 100 unique stages that over the course of the game are played twice – all 100 on normal difficulty, then all 100 again on hard difficulty. And believe me when I say that hard difficulty level is extremely challenging. Still, there is more than enough fun to be had, especially considering this PS4 release is actually a port of last year’s Switch version with 50 additional unique stages equating to 100 gameplay levels from the Baron is Back DLC package. Getting all of this at the same price as last year’s release is a bargain. Taito’s decision to include the original Bubble Bobble as a playable arcade cabinet within the game which is simply icing on the cake.
I came into Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron is Back! without a whole lot of background on the franchise – and admittedly, I thought I was going to be playing an entirely different game. But what I discovered was really quite enjoyable – more so than my 14 year old self ever would have thought back in 1984.