There are several great questions in life. Why are we here? What happens after you die? What came first, the chicken or the egg? Why haven’t we covered Bubble Bobble yet? Really, we should’ve done this YEARS ago, it’s an NES game that I imagine 99% of the people who’ve ever played it have positive memories of, this should be a slam dunk for us. But for one reason or another, we’ve never actually sat down and put our critical eye to it. Maybe we don’t want to find out that it’s not as good as we remember, maybe we just assumed “well, it’s still great, so why bother?” Regardless, we’re finally righting this wrong today, and taking a look at Taito’s 1987 classic, Bubble Bobble, for NES!
Bubble Bobble brings you on a fantastic adventure into a cave of monsters, where you and a buddy can team up as Bub and Bob, two dinosaur/dragon hybrid-looking creatures trying to fight their way through 100 levels, apparently in the hopes of being turned back into humans at the end of the ride. Our intrepid heroes attack by capturing enemies in the bubbles they blow and hopping on those bobbles to pop the enemies, all the while picking up items for points like jewels and fruits, as well as helpful items like the shoe that increases your movement and the all-important umbrella that warps you ahead several levels. When you’ve cleared out all the enemies on a level, you’re taken to the next stage. Truly, this is some simplistic, straightforward, arcade-style action at its purest.
Now, just because simplicity lies at the heart of Bubble Bobble doesn’t mean this is a light, breezy romp that you’ll plow through in the course of an hour. As the game goes along, new wrinkles get introduced that keep things fresh. You’ll have to learn how to hop on bubbles to scale vertical walls, use lightning bubbles to attack enemies along the horizontal plane, ride water bubbles down the level’s architecture and plow over enemies, and drop fire bubbles to give your foes the hot foot. Of course, you won’t have all the time to sit around and experiment, if you dally, eventually, you’ll be paid a visit from a white whale that will hunt you down until he gets to you or you beat the level. Given how notoriously difficult NES games of the era have a reputation for being, it’s nice to see one that actually gets the learning curve down perfectly, and ramps the challenge up just enough that you barely notice the change.
While Bubble Bobble is a perfectly acceptable single-player experience, it really shines as a two-player affair, as the single-screen levels and the designs of the stages themselves make for some chaotic fun when you’re navigating them with a buddy. Of course, you’ll be fighting over who picks up the various pickups and getting aggravated when your friend’s right there next to the umbrella AND DUDE JUST JUMP UP AND GRAB IT SO WE CAN SKIP THE NEXT FOUR LEVELS, but even that’s quickly erased the next time you bubble an enemy and your teammate falls from above onto them for the last kill of the level. While playing with a friend does make it a lot more possible to reach the end of the game, it’s still a long march there. On the upside, there’s a password system that allows you to pick up where you left off later and a continue system that allows you to do the same unless you turn the system off, but really, Bubble Bobble is a game where you really don’t feel ripped off even if you don’t make it to level 100 and face the final boss. It’s definitely a situation where the journey is far more important than the destination.
Graphically, everything here is pleasing. It’s very simplistic, colored blocks and patterns make up the stage itself, over a black background, but some of the level designs are particularly creative, like the level where fire bubbles are introduced, which resembles a frying pan with “POPCORN” written above it, or the level that’s designed to look like the little hooded wizard enemies. Your characters scoot around nicely, their tails wagging behind them. Sprites are on the smallish side, but there’s still a good bit of personality in them, like the toaster robots that clank around and the aforementioned white whale that stalks you creepily across a stage, not to mention when you whittle the opposition down to the last enemy, causing them to turn pink and speed up. There’s only one song that plays in the background the entire time, but thankfully it never gets too annoying, and it gets drowned out by the sounds of the action, the whooshes and splooshes of enemies getting popped and the zaps of lightning balloons being released. As it turns out, Bubble Bobble is an arcade port, and while I’ve never seen the arcade version in action, I can’t imagine they had to cut many corner to fit the experience onto an NES cartridge.
Really, more than anything else, Bubble Bobble is the definition of good, simple fun. There’s just something strangely addicting in the gameplay, even as basic as it is, that keeps you coming back for more. There’s just something intangible about it that makes playing it such an enjoyable time, and although the whole purpose of reviews are to explain what makes a game good or bad, it’s really hard to nail down in words why Bubble Bobble is great. While it’s a pretty long game, and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever beat it, there’s enough variety in the stages that you forget that all you’re really doing is capturing enemies in bubbles and jumping on them, and there’s just something oddly satisfying about popping a lightning bubble and clearing three or four enemies in one swing. That said, there are some things I would’ve liked to see, maybe a level designer, where you could create your own levels and insert them into the rotation of levels, or a few powerups, maybe like fire breath or invincibility instead of just the shoe (which can be more annoying than helpful at times if you’re trying to land on a single block and keep sliding off it or hopping past it), but really, those are just minor quibbles.
Yeah, Bubble Bobble doesn’t get the longest review by any stretch, but I still feel I’ve touched upon everything that makes it so great. It’s a game that I’m sure a lot of our readers have played before, and I imagine those same people will read this review and remember “oh, yeah, that game was GREAT”. If you haven’t played it, I definitely recommend tracking it down and giving it a try; it’s really a textbook example of “simple to learn, tough to master”, and the simplicity means that anybody, even people who don’t much care for video games, can pop it in and get into it, and the fun factor is such that they’ll be just as enthralled with it as hardcore gamers. Bubble Bobble has earned my stamp of approval, and if you fire it up right now, I’ll be it gets yours as well.
Simplistic-yet-addicting gameplay, just enough of a learning curve to remain interesting without getting unnecessarily hard.
You might never even see the last boss short of punching in a password, could’ve used a few more powerups.