If you have been living on Mars for the past 15 years, you may not have heard of Bust A Move; if you weren’t, then you’re bound to know this game. Hell, I’m sure you know it. It seems to be one of the most popular arcade games worldwide, or at the very least one of the cheapest, since I keep bumping into it in every seedy back-door arcade salon I go into. The fact that it often comes packaged in those funky 3-games-in-1 cabinet boards may also have aided its popularity, I don’t know. The truth is, apart from inhabiting arcades everywhere, it has also been ported to just about every system available between 1994 and 1999, when the fourth and final version of the franchise came out. Each version also added new traits, such as new characters, new mechanics, and so forth. However, it all started with one humble yet entertaining game.
That game was of course the original Bust A Move, released in 1994 for the arcade under the name of Puzzle Bobble. That was a pretty straightforward game: one background, one musical theme, two cutesy dragons, and a whole lotta bubbles. Naturally, the success this insanely addictive game immediately achieved justified a console port, and thus, voila! We get Puzzle Bobble released in the most popular consoles of the time. Actually, two games were released – the Japanese version retained the name Puzzle Bobble, while the Western release had a few details changed and got renamed Bust A Move. That’s the game we’ll be dealing with here; specifically the SNES version of said game.
Now, Bust A Move and I share a deep bond. Back when I had a dinosaur of a computer, which wouldn’t even run an emulator properly, this was the game I’d play at 20 mph. It’s also one of the titles that robbed me of more quarters during my lifetime, losing only to Virtua Striker 3. So read on and find out why I like this title so much.
The concept for Bust A Move is simplicity itself. You are presented with a field of bubbles, occupying 3/4 of the screen. On the bottom quarter, stand Bub and Bob, your two characters, with their amazing Bubble Shooting Machine™. Their goal – and your goal – is to clear the field of bubbles before them. And how do they do that? They remove bubbles from their bag, one by one, and match them with any bubbles of the same color which are out on the field. Every time three or more bubbles of the same color connect, presto! – they explode and disappear. When they’re all gone, you win, and go through to the next round.
Be careful, though – there’s a wall being sustained by the bubble field, and as it gets cleared, the wall gives in. If any bubbles – or the wall – cross the “safety line”, they hit our dragon friends on the head, and it’s Game Over.
That’s the basic premise of the game, as it was played on the arcade. The home version, however, features a few helpful items, in the form of “special” bubbles. These are bubbles that, if hit, trigger a certain effect. There are three basic types – Fire Bubble burns up and clears all the other bubbles around it, Water Bubble “washes up” all the bubbles directly below it, turning them into a single, random color, and finally, Zapper Bubble sends a lightning bolt through the horizontal row that it’s inserted in, causing all its neighboring bubbles to drop down and be cleared. It’s kind of hard to explain the effects of the special bubbles in writing, but by playing, you’ll quickly get the hang of it.
Before you play it, though, let me warn you, there are two things you’ll need to be armed with. One is great reflexes; the other is dumb luck. The reflexes you’ll need to aim the bubbles to the exact spot they need to land in, and the luck you’ll need to get the right bubbles. That’s right, in the end, beating Bust A Move comes down to getting the right bubbles at the right time. The randomization of colors can turn a level from beastly to basic – believe me, it has happened to me frequently. However, not even the right bubbles can save you if your aim sucks – in that case, you’ll need to wriggle out of your own mess. (Incidentally, this is NOT a good game to be playing with your seven-year-old sibling/child/relative/other trying to butt in and press the buttons).
Another interesting feature of the game is that it’s seemingly endless. No, seriously now. There are one hundred levels to this bitch. ONE HUNDRED LEVELS! 99 are the basic premise described above, and the last one is a final boss battle, which isn’t as complicated as you might have expected, once you figure out what you have to do. As a just reward for playing it through, you get a cute little animation – a proper ending for cracking a tough nut!
However, unless you’re on an emulator, don’t expect to see those 100 rounds soon. Maybe not ever. Why? Simple, my friend: the password system sucks. The only time you’re given a password is when you lose. If at any other time you need to stop playing, when you return…it’s back to round 1. Now, me, with an emulator and frequent Save States, still went insane over some of the rounds. Imagine the trauma some of the kiddies must have felt when, after beating 50 rounds of the game, they switched off the console nonchalantly, only to discover, when they came back, that their ENTIRE PROGRESS had been deleted. The psychiatric bills must have been obscene.
In all seriousness, though, apart from that “small” detail, there is nothing wrong with this game. The graphics are luscious, with a nice “hand-drawn” introduction, cutesy manga-inspired characters and some excellent animations (stop a second and witness one of your dragons loading up the Bubble Shooter™). The backgrounds are also varied (they change after a certain amount of rounds), and some are pretty nifty, like the “dystopian future” setting or the “forest” setting, or the one with all the clocks in the background. Don’t get distracted, though – as the backgrounds progress, so does the difficulty…
Sound and gameplay-wise, it’s pretty basic. There’s only one melody throughout the entire game, apart from the last level. Its catchiness (you’ll be whistling it for literally years), bouncy pace and high pitch only help add to the players’ stress. Seriously, it can drive you nuts, which was probably the game designers’ intention. For the final level, they give you a different, but equally stressful, “boss melody.”
As for gameplay, well…press A to shoot and…that’s it. Really, that’s it. You press A and you shoot a bubble. Easiest game ever to pick up. Of course, the D-Pad helps you rotate your machine, so you can aim your bubbles, but really, you had inferred that already, hadn’t you?
That’s all there is to say about the technical aspects. You may have noticed I spent a lot more time talking about the gameplay than the graphics or sound. That’s because the emphasis here is on the fun. And this is one of the most fun, most frustrating games you’ll ever play. The two-player mode quickly turns into an in-your-face grudge match, with you and your opponent filling each other’s fields with your discarded bubbles; a blast. The single-player mode is one of the most challenging gaming experiences known to geekdom. That’s because the game follows a somewhat puzzling pattern. You see, the more nightmarishly difficult rounds are usually followed by a string of easy-peasy ones. This has the effect of lulling you into a false sense of security, before another hair-pulling level comes around to make you pay. This extends the lifespan of the game, as does the fucked-up password system, but really, it didn’t need to be expanded – the sheer amount of levels will ensure you countless hours of bubble-bursting fun.
In summation, then, this is a title no-one should let slip by. You need to play Bust A Move at least once in your life. And if the Western version is too tough for you, grab a hold of the Japanese version, where some of the levels have been dumbed-down and simplified. And by the way, don’t let the looks fool you – the most complex-looking levels are often the easiest to beat…
One of the most fun games in history. Great animations. Nifty backgrounds. Challenging levels.
Stupid password system. Annoying, if catchy, theme song.