A video game rarely gets my whole family yelling at the television, but that’s where we ended up three nights in a row. We passed controllers around, tried different tactics, and saw the Game Over screen again and again. It seems improbable that a series that started in arcades in 1986, had a problematic three decades, and launched a successful spin-off series (Bust-A-Move) would still deliver a solid experience in 2020.
But it’s also important to remember that we’re also talking about a free update to a tepidly received initial offering. Taito has hopes that The Baron will bring back some old fans and give them an enjoyable experience. It paid off, and now is the time to take up your dragon and get popping.
STORY – POP THE TENSION WITH A SPIKE
The actual story of the game is light, but it’s there in the way that the scent of a lover fades over time. Taking place entirely in a child’s bedroom over the course of one night, characters and enemies are depicted as toys. Magical bubbles fly in through the window and pop on Bonner, an angry magic-user filled with jealousy, and our canonical hero, Bub the Bubble Dragon. Bub is the child’s favorite toy, indicated by his special resting place upon a pillow, as opposed to Bonner who appears to be haphazardly strewn in the corner of the bed.
Once alive, Bonner attacks Bub out of jealousy, and the stage is set. But what’s alarming is the implications of sentience in this world. Were Bonner and Bub entirely aware of their existence up until this point? Was it their souls that actually came through that window? Must they now continue their war within their new bodies?
These are all things you might not think of when you think about a puzzle game, but context is important. And how does this kid have a full arcade cabinet of the original Bubble Bobble in his bedroom? There are so many questions that end up going unanswered, and they will continue to haunt me. At least, they did until the first level started and I forgot everything about the storyline. It didn’t play into the gameplay any more than as a set-piece, and let’s face it, it’s not why you’re picking this up, anyway.
GAMEPLAY – BUBBLE BUDDIES
The actual game hasn’t changed very much in the past 30 years. You’re a dragon, you shoot bubbles at enemies, you pop the bubbles. It’s simple, and it gets more complicated as the platforming difficulty is increased. At its core, all that’s changed are the graphics, which we’ll get to. The comparison between the original arcade title and this newest iteration is extremely apparent now since Taito went ahead and put the arcade version right on the level select screen.
On another level though, the actual gameplay is much larger than what players might be used to. From the start, the size of each area and the number of enemies and platforms that you’re tasked with are more than what was possible on an arcade cabinet. It’s the nature of doing video games for this long to add more and more on top, but it could be a shock for those that haven’t picked up the series in a while.
The developers did everything in their power to allow players to succeed. The difficulty is already relatively low, and after five deaths, you’re given the option to play a stage with invincibility. It’s very much akin to Super Mario 3D Land for the Nintendo 3DS, which famously introduced the Invincibility Leaf in the same way. Also like that title, the game doesn’t feel like it really starts until you beat the campaign first.
You see, The Baron doesn’t actually come back until after you unlock Hard Mode and the Arcade of the Future. This is where the real fun begins. It’s a brutal tower comprised of smaller levels that are closer in scope to the original title but fully realized with the graphics and abilities of the new game. There are no continues, multiplayer uses a shared life pool, and Baron von Blubba will stalk you around the level. He’s invincible, insatiable, and just the thing I needed after an entire game of little challenge.
Don’t get me wrong, the back end of Normal Mode definitely made me break a sweat, but with the larger levels and number of enemies at once, it felt bloated with its own content. On top of that, the boss battles were terrible. A constant cycle of Game Over screens eventually cleared only with pixel-perfect precision. The Hard Mode campaign had some of the same issues, but progress was a lot slower so I was able to spend more time sitting with the levels. I still preferred the Arcade modes, though.
I also want to talk about special abilities. By collecting the EXTEND bubbles throughout each world, you’ll unlock a new ability. These are fine. There’s an electrical attack one, there’s a way to stop air movement for a few seconds, there are big bombs, etc. But I didn’t need to use them. Not one time, throughout the entire campaign mode. They’re good unlockables, the dragons look cute in their little goggles, but they were largely unnecessary, for me at least.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – GLOW UP, OR BLOW UP?
Bringing modern graphics to a series that started out with 8-bit graphics and survived through to current console systems. The desire is there to reinvent the presentation, and to give your old favorites the looks that they deserve. Oftentimes, it’s a chance to use new technology to give display old characters the way they were in our imaginations.
But in this instance, the 2.5D look isn’t doing any favors. It really feels like there’s too much being shoved onto the screen for the sake of a frenetic experience, and it all just comes across as confusing and hard to read. This isn’t even strictly speaking about the enemies and dynamic effects, I’m also talking about the level design itself. There were many, many levels where it wasn’t apparent what was an actual platform and what was a background set piece until it was too late. My entire household kept retreating back to Arcade Mode, not even for the nostalgia at this point, but to ease our headaches.
The music is cute, it’s upbeat, it feels fun and energetic. Nothing sounds as satisfying as a bunch of bubbles popping at once, and thankfully there aren’t really any enemies that have obnoxious sound effects or anything. But honestly, how much will you be listening to the sounds if you’re focused on staying out of harm’s way?
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron is Back! was reviewed for Nintendo Switch. A code was provided by PR Hound.