It helps that not much has really changed over the years. You can see that for yourself by playing the 1986 original, included here as a bonus that’s unlocked from the start, and a sharp reminder that the late Fukio ‘MTJ’ Mitsuji got it so, so right first time around. There’s a blissful alchemy in Bubble Bobble’s design, from the simplicity of the task at hand – clear the screen of enemies to progress to the next – to the tactility of it all. Trap a monster in a bubble then pop it with Bub or Bob’s serrated spine – pop! Playing Bubble Bobble is like poking away at a piece of sentient bubble-wrap, and it remains a timeless pleasure.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends doesn’t really mess with the formula at all. There’s support for up to four players (as that title might suggest – or it might be suggesting this is the fourth instalment in the series, which given the many spin-offs and reboots over the years seems like a slightly fuzzy business) while the boss battles of Memories and Symphony return with screen-filling enemies every 10 levels. There are 100 levels all-told, though you can probably halve that number seeing that the latter 50 are more hard-edged remixes of the first ‘family-friendly’ 50. Couple that with a price point that’s only just shy of a full-priced game and you might think Taito is being a touch optimistic here.
Which is all totally fair enough, but a few minutes in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends’ company was enough to wash away my own concerns. Bubble Bobble has still got it, and this is a tasteful updating of the original formula. The aesthetic is a delight, wrapped up in a coherent theme with each world taking place in a child’s bedroom, the levels made up of discarded building blocks and various other toys while members of Taito’s in-house band Zuntata provide the perky soundtrack, complete with new takes on old favourites. It’s all very no-frills – the texture work is kept simple, and the designs themselves are faithful to the brilliant originals – and even though it’s an update it still feels like something from yesteryear; like an unearthed Dreamcast sequel to those 80s originals. Which, I think, qualifies as high praise.
And the feel – the all-important feel – is entirely intact. I’m not a frame-counter, but to my eyes this sticks close to 60fps and has the responsiveness you’d want from a game with its roots in the arcades of yesteryear. For all the simplicity of Bubble Bobble’s formula, it’s incredible how much experimentation – and how much pure, simple, unadulterated play – it enables. Set up a kill zone for all your trapped monsters and dispatch them in one leap for a multiplier; ride airstreams and exploit them to unpick the quickest route; pop, pop, pop all those glorious bubbles. Chasing scores in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is a joy.
A small shame, then, that there’s no online leaderboards or competitive modes in what’s a very streamlined package. Maybe it’s asking too much for too little, and Bubble Bobble 4 Friends could leave you feeling short-changed. For me, though, this is the kind of perfectly polished arcade fodder that’s perfect for coming back to again and again – and it caps what’s been a remarkable comeback year for Taito.