Bubble Bobble has always been a nostalgic series for me. I have fond memories of going through the original, and it’s still a title I go back to every now and then. It’s simple but difficult, especially on the deeper levels, and has an earworm of a main track that I somehow can’t get sick of.
So of course I was excited to try out the newest entry for the Switch, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, debuting March 31, 2020 in the US. I wanted to see how it improved on the original, but I was also hoping it wouldn’t stray TOO far and just demolish what made the original fun in the first place.
Bountiful Bubble Bursts
So, let’s get this right out of the way: This new version plays almost EXACTLY like the original. There’s even a port of the arcade original unlocked from the start if you feel like giving that a spin instead. For those who haven’t played a Bubble Bobble game before, you play as a bubble dragon and attack by blowing bubbles at enemies, trapping them inside. Once trapped, you simply pop it either with the sharp spikes on your head and back, hold ‘down’ on one to stomp it, or as a last resort you can even pop it from your front by crushing it against a wall…so, there’s no shortage of ways to pop them. Then they turn into fruit you can pick up for points. Pop all the foes and proceed to the next level, nice and simple.
This new version adds a few small tweaks to the formula. For starters, each set of ten levels earns you a set of gear that not only looks adorable, but grants you an ability like special bubbles or an invincible dash, with each ability having a limited number of uses (replenished by picking up fruit). The other major tweaks are an increase to four-player local co-op (over the original’s two player) and the ability to revive a buddy by popping them shortly after defeat instead of just losing a life instantly. Both make the game a bit easier, but not immensely so. You still die in one hit, and the mercy revive timer is short enough that your pal needs to be basically next to you in order to get there in time.
Now, just getting through the stages is not the hard part. Most stages can be tackled relatively safely, losing all your lives just sets your score to zero, and if you continue multiple times in an area you can even just continue with invincibility. The real challenge comes in getting a high score. Each area has a grade from zero-to-three stars based on how many points you get, with unlockables at three stars. It’s not exactly simple to get three stars, and even if you exceed three stars it does save your score so you can challenge yourself.
Points are awarded based on the usual stuff like items and speed, but the biggest contributor is combos performed by popping multiple enemies at the same time. Higher combos drop higher scoring items, the bonus fruit at the end of the level matches your highest combo for the stage, and there’s even a bonus at the end of the area for your highest combo.
This means coaxing their bubbles near each other, which is made difficult by two things. First, a foe will eventually break free if not popped soon enough. Secondly, remember how I mentioned all those many, many ways to pop a bubble? I found aiming for high scores turned the game into more of a puzzle, treating the bubbles with care until I got as many together as I could and doing everything possible to ensure I would have a path to the rest of the enemies.
Lastly, a word on the multiplayer: Local co-op has always been a part of the series; the original even locked off the good ending unless played two-player. I sadly only got a couple hours of time with the multiplayer in this version, but I will say it definitely makes things a lot more chaotic. Aiming for high combos or even avoiding death can be more difficult with everything going on, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make the game more fun. And hey, maybe with some practice and teamwork we could crush the levels like never before.
Bright and Beautiful
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is adorable. The whole game has a bit of a toy theme going on, with the story involving toys of our hero Bub and the villain of the first game (Named Bonner here…he’s gone by a few names in other games) fighting amongst a child’s bedroom. The characters are bright and distinct, and it works well to allow higher resolution versions of the original cartoony characters.
The music is also really good! There is, of course, the obligatory remix of the classic game’s music as the theme for the first area, but the other levels also have a bouncy and playful feel that never fails to put a smile on my face.
The one complaint I may have is a bit of an inevitable one: With more detail it is just a little bit harder to keep track of the entire battlefield at a glance, especially on the larger maps. I suppose that’s just the price to pay for being fabulous.
Brief, but Bouncing Back
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is a pleasant callback to yesteryear, with just enough changed to keep it from simply retreading old ground. It is a little short if one charges through, points be damned, but it’s still several hours long at least. Those who prefer complex plots and modern design may be a bit disappointed, but anyone who likes a more arcadey sort of game should enjoy it.
Review copy provided by ININ Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.