Bub and Bob may have started out capturing foes with their crazy dinosaur bubble breath by day and moonlighting as arcade puzzle game stars, but the latter of which we can only imagine to be the more lucrative field as it morphed into their full-time job. It's easy to see how this happened: Bust-A-Move/Puzzle Bobble is incredibly fun and addictive.
So it's with mixed feelings that the budget-priced Bust-A-Move Universe arrives alongside the 3DS. It still has that same great fun at its core, but it's a disappointingly thin package as it offers virtually nothing new to the series or long-time fans.
Bust-A-Move is a match-three game where enemy-filled bubbles approach from the top of the screen, at which you fire more bubbles to make disappear. Gravity is also at play, meaning that if you pop a set of bubbles with more hanging off, the whole stalactite will fall. Every so many turns a new layer will descend from above, so it's in your best interest to clear the field quickly through standard matching or with the help of assorted power-ups. Like all puzzlers worth their grey matter, it's a simple concept that leaves a lot of room for strategy and panicked goofs. Its super-cheery ambience helps too.
Disappointingly, there are but two ways to play in Universe. There's Puzzle, a campaign-type mode where players figure their way through eight planets with ten puzzles each and a "boss" at the end. Along the way you're given the opportunity to collect keys to free your captured dinosaur buddies. These puzzles are not terribly difficult for the most part, and clever use of colour-changing and wild bubbles or a devastating laser will get you through with little effort. Boss battles are somewhat silly; one big bubbled enemy jumps around the screen and you stick bombs to it. Freeing the planet's dino friend will allow you to use rapid-fire, essentially letting you hold down the A button and follow its movement pattern to win. These battles feel tacked on as a gimmicky way to have stuff flyin' at ya in 3D instead of a valuable and fun addition.
The only other way to play is Challenge, which is bog-standard timed or til-death play. There's a distinct and unfortunate lack of multiplayer, and the package doesn't even attempt to take advantage of any of the handheld's communication features like StreetPass, or even multiple profiles for local high score tracking. Hell, you can't even play as a different character. Universe is the most isolated Bust-A-Move has felt in a very long time, perhaps ever.
Perhaps the only indication that Universe is on 3DS is the use of stereoscopy. Adding a nice and subtle effect, it mostly comes into play when bosses leap, power-ups bounce and bubbles fall. It's not the type of game you use to show off your new hardware, but it gets the job done just fine without bragging.
Bust-A-Move Universe is a very thin package that feels almost aggressively old-school through its distinct lack of features. While the core game is addictive as ever, the puzzles end too soon and the rest of the content is so underwhelming that you’ll wonder how much time it actually spent in the kitchen. On the bright side, though, things can only improve from here for Bub and Bob.