Late last year, Coder Child's Dress to Play: Cute Witches! flew onto the 3DS eShop with a unique blend of dress-up and side-scrolling soaring, a promising premise that we felt it didn't quite live up to. Dress to Play: Magic Bubbles! follows the same format of combining character customisation with simple gameplay, this time bringing a match-three puzzle game to the costume ball. It's still not going to give fashion fans much of a fix, but it's a marked improvement from the first title, and a fun little puzzler for younger gamers.
Dress to Play lets you create profiles for up to three players, and choose to dress up a boy or a girl within each one. At first, character customisation is extremely limited - you'll be able to pick between four skin tones, four eye types, and sixteen hairstyles, but everything else will need to be unlocked. The small number of outfits available was one of our biggest complaints with Cute Witches, and while the addition of male characters does make for more options here, Magic Bubbles isn't about to impress anyone with the collection in its closet. There are around a dozen tops and bottoms to unlock for each gender, but only about half of those are actually unique designs - the rest are colour swaps. Similarly, there are nominally sixteen hairstyles, but twelve of those are just the first four with different bangs.
It's certainly enough to make a few distinctive characters, but for a game with "Dress to Play" in the title, we'd hoped for something beyond such simplicity; Style Savvy can rest easy as queen of the dual-screen dress-up genre. Thankfully, things do get a little more interesting once you add in the relatively large selection of accessories. You'll eventually be able to unlock everything from headphones and glasses to wings, capes, shoulder kittens and even mini-dragons to kit out your character, and these are by far the funnest pieces of fashion in the game.
The expanded set of accessories helps shake things up a bit, but we're still not a fan of the clumsy touchscreen interface, which returns unchanged from the first game. It's poorly laid out and slow to respond, requiring individual taps on the left or right arrows to move through the collection item-by-item, instead of letting you scroll smoothly through. There are also some surprisingly lengthy load times before you hit the runway.
Once you're ready to leave the dressing room, however, things pick up quickly: the heart of the game is a surprisingly fun match-three puzzler that plays almost exactly like an upside-down Puyo-Puyo. Starting with an empty playing field, you'll move and rotate groups of three bubbles apiece as they float upwards from a magical washing machine. Arrange at least three like-coloured bubbles in a horizontal or vertical row and they'll pop, along with any connected bubbles of the same colour. There are also bubbles with unique effects: rainbow bubbles will take the colour of its neighbours to complete a match, bomb bubbles clear their entire row when popped, ice bubbles will freeze a column for four turns, and the incredibly evil rock bubbles only pop if they reach the very top of the screen.
Popping bubbles with leaves, water droplets, or hearts on them will earn you the prizes inside, and these collectibles can be used as currency towards unlocking new outfits for your character. It's a great system that encourages replay, but it also creates a skill barrier that seems a bit out of place considering the game's presumed target audience. At the start of a game, leaves are the only pickups; the water droplets begin to appear as the speed ramps up to a moderate difficulty, and by the time the hearts start showing up, you'll need to be chaining combos and thinking a few moves ahead just to survive. We can imagine this being frustrating for younger players who might not be able to hold out that long, as the hearts are required to unlock quite a few of the more interesting clothing options.
Magic Bubbles keeps track of high scores and stats for each profile, and charts everyone's scores on a system-wide Top-10 leaderboard. Beating your best runs and collecting leaves, drops, and hearts provides plenty of replay value, and a collection of twenty Challenges give achievement-chasers even more reason to pop back in. As with the first game, these are balanced between skill-based accomplishments (racking up a three-chain combo, passing 500,000 points, etc.) and milestones you'll hit without thinking about it (popping your first set of bubbles, reaching level 2, etc.), giving puzzle pros plenty to work towards while also letting less experienced players in on the fun. Each Challenge you tick off will unlock a new hair or eye colour for your characters - another nice reason to keep playing. A few of the higher-level Challenges strike us as a tad overambitious, however; we're not sure what eye colour you unlock by "Playing a total of 24 hours", but it would have to be quite a shade to warrant the effort.
Rounding out the package is the welcome addition of a single-system multiplayer mode for two, similar to the one found in fellow eShop puzzler Bomb Monkey: one player uses the D-Pad to control the action on the bottom screen, while the other plays on the top screen using the face buttons. As we've come to expect from multiplayer match-three matchups, successfully chaining combos will send 'junk bubbles' - delightfully marked with cupcake icing that we cannot unsee as pink poop - to your opponent's screen, with the same effect as the rock bubbles from the main game. Popping bubbles with a pal is a blast, and the fact that it only requires a single 3DS is a huge plus; it makes a fantastic pick-up-and-play game when you've got a friend and a few minutes to spare.
Unlike the clunky touchscreen controls of the dress-up portion, the puzzle game in Magic Bubbles controls with the D-Pad and face buttons. There's no Circle Pad support, but control is smooth and responsive, apart from one large issue: every face button rotates your bubble threesome in the same direction. It might not seem like a problem at first, but when things start to speed up and you're left with very little space to work with at the bottom of the screen, having to flip your bubbles three times instead of one can mean the difference between a soapy seven-bubble combo and a glistening Game Over screen. In fact, it frequently does - there's a reason that Puyo Puyo and its many variants all have different buttons for clockwise and counter-clockwise rotation.
Dress to Play: Magic Bubbles's look and feel is almost exactly what you'd expect given the title: bright, colourful, and very basic, bearing more than a passing resemblance to online dress-up Flash games with its marionette character models and simple animations. That said, it is all pretty adorable, and it definitely has plenty of charm; we don't think we'll ever get tired of the photo-bombing penguin leaning over from the screen edge to congratulate us on a combo. The 3D effect is also well done, adding a subtle touch of depth that's appropriately mild for a younger audience.
To go along with the puzzle game's one endless mode, there's one endlessly-looping background track, a pleasingly pentatonic melody that holds up well in long sessions, and some nice menu music while you're picking outfits. The saccharine voice samples are impressively high-pitched and endearingly accented - we were particularly fond of the penguin encouraging us to "Live it up!" every few minutes, until we realized he was announcing we'd moved up a level.
Players going in to Dress to Play: Magic Bubbles! looking for a fulfilling fashion experience are likely to leave the changing room disappointed; a small selection of clothes and very little variety beyond the accessories means Dress takes a distant backseat to Play. As a basic match-three puzzler that happens to have an added dress-up component, however, Magic Bubbles is a solid, engaging experience. Add in a charming presentation and an accessible two-player mode, and you've got a game with plenty of good clean fun for budding bubble busters.