Since the release of the original arcade classic Bubble Bobble by Taito in 1986, the core of the series has pretty much stayed with its well-proven formula. The biggest deviations being Rainbow Islands and Parasol Stars, two sequels which returned Bub and Bob to their human forms. However, it's telling that for the Puzzle Bobble spin-off series, Taito reverted the heroes back to their lizard forms, and we've seen several attempts to resurrect the Bubble Bobble franchise since then, too. Over thirty years on from the original release, the art of trapping enemies in bubbles still works – and yes, that music still doesn't get old.
The story begins with Bub in a bedroom at night time, all tucked up and cuddly with the series antagonist Bonner (changed from the original Japanese moniker of ‘Drunk’) until Bonner is struck by some sort of magic and turns back into their old, nefarious ways – kicking off the events of the Bubble Bobble 4 Friends.
If you have played a Bubble Bobble game before, you’ll know what to expect here; a fast-paced arcade 2D platform game spread over 100 levels, each a single-stage that needs to be cleared of enemies in order to proceed. You kill enemies by trapping them in the bubbles that the player characters fire out of their mouths and then remove them from play by popping said bubble either using your head or feet. It’s a mostly two-button affair that is the epitome of pick-up-and-play accessibility.
The first handful of stages act as an in-game tutorial and feature a modernised version of the Bubble Bobble musical theme. You get to grips with the fundamentals of the game which boil down to ‘clear the screen of enemies and collect all fruit for bonus points’. There are also the more tricky E-X-T-E-N-D bubbles to collect, which not only grant an extra life but can upgrade the unlockable powers that are granted after each successful boss fight (these occur every ten stages) and act as small, extra challenges on each level. The powers range from thunder bubbles that can wipe out entire lines of enemies to timed bomb bubbles and a dash feature which comes in really handy at later stages in the game.
Featuring up to, as the title suggests, four players, eight lives are shared amongst those taking part. The game features a one-hit kill system so when your character is struck by an enemy or ranged attack, you become encased in a bubble and begin floating around the screen, following the (very pretty) neon wind-currents in the background. At this point, you can be rescued by another player and retain a life, which isn’t as easy as it sounds; they may have to use bubbles as platforms to reach your wayward form and only have a few seconds to do so before you give in to your bubbly fate.
While the game does reward player skill, it's also keen to ensure that everyone has a good time. For example, if a level is failed three times, you can replay it with invincibility – a simple inclusion which ensures that players of all ages and abilities can progress through to the end and enjoy the full game. Given that this is aimed at families (there's sadly no online play, so you're going to be stuck with people in your household, or other players you can rope in nearby), it's a smart move that means you shouldn't have too much trouble getting people invested in the experience.
Having said that, it's a shame that Bubble Bobble 4 Friends lacks competitive modes; while the theme is very much about working together, it would have extended the lifespan of the game considerably to have some kind of head-to-head challenges that players could take part in. As such, even your total score is combined during play, so there's little room for bragging rights here.
The visuals are quite striking; in screenshots, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends can look bland and static but in reality, almost everything in the game moves fluidly and there’s a ‘jauntiness’ and sense of movement to the design that gives a sense of life. The characters in the game are 3D models on a 2D background, which may put some off, but we personally had no problem with it. The framerate was rock-steady and we didn’t notice a moment of stuttering. Although it’s not a visually demanding game, this smoothness does make the movement and gameplay really flow quite enjoyably.
Aside from Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, the game also contains the original Bubble Bobble, a real boon as it shows just how fun the game has always been and is featured in-game as an arcade cabinet in the corner of the bedroom that makes up the ‘world map’. As in that seminal original, the updated version of Bubble Bobble features 100 levels, sort of. The stages in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends are represented by the main game consisting of 50 stages and when these are completed, you can replay them on the newly unlocked hard mode, which really does ramp up the challenge.
Although the layout in these levels is primarily the same as before – aside from some visual flourishes – the enemy additions, difficulty and strategies required to progress really do make them feel fresh. The game describes them as 50 ‘family-friendly’ levels and 50 ‘challenging’ levels, and this is bang on the money. During those first 50, you’ll be laughing and ruffling your kids’ hair as the household rings with joy – then you’ll unlock hard mode, and things get very serious indeed.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is a great modern addition to the series. It offers a solid balance of fun and challenge with high replayability due to the three-tier scoring system and collectables, as well as the inclusion of the original game in the series. The focus on teamwork will be wonderful for families and friends looking for some co-op fun, but the lack of online play and the absence of any real competitive features could limit its longevity. However, given how much fun this is to play, these complaints seem a little spiteful; what we've got here is a quite brilliant reimagining of a stone-cold classic which understands that amazing gameplay is timeless and doesn't need totally overhauling to keep it relevant in the modern age.