The Touhou Project is one of the most noteworthy success stories of independent game development there has ever been. Since 1995, creator Jun'ya "ZUN" Ōta has self-published 22 games in the series – and over the course of that period, there have been numerous spin-off games created by fans of the series who want to pay homage to its story, setting and characters. We’re not talking just little indie projects here, either; Touhou Spell Bubble, one of those spin-offs, is the work of the mighty Taito and should be considered a brand-new instalment in the Puzzle Bobble series of action puzzlers in all but name.
Touhou Spell Bubble combines puzzle action with rhythm game elements. It unfolds as a series of one-on-one puzzle battles in which, unlike many competitive puzzlers, your aim is not to fill up your opponent’s playfield; instead, you’re aiming to score more points than them by the time a piece of music ends. By firing coloured bubbles from the bottom of the screen, you can make groups of three or more like-coloured bubbles in order to burst them. Bursting larger groups of bubbles triggers the rhythm game element, which requires you to tap the A button in time with on-screen markers as your bubbles burst; successful hits are one of the ways you score those all-important points.
It’s a simple and easy to learn mechanic, and the wide selection of different Touhou Project remixes on the game’s soundtrack provides plenty of variety to the experience as a whole. Further interest is provided by special bubbles, which have various (usually positive) effects on the play area when you hit them with a bubble, and each character’s unique spell cards, which allow them to make use of powerful special abilities. The game provides basic tutorials on these aspects as part of its main story mode, though it does deliberately withhold some aspects of its mechanics from the player; this is very much a game that wants you to explore it, get to know it and understand it on your own terms rather than being bombarded with information. This can be a daunting prospect sometimes, but Touhou Spell Bubble provides so much helpful on-screen feedback during battle that even puzzle game newbies will have figured out the more advanced mechanics after an hour or two.
The game is presented beautifully, with a variety of artists contributing character sprites to the game’s story mode, and the music, as you’d hope from a game with rhythmic elements, is fantastic. The only area that lets things down a bit is the localisation; the dialogue in the main story mode is very clumsy, which makes it hard to engage fully with – although longstanding Touhou fans will likely tell you this has always been part and parcel of enjoying the series in English. Ultimately it’s the mechanics that matter here, though, and what we have here is a thoroughly enjoyable, very modern and hugely stylish take on Puzzle Bobble’s base formula.
Touhou Spell Bubble is a top-notch puzzler with a ton of content to enjoy. The wonky localisation is a little disappointing, especially from a well-established company like Taito, but ultimately it doesn’t hurt the experience to a significant degree – the mechanics are the real star here.