In an industry focused on creating increasingly complex games and pushing the boundaries of what can be done with the gaming medium, it can be nice sometimes to take a step back and play something that's just… simple. Pirate Pop Plus is one such game; there's not much to it on the surface, but it's one of the most engaging arcade games we've played in quite a while. It's focused on being fun, first and foremost, and that pays off in the long run.
The story of the game - like with most arcade games or, indeed, Mario platformers - is only included for the pleasure of it. Pete Jr. wakes up one day to see bubbles floating in the distance which, upon closer inspection, are found to contain the trapped villagers that live on the island. The dastardly Bubble Pirate is behind it all, so Pete Jr. grabs his anchor and sets about to pop those bubbles.
Gameplay is exceedingly simple, yet addictive once you get the hang of it. You move your character back and forth along one side of the square playing field, doing your best to pop bubbles while simultaneously dodging them. Popping larger bubbles creates a few smaller, faster bubbles which are harder to dodge and hit with your anchor. As if that's not enough, Bubble Pirate occasionally pops up in the middle of the screen to add another large bubble or to change the gravity to another wall. In a word it's chaotic, but it's also wonderful.
Once you to grips with the basic gameplay, you quickly see how deeper elements come into play. Consecutively hitting bubbles without missing builds a combo meter, which adds to your score and rewards you with more coins the higher it gets. Also, you can stomp on bubbles when the gravity changes, which helps greatly when you need to clear a screen that's gotten too busy. And to mix things up every once in a while, a popped bubble will occasionally drop bonus fruit or a power-up – such as a shield or a watch that stops time – that help you get closer to that high score.
As you play through games you'll gradually accumulate a horde of coins which can be spent on a variety of goodies at the shop. The main action is surrounded by a retro "Pocket Game" border that clearly draws inspiration from the Game Boy, and you can spend coins on different faceplates, screen colours, buttons, and so on. It's this shop that adds a nice layer of progression to the experience, as you'll always be playing games with the thought of these unlockables. Not only are you just trying to go for the high score, but you're also trying to collect the most coins you can on each attempt.
As if that weren't enough there's also an in-game achievement system that drives you to be the best you can. These achievements span various objectives – such as getting a 50 bubble combo – that will challenge even the most seasoned gamer, and they add yet another interesting layer to the core game. While chasing after high scores and coins, you may have a specific achievement in mind that you simply must unlock.
We'd be remiss to not mention the charming presentation as well. In addition to the cool retro border, the main action is well animated and the sprites are decently detailed. It manages to capture that authentic Game Boy feel; the graphics are simple, but it never feels like this is to the detriment of the gameplay. The soundtrack may be small, but what's there is absolutely stellar. You'll be hearing these tracks a lot via repeated attempts at getting higher scores, and all of the music manages to be catchy and upbeat; it vaguely reminded this writer of the Shovel Knight soundtrack.
And for those of you that can't decide whether or not you'd like to play it on the go, Pirate Pop Plus is a cross-buy compatible game, entitling you to both the New 3DS and Wii U versions with one purchase. This game is obviously much better suited to a portable format due to the quickfire nature of its gameplay, but it's still an equally engaging experience on a big HD screen. Whichever way you choose to play it, you'll be receiving the same experience.
It's not often that you encounter a game that manages to emulate the simple pleasure of old arcade games so effectively, but Pirate Pop Plus makes it look easy; this is everything you could want out of an arcade game. The gameplay is simple and addictive, it positively oozes charm through its presentation, and if the score chasing doesn't hook you, the coin collecting and achievement hunting surely will. We give Pirate Pop Plus a strong recommendation; this is a really fun game, and one that no retro gaming enthusiast will want to miss out on.