Baron Von Blubba has kidnapped your girlfriend and is now hiding in the cave of monsters! No, not my girlfriend! On the plus side he turned you into a dragon. This is the story of the of the 1986 arcade action platformer by Taito called Bubble Bobble. It was later ported to a multitude of systems, including the NES in 1988. The game was a hit and critically praised at release. In the years since it has become renowned and developed a cult following. Bubble Bobble has had a resurgence from being re-released on Nintendo’s Virtual Console for the 3DS/Wii U, and included in the 30 games on the NES Classic.
Many NES fans, and critics, include this game as one of the best ever on the system. How is it to the modern gamer? Does it stand the test of time? Crosstix and I found out in our recent play through of Bubble Bobble.
“Now it is the beginning of a fantastic story! Let’s make a journey to the cave of monsters. Good Luck!”
Games of the 80s, like Bubble Bobble, often used the manual to detail the story for the game. Lacking the manual for our play through, we were unaware of the story. The second, and crucial piece, is that we had no idea what power ups did. This is the reality of playing the game on the NES classic, so I highly recommend for any gamers checking out Bubble Bobble to see what the power ups are before playing.
You are the dragons Bub and Bob. Instead of armed with fire, you spit out bubbles. We must have picked that up from beating Bubble Man in Mega Man 2. The journey to the cave of monsters begins as you float down into the first level. Each level consists of several enemies that you must encase in one of your bubbles and then pop by jumping in/on them. If you fail to pop the enemies then they break out and become enraged. Well, they get red and move faster.
Each level is also on a timer. Bub and Bob have only a short time before an invincible enemy, a whale, comes out and begins to chase you. Thankfully, the game has all enemies become enraged that you are taking forever. That certainly helps…ugh. This mechanic plays well in an arcade as the company is incentivized to raise the difficulty and get as many quarters as possible. In an NES setting, it feels arbitrary and obnoxious.
Bub and Bob handle very clunky on the NES. They are large for many of the spaces. Turning and jumping feels sluggish, this makes a big deal in later levels, especially the final boss. The bubbles you spit can also be used to climb higher. In many levels, you are trapped in a tiny space and have to jump/spit at the same time in order to not pop your bubble. Using your weapon in multiple ways adds creativity and challenge to the levels. It is frustrating to have to use this mechanic to perfection the instant you start a few levels (or you die…repeatedly).
Level design ranges from obnoxious, to inspired, to easy Easter egg. The Easter egg levels are usually very simple and have a word at the top. What all these words mean? Some are the programmers’ names, while others are a mystery to me. Many levels use the Bubble ladder mechanic to force you to become more advanced to pass. Another trick utilized is that ability to pass through the ceilings and walls. If your dragon is not all the way on a platform then you will pass through the wall. This is used in some levels to get enemies that are in tight boxes. Other times it is the only way you get sneak up and get to a spot with your bubble jump. The final trick levels use is hidden air currents. Often bubbles will move around the room and settle into one area. This can be helpful to ride at times. Other times, Level 57, it holds your bubbles down so you can not do a ladder to get up and eliminate enemies shooting at you. Jerks!
It was discovered years later that Bubble Bobble actually tracks your use of bubbles and gives you power ups and rewards accordingly. Speed runners have capitalized on this by bouncing and popping the exact right number and types of bubbles. The hidden tracking rewards players for their skill and moves them along faster. Wish they would have used a print out screen at the end like modern games.
Enemies are mostly easy. They move around in set patterns that are easy to master. The one exception is the Super Socket. These little jerks are placed in high areas and constantly shoot lasers down at you. The final boss also is very strange. The game has no bosses to prepare you and then throws one in at the end that is different from everything till that point. The boss fight is perhaps the only level harder with a friend. The friend’s lightning stuns you too as you attempt to get away from the ginormous bouncing drunk.
Bubble Bobble also includes multiple endings depending on 1, 2 player, and if you get a special item. This was very unique for a game this early and provides incentive for replay and mastery.
Nostalgia keeps this game highly thought of by many NES players, especially gamers who grew up with the cute, unique challenges that Bubble Bobble presents. The attention to detail and hidden mechanics demonstrate how loved this game was by its developers. They took the time to do the little things. That said, many of the levels feel lazy and the game scales unevenly. The game play mechanics are clunky and awkward. For a puzzle action platformer it works well, but without nostalgia I do not believe this game holds up to the classic status many ascribe to it. The game is a fun play through, but can get frustrating fast as it requires tricks to get deeper and master. Bubble Bobble might be one of the few NES games worth looking up the manual before playing.