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8-Bit Chronicles: Bubble Bobble

Now it is the beginning of a fantastic story!
bubble bobble

Bleeps, bloops, and pixels: the cornerstones of classic gaming. The innate addiction coded within the circuit board-powered arcade cabinets and NES cartridges render them precious artifacts, their primitive graphics and relative brevity revered even today. But why is that the case? Join Anthony on his 8-Bit Chronicles, wherein he studies the industry’s building blocks in famous coin-munchers, failed experiments, and obscure gems.

Today’s review is based upon HAMSTER’s Arcade Archives release of Bubble Bobble for Sony PlayStation 4, as well as the NES version within the NES Classic Edition.

When I think of the boundless joy 1986’s Bubble Bobble instills within me, I liken it to the joy of a child experiencing a giant bubble wand. It’s a warm, beautiful summer day host to a family gathering, and an uncle seen but once or twice a year has granted his nephew this most exciting gift. The giddy boy runs around in a euphoric rush, giggling as his net forms wriggling, bloated masses floating about. Stopping to catch his breath, he observes as one gelatinous specimen gravitates towards him, in awe at its animated motions.

As it inches closer and closer, the boy operates upon natural instinct: he stretches out a finger, and pops it.

This is not merely an obvious allegory to Bubble Bobble‘s gameplay — Taito’s classic action/platformer masterpiece featuring two itty-bitty dragons who go spelunking into a 100-floor dungeon and perform fantastic feats via bubbles, not the least in emitting them. In action games such as these, we are naturally compelled to collect and/or destroy everything we see, and Bubble Bobble appeals to human nature by reframing something we love to “destroy” — bubbles, ever so fragile as they are — and implements that as our ammunition. In trapping enemies within their globule prisons, our mission’s rendered clear: we must pop them. The game insists this must be executed with vigor, for you don’t just run into the bubbles; nay, they require deliberate action, be it an eager bounce or nonchalantly plummeting down a cliff. An emboldened addiction breeds experimentation, combos bursting soap suds abound as we reap the soils of power-ups and delicious food.

Bub’s knocking back a cold one.

bubble bobble

When observing StrategyWiki’s collection of items and special power-ups, Bubble Bobble may come across as an intimidating venture, but thanks to a carefully-rigid point system, the game’s innate sense of discovery induces wonder even if we don’t immediately understand our induced cause-and-effect. We might not, for instance, initially comprehend the purpose of bubble-hopping — where your dragons leap from bubble to bubble — but the precise timing involved (and coolness factor!) compels trial-and-error. We’re all but certain to scratch our heads on how, exactly, we earned a pair of giant popsicles upon clearing a room, but we’re too thankful to really care. Even if we insist on digging beyond hyperactive leisure, any and all careful attention is rewarded with inciting flashy capers — one lair with ghosts tucked away in a heart-shaped structure confounds newcomers, but the presence of Water Bubbles — previously introduced in a level operating as a makeshift waterslide — has it all click: we get right to work in flushing out ghouls, grinning as their demise into wraparound pits produces a rainfall of diamonds.

Were he still alive today, creator Fukio Mitsuji would likely insist this colorful balance was deliberate. While it’s unknown if he was involved with Bubble Bobble‘s spiritual predecessor in Chack ‘N Popa video interview from 2005’s Taito Legends compilation, he elaborates not merely on the bubbles’ role as an instinctive cue, but one emphasizing fun. Much like Pac-Man‘s Toru Iwatani desired a “cute” game to distance itself from violent shooters to attract women, Mr. Mitsuji desired the same in a co-op title: a game where two players didn’t compete with each other, but instead worked together to clear the game. Citing couples as an ideal demographic, Bubble Bobble‘s emphasis on cuteness is no surprise, particularly when considering its protagonists in Bub and Bob: the two humans-turned-dragons on a mission to rescue their girlfriends. Possibly the cutest mascots of the 8-bit era with their googly eyes and itty-bitty fangs, what better way to capture our hearts by saving the day in blowing bubbles?

Do I even know what’s going on here? No, but those are some pretty flowers.

bubble bobble

Indeed, Bubble Bobble is as much of an audiovisual experience as it is a visceral one — like Kirby’s Adventure, Bubble Bobble eagerly invites us in via feed-good encouragement, showering us with screen-hogging bubble-letters and colorful items upon successful play. This is to say nothing of the sugary-sweet main theme, opening the game as the gentlest of fairy tales — “Now it is the beginning of a fantastic story!” proclaims the opening prelude as Bub and Bob drift within a torrent of bubbles — before marching ahead into the most playful earworm. It is, in fact, so good that I have no choice but to subject you to a 10-hour version. Please, sit back and let Tadashi Kimijima’s masterpiece coax you into sweet, sweet chiptune reverie. (Or possible madness, should you have no soul.)

Much has been written on Bubble Bobble‘s co-op, not the least in how the true ending’s only available via multiplayer. Lest there be an online expansion sometime in the future, this is something I imagine will be out of my reach for quite some time — my friend pool is already limited, and as I don’t drive, I’m not about to drag job-working, family-building late-20’s peeps to beat some thirty-decade-old arcade game. And yet, I cannot help but be fascinated by this impediment. Like any good arcade game, Bubble Bobble is not handicapped by this limitation, perfectly playable even without the aid of a second player. (Even if I’m hounded by a creepy bad ending that’s the game’s one source of cynicism; seriously, what’s with that music?) Some call it “punishing” unlucky players with no friends; myself, I share similar frustrations, but within a burgeoning scene revolving around competition and solitary play, it’s heartening Bubble Bobble‘s legacy’s defined upon bringing people together. (That, and as pointed out in said video, I could cheat by adding a second controller at the last minute. Should I go for it?)

Not as flashy, but still just as sweet.

Bubble Bobble‘s made a number of ports to home consoles, but while fans typically agree the original arcade version remains superior, many players are likely most familiar with the NES version. As it happens, this particular port was the first version I’d played thanks to the NES Classic, and while my time with the arcade version reveals the graphics and sound took a general downgrade (barring the title screen, which comes with an entourage of bubbles alongside a loving jingle that I’d like to think plays into the bedtime-story motif), it’s hardly a bad option. If anything, given how it lets you continue where you last died in both solo and co-op, I imagine there exist those who prefer this more forgiving iteration. I’m certain other ports present similar options, but let it be known it was within five minutes of playing this version and being enchanted with its bubbly music and soapy, light-heated shenanigans that I realized, “I could probably play this forever.” For the sake of a game that very well wind up being my favorite arcade title, that should speak to this port’s authenticity.

In 2008, kidney failure stole Fukio Mitsuji’s life at the age of 48. A review of his resume reveals this death did not interrupt an illustrious development career, but instead his spreading seeds for the future. As if sensing his own mortality, Mr. Mitsuji acted upon his desire to “be a person who plants trees than be a tree” and opened a game designer school — MTJ Game Designer’s School, named after a pair of initials often associated with his credits. What ensued from this school remains unknown to the non-Japanese-speaking public: while endorsed by numerous industry figures (including Taito’s most legendary designer in Tomohiro Nishikado, creator of Space Invaders), Wayback Machine archives reveal the site’s domain expired soon after his death, and we’ve yet to hear from any up-and-coming game designers provide testimonials.

It was the opinion of Mr. Mitsuji that mid-00’s video games grew homogenized, having become far too occupied in wowing players with graphics and sound as opposed to compelling gameplay. Whether this warning was hammered into his students remains as unknown as MTJ’s alumni, I can only hope Bubble Bobble inspired them with his most valuable lesson: “Just as many objects are left alone on this planet, there are many new ideas waiting to be discovered”. May the fruits of his humbling labor ring true every time I pick up a controller.

The story will always begin anew.

bubble bobble

(By the way, can we talk about Bubble Bobble‘s localized enemy names? Much as I’m tickled by “Baron von Blubba”, I’m mighty curious on how the localization team came to dub the cloaked Mighta as, uh, “Stoner.” Seriously, did anyone think that through? Evidently not.)

Anthony Pelone
Eating, breathing and living video games on a daily basis, Anthony is particularly fond of the Nintendo variety, but is by no means a console warrior. Somewhere in the midst of his obsession with cat pictures, he finds the time to pen about his favorite hobby. Having previously written for over three sites, Anthony remains dedicated to spreading the gospel of EarthBound.
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