Review: Bubble Bobble Neo! (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Bubble Bobble Neo!
Publisher: Taito
Developer: Taito
Genre: Action Platformer
Release Date: 9/16/2009

Whenever GameFAQs or Gamespot do one of their best whatever polls – be it character, game, what have you – I generally am ambivalent. Fanbrats are a noisy, annoying spectacle on normal days, and when you put fanbrats of one colour against fanbrats of another colour, the resulting wank can be heard for miles. However, the past couple years have given me a small semblance of enjoyment, as the results of recent polls have been skewed somewhat. One of the character battles was won by the L block from Tetris, and I was only alerted to the character battle over at Gamespot because someone linked on a forum that everyone on the forum *had* to go over and vote in one particular battle. In the first round, in a match that generated ten times more votes than the others in some cases, the first “seed” – Master Chief from Halo – was losing comfortably to Bub and Bob, a couple of dinosaurs from a game that was last truly relevant when I was in the third grade. The two humans-turned-dinosaur, with some generous help from the /v/ section of 4chan, not only finished off Master Chief, but also took out Sonic the Hedgehog, and would have taken out Samus if Gamespot’s Keystone Cops didn’t finally say “hey, we think someone’s stuffing the ballot box”. You really think so, doctor?

What was most impressive about this was not so much the fact that Bub and Bob took out both this generation’s #1 marketing vessel and the hero to furries worldwide in a contest, but the comments from gamers who either didn’t like Bub and Bob, or more likely are too young to even have played their games. They didn’t take this poll upset for what it was – a combination of poll-rigging and rooting for the underdog – they took it as a personal affront to them and gaming as a whole. The latter comments were the most fun to read, as the “hardcore” gamers came out to say things like this, something that I am barely paraphrasing because I do not have the original in front of me: “I cannot believe that these two are beating a real character from a real video game like Master Chief. Halo is realistic and deep, and by voting for the other two, people are saying they hate good video games”.

I laugh at those comments because these “hardcore” gamers don’t have a clue of what they’re talking about. Despite – or maybe because of – the fact that the original Bubble Bobble came out before most of these “hardcore” gamers were born, it was legit. Bubble Bobble was an amazing game with near-endless replayability due to having a hundred stages, many of which were very hard. Anyone saying Bubble Bobble – or even Bust-A-Move – weren’t real games is fooling themselves and confusing blood and violence with realism. Then again, that’s basically the modern “hardcore” gamer in a nutshell.

Thankfully, the angry fourteen year olds crying on message boards worldwide finally have the chance for an education with the release of Bubble Bobble Neo! for the XBox Live Arcade. At the expense of just $10, and likely in a darkened room with the internet disconnected so that m@sterch1effan9324179156 doesn’t notice, he can see why this game was such a big deal back in the 80s. As for the people of my generation, the remake comes with questions, the primary one being simple: does Bubble Bobble Neo! live up to the source material?

Story/Modes

For those unfamiliar with Bubble Bobble, the story goes that Bub and Bob were two humans who’s girlfriends were taken away from them by Grumble Grommit (I had to check the NES instruction manual for that name), and were turned into dinosaurs for… uh, some reason or another. The goal of the game is to reach the bottom level and defeat Grumble, saving your girlfriends in the process. To be fair, this version of the game doesn’t even mention a story; you’re Bub or Bob, and you kill enemies by putting them in bubbles and blowing them up. That’s the entirety of the game’s story. If you need more than this, you never grew up in arcades.

There are three modes to Bubble Bobble Neo: Classic, Arrange, and VS Mode. Classic Mode is a remake of the the old Bubble Bobble that most of us grew up with. Arrange Mode is essentially a new version of Bubble Bobble; one hundred new stages, and support for up to four players. Those players are fairly necessary, due to the fact that Arrange Mode is much harder than Classic Mode. VS Mode is a more competitive game for two to four players, where players have the ability to put each other into bubbles, and the goal is to both outscore and outlive everyone else. This is a good idea in theory, but one major problem with this mode is that it’s a cluster; the stages are harder than most of the stages in both Classic and Arrange mode, and because of this, it’s possible that everyone could die out in the same stage. This causes a problem as the game doesn’t just end when there’s one person standing; if everyone falls, the game ends, and there’s no winner. What also hurts all three modes – but VS Mode the most – is that there’s no support for Live with this game; everything has to be local, and while VS Mode suffers most for this, the entire game could use Live support, considering the fact that you can’t even get the “good” ending in single player. I realise that fact might be a spoiler for some, but if a twelve year old tidbit like “Sephiroth kills Aerith” is no longer a spoiler, then I think a twenty-plus year old reference to “this is not a true end!” qualifies as well.

Ultimately, Classic Mode rules as much as we remember, Arrange Mode is amazing if you can get four people together, VS Mode is a fun novelty but ultimately a throwaway, and all three modes desperately need Live support.

Story/Modes Rating: Decent

Graphics

Bubble Bobble Neo benefits greatly from the upgrade to high-definition. The game looks sharp, vibrant and colourful. By nature of the game, there’s a lot going on on screen, but due to outstanding use of colour pallet, it’s rare that a player loses where they are on screen unless things are really hectic in a four player game. Some of the game’s more colourful moments – like the classic “NICE 1P EXTEND” part – look especially trippy in high-definition. Overall, this is the best that Bubble Bobble’s looked, and even crotchety old-timers will love how it looks.

Graphics Rating: Very Good

Sound

The default Bubble Bobble theme classifies as an earworm; it’s easy to hum, easy to remember, and even serves as background music; it’s very well designed for it’s purpose. I suppose by 2009 standards I’m required to mention that there’s only one song that plays during gameplay, but that’s when I remind everyone that this is a remake of a twenty-three year old game and that one song was good enough back then; adding in extra songs during gameplay would have screwed things up. That said, there is a chance that the song you hear throughout the game will get on your nerves, especially if you’re not used to it. There is a second song that plays during Arrange Mode, but it’s inferior to the original. Sound effects are loud enough to be noticed, especially when bursting multiple enemies.

Sound Rating: Good

Control and Gameplay

For the newbies: Bubble Bobble is played by using your dinosaur of choice to shoot bubbles at enemies, after which you can use your horns or body to burst the bubbles, taking the enemy out in the process. Any bubble touching a bursted bubble also gets bursted, so when multiple enemies get caught up, it takes them all out, causing score bonuses. Enemies leave behind fruit when they die, with different fruit – and different scores – depending on if they were bursted in a chain. Touching an enemy kills you, and if you take too long to complete a stage, you’re chased by an unkillable enemy. You can jump on all bubbles whether they have anything in them or not by holding the jump button down; this is a crucial element of beating some stages, especially in Arrange Mode. If you put an enemy in a bubble and don’t pop it in time, the enemy escapes and gets angry – indicated by the enemy turning pink – and moves faster. Overall, the game is a lot like Othello; very easy to learn, but due to a great difficulty curve and 100 stages per mode, takes a very long time to master. This is a classic arcade game in the sense that proper pattern recognition is going to be necessary to advance, meaning that it’s going to take a few playthroughs before you start getting good. Thankfully, the game is so fun that playing through the levels is a blast, especially if you have a friend/friends, at which point the fun is increased. While Live support would have been immense here, even locally the game is tremendous. There are also power-ups that appear either randomly or after certain conditions are met that will help out and also sprinkle some variety into gameplay.

For the experienced player: there aren’t many changes at first glance; this is Bubble Bobble how you remember it. However, they added some power-ups; I don’t remember seeing a flashing heart in the arcade or NES game that brought forth a bonus round where you get to collect flowers or other items for points, but it’s here, in this game. There are other power-ups and items I don’t remember from normal gameplay experience as well, and while I was never a very good Bubble Bobble player, I have played enough over the years to have a solid idea of what happens when. The new power-ups add a different element to the game; thanks to the fact that continues are infinite, unlike the Arcade game, it doesn’t really break the balance of the game, and in later stages helps things greatly.

However, there are a few slightly changed mechanics, one of which is all but game-breaking. A minor change is that bubbles tend to bounce away from each other more than they used to; this makes it harder to chain together than it was in older versions. I also believe that the rate of fire is somewhat faster than it used to be, though it’s barely noticeable and it’s possible I was looking too hard. The biggest change, however, is a little-known mechanic that if you blow a bubble while jumping directly against a wall, instead of it slowly materializing until it’s full, at which point you can jump on it, it immediately pops. This doesn’t seem like too big a change until you get to stage 72 of Classic Mode, where you start in a narrow corridor, one that’s smaller than the width of your dinosaur and a bubble. In Neo, I was incapable of jumping out of this because I could not form a bubble, and instead had to essentially wait until I was killed by Baluga. In the NES version – something I went back and verified – I was able to easily bubble-jump out. This is crucial because as of this writing, I still have not been able to beat stage 72 of classic mode, and I’ve at least gotten the bad ending in Bubble Bobble before. I know, judging by leaderboards, that some people have figured out a way around this – I don’t know how they did it, and if someone could tell me that’d be great – but I have not found a way around this other than possibly getting lucky with a bonus stage or round-skip power up.

The gameplay of Bubble Bobble has a timelessness that is hard to screw up (though attempts were made to do just that before Square-Enix bought out Taito), though I have to ding the fact that the developers were too short-sighted to notice that a change they made broke the game.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Above Average

Replayability

With over two-hundred levels plus a versus mode in the regular game, there’s an awful lot to play in a $10 game, and thanks to online leaderboards, there’s always going to be a desire to push the boundaries of your score threshold, to beat the game using less lives, using less continues, and getting a better score. Furthermore, there’s a section for downloadable content, and while it doesn’t have anything as of this writing*, it’s almost surely going to contain the two downloadable packs that Bubble Bobble Plus! on the WiiWare service has, with each one having 50 exceptionally hard levels at $3 apiece. Having tried these packs on the Wii, they’re going to add a lot to do for even the biggest Bubble Bobble expert.

Furthermore, there’s a nifty chart that keeps track of all the items and fruit you’ve collected over the entirety of your gameplay experience, as well as an explanation on how to get items that you haven’t collected yet, i.e., jump 35 times, or make it to a stage without losing a life. This is a nice thing to add for the OCD crowd, and considering the nature of certain items, means that people are going to be filling their list for quite ahwile.

* – After this article was submitted, the downloadable packs went up for sale. Sure enough, they’re the same packs that the Bubble Bobble Plus! have.

Replayability Rating: Great

Balance

The difference between a good old-school game and a bad one, in cases where the end-game isn’t necessarily the goal as much as beating your high score, is the difficulty curve. If a game gets too hard too quick, it turns off newer gamers. If it stays too easy, it’s not going to keep people playing, and considering most old-school games were arcade games first and foremost, that meant that it didn’t keep people putting in quarters.

Bubble Bobble, by nature, has an outstanding difficulty curve. The first levels are more or less training levels for new players, and ways to pad score for veterans, whereas the harder levels test even the best. I have to say that the curve isn’t so great for Arrange Mode – it starts hard too fast – but since that’s meant for intermediate to advanced players in the first place, I can let that slide a bit.

Balance Rating: Very Good

Originality

It’s hard to call a remake of a twenty-three year old game “original”, and Taito didn’t do too much to add to the mix. They did add a few things, but ultimately, this is Bubble Bobble like you played in the arcades or on one of numerous home ports. It feels silly to slag a game for being exactly what we asked of it; if they’d have made it too original, they’d have pissed off old fans, myself included. With that said, Taito has made a lot of Bubble Bobble games over the years, both sequels and ports, and anyone who bought the mediocre Bubble Bobble: Double Shot or the 2006 Worst Game of the Year Bubble Bobble Revolution would be forgiven for wrinkling their noses at this on instinct. It depends on what you’re looking for, ultimately; if you’re looking for classic Bubble Bobble gameplay, this is the best it’s been since the original game. If you’re looking to not get taken advantage of again, this is a good bet as it’s loads better than past Bubble Bobble sequels. If you’re looking for something to reinvent the wheel, pass.

Originality Rating: Pretty Poor

Addictiveness

Speaking of the NES version, I was able to go back to stage 72 there very easily thanks to a password; when I go back in Neo, I’ll have to do it from scratch. There is no option to start at stages you’ve already completed; you have to start at stage 1 and make it all the way to stage 100, straight through. The fact that something is in the NES game from 1988 and wasn’t put into this one in some way, shape or form is very unfortunate, especially due to the time-sink required to beat all one-hundred levels; it makes this game too much of an endurance test for some gamers.

Even considering that tidbit, there’s addicting, and then there’s subliminal crack-cocaine; Bubble Bobble comes close to being in the latter category. As much as I hate to admit it, the lack of any kind of save function makes this game even MORE addicting, in a Stockholmian sort of way; as frustrating as some stages can get, you don’t want to quit because you’re desperate to get to the end and win back your girls. Any game that can keep me playing through a hundred stages at a time without wanting to kill myself – for two different modes – is the definition of addictive, and though it goes back on the big flaw I discussed before, it should be noted that I continued six times – eighteen lives worth of continues, each time slowly waiting to die – before I said to hell with it. Most other games I’d have told to go forth and multiply before I even got that far.

Addictiveness Rating: Classic

Appeal Factor

As the Gamespot contest proved, this game doesn’t really appeal to the “hardcore” game crowd of the modern era, but instead of moaning that they don’t “understand” a timeless game when they see one, I’ll wish them well; they’re to be pitied, not scorned. This game appeals to gamers of my generation, and also appeals to casuals and other gamers looking for a cute game that also provides an escalating challenge. To put this to the test, I had my fifty year old mother pick up the controller and try to play; this is the same woman I’ve pointed out in the past as being your typical Popcap fan, playing Bejewled and Peggle all day. She herself stated that the only thing keeping her from enjoying the game was the fact that she doesn’t like using control pads; she’s a keyboard gamer (who knew my mother was the precursor to PC FPS elitists?). She loved the game on it’s merits, and she didn’t even play the original. I consider that telling.

Appeal Factor Rating: Good

Miscellaneous

When DJ went looking for someone to review this game, I instantly volunteered. Who cares if my workload is ripping at the seams at the moment? It’s freakin’ Bubble Bobble! To put that in perspective, I already owned the WiiWare version. While I wouldn’t recommend gamers buy both versions – for all intents and purposes, they’re the same game, with the same DLC packs – having Bubble Bobble in HD, on a system I actually play in my spare time, was too much to pass up. I got this for free, but considering the fact that I willingly paid $10 for the Wii game and $6 more for the DLC packs, this is a steal.

That said, the changes in the gameplay mechanics, lack of live support, and lack of any sort of save function hurt. Taito had a potential GOTY contender on their hands if they put just a little bit more of a spit-shine into it. Unfortunately, we’ll have to settle for a game that’s only very, very good.

Miscellaneous Rating: Enjoyable

The Scores
Story/Modes: Decent
Graphics: Very Good
Sound: Good
Control and Gameplay: Above Average
Replayability: Great
Balance: Very Good
Originality: Pretty Poor
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Enjoyable
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME


Short Attention Span Summary

Bubble Bobble Neo! is both a fantastic remake of an old arcade classic and essentially three new games onto itself, if you get the DLC packs. For a total of $16, you can get a game that is just as great in 2009 as it was in 1986, and easily the best Bubble Bobble game in decades. Between this, Bust-A-Move, Arkanoid and Space Invaders: Extreme 2 which will come out in America soon, Taito’s been on a roll since Square-Enix bought them out.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this game for gamers of all make and skill level. As for those of you who slag Bub and Bob for not being “real” characters and their games for being antiquated, just give this a shot and see what your petty elitism has caused you to miss all this time. It’s OK, we won’t tell your friends.

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