Taito has given us some of the most memorable arcade titles of all time. Space Invaders is beloved and iconic. ZooKeeper is one of my personal favorite arcade games ever. But one of their most esteemed has always been the 1986 arcade classic, Bubble Bobble. Over the past 30 years there have been sequels and spin-offs, and a brand new entry has just made its way to North American audiences on the Nintendo Switch. But does Bubble Bobble 4 Friends live up to the rest of the series?
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends opens up with a cute cutscene where a beam of light gives life to all the toys in a child’s room. The wizard, Bonner, pulls a Toy Story and isn’t too happy knowing that a toy dragon named Bub is the kid’s favorite toy and kicks him off the bed. That’s basically it as far as the story is concerned. You’re a toy and you fight your way through fifty levels throughout the child’s bedroom. It’s simple, sweet and exactly what it needs to be. The story also does a marvelous job setting the scene for the stages themselves. The enemies and platforms all follow a toy motif and it works really well, giving the game a fairly memorable visual style.
Just like previous entries in the series, you play as Bub, and in each stage your goal is to blow bubbles to trap enemies and then pop them to earn points. Popping bubbles is done by poking them with the spikes on your back or jumping on top of them and stomping downwards. Popping any bubble results in any bubble it’s touching to also pop. So having a bunch of enemies in a large group of bubbles is not only a great way to rack up a lot of points, but it’s incredibly satisfying to get a bunch in one big combo. Once all of the enemies are gone, you’ll get a chance to collect some fruit for bonus points and move onto the next stage. The controls are fluid and moving around feels generally fantastic.
There are five worlds in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, each composed of nine normal levels and a final stage that acts as a boss fight. The worlds still follow the child’s bedroom theme and have names like Bedside Bonanza. The levels in each world do a nice job of introducing new enemy types and mechanics. Some enemies are flying, so you’ll need to jump on top of a bubble to reach them. Some have projectiles, so you’ll need to plan your movements more carefully. There’s even a ducking and crawling mechanic that you’ll need to squeeze through a few tight areas. But don’t expect that duck to let you dodge those enemy projectiles. Trust me, I checked.
The levels are all fine and definitely capture that classic Bubble Bobble feel, but when I was playing by myself, the most fun I had was in the boss fights. The stages are well constructed for platforming and each boss has unique patterns that you need to dodge and work around before assaulting them with as many bubbles as you can. I loved the boss fights so much that I’m actually a little sad there are only five of them. One of the bosses tries to jump on you, so you have to dodge, but if you go too far away, you won’t be able to hit it with your bubbles, so it was tense and exciting to see just how much I had to move to still be effective in battle.
Notice what I said in that last paragraph though. “When I was playing by myself.” If the title of the game didn’t give it away, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is a Bubble Bobble game…for friends, specifically for four friends. So the title really works on multiple levels. You can have up to four players at a time go through the game together. Aside from Bub, you’ve got the blue dragon, Bob, and their girlfriends, Peb and Pab, who are yellow and pink dragons with big bows on their heads. A minor complaint that I have about Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is that when playing by yourself, you have to play as Bub. All four characters play the same, and it’s not like Bub has a significant story role that makes him a necessity, so I’d have appreciated the option to pick which of the four characters we want to play as, regardless of how many players there are.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is definitely made with the multiplayer in mind. It’s frantic, chaotic and fun. It also makes the game a bit more forgiving. When playing by yourself, getting hit by an enemy is an instant death, but like many other multiplayer titles these days, when playing with two of more people, getting hit puts you into a bubble, and your friends will have a small amount of time to free you without consequence. Since the lives are shared between players, it’s always in your best interest to help your friends out if they wind up inside the dreaded bubble. If all the lives are depleted, so long as one player makes it to the end of the stage, every player will respawn for the next one. This is a really nice system and is appreciated. But if all four players get knocked out and zero lives remain then it’s the dreaded Game Over. Normally I’m not a fan of this type of system, but in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends it just means you start the world over, and since each world is only ten levels it’s really not that harsh of a punishment.
Once you make it through all fifty levels you'll unlock a hard mode, which is basically just the same levels, but the difficulty is severely ramped up. You may lose a couple of friendships if you try and go into hard mode haphazardly. However, if you make it through all of that, or just decide to try something else out, then you’re in luck because Bubble Bobble 4 Friends also includes an arcade cabinet for the original Bubble Bobble game, complete with all 100 levels. Though, if you are playing with four people, it may be wise to skip this since the original game is only two player. The arcade cabinet is unlocked from the very beginning, and I appreciate it being included. Playing both games back to back really gives players an impression of just how much the series has grown over the past thirty years, for better or worse.
Speaking of the original title, Bubble Bobble has one of the most iconic jingles in all of video games. Practically everyone knows the song. There’s even a nice remix of it for the first world. But most of the songs in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends are just kind of forgettable. It’s certainly not bad, and works fine as background music while playing, but even though I played the game for hours, once I stopped I genuinely couldn’t recall any of the music. Some of the visual elements in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends also feel a bit lacking. Earlier I mentioned the toy motif, which is definitely there in design, but I’d have liked to have seen a bit more done with it on a texture scale. If Bub is supposed to be a stuffed doll, it would have been nice to see him with more of a plush like texture. A few of the enemies are clearly colored to imply they’re made of wood, but don’t have woodgrain patterns on them. This works fine for smoother things like the not-Lego blocks, but a little texture would have gone a lot way to help the aesthetics. The bubbles themselves look fantastic. I wanted to reach into my screen and pop them myself. As it is, the designs are cute and colorful, but nothing to really write home about.
Overall, I enjoyed Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, but I think it’s good to know that the "4 Friends" part of that title is more important than some may realize. The game can certainly be played alone, but when doing that the game becomes mildly repetitive and rarely exciting. This is a game that truly shines when you have the frantic elements and sense of camaraderie that comes from having more people to play with you. I can say the hour or so when I was playing with buddies was way more thrilling than anything I did by myself. Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is a pretty good arcade style game that’s best busted out at a small party.
John reviewed Bubble Bobble 4 Friends Americas release on the Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the developer.