Wraithkal: The Indie Gaming Corner
Remember to update your bookmarks, wraithkal.info is now wraithkal.com.

Is ‘Bubble Bobble’ Too BASIC? (Review)

It was in 1986 that Nintendo took the world by storm with their The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but in order to find today’s game we have to travel a bit further back in time.

Because 1982 was when the Commodore 64 made its debut and quickly became very popular, however unlike the Nintendo Entertainment System – or NES – which showed up in Japan in 1983, the Commodore 64 was not simply a system designed to run games on, and we can’t really talk about the game before the system now can we?
With this beast, you had an entire operating system to work with – which included access to development through a programming language called BASIC. The language itself may have seemed simple and limited at first, but developers certainly showed us that plenty could be done with it, given time!

Blow bubbles, buddy!
It did take a few years before one of my favorite Commodore 64 games ever were released, but in 1987 we were finally blessed with a port of the arcade hit Bubble Bobble. A port that, in my opinion, is still the best version available – especially as far as the music goes! To some it may sound like a simple repetitive and high-pitched tune, but that does not make it any less of a classic; the Commodore 64 sound was running on the SID chip after all, not Dolby Digital.. but it was good for its time and I’ll still take memorable SID music over auto-tuned songs any day.

From the two controllable characters, a green and a cyan dragon, to the background/stage colors.. Bubble Bobble was more colorful than a rainbow! That’s not to say the graphics or animations were simple though. From the bubbles the dragons blew, to the different enemies, not to mention all the powerups.. score related items and of course the kinda weird thing where you could face a wall, start blowing bubbles and gain points from that! Wouldn’t recommend it though – especially if you’re with a second player, as you may upset him/her for slacking while he/she is busy taking care of the enemies. No one likes that kind of player.
A second player? Wait, what?!
Bubble Bobble
had a feature that was quite rare in the 1980s: It let two people play the game at the same time! This meant that unlike most games, there would be no need to sit around and wait for someone to finish playing before it was your turn. Instead you’d pick up a second joystick, plug it in, press the fire button and off you went – ready to help your fellow dragon player with an extra stream of bubbles.

While the gameplay was simple enough for anyone to grasp, that simplicity came at a price – you were given a very limited number of lives and it was the kind of game where one hits resulted in your untimely death, so there was not a lot of room for mistakes.. even with the help of player 2.

It was by no means a game so difficult that it was borderline unfair; it did require some skill during the later levels though.. of which there are 100 in all! Yeah, 100. Not the typical “10-15 levels” games today boast. With that many, most would probably end up looking rather similar, right? Well.. Yes and no. It’s quite impressive what the developers did when designing the levels – of course it has been a while since I saw every single one of them, but I do still remember actually beating the game many years ago.. and not one level was boring, though some were annoying. But ain’t that often the case with 2D platform games even today?
How did you control that little dragon, in a time before motion controls?
With utmost simplicity – the fire button on your joystick took care of shooting bubbles, while moving the stick left and right moved your dragon in said direction. You could jump up by moving the stick up, though unlike some other games.. moving the stick down did not make your dragon crouch. Which does make quite a lot of sense – imagine a dragon crouching!

“1” and “2” selected the respective number of players, though you could also press the fire button on a joystick plugged into port 2 and have a friend join a game already in progress; another thing many games today are oddly lacking. The bubbles each dragon could create were used to “trap” enemies, after which you had to burst a trapped enemy to get rid of it entirely – at which point it would turn into either a simple score item or in rare cases, a random powerup. Not simply content with that mechanic, though, Taito (the developer) decided to make the bubbles solid enough to let your dragon jump on them.. which was often required for hard-to-reach places. If used by a skillful player, this could give him/her quite an advantage.

The actual controls were never to blame for any deaths, which is always a good thing. I guess being able to blame the game for dying in it would have been good fun, but Bubble Bobble would have none of that; death was your own fault there!

There were no spike pits or other hazardous environments to watch out for either. Just you and a lot of enemies, of various shapes and sizes as the game progressed. Like I said earlier however, that does not mean it was always a smooth ride without any kind of difficulty. The number of enemies you had to deal with at once, combined with some a bit confusing level layouts, definitely gave the player(s) a good challenge.

May the bubbles be with you..