In an attempt to capitalize on whatever relevance it has left, Taito, the former arcade juggernaut, has pressed forward with their tired flagship IP to bring Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron is Back! to the PlayStation 4. In its heyday, Bubble Bobble was a staple in neighborhood arcades, offering a casual-yet-entertaining experience alongside Darius and Arkanoid. It proved to be a roaring success for Taito, triggering numerous sequels and spin-offs, including the likes of Bust-A-Move and Rainbow Islands.
But that was 1986, and the journey to where we are today has been a tumultuous one for our little dragon friends. After Bubble Symphony was released on the SEGA Saturn in 1997, it seemed Taito ran out of ideas on how to keep the series fresh. Instead, they leaned on recycled content for a bit before bombarding the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable with flash-game quality shovelware.
By 2010, Taito pulled out of the console scene altogether for nearly a decade, publishing one or two titles and exclusively making content for mobile platforms. Taito is now attempting to reposition themselves back in the hearts of console players, with Bubble Bobble 4 Friends on both the Switch and PS4, but the question remains on how this seemingly outdated formula will resonate with the uninitiated.
Don’t fix what isn’t broken
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends markets itself as a return to form with its classic gameplay; the key difference being found in its namesake. BB4F allows you and three friends to team up via local co-op to tackle over 200 unique stages. Gameplay remains largely consistent: take your pick amongst the lot of either blue or green dragon, and whether you want them to have a bow.
Your champion is equipped with their trusty bubble breath that’s used to entrap on-screen enemies. Dispatch your foes by encasing them in said bubbles and popping them with your spines or stomping on them from above. Destroying multiple monster-filled bubbles at one time will net you a chain multiplier, which will yield better prizes in the form of varying types of fruit. Bubbles can also be used as platforms to reach inaccessible areas, although you will need to be mindful on you bubble placement. Later stages increase the difficulty by incorporating “wind lanes” that push bubbles in whatever direction the current moves.
Beyond that, players have their choice of five different power ups, including fan favorites like the Thunder Bubble and the Bomb Bubble. Other skills include a Long Shot bubble, which allows you to shoot targets from a greater distance; a Dash that bypasses enemies; and a charm called Stop Wind that does exactly what it says. All power-ups have a set number of uses that’s replenished by collecting the fruit from your freshly killed enemies. Speaking of collecting, scattered through out the stages are sparkling letters that spell out “EXTEND” – leveling up one of your weapons once the collection is complete.
Copy and Paste
Staying true to the core mechanics of a game as old as Bubble Bobble is acceptable; there’s no need to fix what isn’t broken, right? But my issue is that nearly everything else in the game is so … samey. The game takes place in child’s bedroom where our heroes Bub and Bob must fend off evil toys being controlled by the wizard Bonner. What could have been an arcade style adventure game similar in theme to Clockwork Knight turned out to be the same single-screen platformer found in prior games.
Each of the stages are bound together in groups of 10, categorized by what section of the bedroom you’re in. But it doesn’t feel like you’re going anywhere different as the only changes each “world” has is what border design is accompanying it. Bookshelf Forest has boxy blocks and bookshelves for walls. Bedside Bonanza has a blanket on the ground and unfinished frames for platforms. Toyland Terminal just has Legos everywhere.
I guess I expected Taito to flesh out the stage design bit. Perhaps have me climb the actual bookshelf to clear the world would have been more interesting. Maybe work my way from on top of the bed to discover what creeps underneath. Add little details to make it feel like I’m scouring through the messy floors of a toy room. It’s not like they would have needed to abandon the arcade format, but anything would have been better than monotonously passing through slide after slide of the same environment with platform placement being the sole variable.
The Baron is Back?
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends doesn’t offer much in the main campaign. Clearing the main five worlds will unlock Hard Mode, which is just all the same levels you spent the last hour playing but with more enemies. Hard Mode itself isn’t exactly difficult, especially if you’re running four deep. However the real challenge is found in a mode called The Baron is Back and personally, this is where the game actually begins.
This new mode dares you to traverse through 100 levels of intense bubble action. Whether you run it solo or with a party of four, you’ll be given a single set of extra lives with no bonus to follow. The big catch? There’s no saving your progress. Every time you tackle the Baron’s Tower, you’ll be forced to begin at the beginning. There is a Training Mode where you can practice floors giving you a hard time, and you’re able to revisit them as many times as you need. But the true test of skill is found running the marathon and seeing how high you can climb.
Admittedly, I am making it sound more interesting that what it is. Sure, The Baron is Back brings more content to the table, but it’s not too different from what you experienced in the Normal and Hard Modes. One critique is that the levels tend to feel a bit more claustrophobic as giving you less room to move around equals increased difficulty. They also throw these invincible enemies at that you where you have no choice but to maneuver around them, which is again hampered by the lack of space of the stages.
At its core, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is not a bad game; it’s just a very mundane time waster that you might sink 15 minutes playing when you have nothing better to do. Outside of my main gripes, perhaps adding online multiplayer would have helped justify the $40 price tag. I spent a total of two and a half hours clearing Normal and Hard Mode on my own in my first playthrough. The time I would have spent in The Baron is Back isn’t going to make up the difference in value. Baron’s Tower would have been cool as a stand-alone title, but not at the asking price of 40 bones.
I can’t help but walk away from Bubble Bobble 4 Friends suspecting that this might be yet another cash-grab from a company whose better days are behind them. I guess diehard Taito and arcade fans might get a kick out of this, but the majority of players are going to walk away wanting more. The series is in a desperate need of a facelift. How many times can you repackage the same game and not expect anyone to notice (sorry Madden fans)? My word of advice: wait for Nintendo to release the original Bubble Bobble on the Nintendo Switch Online service. Don’t get your fix here.