What’s the greatest co-op videogame of all time? Portal 2? Gauntlet? Left 4 Dead 2, maybe? For me, Bubble Bobble has to rank somewhere near the top of the list. A single-screen platform game where dragons blow bubbles and hooded enemies respond by rolling giant cookies along the floor, Bubble Bobble is still one of the best two-player arcade games ever.
Bubble Bobble’s enemy-nobbling mechanic appears to have its roots in Universal’s seminal 1980 coin-op, Space Panic, where aliens are killed by first digging a hole, waiting for the enemies to fall in, and then bashing them while they’re trapped. Bubble Bobble gives this idea a bouncy new twist; this time, you blow bubbles, which encase enemies on contact, and then rush up and jump on them – thus bursting the bubbles and finishing off anything unlucky enough to be stuck inside.
The addition of wobbly, floating bubbles adds an air of unpredictablility to the Space Panic formula. Bubbles will rise up out of reach if you’re too slow to burst them, leaving an enemy dangling in mid-air until they escape (which leaves them charging around the screen in a crimson rage). Alternatively, you can use your bubbles as a temporary platform by holding down jump and bouncing on top of them – a technique that becomes vital to master on later screens, some of which seem expressly designed to leave you trapped.
Taito had dabbled in the platform genre before, and the largely forgotten 1983 arcade game Chack ‘N Pop – later ported to Japanese home systems like the Nintendo Famicom – could be seen as Bubble Bobble’s prototype. Chack ‘N Pop also has you bounding around a single screen killing enemies, but this time the death mechanic involves a kind of hand grenade-type weapon – a far less memorable device than Bubble Bobble’s soapy-mouthed dragons. It’s easy to see Chack ‘N Pop’s influence on Bubble Bobble, though, and some of the collectible items and enemy sprites were lifted wholesale from that earlier game.
Bubble Bobble was created by Fukio Mitsuji, the Taito designer and artist who also made the arcade games Volfied, Syvalion, Halley’s Comet (later ported to the Famicom and Sega Game Gear as Halley Wars) and the even more obscure Commando clone, LSA Squad.
Mitsuji’s plan was to make a game that couples could play together – a concept which seems to have informed its mix of boisterous action and cute graphics.
“Back then, women were rarely seen in Japanese arcades,” Mitsuji later said in a video interview for the Taito Legends game compilation. “So I thought bringing more couples would help solve this issue. That’s why I designed cute characters and included cooperative play in Bubble Bobble.“
Visually, Bubble Bobble’s an evolution of Pac-Man, with its colourful characters straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon – like the ghosts in Namco’s coin-gobbling classic, the enemies in Bubble Bobble have their own individual behaviours, though advances in processing power meant that Mitsuji could make them look and act more radically different than Pac-Man’s boggle-eyed ghosts. On one level you’d attempt to capture a small army of clockwork robots; in another you’d encounter Drunks, little hooded figures which throw empty beer bottles, while still another introduced laser-firing Space Invaders – a nod to Taito’s own coin-op hit.
Bubble Bobble’s colour and variety placed it in a different league from most other games released in 1986. There’s a sense of restless creativity to Bubble Bobble. Mitsuji could have simply fallen back on the then-rare co-op mode and bubble-blowing concept and let the rest of the game design itself. Instead, he keeps piling in extra ideas and unpredictable secrets: it’s hard to think of another arcade game from the period with quite so many different items to collect.
Bursting bubbles with letters in them – which together spell out the word EXTEND – results in an extra life. Collecting an umbrella will let you skip a few levels. Pick up a red cross and you’ll be able to breathe fire. There are dozens of other weapons and score-boosting items besides – offing a whole chain of enemies at once will sometimes cause a giant apple or jewel to plop down in the middle of the screen, for example. Then there are secret rooms, full of treasure and coded messages, and hidden bonuses which will appear if you have two equal digits in your score.
The wealth of things to collect on each level does much to hide the fact that Bubble Bobble is actually quite unfair at times. Early levels are a breeze, but later stages seem expressly designed to relieve your pockets of coins as quickly as possible. While you don’t necessarily have to complete all 100 levels thanks to the those stage-skipping items mentioned earlier, getting to the end reveals a further twists: you have to complete the game with a friend before you can see Bubble Bobble’s “good ending” – and then, to get the “true ending”, you have to complete the game again in the even trickier Super mode.
Despite the fangs lurking beneath Bubble Bobble’s fluffy exterior, it remains the epitome of a feel-good game. Its music is sprightly and hummable (though admittedly quite repetitive after a while), its tiny characters utterly adorable.
Bubble Bobble wasn’t exactly ubiquitous in British arcades, but it was just about inescapable on home systems. Most of the conversions were extremely good, even if they couldn’t necessarily cram in all the frills from the arcade originals. One of the best appeared on the Sega Master System, which retained the colour, two-player mode and jolly atmosphere of the coin-op Bubble Bobble, albeit with a bit of sprite-flicker picked up along the way.
After 1986, Taito continued to turn out some of the best platform games outside Nintendo. Rainbow Islands, Mitsuji’s 1987 sequel to Bubble Bobble, replaced bubbles with magical, enemy-killing conveyor belts and vertically-scrolling levels. The NewZealand Story was a saccharine platform-shooter where you could steal flying vehicles from enemies (it was also incredibly hard). Then there was Liquid Kids, a kind of Bubble Bobble-New Zealand Story hybrid. And Parasol Stars, a superb sequel to Rainbow Islands which appeared on the PC Engine and home computers but didn’t, for some reason, come out as an arcade machine.
The common factor in all these games is that Bubble Bobble’s dragons failed to make an appearance. Both Rainbow Islands and Parasol Stars presented the characters in their human guise – Bubby and Bobby – since the end of Bubble Bobble saw them transformed once again into ordinary kids. That all makes sense from a story-canon sort of perspective, but are a pair of kids in dungarees really a match for a pair of bubble-blowing dragons? Well, no, not for this writer.
Taito suddenly saw sense in the 1990s and brought the dinosaurs back for the arcade game Bubble Symphony (1994), which also came out on the Sega Saturn, and Bubble Memories (1996), which remained an arcade exclusive. Then there was Puzzle Bobble (1994), the long-running colour-match series which was, criminally, renamed Bust-A-Move in many territories. To date, it’s spawned nearly 30 sequels and spin-offs, which could fill an entire article by themselves.
The dragons also made reappearances in the iffy Bubble Bobble Old And New for the Game Boy Advance which is worth buying solely for the port of the 1986 original – the rejigged new version, which took place over scrolling stages, is best described as forgettable.
Mitsuji left Taito in the early 1990s, and sadly never returned to the series and characters he helped to create. Instead, he started teaching game design, and created the platform puzzle game Magical Puzzle Popils for the Sega Game Gear. It was a small yet delightful little game, but went largely unnoticed due to the Game Gear’s slow sales. That game also proved to be Mitsuji’s swansong; in 2008, the designer died at the tragically young age of 48.
Bub and Bob are far from household names these days, but you can see signs of their lingering affection hiding here and there. Taito recently brought out a pair of plush dragons which look uncannily like the characters originally drawn by Mitsuji back in 1986. It’s proof that, even though the game itself is gradually receding into history, its celebratory, cheeky sense of fun still lingers – more evidence, surely, that it’s one of the very best two-player games ever made.
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