Thursday, December 20, 2012

At Random: Bubble Bobble (NES, 1988)

My random pick today is an easy one to cover.  There isn't much I can add to the ongoing Internet discussion of Taito's platform/puzzle game, Bubble Bobble; it's an acknowledged mid-1980s classic that continues to sell well on modern consoles and phones.  Here, I'm playing Taito's own cartridge, published in 1988 for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System.

Most people reading this will be familiar with the basic gameplay -- two dinosaurs, Bub and Bob, must capture roaming enemies in bubbles, then pop them to wipe them out.  There are what seemed at the time like an incredible number of progressively more difficult levels.  And the mechanics are more complex than they at first appear -- for example, it's easier for players to move up the screen than down, with wraparounds at the top and bottom of the screen.  Enemies become smarter and faster as the game continues.  Fruit and treasure pickups provide extra scoring opportunities.  And the game's charmingly awkward English translations from the Japanese remain memorable:

Bubble Bobble arrived in 1986, at just the right time to be a big hit on Nintendo's NES a few years later -- the coin-op's visuals were clean and colorful, the music simple, cheerful and bouncy.  It wasn't as audiovisually sophisticated as other arcade games of its day, like Irem's R-Type, and its simplicity worked in its favor for the home market.  The sprites were small and could be rendered and animated fairly accurately within the NES' more limited color palette, and the game made the transition to the dominant home console more-or-less intact.

It didn't hurt that, unlike most of the home conversions, the NES edition was developed by Taito itself -- in the late 80s there was something ineffably cool about seeing an arcade manufacturer bringing their own titles home, with more fidelity than was generally possible on the first wave of consoles.  The game was also pushing the NES a bit -- while Nintendo's little gray box often felt like an upgraded Colecovision, the earlier generation's standard-setter could not have handled this many sprites onscreen at once:

Bubble Bobble on the NES also retained the arcade version's crucial two-player support, a feature often left out when NES conversions of other arcade games were produced.  And the difficulty curve was intact -- I usually start to feel challenged around the arcade game's fifth level, and the NES version treats me just about the same.  The conversion wasn't 100% faithful -- sprites flickered a bit when on the same horizontal plane, and the music sounded slightly thin compared to the coin-op original; there are also noticeable lags in the audio when the next screen is coming into view.

But nobody with an NES felt disappointed when they brought Bubble Bobble home -- the lessons of Atari's Pac-Man had been taken to heart for the Nintendo generation.


  1. Spent so much time playing this game! Did you ever beat it? We never could.

  2. No, I usually get hung up pretty early on -- I always enjoy dipping my toe in but have not been dedicated to mastering it. And my understanding is that you HAVE to play with two players to get the real ending, 100 levels in.

  3. Also the Boss level (levelS?) was/were so deep into it, we would just get surprised at the difference and get game over rather quickly.

    The music still gets stuck in my head from time to time :)

  4. 100 levels?! Wow, I don't think we ever made half that.

  5. I used to turn my nose up at this conversion because it wasn't 'arcade perfect.' Over the years, though, I've come to appreciate its different-from-similar-enough graphics and sound track. It helps, of course, that, as you say here, the gameplay and difficulty are completely intact--which are the most important aspects of this game anyway.