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19 Features

History Lesson: When Bubble Bobble burst through

By Alex Dale on Saturday 8th Mar 2014 at 3:00 PM UTC

One of gaming's greatest injustices is that Bub and Bob, the bubble-mouthed heroes of Bubble Bobble, are now synonymous with dull retreads, dodgy re-imaginings and endless ruddy Puzzle Bobble games.

It's an injustice because their creator, the late Fukio Mitsuji, was a firm believer that great games should stand as works of art in their own right. Despite constant pressure from Taito bigwigs to develop a direct sequel to his immensely successful 1986 coin-op Bubble Bobble, Mitsuji had no interest in returning to a concept he felt was already perfected.

Forced to revisit his greatest triumph, Mitsuji took the Bubble Bobble template and dismantled it piece by piece, in the process laying the foundations for one of the most diverse, imaginative and enduring gaming trilogies of all time.

Like many gaming visionaries of the '80s, Mitsuji drew inspiration from the abstract. Later in life, he lamented the lack of creative vision among his peers, stating that: "Just as many objects are left alone on the planet, there are many new ideas waiting to be discovered."

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True to his philosophy, Mitsuji absorbed his ideas from life's untouched furniture. Soap bubbles were his first port of call.

The original Bubble Bobble followed an otherwise unremarkable format: a single screen, kill all the enemies, move on to the next screen. It would likely be lost to time if not for the tactile brilliance of Bub and Bob's offensive weapon of choice: their bubble burps.

Crucially, these bubbles weren't just spherical bullets (they merely encased enemies in an orb: the spikes on Bub's back had to finish the job), they were DIY platforms that could be shunted around and bounced upon. The non-lethal nature of the bubbles added an extra degree of panic, because the player not only had to bag enemies, but also track down their floating prey and finish the job.

In a common theme throughout the Bubble Bobble universe, freed enemies would turn into red, super-aggressive versions of themselves, and dilly-dallying dinos would be visited by Baron Von Bubba, an indestructible skull of doom who would home in on the player's last known position.

Self-made platforms and urgency: these were the only two elements of Bubble Bobble that survived into the 1987 sequel, Rainbow Islands. The homebrew platforms this time were the titular rainbows, versatile but fragile, and the urgency was represented by an ever-rising sea that would race Bub to the top of the level.

The strategy came in attempting to crush the baddies under a broken rainbow. This transformed them into one of seven rainbow-hued diamonds, whose colour depended on which of seven equally spaced (but unmarked) vertical areas of the screen their corpse landed on. Collecting all seven on an island would open a door offering permanent upgrades, and repeating the feat across all seven worlds was the only way to unlock the final three islands and the super-rare 'happy' ending.

But what really made these games purr was the unparalleled number of secrets they hid. Powerful items would appear seemingly at random; in truth, they were generated according to criteria tracked by the game as you played, ranging from the number of times Bub jumped in a level to the number of 'Hurry' messages you triggered.

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One item might gift Bub the power of flight; another might cause lightning to rain down the screen. The crystal ball item, which appeared after every 18th enemy killed, even caused the islands' inhabitants to reveal their true identities: the monsters from the first Bubble Bobble, with attack patterns to match.

Mitsuji grew disillusioned at Taito and left to teach game design before Rainbow Islands 2: Parasol Stars was released for the PC Engine. Although the old magic shone through, Bub's umbrella lacked the ingenuity of the previous game's weapons, and the return to a singlescreen format felt like a step backwards.

Although still a good game, Parasol Stars really wasn't in the same league as the first two. The umbrella was a bit weak: it could be used to pick up and hurl enemies, and it made a good shield, but there wasn't the same scope for strategising as there was in Mitsuji's works.

Sadly, all rainbows pointed downwards from here, as subsequent developers returned to Bubble Bobble's format but failed to lavish the same love on their cover versions as Mitsuji did the original.

There's a lesson to be learned here about just how difficult it is to make a central game mechanic that's at once instantaneous and substantial. We hope Fukio Mitsuji taught the next generation of developers well.

After the Bubble burst

It may surprise you to find there have actually been 15 games in the Bubble Bobble series over the years, and that's not including the Puzzle Bobble / Bust-A-Move series (which itself boasts 15 separate titles).

Sadly, the vast majority of these have disappointed in one way or another, with very few even coming close to the magic of the original Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands.

Here's a selection of the lesser efforts that couldn't quite float to the same heights as their inspiration.

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