Taito's comeback continues with this revival of its most famous series, and while it's slim the old magic remains.
It's been a mighty fine year for comebacks, so you'll be excused if you've missed one of the more remarkable revivals of them all. Yu Suzuki and Hideo Kojima's return to the frontlines of game dev have grabbed the headlines, but Taito's resurgence has been a touch more low-key; first we had the impeccable Darius Cozmic Collection, then Ninja Warriors and now the titan of early arcade scene is back with perhaps its best-known series. And what a delight to discover that Bubble Bobble, in what's nominally its fourth outing, is as brilliant as it's ever been.
It helps that not much has really changed over the years. You can see that for yourself by playing the 1986 original, included here as a bonus that's unlocked from the start, and a sharp reminder that the late Fukio 'MTJ' Mitsuji got it so, so right first time around. There's a blissful alchemy in Bubble Bobble's design, from the simplicity of the task at hand - clear the screen of enemies to progress to the next - to the tactility of it all. Trap a monster in a bubble then pop it with Bub or Bob's serrated spine - pop! Playing Bubble Bobble is like poking away at a piece of sentient bubble-wrap, and it remains a timeless pleasure.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends doesn't really mess with the formula at all. There's support for up to four players (as that title might suggest - or it might be suggesting this is the fourth instalment in the series, which given the many spin-offs and reboots over the years seems like a slightly fuzzy business) while the boss battles of Memories and Symphony return with screen-filling enemies every 10 levels. There are 100 levels all-told, though you can probably halve that number seeing that the latter 50 are more hard-edged remixes of the first 'family-friendly' 50. Couple that with a price point that's only just shy of a full-priced game and you might think Taito is being a touch optimistic here.
Which is all totally fair enough, but a few minutes in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends' company was enough to wash away my own concerns. Bubble Bobble has still got it, and this is a tasteful updating of the original formula. The aesthetic is a delight, wrapped up in a coherent theme with each world taking place in a child's bedroom, the levels made up of discarded building blocks and various other toys while members of Taito's in-house band Zuntata provide the perky soundtrack, complete with new takes on old favourites. It's all very no-frills - the texture work is kept simple, and the designs themselves are faithful to the brilliant originals - and even though it's an update it still feels like something from yesteryear; like an unearthed Dreamcast sequel to those 80s originals. Which, I think, qualifies as high praise.
And the feel - the all-important feel - is entirely intact. I'm not a frame-counter, but to my eyes this sticks close to 60fps and has the responsiveness you'd want from a game with its roots in the arcades of yesteryear. For all the simplicity of Bubble Bobble's formula, it's incredible how much experimentation - and how much pure, simple, unadulterated play - it enables. Set up a kill zone for all your trapped monsters and dispatch them in one leap for a multiplier; ride airstreams and exploit them to unpick the quickest route; pop, pop, pop all those glorious bubbles. Chasing scores in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is a joy.
A small shame, then, that there's no online leaderboards or competitive modes in what's a very streamlined package. Maybe it's asking too much for too little, and Bubble Bobble 4 Friends could leave you feeling short-changed. For me, though, this is the kind of perfectly polished arcade fodder that's perfect for coming back to again and again - and it caps what's been a remarkable comeback year for Taito.