Super Bubble Pop
Preview - Puzzle Bobble enters the third dimension, we investigate
"Super Bubble Pop" is destined to become the first computer game to be released with a special tie-in hair care product, although perhaps John " The Hair" Romero could have used this ploy to improve sales of "Daikatana". The man behind Super Bubble Pop is Zombie's Mark Long, whose girlfriend owns a punk beauty shop in Seattle called Vain, from where you can buy "super bubble pop styling gum".
"This multi-functional super product instantly adds texture to hair without the greasiness of pomades or the crunchy feel of gels", according to the blurb on the website. "The pink goo looks, feels, and even smells just like real bubble gum, but you won't need to break out the scissors because it washes out of hair easily, with no stains".
Enough of hair gel though, what about the game? Well, it looks, feels and even smells like the arcade classic "Puzzle Bobble" (also known as "Bust A Move"), but with the added catch of being presented in glorious real-time rendered 3D, as a result of which the bubbles stack vertically as well as across and up the board.
As with Puzzle Bobble, a line of brightly coloured bubbles gradually moves down the screen, while you are given a series of bubbles to fire up to meet it. Rather than firing your bubbles from a fixed position, pointing them in the right direction and praying they make contact, in Super Bubble Pop you run from side to side along the bottom of the screen trying to throw the bubbles into the appropriate column. If your bubble hits a stack of other bubbles it will be added to the bottom of the pile, otherwise it will just carry on until it reaches the top of the table and then stop.
The goal is to line up three or more bubbles of the same colour in a straight line (horizontal or vertical), at which point they all make a satisfying pop and anything sitting on top of them at the time drops down. Rinse and repeat. It's a simple enough idea, but then classic arcade games like Tetris and Puzzle Bobble have shown that simple ideas are often the best ones...
With the combined expertise of Yorkshire's finest at Runecraft and Seattle based designers Zombie behind it, the result is a fun little game which is surprisingly addictive. The first time I loaded up the beta version to take it for a quick spin before dinner, I ended up playing it for over an hour.
The 3D view and the ability to stack bubbles vertically as well as in rows and columns adds an extra edge to the gameplay which makes it more than just a straightforward Puzzle Bobble clone, and it will take even the experienced bubble poppers amongst us a few tries to learn the extra tricks this allows. More complexity is added by the power-up system, with more and more powerful moves becoming available as you gather up the special bonus items by popping all of the bubbles sitting under them.
Concrete blocks are also introduced, which somehow sit on top of the bubbles without popping them. Once you have removed all of the bubbles from under one it will block anything behind it from advancing any further down the table for a short time, temporarily freezing one of the columns to give you some breathing space. There is also another kind of block which stops your bubbles from getting past it but continues advancing down the screen, forcing you to hammer away at it with bubbles until it crumbles. It all helps add a little more depth to the game, without becoming unnecessarily complex.
To ease you into the game there is a "tutorial" setting, which introduces you to the game's concepts one by one through a series of levels, starting with just a single colour of bubble and then adding more colours, various kinds of blocks, multi-coloured bubbles (produced by the rainbow power attack) and other special tricks.
There is also a range of difficulty levels from "chilled" to "hardcore". The higher the level the more colours of bubble there are to work with, which makes things increasingly hard to keep track of. The basic three colours is easy enough even for novice gamers, but once you get up to five colours and the bubbles just keep coming faster and faster it soon becomes quite frantic as you dash backwards and forwards across the bottom of the screen hurling bubbles around like a man / woman / robot possessed.
Speaking of which, there are a range of different characters to choose from, including everything from Vix ("the cutest DJ") to robots, cats and monkeys, each with at least one unique special bonus attack capable of removing entire swathes of bubbles. And if you get bored of popping bubbles by yourself there is also the traditional two player mode to sink your teeth into.
The whole thing is brightly coloured, heavy on jazzy special effects, and accompanied by an almost painfully upbeat dance music soundtrack that fits in with the whole "candy raver" theme of the game.
The good news is that if the soundtrack becomes too much for you, you can always drop in your own wave files or MP3s to accompany the game instead. This is done simply by copying the appropriate files to the right folder and then changing around the play list in the game's "options" menu. Your choice of music even effects the gameplay, with the sounds helping to generate the bubble columns that appear on each level.
A quick stress test with my extensive MP3 collection showed that the game can handle everything from Rob Zombie to Orbital by way of The Beastie Boys, and even German industrial band Einsturzende Neubauten failed to bring the game to its knees, although your mileage may vary. It's certainly an innovative feature which should help to extend the shelf life of the game, whether you are simply sick of the happy shiny soundtrack or want to see what effect playing death metal will have on the colour of the bubbles.
Super Bubble Pop is due for release on March 20th, but you won't be able to find it on the shelves of your local computer games store. Instead the game is being electronically distributed through Real.com games, although Zombie are hoping that the game might be picked up by a publisher wanting to bring it to the Xbox or PlayStation 2 in future. Either way it should be well worth a look - it's a refreshingly simple game mixing colourful 3D graphics with addictive gameplay to bring the arcade-style puzzle game kicking and screaming into the 21st century.