Selling us back our childhoods is something publishers have been doing for some time now, and with varying degrees of success. While we all love to wallow in some dewy eyed nostalgia from time to time, it's often disconcerting to come face to face with the reality of the past. Sometimes things are just as fantastic as you remember them - except maybe even better because you can appreciate their greatness with the benefit of your wisdom and perspective. We call this the Fine Wine syndrome. But in the other camp is a rubbish bin of memories that's so potently distressing that when you're greeted with the painful truth of How Wrong Can You Be it's almost harrowing. This should, perhaps, be referred to as the Rotting Corpse syndrome.
Updates of the past; now that's a different matter, and publishers have been at it for ages now. Mario 64, Maximo, Contra, Metroid, Defender, Spy Hunter, you name it, the hits of the past inevitably get the next gen makeover with varying degrees of success. Taito, meanwhile, has been reliving past glories almost continuously since it first had the world spellbound in the mid 80s with Bubble Bobble. For a while, this Japanese publisher could almost do no wrong, with the follow up Rainbow Islands still a masterpiece, and Parasol Stars another triumph. And then it topped the lot with Puzzle Bobble (or Bust-A-Move, as it's known round these parts). But, sadly, innovation seemed to go out of the window thereafter, with endless rehashes being released ever since.
Fast forward to 2003, and here we have a bundle of Bubble Bobble - Old & New. A pixel perfect port of the 1986 arcade original, along with an 'all new' version with "vastly improved graphics and sound" - more of which later. Oh, and a free link cable for the obligatory multi-player mode.
Same game, different backdrops
Both games are ostensibly the same, and are simple one-screen platform affairs, featuring two cutesy Brontosauri, Bub and Bob, who have the curious ability to blow enemy trapping bubbles, which they must pop with their spines to dispatch them. Using their cunning special power they must clear each level of a variety of "ill-tempered and hungry" beasties, and traverse through 100 descending levels to halt the evil Baron Von Blubba - and all played out to the same outstandingly addictive/annoying chirpy tune. Of course, in true old school fashion, you have three lives, and one tiny touch of the enemy means instant death. Unforgiving was a watchword of 80s gaming, and it returns with all its irritating glory in this puzzling release.
But while most publishers seem happy to bundle several retro/arcade titles in one satisfying compilation (e.g. Namco, Williams/Midway, Atari, etc), to see Taito try to peddle a 17-year-old arcade game as a standalone release beggars belief - even if it is at £20 and bundled with a free link cable.
The so-called "vastly improved graphics and sound" amount to nothing more than colourful backdrops, rather than the plain ones of the original. The gameplay remains functionally identical, and the music is the same tune, remixed and generally messed around with - but will still drive you to distraction and be lodged firmly in your brain for the rest of time. Oh, and there is an item library for you to see all the objects you've collected in the game, although why you'd want to is quite beyond us.
Still a classic, but do you care anymore?
But before we kick this into touch, the game itself is still a classic. The simultaneous two-player co-operative dynamic is still as much fun as ever, and yet another great advert for link-up gaming (if you can afford the two carts). However, a word of warning: dispatching the often evil enemy requires a huge amount of skill, and if you've never played the game before you'll probably be cursing it for being so damned tough. But persistence brings its own rewards - not only is it a devilishly addictive little bastard, but the game's various secrets slowly become apparent.
Knowing which of the numerous objects to pick up when can vastly improve your chances of clearing each level: fast bubbles, level skips, huge gems, extra lives and - for those who still care about such things - even huger scores to rack up. It reminds you of a simpler era when gaming innovation happened on an almost weekly basis - but also of an era of excruciatingly simple graphics, painfully hardcore gameplay dynamics, and repetition. As with many games of the era, you'll never get anything out of them unless you play them again and again and again - but times have changed, and this sort of fodder is being punted out by mobile phone companies if that gives you any idea of how far things have moved on.
A final point to raise is why Taito felt the need to demand that multi-player link mode would only work with 12 levels of the old version? It's hard enough to justify buying this ancient classic as it is, without removing the last temptation from the already hard pressed gamer. Buy it if you're a hardcore Bubble Bobble fan with a bottomless pit of cash - otherwise move along. There are plenty of other retro delights far more deserving of your attention, and your money for that matter. Fine Wine or Rotting Corpse? We think you know where we stand.