Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

#166 – Bubble Bobble

And we’ll all float on okay.

The bubbles only get bigger from here.

To Beat: Defeat the final boss
To Complete: Get the true ending
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 10/4/20 – 10/7/20
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
My Video: Bubble Bobble Longplay

The “clear ‘em up” is a game subgenre that I have heard of in passing but has not stuck as any sort of general gaming term.  With a little explanation, I can get it to make sense.  Clear ‘em up refers to a single screen action platformer where the object is to clear out all the enemies in the stage before moving on to the next.  These games at one time were really prominent in the arcades, and I think they hold up as an ideal arcade experience.  These are simple games that you can look at and understand easily, often with very colorful, eye catching graphics and tons of powerups and collectables.  They are fun games that can ramp up in difficulty quickly enough to convince you to pop in more quarters and keep going.  I really enjoyed playing Snow Brothers a few years back, but now it’s time to get to the most well known game of this style that certainly inspired many others after it.

Bubble Bobble was first an arcade release in 1986, developed by Taito.  The game was designed by Fukio Mitsuji.  He wanted to make a game that would appeal to everyone, particularly women.  Therefore, he put focus on bubbles as a core gameplay component as something that he thought would be appealing, as well as two-player cooperative play as a way to engage couples to play together.  The game was a big hit for Taito and was widely ported to many computers and consoles.  Bubble Bobble would go on to have around 20 sequels as well as an entire side series, Puzzle Bobble.  The NES version began in Japan on the Famicom Disk System, released in October 1987.  The North American NES port was released in November 1988, and the PAL version came out in October 1990.  All these versions were developed and published by Taito.

The story of this game follows two brothers, Bubby and Bobby. The evil Baron Von Blubba has kidnapped their girlfriends and transformed the brothers into bubble-blowing dinosaurs named Bub and Bob.  To rescue them, they must go 100 levels deep into the Cave of Monsters.  The NES manual tells a slightly different story for this port of the game.  Bub and Bob are already dinosaurs and must rescue two friends who were captured by Baron Von Blubba.

The first stage is pretty iconic.

The gameplay loop is Bubble Bobble is simple.  Like the arcade version you can play alone or with a friend.  Both players control identically.  Bub can walk around with the D-pad.  You press A to jump and press B to blow bubbles.  The idea is that you blow a bubble at an enemy, trapping it inside.  You then pop the bubble to defeat the enemy.  You can jump up into the bubble, fall through the bubble, shove it again the wall, or simply run through it.  You just need to apply enough force to pop it, otherwise you push it around.  If a bubble is popped, any bubble it touches is also popped, chain reaction style.  If you clear multiple enemies in this way, you get a nice score bonus that scales up with how many enemies you kill at once.  When all enemies are defeated, there is a short delay before you proceed via bubble to the next stage.

The bubbles also afford you some movement options.  By holding down the A button, you will bounce off of any bubble in the stage.  This is most easily done from above, but you can also jump up against the side of a bubble if you can get just slightly above it.  You can use this bubble riding technique to reach higher ledges or escape enemies in some situations.  Every level has these invisible currents in the open spaces that push the bubbles in some direction.  Throwing bubbles all over the place (and you can throw a lot of them, go crazy!) will help reveal the currents and help you route the stage.

The walls also have some interesting properties in this game.  Each stage layout consists of only open spaces and solid tiles.  A lot of times enemies appear to be trapped inside the walls, but they are reachable.  The wall tiles are solid in every direction except from underneath, so that you can jump up and through the floor.  But once part of you is inside the wall, then you can pass through any consecutive wall tiles freely.  From there, any open spaces make adjacent walls solid again.  This is a tricky explanation that probably doesn’t make much sense, but it is easy to grasp when you actually play the game.  It’s both complicated and intuitive.

Bundle them up for a big combo!

There are many different enemies in this game.  They have different names depending on where you look, but for this review I’ll use the names listed in the NES manual.

Bubble Buster: Basic enemy that appears in the first stage.  They walk slowly.  Sometimes they stop and jump up, catch the ledge above them if there is one.  This is the basic enemy movement that is shared with several other enemies.

Stoner: This is a white hooded enemy that looks like a ghost.  He moves similar to Bubble Buster.  Sometimes he will toss out a slow, indestructible rock at you, so you don’t want to spend too much time on his level.

Beluga:  Kind of looks like a beluga whale if you squint hard enough.  This enemy flies through the level at diagonals, bouncing off any walls in his path.

Hullaballoon:  This floating enemy sort of resembles a balloon, I guess.  This enemy bounces off of walls like the Beluga, opting for greater horizontal movement than vertical movement.

Coiley: An enemy with a spring bottom, Coiley moves in forward hops.  He is a faster moving enemy than most.

Incendo:  Looks like a rock with a face.  Incendo has the standard movement pattern but will fire a quick moving fireball at you.

Willy Whistle:  Another standard walking enemy.  This one throws a bottle at you with boomerang action and will throw his bottle rather quickly if you cross his path.

Super Socket: This enemy is called Invader in other regions and understand why when you see it.  This enemy only walks, no jumping, and he fires a downward laser shot at a consistent rhythm.

Baron von Blubba: This enemy is shaped like Beluga and only appears when you have been in a stage for too long.  You’ll get a “Hurry!” message first, followed soon after by the Baron’s ominous arrival tune.  Baron von Blubba is invincible and moves orthongonally toward your position through walls in short spurts until either he catches you or you defeat all the enemies.

Some enemies walk, some enemies fly.

This game is also known for the wide variety of items and powerups.  Simply defeating enemies cause them to get knocked away dramatically until they land and turn into a food item.  Beating enemies in a combo turns each enemy into progressively better and better food items, from a points perspective.  There are many, many other items that appear throughout the game, too many to list.  Evidently, all of them have some sort of condition that triggers them, stuff that you will do naturally through gameplay but are not tracked in any visible way so that it feels random.  Some examples of items are candy that enhances your bubbles, shoes that increase your running speed, umbrellas that warp you several levels ahead, crosses that give you various screen clearing capabilities, and many more.  There are also gobs of items that just give you points, like food, gems, crystals, etc.

Some stages also have attack bubbles in them.  There are three kinds of attack bubbles.  The blue water bubbles when popped drop a small stream of water that flows down through the bottom of the screen, defeating any enemy it touches, leaving a nice point item behind.  The red fire bubbles that look like they have balloons on them drop a flame that covers the ground in flames for a short while.  These flames kill enemies but stun you a bit, preventing you from jumping and causing you to walk slowly while touching them.  Green lightning bubbles fire a bolt of lightning across the screen in the opposite direction you are facing.  When enemies are placed in hard-to-reach spots, these attack bubbles are most useful.

Another thing you will see are letter bubbles.  These are triggered by combos of three or more enemies.  They can only appear on stages with an open top or bottom as that is how they enter the screen, but they will queue up for later stages in you spawn them in an area they cannot enter.  There are also powerups that can cause these to appear.  Pop these bubbles to add the printed letter to your side of the screen.  The goal is to spell out EXTEND which, when all collected, ends the current level immediately and gives you an extra life!

The coileys are hard to reach, so lightning bubbles are useful.

Once you reach stage 100, you come across the boss.  In the manual he is named Grumple Grommit, though I have always heard him referred to as Super Drunk.  This is a very large enemy that looks like a Willy Whistle but moves like a Beluga.  He also shoots a spread of bottles ahead of him periodically.  The boss is too big to capture in a bubble on your own.  At the top of the stage is a lightning potion that turns your bubbles into lightning bubbles.  The level counter at the top of the screen becomes the boss’s health meter.  Run his health out to enclose him inside a bubble, then pop it to defeat the boss, but what happens next you’ll have to read about in the spoiler section later on.

At the start of the game, you are given two extra lives per player.  One way to earn extra lives is by meeting these point thresholds: 30,000, 100,000, 200,000, 400,000, and 1,000,000.  The EXTEND bubbles also give you an extra life, as well as a rare item.  When you run out of lives, if you are playing two player and the other player has lives remaining, they can gift you a life to get you back into the game.  When all lives are lost, it is Game Over.  There are passwords for each stage in the game.  The passwords are five letters long, only characters A-J.  The only downside to Game Over is that your score resets to 0, if you care about such things.

Bubble Bobble was one of my childhood games.  We had picked it up used at some point, not sure where.  I do remember reading about this game a lot in old gaming magazines, and I’m sure that was what prompted us to search this one out.  It is a common enough game that we may have grabbed it at a yard sale or something.  It will forever be a mystery.  I do recall that I liked this game enough to search out its sequels: Rainbow Islands and Bubble Bobble Part 2.  I was able to get the former but not the latter.  Bubble Bobble has hovered around a $20 price point for many years now.  I know I sold a couple of extra copies for about that much a few years ago back.

Ride the bottle wave! (Actually don’t)

Now it’s time to dive into spoiler territory about how this game ends.  Playing straight through to the boss and defeating him gives you the bad ending and the following text: “This is not a true ending! Take the magical crystal ball.  And you will find the door to secret road!”  This is in reference to Level 99 just before this.  If you read the manual, it discloses a secret in Level 99 as well.  In that stage there is a crystal ball that appears on the right side.  Grab it to open a secret door hidden behind an enemy boxed off in the low part of the screen.  You enter that door to proceed to stage A0, the true stage 100.  The door is meant to be entered using both players, one to grab the crystal and the other to go through the door, as the items only appear for a short time.  It is tough but possible to do it solo, which is what I did.  After this sequence, levels proceed on as normal, A0-A9 and B0-B2.  Following that is the same boss fight as before.  Defeat him this time, and you get something a little different.  You float over to the left and your girlfriends break free and float to the bottom, but they disappear in a puff of smoke.  You see this text displayed: “This is not a true ending! Try again with your friend.” The trick here is that you are supposed to beat the boss with two players.  Since you are saving two friends shown on screen, it does make some sense.  However, you can do this with one player as well.  Pressing Select when paused brings the second player in, even on one-player mode, if you have a life to spare.  You bubble up the boss, bring your partner in, and pop the boss bubble to trigger the Happy End.  But we aren’t quite done here, as the ending scrawl states that “your adventure is not over yet.”  You are given a password that begins an entirely new quest from the beginning.

Super Bubble Bobble is the name of this game’s second quest.  There aren’t that many changes between this and the normal game.  The level layouts are exactly the same, but the level palettes and block styles are changed.  The biggest difference is that some of the enemies are swapped around.  I had thought it was as simple as exchanging one enemy for another throughout all levels of the game, but looking deeper at individual levels, I couldn’t find any consistent pattern.  It simply depends on the stage for what enemy mix you get.  Generally, weaker enemies are replaced with stronger ones, while some levels contain easier enemies than their normal mode counterparts.  Overall, I’d say Super Bubble Bobble is only slightly more challenging as a whole.  To get the true ending, you need to follow the same beats at the normal game: Get the crystal in 99, enter the secret door, and defeat the boss in B3 with two players active. This time Super Drunk has 80 health instead of 60, but the fight stays the same.  When you defeat Super Drunk in the normal mode, he falls away typical of any Bubble Bobble bad guy.  In Super mode, he explodes in a puff of smoke when popped, and Bub and Bob’s mama and papa appear.  The true ending features a bonus screen of all characters with their non-localized names, a nice little treat.

Super Bubble Bobble tweaks the game with swapped enemies.

Here’s a small bit of minutia about this game and its endings.  I had read about there being four endings, but I could only trigger three of them easily, the missing one being the alternate bad ending.  In normal mode only, if you continue with a password beyond Stage 99, the game gives you the “get the crystal ball” bad ending instead of the “try again with a friend” bad ending.  I tried a few different passwords but all gave the same result.  I then took a password to Stage 99, went through the door, and beat the boss one player in Room B3, and that time I got the proper “try again with a friend” ending that I would have expected.  Super Bubble Bobble does not have this same effect; I always get the “try again with a friend” ending from any password I tried past Level 99.  I think this is some kind of bug or omission in the game programming.  Unless you play straight through, I can see where this might have led to some confusion on how to get the better endings.

The NES port of this game is a solid home conversion, but there are several differences from the arcade version.  The NES version omits many point-bearing items from the arcade version but introduces a few new ones to make up for it.  Some levels were changed while others were added to the NES version.  Of course, this game has a password system that the arcade version understandably lacks.  The arcade version also includes secret rooms accessible by reaching certain areas without losing any lives up to that point.  These secret rooms have encoded messages for players to decipher that explain the conditions for getting the true ending, including a secret code to start the game in Super Bubble Bobble mode.  Perhaps the definitive version of this game is on Sega Master System, released in Japan as Final Bubble Bobble and Europe as simply Bubble Bobble.  This game is a set of 200 levels with no Super Bubble Bobble mode, but the biggest change is that this game has secret rooms that contain special items that are required for the best ending.  There are special conditions to trigger these rooms and I presume they are difficult to find.  The Japanese version contained hints as to the whereabouts of these rooms, but those were omitted from the European version, making it that much harder to finish.  I am definitely going to check this game out someday on my own.

I would say that Bubble Bobble on NES is one of those essential games to have in any collection.  Now I’ll be the first to admit that the presentation is a bit lacking.  This game has simple graphics and really just the one song that plays over almost the entire game.  I like the song though I know it can be a nuisance.  The controls are solid and responsive but take some getting used to.  Your jump works better in the vertical than it does horizontally, making movement across some stages challenging.  This is amplified by the fluidity in which you can enter and exit from walls.  I find the gameplay loop very satisfying.  Though the action stays largely the same, the level layouts do enough to change things up in small ways.  The vast breadth of items you can collect is really fun, and sometimes you get an item you’ve never seen before that has drastic effects on the stage, sometimes outright clearing it for you. Those moments of discovery are pretty cool.  This game is an excellent two-player game that is very beginner friendly.  The game also has depth for the player who wants challenge in seeking out the true ending.  Bubble Bobble is the main reason why I find this weird subgenre of games so enjoyable.

#166 – Bubble Bobble

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  1. Hong Il Yoo

    Just by looking at those screenshots, I can hear the Bubble Bobble theme in my head. Taito must have hired an evil genius to compose that theme.

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