Thanks to ININ Games for the review code
Title: Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron is Back
Release Date: 11/17/2020
In this arcade action game, you take control of Bub, Bob, and their two new friends as they set out on an adventure in a bedroom of dreams, taking on bosses and using their bubbles to stop havoc! There’s not much of a plot here besides the tried and true arcade-style setup, but it does help serve as a cute introduction to the game.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends goes for a really cute presentation, and definitely feels like a huge step up after several recent low-budget sequels to Bubble Bobble, such as the DS and Wii games, so this major improvement really helps to bring the characters to life in their cute, cuddly forms!
The 3D models here are very pleasing to look at and fit the theme of a bedroom plush toy remarkably well, and each of the worlds do a fair job at envisioning a fantasy setting using household objects or backgrounds. The voice clips are identical to what you may have heard Bub and Bob say in other Taito stuff like Bust-A-Move, meaning they’re still as adorable as they’ve always been.
The music was easily the biggest surprise of the entire package. Sure, the Bubble Bobble arcade theme got remixed for what feels like the bajillionth time, but the other songs in this OST are perfectly fitting of the Bubble Bobble world, with plenty of them definitely coming off as iPod worthy despite the game seeming so innocent for such great songs! Seriously, they stuck in my head as much, if not more so than the original BB arcade theme did, and now I’m wanting to own a soundtrack CD of this game’s music, because the remixes and original songs on display here are really that good!
It isn’t just the new stuff on display in 4 Friends, though as the original 1986 Arcade game is fully brought over in emulated fashion, accessible as soon as you watch the intro cutscenes, and playable from start to finish. Unfortunately, the display options for this reissue are rather lacking, only allowing you to turn on scanlines with the R2 button, and adjust the screen size between two options with the L2 button, and that’s all the options you get. No DIP switch settings, no further size options, no border options, or really anything that would make this port anything besides a cool novelty that runs and sounds great.
The only presentation-focused gripe I have with this port comes from how whenever you change either the screen or scanline setting, the whole game stutters for a second, adjusting to the other option. Since you can’t turn off or hide the option to change the screen with the shoulder buttons, that means accidentally bumping them will cause an annoying stutter and it just seems silly that it would even stutter at all to begin with, since changing screen size and such could have been relegated to a pause menu option with ease. Still, besides this very irritating quirk, the game itself runs and sounds fine with no in-game stuttering or audio emulation issues that I could notice during my complete run of the game.
BB4F brings the old and the new together in one package, and since the original game is available from the get-go, let’s just finish talking about that port before moving onto the modern content. As noted above, the original arcade game is here and runs rather excellently, but lacks DIP Switch stuff and anything like it in terms of options, besides the aforementioned screen toggles.
For unaware, both BB4F and the original game are controlled very simply, with you being tasked with playing as Bub and Bob to rescue their girlfriends in the original game. You have a jump button, and an attack button, and this attack lets you spit out bubbles that surround enemies. Stomp on the captured enemies, and the bubbles will explode, possibly leading to a chain reaction and a lot of points. Each stage in the Arcade game is single-screen, and moves you straight to the next screen when all enemies are cleared. Starting out as a fairly simple game, Bubble Bobble gets devilishly difficult mid-way through, and by the end of the game it outright becomes a puzzle game in the sense of having to find ways to even reach the enemies you need to take out. Whether it’s by bouncing on your own bubbles, finding ways to phase through walls, or having a powerup defeat a defensive enemy, Bubble Bobble is a pretty genius arcade game, and local co-op makes it even better, with it being the easiest way to get the true ending. There’s tons of secret warps, items, levels, EXTEND bubbles to skip a stage, and all sorts of crazy things to discover in this game, and just lots of fun to rack up points in general!
Unfortunately, an irritating flaw with this emulated release is made pretty apparent when you register on the local leaderboards, as when you turn the game off, the entire arcade machine resets without any saved high-scores, or any way to locally save the leaderboard whatsoever. This is pretty disappointing, especially if you were hoping to challenge yourself with scorechasing like the old days, and the only saving grace on this front is that you do have online leaderboard support for the arcade game, which works even with the unlimited continues you’re provided. Yet, I can’t help but feel having the high scores save locally would have made it far more enticing for pick-up and play, and considering online leaderboards weren’t even in this game originally, it’s baffling that this oversight never got addressed. Still, if you want to play through the original Bubble Bobble, 4 Friends is an excellent way to do it.
So, with the retro side covered, how does the modern content stack up? I’m pleased to say that it feels like a natural, logical evolution of the original game, adapted for a modern audience without dumbing things down or losing its identity. Instead of 100 screens of pain and challenge, the game is broken up into five worlds with ten stages each, with the five worlds getting a harder version after you beat them all on normal. Each world gradually gets harder and trains you to learn the mechanics if you’re new, or to refresh them if you’re familiar, and I think that’s a great thing that makes this game easy to jump into for all players.
The controls are pretty much the same as the Arcade, which makes it super simple to jump between the two. You still have bubbles to trap enemies in, point items to collect, and chains to create, leading to the worlds in 4 Friends feeling more rapid-fire and perfect for quick sessions, though that may also come off as a negative due to how brief these worlds can feel. That being said, there is replay value here, with a star ranking system along with how EXTEND bubbles are now collectables akin to the Star Coins from Mario games, plus the online leaderboards work for this new stuff too, making these stages far more worth replaying than the original arcade game, even for local purposes.
Just like the arcade game, you can even do Co-Op, but up to four players this time around! You and any Co-op players share a pool of lives, but you have unlimited continues at the ready if you need them, although it’ll reset your score and impact your star ranking if you need to use one. Still, with even just one person along for the ride, the game becomes a lot more frantic and fun, and the short length makes it a breeze, too. Of course, while the harder versions of each world bring the stage total for new content up to 100, like the original game, it can definitely seem a lot shallower than most other games of this type, and that’s where the titular Baron content comes into play.
Dubbed “Arcade of the Future”, the new update included in this PS4 release adds a whopping 100 extra stages on top of the 100 already in the base game, and these 100 are done old-school arcade style: limited lives, no continues, see how far you can get in the tower. Since the main game gets pretty devious near the end of the 50 stages, and the harder levels get even more tricky, you can rightfully assume that this dungeon ups the pressure to the max, feeling like the perfect kind of post-game challenge for an arcade throwback like this, as adding a lot of content is a great move, let alone a mode with a lot of replay value. Honestly, playing Arcade of the Future was something I found more enjoyable than going through the original arcade game, which I was pretty pleased to see.
Overall, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends serves as a fantastic way of introducing newcomers such as myself to the series, along with welcoming back veterans with a mix of new and old. With 200 levels to mess around with, plus the entirety of the original arcade game, there’s a good amount of fun to be had in this package, whether you’re coming primarily for the retro or the new, 4 Friends is a great way to have a fun time with a friend or two.
Considering how my only complaint with this relates to the quirks of the original arcade game’s emulation, (the lack of local hi-scores, irritating stuttering when changing options, etc), I’d say that Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is an excellent retro revival that’s absolutely worth checking out, even if the price point does make it rather tough to recommend for a digital purchase. Luckily, a physical PS4 version is out now, and if you’re willing to spend the $40, you will get a quality arcade throwback out of it worth your time.
I give Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron is Back an 8 out of 10.