It’s an especially bad time right now for local multiplayer games. As the world hunkers down to slow the spread of COVID-19, it’s hard to justify picking up a title that, to get the most out of it, requires more people. It’s a bad development for the American launch of Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, a game that released in Japan and Europe months ago under better circumstances.
But hey: some of you are stuck inside with some other people, whether they’re family or roommates, and it’s possible you’re even more ready for a new cooperative diversion than ever. So is Bubble Bobble 4 Friends also 4 You?
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is hardly the fourth game in the Bubble Bobble series – there’ve been over a dozen – but the choice to use a number for the first time since 1995 is a significant one: this is a back-to-basics release that focuses on jump-in-and-play arcade antics. Its real innovation, if it has one, is its support for four players, and widescreen levels designed to let that many people move around and accomplish things at once. Otherwise, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends really wants to deliver an experience that reminds you of its ancestors. It soundtrack is a simple update of existing tunes. Its enemies are largely the same. If the game could justify just doing the same thing the old games did, it chose to do precisely that.
The single-screen levels aren’t particularly complicated, and you’re certainly going to blow through them if you split them four ways, but they do seem designed to let certain players specialize in certain tasks. For example, heading in one direction from the start encounters more enemies, while the other offers a bubble-bouncing traversal challenge. If you’re stuck playing alone, this does mean more of an elongated, tedious path than something quick and varied, since these stages are designed to keep one skilled player from totally shutting others out of any action.
There’s some clear love of Bubble Bobble here, and that gives the game a cozy feel. The character models and levels are all created with a lot of knowledge of what the franchise has done before. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar. There’s a value in that. If that weren’t enough, there’s also a fully-playable copy of the original Bubble Bobble included here, presented as a cabinet in the in-game world that runs whether you’re using it or not. This approach, which has shown up before in games like Sega Genesis Classics, is still charming whenever we see it.
There are some missteps in execution that can’t be totally ignored. Characters’ bubble shots have a very limited hitbox, which, as the bubble animations float about and the enemies’ models extend beyond the area you need to fire to capture them, make for something of a frustrating time. Attempts at being clever aren’t exactly rewarded here, even with the myriad half-walls and bubble piles to make your perch less than exactly level.
There’s also the matter of the bosses that pop up every ten levels, which are largely pattern recognition fights that don’t respond very much to the players’ movement. As such, you generally wait out of reach, see what’s going to happen, then shoot a bunch of bubbles at a big target. It doesn’t help that these fights are exceptions to the game’s logic rather than extensions of it. After all, if the boss shoots out foes, why can’t you bubble those foes? Why do they have no effect? We’d have loved a further exploration of what a Bubble Bobble level can be, and this game just doesn’t attempt that.
Complicating the situation is the game’s value proposition. It’s not something that’s generally a crucial part of considering a game’s worth, but Bubble Bobble 4 Friends sports a $40 price tag on a platform chock-full of local co-op wonders with either much more to do (like Kirby Star Allies and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate) or a much lower price (like, well, half the indies on the eShop). It’s a decision borne of another time, and it makes it tough to recommend.
If you’re looking for something to pass large amounts of time either by yourself or with your sequestered compatriots, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends simply isn’t the answer. It’s ready to provide short windows of respite and whimsy, which would fit better in most players’ lives… anytime but now. Perhaps it’ll reach a more reasonable price point for its offerings once this moment in history has passed; then, it’ll have a better chance.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends will release on Nintendo Switch in North America on March 31, 2020. It’s already available in Europe and Japan.