Touhou Spell Bubble is somehow one of the most unusual, yet simultaneously most conventional, games I’ve played in 2020. It’s also one of the more enchanting and mystifying ones. While it is a Puzzle Bubble game, a lack of marketing and its Touhou Project trappings guarantee it a niche audience. A $54.99 price tag doesn’t help, since people might not realize why costs so much. All of this is a shame, because it is one of my favorite games of the year.
Its campaign is clever and, in true Touhou Project fashion, begins with an incident. This time, it’s a relatively positive one. Marisa Kirisiame, Alice Margatroid and Patchouli Knowledge made a new game console that relies on Spirit Power (basically a Switch), and the game Spell Bubble is the latest phenomenon. Everyone’s playing it, and there’s even a tournament coming up. Hakurei shrine maiden Reimu is still suspicious, so she decides to investigate by playing iconic characters all around Gensokyo and gets into the tournament. (Meeting and besting each one unlocks them as a playable character, as you might expect.)
Of course, that’s only one side of the story. There’s more to it than that. Reimu’s campaign is cleverly filled with cameos and dialogue that cleverly jokes about the competitive gaming scene. (It’s handled so well that I think even people unfamiliar with Touhou Project would get a kick out of it.) Then, once you’re done, the more challenging Marisa Arc opens up and acts as a prequel. Which, well, sends Marisa around to talk to those same people.
Where things get interesting is how Touhou Spell Bubble approaches the Puzzle Bobble formula. It’s a competitive game that involves someone in a head-to-head campaign, versus or puzzle stage trying to survive the match by sending as much garbage as possible to trip the opponent up. The person with the highest “score,” represented by bubbles that overwhelmed the opponent, wins. Easy and Normal difficulties are available and can be swapped at any time during the campaign before a match. (Other modes also add Hard and Lunatic difficulties.) Both Reimu and Marisa also eventually earn different Spell Cards, special skills that can eliminate large batches of bubbles, help you build up combos or cause trouble for your opponent, that can be set ahead of a round. (Other characters also have three Spell Cards you can earn in other modes, as well as certain abilities.)
— Jenni Lada (@JMariye) November 2, 2020
It’s that combo system that makes Touhou Spell Bubble so enjoyable and infectious. Yes, your goal is to match three or more bubbles to eliminate them and send trash to a foe. But this is both a puzzle and rhythm game. When a chain is large enough, you’ll get a moment where you press A in time with the beat to build up spirit power and deal devastating damage to your foe… by sending more bubbles. When you get a great combo, you have to keep time and pop at price moments to do well. Even better is when your gauge fills and your Power Awakens. Because then, you get a massive screen filled with bubbles waiting to be popped and so, so many indicators that can devastate an opponent.
— Jenni Lada (@JMariye) November 12, 2020
It is unbelievably satisfying. Especially since, even if you’re losing and just had the scales tip in your foe’s favor by having too many bubbles appear, the game gives you a Counter opportunity to retaliate.
— Jenni Lada (@JMariye) November 3, 2020
It is at these moments that Touhou Spell Bubble is at its best. That’s because all of the Puzzle Bubble mechanics you might otherwise take for granted, like swapping to the second bubble in line, causing rows to advance or waiting for trash to appear, can work together with your character’s special abilities and the music to unleash combos that your opponent can’t possibly recover from. Also, when you hit a point in the story, you’ll start getting combos where you quickly tap 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5 and even 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 times in a row as the music plays to swat that insignificant mosquito who nipped at you.
As you probably gleaned from those examples, Touhou Spell Bubble’s music is amazing. Which makes sense, because Taito’s Zuntata is involved in the track list and many amazing Touhou Project arrangements from the original artists are involved. Yes, songs like “Marisa Stole the Precious Thing,” “Imagina,” “Night of Knights” and “Cirno’s Perfect Math Class all appear. Each has a difficulty assigned to it in the Versus modes, with people able to freely choose the track, while the campaign and challenges have assigned songs. It’s a fantastic score. A double-edged sword too, as I suspect the licensing fees are responsible for the intimidating price-tag. (Another Taito rhythm game, Groove Coaster: Wai Wai Party, suffers from the same fate.)
There are a respectable number of modes present too. The campaign is rather extensive, especially since you have two arcs. You can play versus matches against the CPU. Challenge puts you in a specific match against a certain character and song with a certain Spell Card set. Battle Mode offers local multiplayer matches. You can also buy more songs and Spell Cards for characters who aren’t Marisa and Reimu.
The only downside is, the Side Story campaigns are sold as DLC and not included. As of November 11, 2020, only Music and Song Pack add-ons were available outside Japan. Considering how much the game does cost, it would have been a nice show of goodwill to have a one or two included, so you don’t get a whole “Side Stories cannot be played unless a Side Story pack has been purchased” message.
Touhou Spell Bubble is something special. I’d call it the best Touhou Project spin-off to be localized and one of the best Puzzle Bubble games in years. I do wish it included some Side Stories at the outset and some elements are intimidating. However, it’s so unusual and unique. I can’t say I’ve played any puzzle game like it. It definitely is the sort of title a person might have to see to understand and the price could be off-putting, but I’ve been lowkey obsessed with it and its formula for a week and love how it works.
Touhou Spell Bubble is available for the Nintendo Switch.