Bubble Bobble is one of those video game series that holds a special place in a lot of hearts. This usually means that those same fans get excited for new releases on new formats while the next generation of gamers can familiarise themselves with a true classic in a new suit. It also means that there's bound to be criticism headed the way of each new game's developer, especially considering Bubble Bobble is such a classic game and that with each new instalment the formula gets tweaked more and more.
Bubble Bobble 4 Friends hints at it being the fourth game in the series, but in a series which has at least three different Bubble Bobble 2s, it's rather hard to make things clear. As opposed to the re-releases from the past few years, such as the Arcade Archives version for PlayStation 4 and new takes on the formula such as Bubble Bobble: Double Shot for Nintendo DS, we often get new games that tie back to the roots of the franchise. Small maps that take up one screen each, enemies with specific move-sets that have to be annihilated through bubbles, and the two dragons Bub and Bob at the forefront. In this game, however, Bub and Bob have two new friends with them. Of course, this isn't a brand-new concept, as Bubble Symphony, Bubble Bobble Neo and Bubble Bobble Plus all had four dragons to choose from (the latter of which you could play four at a time). The additions to the character roster do, however, make Bubble Bobble 4 Friends into a party game where you'll get to co-operate instead of fight each other.
Even though the setup is the same as it was in the original, we'd say that the core gameplay could leave old fans disappointed after thirty years of dragon jumping and bubble popping. This is because of the fact that 4 Friends differs from the original in more ways than one and none of the changes are good. When you die in the game, you'll have a very short time to get back into the action before dying again, which sometimes means you'll die multiple time to the same enemies if those enemies stick around your corpse. If you're half a step above your enemy, your bubbles don't hit them but rather they graze the metaphorical hairs on their heads. It's also generally harder to hit your enemies when you're close to them, making it really difficult to time tough jumps and hit someone mid-air. The biggest change, however, is the fact that the bubbles move significantly slower than they used to. You don't have to hold the jump button to bounce on top of them anymore, instead, you have to press down on the d-pad to burst them at all. This makes it easier to move around but harder to control when trying to burst bubbles. Speaking of which, the bubbles are also oddly heavy and our normal strategy to spray them while we run in the same direction doesn't work anymore since we get stuck in the bubbles.
The rest of the changes feel odd but are easier to accept, such as the fact that you can only jump through seethrough platforms that make each level more linear. Instead of the seemingly random (but well thought out) bonus items you get a set bonus at the end of each level. The bubbles still follow set airstreams, but you actually see those streams in the game this time, which makes it hard to see what's trying to kill you on each map. The airstreams can be toggled off, though. There are also maps that introduce spike traps and oddly placed enemies that prompt you to take a detour for no reason, which is a bit annoying. This is Bubble Bobble, not Dark Souls.
Instead of the varied power bonuses from the previous games, you get specific upgrades for Bub that grant him various abilities. You can only have one equipped at any given time and most of them are rather useless. The ability to shoot ten bubbles at once is, for example, hard to actually make use of and the bomb bubbles that explode after a set time are hard to manage. The last one, which gives you the ability to dash through an enemy, makes the game a bit fresher and actually has a use that doesn't sabotage your own gameplay. However, to get the latter ability, you have to complete the first fifty levels and see the "end" of the game. This unlocks fifty new levels, although they are basically the same as before but with harder enemies placed throughout. After every tenth level, you'll also encounter a boss. These tend to vary from easy as pie to outright unfair.
If we sound disappointed, that's because we are. Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is, at its core, an okay party platformer, but the limited number of levels makes the game feel stagnant after a while, that is unless you want to go hunting for leaderboard placements locally. Everything is more fun with friends, but one has to make sure you have a pro controller for each player on hand since the joystick on the Joy-Con is a bit too stiff to work well. A positive that comes with playing with friends is the fact that you won't immediately lose a life if your friend manages to reach you in time. This also brings with it a test of sorts if your friends are too far away at the moment you need their help.
The game is set in a child's room where the parents have a Bubble Bobble arcade game stuffed in a corner, which is playable. This arcade game is an extremely faithful reconstruction of the original with a two-player mode, and it's pretty much the perfect Bubble Bobble experience. Everything is rebuilt to perfection. The controller doesn't work great, but for those who don't own the arcade version, it's an acceptable alternative.
It's rather perplexing that PS4 arcade fans got the original two years ago, but the Switch misses out. We'd guess that's because Nintendo wanted to keep fans of the series hungry for this newer take on the classic formula. Still, while we don't agree with all of the changes that have been made, if you don't want to spend hundreds of pounds on a cabinet to play a game from 1986, and if you don't own a PlayStation 4, then Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is a solid buy.