A few years ago, my wife and I went to the Future Artists arcade pop-up experience in Salford. It featured tons of cabinets from Arcade Club in Bury, and the stand-out hits for Mrs. Stu were Defender and Bubble Bobble. Prising her off them so the little kiddies could play was a job of work, I can tell you…
But that speaks to the power of classic arcade games. The fact these games were well over thirty years old meant nothing to her – we’re talking about timeless vehicles of pure enjoyment, and finely tuned challenges to boot.
4 Friends is as candy-coated-cutesy as the original. Your little dinosaur pal spits bubbles that can trap enemies; popping the bubbles defeats them. You can also use these little transparent spheres as floating platforms, essential after the first few levels. New to the series are limited use power-ups you can unlock by collecting the ‘EXTEND’ letter bubbles, that give you explosives, a dash that lets you clip through enemies and other juicy upgrades.
Stages are single screens, and you don’t move over to the next until all the cute little opponents are defeated. Their AI turns the platforming itself into a puzzle, along with an airflow system that makes bubble flight paths more intricate, but the Bubble Bobble games are always balanced so that they are do-able: not simplistic but not head-scratching either, with speed and score separating the adult T-Rexes from the youthful reptilians.
Somewhat inevitably, BB4F does come up short of Taito’s stellar 80s and 90s work. That in itself is a bit of a shame, especially as just a couple of tweaks would have made a world of difference.
The most obvious issue is that there is no online multiplayer, which is an absolute shocker. It takes what could have been a wonderful co-op experience accessible by everyone, and walls it off to all but the handful who have four Dualshock controllers, a willing family and a fair bit of time to spare. And during a pandemic, as well – a real opportunity missed, there.
The gameplay is also geared towards having all four dinos co-operating to win, and going at it solo is a bit of an unbalanced experience. The stages are large, your walk speed slow and – the most baffling decision in my eyes – warping has been removed.
You see, in the original games (and much like in Pac-Man) some sections at the edge of the screen allow you to ‘warp’ elsewhere. This was great tactical design, as you could nip between sections and take-out baddies at high speed. It was also brilliant in the way it sped the game up. Zipping back and forth to finish off the enemy sprites could often be achieved with a cheeky flit through one of these magical barriers.
Stock difficulty is very much on the easy side, even in solo play, but completing the five worlds and their bosses rewards you with Hard Mode. If the standard difficulty is pitched at little kids (and it really is; you’ll finish it in under an hour) then Hard Mode is where the game really settles into gear. In fairness the difficulty can be cruel and the AI a tad rogueish, but infinite continues helps curb the urge to fling the controller skyward.
A few more niggles get in the way of BB4F being totally essential, the main one being that you have very few iframes (the duration of invincibility you have when starting a new life) which makes some sections completely broken. It’s far too easy to get caught in a death loop, and I’d love to see the game patched to improve spawn points and iframes.
With these technical drawbacks, the best thing is to treat the game as a bright, chaotic distraction that you and some roped-in family members can fling themselves at for an afternoon. Oh, and if you do get fed-up, there’s a full port of the original Bobble Bobble arcade game in there, unlocked from the start, to play instead. Cool, huh?
P.S. Taito, please patch-in multiplayer. Oh, and the modern graphics are fine, but please stick a retro-themed skin option in there as well, yeah? Cheers!