Bubble Bobble has to be one of my favourite games of all time. I first played a demo of it on a cover tape for the Spectrum (on ACE magazine, there was a scandal you know, initially they accidentally put the entire game on the tape but managed to recall the vast majority of them before the full game got out into the wild). I loved the demo, moved on to a Commodore 64, bought it, loved it again, moved on to an Atari ST, bought it again, and eventually I even bought the double pack of Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands on the Sega Saturn.
Still, the Commodore 64 version was the first I actually bought and if memory serves me correctly I actually bought it from our local pharmacy. There are two things I’ve never quite sussed why pharmacies used to sell, the first of them was 8-bit computer games, the second home brew kits. Neither of them really made sense to me back in the day and they don’t now. 30 odd years on, we even have a pharmacy in At Albans that still sells home brew gear. Madness.
Anyway, back to the beige machine of awesomeness, and one of the first C64 games I played. Firebird published the home conversions of Bubble Bobble and with the C64 they did a pretty good job. Or at least that’s how I remembered it…
Its been a long time since I’ve played Bubble Bobble on the C64. Because of it’s proliferation on more powerful systems, I’ve tended to play it either on MAME or the Sega Saturn. The Saturn version is pretty much arcade perfect anyway, and it’s a great laugh. For the one person out there who has never played Bubble Bobble before, you control one of two cute little dragons who have to negotiate 100 different levels, capturing baddies in bubbles that you blow, and popping those bubbles. The level is over once you’ve disposed of all the baddies. There are collectable power ups in the form of things like shoes (make you go faster) umbrellas (skip a few levels) or things that make you shoot fire, blow bubbles faster and if you pop the bubbles with letters in to spell EXTEND, you get an extra life.
So it was with a little bit of trepidation that I fired up the Commodore 64 version to see whether I was going to be disappointed or not.
Sam: Yay! Bubble Bobble! I love Bubble Bobble and I’m very good at it!
Me: oooh, have we played Bubble Bobble before? When did we do that?
Suddenly I’m worried that this won’t be much of a retro gaming experience if Sam considers it a new game.
Sam: We played it under the stairs when you had your Harry Potter thing set up.
Me: Harry Potter? Eh? What?
Sam: you know, in the little cupboard under the stairs.
Wow. That certainly left an impression on Sam. About 5 years ago, when he was approaching 4 years old, I set up a small unit in the cupboard under the stairs and stuck my white Japanese Sega Saturn* up in it. Shortly afterwards we had our garage converted and for various reasons we didn’t have electricity to the cupboard any more, so it all got boxed up and put back in the loft. Sam’s about to turn 9, so he has a memory and a half!
Me: That was my Sega Saturn, what games do you remember playing? Bubble Bobble, and any others?
Sam: That Snow boarding one [Steep Slope Sliders], one with a Dragon [Panzer Dragoon 1- I’d foolishly traded in Saga in the late 90’s] and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Me: If only you could manage to remember your times tables that well.
Sam actually said “meh”, as a word, not as a grunt.
Me: If I ever hear you say LOL instead of laughing, I’m moving all your stuff out in to the shed you know.
Sam: What’s LOL dad?
Me: Never mind, shall we play some Bubble Bobble then?
Sam: Yes! Can I be the blue dragon? I want to be the blue dragon because my trousers are blue, so it’s the same colour and I’m halfway to being that Dragon.
Me: Okay, that’s player 2 anyway. Did you know that the Dragons are actually two little boys who have been turned in to Dragons? In the sequel Rainbow Islands they’re back to being boys. Same for the third game, Parasol Stars.
Sam: [interrupting] But they were dragons again in that other game with the bubbles you have to shoot?
Me: Bust a Move? Where on earth have you seen that?
Sam: You’ve got it on the PSP and you let me play it in the car once.
Me: I did?
Sam: I love Bubble Bobble.
Dear God he’s obsessed. I’m now very concerned that I’ve not picked the right version of the sodding game. He’s not going to be pleased if it’s not as good as the version he remembers playing. We start the game and immediately I’m reassured. Aside from the trade mark SSID noise and slightly squished sprites, typical of the C64, this IS Bubble Bobble.
Sam: My Dragon looks a bit funny.He’s squished!
Me: A bit, but this is the Commodore 64 version Sam, so it’s a little bit different looking to the Saturn version. The Saturn is a much more powerful machine.
Sam: The screens not going to do that horrible flashing thing is it?
Me: Nope. Don’t worry, just have fun.
Sam: See? I told you we were AWESOME!
Sam is right and you know what? Bubble Bobble on the C64 is likewise AWESOME. Yes, the graphics are a bit scrunched up in that classic C64 fashion, and the music, whilst still as catchy as ever, it has been put through the Commodore sound chip, so isn’t quite a chirpy as it could be.
Bubble Bobble though is just plain fun. It’s truly one of those all time classics. What the C64 conversion does well is retain the speed and snappy control of the arcade original. It is a very good conversion of a very good game.
But that’s now two arcade conversions on the trot, so next week we’re going off piste with something a bit different. What is it? You’ll have to tune in to find out…
*Japanese Saturns are the best because PAL machines ran at 50Mhz, rather than the 60Mhz that Japanese Saturns did. As was common back then, games often weren’t properly optimised for PAL release, they just ran slower. 20% slower in fact. You could use an Action Replay cartridge to circumvent the region lock but you had to have your machine “chipped” to alter the thing from 50 to 60Mhz. Back in the day this required soldering and a hole cut into the case for a toggle switch.