Despite being one of the most popular games of the early arcade era, Bubble Bobble remains nowhere to be found on today’s gaming scene. For some perspective, the last Bubble Bobble game was released in 2009. Why? I doubt that the game’s gameplay is at fault. After spending some time with 1994’s Bubble Symphony, I can say that the core game remains as strong as ever. Symphony feels like a celebration of everything wonderful about itself. You can’t but feel drawn into an experience like this.
For those unaware of Bubble Symphony, it’s pretty much the same game as Bubble Bobble. In fact, save a few references to other Taito games, this is exactly the same as Bubble Bobble. Both put you in the role of a chubby dinosaur and task you with jumping across a room the size of a single screen, burping up bubbles to trap various monsters, and popping the bubbles that caught monsters. As simple a formula as it appears, the game has some depth, especially when bubble physics come into play. Then again, Bubble Bobble was never about skill or depth of mechanics, was it? It was always about fun, and toying around with the small pieces presented on screen. On those terms, Symphony is a resounding success. Some of that success comes from the simple gameplay mechanics. Some of it comes from all the bits and bobbles to collect in any given level.
But by far, the game owes most of its success to its aesthetic. From a technical perspective, it all looks very basic. The visuals incorporate bright colors with lots of round, simple, easy to read shapes. All the while, bouncy music cheers on everything you do. Symphony ends up feeling like a cross between a toy box and a circus ring. No doubt that sensibility dates back to the game’s arcade spirit, when it had to fight for the player’s attention.
Leaving it only at that, however, would be reductive. Bubble Symphony isn’t simply using this art style to get you to play it (although it does that, and it does it well). Symphony’s also using that art style to shape how you interact with the game. If the game is a circus ring, then all your actions within the game become a sort of performance. Everything that you see and feel compels you to act with whatever you can find. Collect this fruit. Bubble this enemy. Jump into this spot to reveal the musical note you couldn’t see before. All the while, the game cheers you on, encouraging your performance. So by virtue of its presentation, Bubble Symphony invites you to jump into the experience and start having fun.
This is easiest to see with the level design, both visually and in how you interact with the levels. Like the bubble-blowing gameplay, the visual design is incredibly versatile, considering the limited tools it’s working with. Using only simple Lego-esque blocks, Bubble Symphony constructs a wide range of levels and visual gags. The levels spell out words or suggest objects, like a burning building or the infinity symbol.
You’d think that catering to overt visual designs like that would make for awkward levels, but a lot of them are actually really fun to play. The visuals and the game mechanics have this interesting interplay going on that really illustrates what makes Bubble Symphony such a compelling experience. Half the fun in these levels comes from reading the visuals to figure out what the level designers were trying to make. The other half comes from actually playing through these designs. A good example of the latter is in the umbrella level. True to its name, this level has you jumping atop a makeshift umbrella with holes poking through it. Rising up through this level are special bubbles that, when popped, release a water current that drowns any enemy it touches. So the idea is that you drown the enemies hiding in the umbrella with these special bubbles. Playing the level almost feels like toying around with a puzzle, strongly catering to the toy box sensibility dominating the game.
The only significant downside I found were the backgrounds to the levels. Now they’re not universally bad. In fact, their uneven quality is precisely the problem. Later backgrounds are visually interesting, with turning gears and grand castles backdropping your escapades. Until you reach that point, though, you’re stuck with dull grey backgrounds, barely flashing as if to connote activity. It’s all a stark, disappointing contrast against the game’s otherwise lively nature. I can understand the desire not to crowd the screen with too much visual activity, but I still need something to keep my attention. Maybe flash a different color, or use a basic texture as a backdrop. Anything but the dull grey the game introduces itself with.
Yet for as bad as some of the backgrounds can be, they don’t do a lot to spoil the rest of the game. Bubble Symphony is a game that’s alive with activity. It expends every ounce of energy demanding that you participate in the action. The adorable presentation not only makes that participation an easy task, but it also acts as a strong reward for doing so. It’s hard to describe this game as anything but fun.