When I first started writing this piece, I approached it thinking the Bubble Bobble sub-genre (meaning any game that presents itself and plays like the classic 1986 arcade game) was a diverse and well-explored one. But I soon found out that most, if not all of the games in that sub-genre trace their lineage back to Taito. Bubble Bobble, Parasol Stars, Rainbow Island, Bubble Symphony; Taito made them all. In fact, Wikipedia even has a chart to summarize this phenomenon. The only Bubble Bobble-esque game Taito didn’t have a hand in creating was the game I chose to review: Pop’n Magic, Telenet’s contribution to the sub-genre. This would explain its greater willingness to experiment with the formula, along with the uneven success of those experiments.
Not that you would see any of this on first glance. In fact, the first thing you’re likely to notice is what a conservative, unassuming game Pop’n Magic is. It’s a game that’s heavily entrenched in the Bubble Bobble formula: you and an assortment of monsters share a screen, and it’s your job to trap them all in magical bubbles, pop said bubbles, collect all the treasures that spill out, and advance to the next screen to repeat the process. If we were to look at the game solely along these lines, then we’d be at a loss to find anything that really questions or upsets that formula.
Then again, Pop’n Magic isn’t interested in upsetting that formula in the first place. It’s more concerned with recontextualizing it. Despite the wide array of games in the Bubble Bobble sub-genre, the most notable games stick out to me for the same reason: their theatrical nature. Half the fun in these games comes from whatever performance you can derive from them. The levels are at once pieces of visual art for you to appreciate and three ring circuses that encourage all kinds of zany acrobatics. The way you move about the world also encourages fun for its own sake, like the novelty of climbing rainbows in Rainbow Islands or the physical joy of bouncing atop bubbles in Bubble Symphony. (In fact, Bubble Symphony is a fantastic example of these principles, since it uses circus-y music to amplify its already playful spirit.)
Pop’n Magic, on the other hand, is more interested in creating a game from this set-up. I don’t mean that in the broad sense that somehow, Pop’n Magic holds a more important place in video game canon than any other game like it, but in the sense that it’s structured differently from these other games. This game gives the player rules, goals, strategies to enact, and most importantly, the expectation that the player adhere to all three of them. It’s a subtle change, yes, but one with profound implications. For instance, framing the game like this means you don’t enjoy what you do in the game for its own sake, but as a means to something greater (victory, challenge, etc.). That’s a little broad to understand, though, so I’ll cite something more specific: measured play. While other games definitely have rules/goals/strategies, too, they downplay those three aspects in the interest of inducing more energetic playstyles. But Pop’n Magic’s decision to lean into them more heavily means it creates a slower, more methodical kind of play than other games of its kind are known for.
Look at the colored bubble system, for example. The only way to collect treasure and progress through the levels is to bubble enemies and hit the bubbles into each other; this much, we already know. The twist here is that the bubbles come in three colors (red, blue, yellow), each of which eliminates the other in a rock-paper-scissors fashion. It’s a system that requires a lot of forethought and planning if you hope to reap its full rewards. That doesn’t mean that the whimsical aspects of Bubble Bobble have been eliminated from the game. If anything, they’re subordinated to strategic play. Watching an enemy spit up treasure recalls Bubble Bobble’s arcade-y fun, but the game won’t allow you to enjoy that by chaotically tossing bubbles about the screen and hoping for the best. In fact, Pop’n Magic frames that sort of play as unskilled and therefore undesirable: all it ever does is delay the more engaging parts of the game (especially if two bubbles of the same color touch, releasing whatever enemies were locked inside them).
To the game’s credit, though, it has the skill necessary to pull this stunt off. It hits a good balance between action and strategy, with clever level design and enemy arrangements that ladder off each other in a way that requires quick thought. And the game’s conservative nature ends up working in its favor: because it never ventures too far outside what its predecessors have done, it never risks losing what makes them so enjoyable.
What I’m more worried about are the game’s experiments with narrative. Not the story itself, mind you; that’s just a cartoony fantasy story in which two siblings (and their magical talking rats) venture across the world to collect four elemental crystals and restore peace. Rather, the thing that catches my attention is what the game hopes to do with that story: unite all the game’s pieces into a cohesive whole. An ambitious sentiment, given how little story (or the structure that comes with it) has mattered to games of this kind, but unfortunately, it’s not a sentiment that Pop’n Magic is equipped to follow through on.
For one, the game misunderstands how both narrative and play work. Where the former would envision each round of play as just a smaller part of the larger picture, the latter is content to let each round exist on its own. In fact, it instances them off into their own little bubbles, preventing them from affecting one another. We can join them together if we wanted to; that’s how the phrase “best two out of three” works. However, that’s an artificial construct that the individual rounds themselves might not reflect. That’s certainly the case with Pop’n Magic: even though the score could tie these rounds together (albeit weakly), it’s rarely visible during play and doesn’t affect much within the game.
All of this speaks to a much broader problem that plagues Pop’n Magic: it never occurred to the developers that gameplay and narrative should work together. Because of this, a divide arises between them that severely hampers what the narrative is capable of. For example, the story can explain where the heroes are going and what they’re doing, but it’s not within its power to determine any of these details. Even if the story wanted to determine them, the game wouldn’t allow it that power, since all the levels, mechanically speaking, are interchangeable stages upon which the gameplay takes place. This is a theme that shows itself throughout much of Pop’n Magic’s design. Consider the character design: the animated cutscenes that break up each world depict the two heroes with separate personalities. (Maybe not deep personalities, but deep enough to play into the story’s cartoony mood.) Yet when it comes time to play as them, they’re essentially the same person: both have the exact same abilities, and any power-ups collected with one carry over to the other.
Pop’n Magic is ultimately a game designed around its gameplay, which is why it can bear burden of this divide so easily. It comes out of this with a consistent play experience and some elements that may not be relevant to the narrative (collecting treasure), but are included nonetheless because they contribute something to play. The unfortunate cost to this design is that it renders any narrative explanations of play irrelevant. This leaves me wanting more; wondering why the game places such a strong focus on its narrative if it could do just as well without it. Keep in mind that I don’t want to indulge in cynical interpretations like, “The story exists for the artists to show off the technical capabilities of the TurboGrafx CD.” I want to keep myself open to greater possibilities than that.
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Whether it’s because no other games were working in Pop’n Magic’s field or because the results of its investigations were too esoteric for anybody else to use, Pop’n Magic doesn’t appear to have served as a model for later games to learn from. I’m not even sure Telenet themselves revisited the genre that much after this game; they were too busy with the Valis series to make time for Pop’n Magic. Therefore no matter the quality of the game itself, it was consigned to become a forgotten historical relic. This adds a two-fold sadness to playing it today: that the game couldn’t make its minor experiments work for itself, and that it was never given the chance it needed to make them work for others.