If there's one thing this lockdown's been good for, it's catching up on all the games we haven't had chance to play - although the only reason we hadn't had chance to take a look at this one is because it's been a Switch exclusive ever since it launched. With its recent PS4 release giving us all the excuse we needed, over the past week or so, our house has been filled for the past week with the dulcet tones of 'My foot!' emanating from a pink dragon with a Bristolian accent, as she slowly floats up the screen to her death. The game? Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron is Back. The pink dragon? (Comparative) newcomer Pab, one of the fresh faces for its four player co-op mode (who, sadly, isn't actually from the South West). The reason? Our less than stellar platforming skills...
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Originally a Nintendo Switch exclusive, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends brought cutesy dragons and local co-op to the big N's latest console last year. Now, having served its time in Switch confinement, the game's made its way to the Playstation 4, and got a whole load of extra levels in the process. Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron is Back, to give it its full title, is essentially a game in four parts - there's fifty 'easy' stages, fifty 'hard' stages, the new-for-this-version-of-the-game tower of terror, aka. the titular The Baron is Back mode, and just for kicks, a port of the original arcade game and its 100 levels. That certainly sounds like a lot of levels on paper at least.
The real meat of the game comes in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, which itself has 100 levels for you to test your skills at. With a similar style and feel to the original game, these stages are split into fifty easy and fifty hard levels, with five worlds in each - although many of the hard stages feature the same basic designs as their easy counterparts, just with some harder enemies thrown in instead. With the ability to blow bubbles being the only weapon in their arsenal, Bub, Bob, Pab and Peb need to trap all the enemies in each stage in bubbles, and pop them before they can move onto the next. With full four player co-op - albeit with a single shared pool of eight lives between you (thank God for unlimited continues!) - for the most part, these new levels are great fun, ranging from simple bubble-the-bad-guys-as-quickly-as-possible, to some more puzzley stages that require a bit more thought to finish off, whether it's because of the unique stage design, differing air currents that send your bubbles flying off on a specific path, or various environmental hazards you need to avoid. For some levels, you'll really need to stop and plan your approach, as you'll need to take out the enemies in a very specific order if you want to safely reach the end.
These new levels also let you pick from one of five different bubble power-ups before you start, which range from long-range bubbles, to bombs and lightning strikes, or the ability to temporarily stop wind currents. Just so they don't make things too easy, you'll only have a limited number of uses of these bubbles in each world, although you can increase their number by collecting the EXTEND letters scattered throughout each stage. Even so, you'll probably want to keep them back for when things get really hairy - such as during the game's all-too-frequent boss fights...
We're not sure who looked at the original Bubble Bobble game and thought "you know what this needs? More boss fights!", but we would like to have some stern words with them. Every tenth level in these new stages involves a boss fight against increasingly cheap bad guys who serve no real purpose but to eat through your lives and make you want to rage quit. The only way to really defeat said bosses is to blast them with enough bubbles that you lower their defences, letting one of your bubbles eventually swallow them up, trapping them inside so you can pop it for the win (pro-tip: the long-range bubble power-up is particularly handy for this, as you can fire them off pretty rapidly). Not only is it pretty uninspired, but the fact that the bosses tend to have all kinds of cheap tricks and undodgeable attacks - such as overpowered bombs, ludicrous laser attacks and the ability to constantly spawn the game's most annoying enemies to aid them - makes what's otherwise a really fun game become teeth grindingly frustrating. Anyone who manages to defeat the hard mode's final boss deserves a medal.
Unfortunately, the titular 'The Baron is Back' part of the package works along a kind of similar line - rather than bosses, you instead have to take on a tower with a hundred increasingly difficult stages, presided over by everyone's favourite undead whale, Baron von Blubba. The faster you clear them, and the more enemies you can take out in one chain, the higher your score, with the idea being to complete the tower with as many points as possible. However, we'd just settle for being able to complete the tower full stop, as, once again, the difficulty is a bit wonky - unless you happen to be some kind of 80s platformer god.
It's not really down to boss fights this time either - more that completing so many stages with just a scant number of lives (and absolutely nothing in the way of save points or checkpoints) is no mean feat, especially as the invincible skeletal whales that crop up from time to time really start to wear down your lives. Though we'd say our skills are average at best, according to the leaderboards, our score is in the top 29% of players - and we only managed to get to floor eighteen, after at least half a dozen attempts. Though it may be being touted as a major selling point of this new edition, we'd hazard a guess that the vast majority of players will see less than a quarter of the levels on offer, due to its steep difficulty curve - and the fact it makes you restart after each attempt from floor 1.
Still, there is one last piece to the Bubble Bobble package - and that's the classic arcade game. The game where the series began, Bubble Bobble sees a couple of cutesy dragons (as this portion of the game is only supports up to two players), on a quest to rescue their kidnapped girlfriends by working their way through a hundred increasingly difficult stages, each filled with enemies. Each new stage brings with it new enemies, platforming challenges and puzzles, with many requiring clever use of your bubbles, such as riding them up the screen to reach higher areas, popping special lightning/fire bubbles to damage otherwise unreachable enemies, and much more.
It's certainly familiar territory, and as someone who has fond memories of ye olde Amiga version, it's probably one of the best bits of the package, particularly when you get a friend involved. However, it goes without saying that some sort of a save, or checkpoint system, with the ability to pick up from where you last got to would have been nice, as we mostly find ourselves replaying the first 90 levels or so before reaching our inevitable demise. Although you can technically give yourself unlimited lives and continues, it's still all too easy to find yourself staring at the game over screen if both players have to use a continue at the same time. Bizarrely, the arcade port does also have the odd occasional case of lag, with just enough stutter to throw off your timing, which may cause some issues on the later, harder stages.
Overall, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends isn't a bad game - just a bit of an unbalanced one. Thanks to the addition of four player co-op, the main game is great fun with friends, although the frequent, frustrating boss fights do mar the whole experience somewhat, especially on the harder difficulty. As for the other additions, classic Bubble Bobble is still great fun, but the new 'The Baron is Back' tower is pretty forgettable, due to the escalating difficulty of invincible 'Baron von Bubba' skeleton whales and its arbitrary no continue limit. If you're an existing Bubble Bobble fan, there's certainly a good amount to like about this package, but some odd design decisions prevent it from being the perfect reimagining.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4