Friday, August 31, 2012

Bust-A-Move for SNES

Bubble Bobble certainly had its day in the sun, earning a direct sequel, at least one remake, and selling loads of copies. However, Bub & Bob's future lay largely in their spinoff games, the most popular being the Bust-A-Move series. Known for their whimsical, addictive gameplay, and occasionally for their nightmare-fueling cover art, these games have been going strong for almost 20 years.

Bust-A-Move, as it's known in the US and Puzzle Bobble everywhere else, is an arcade puzzle game in the style of Puyo Pop or Tetris. Your goal is to eliminate all of the bubbles on the play field by firing bubbles out of a catapult at the bottom of the screen. Matching three or more like-colored bubbles causes them to burst, and any bubbles stuck underneath to fall off the screen. The bubbles can be shot straight at their targets or bounced off the sides of the play field to pull off tricky bank shots. At regular intervals, the play field begins to shake, and then slides down, pushing the bubbles down with it. If at any point a bubble gets as low as the catapult, the game ends in humiliating, pastel defeat. Fortunately, you can continue up to seven times, and a password system lets you pick up where you left off later. To assist with levels you continually whiff, Bust-A-Move gives you a helpful guide that shows exactly where the next bubble you're aiming will land. It takes some of the challenge away from the game, but it only lasts until you finish the level that's giving you grief.

The SNES version of Bust-A-Move is super-simple to pick up and play. Left & right on the D-pad aims the catapult, while up centers it, and any of the face buttons fire the bubbles. The left & right shoulder buttons let you fine-tune your aim, making it easier to pull off those bank shots. You earn a modest number of point for simply popping bubbles, but you can earn huge point multipliers by knocking large numbers of bubbles loose at once. Therefore, it's usually in your best interest to aim for the bubbles at the top, and work your way down. It's also in your best interest to work fast because you're scored on how long it takes to complete each level. Some levels sport special wild bubbles that, when hit, explode, wipe out a whole line of bubbles, or change all nearby bubbles to a single color. A lucky shot on one of these bubbles can make very short work of the rest. My personal record is a three-second, two-shot win.

Bust-A-Move for SNES also sports a vs mode, which can be played with another person or against the computer. Here, the goal is to knock the other player out by filling his screen with bubbles. If you pop a certain number of bubbles at once or cause a cascade of bubbles to drop, a bunch of random bubbles will appear on the bottom of  your opponent's play field. In addition, lines of bubbles appear at the top of the screen at regular intervals, keeping you from ever completely clearing your own field. To win the match, you have to keep enough dangling bubbles around as ammo, but not so many that your own field fills up. It's a fast-paced nail-biting balancing act that's a lot of fun, and a big departure from the slower, more deliberate single-player mode. Winning a best-of-three match against the computer bumps you up the ladder to more difficult opponents who are faster, less indecisive and less likely to make mistakes. As with the one player game, you can continue as many times as you like, and save your progress with a password.

Bust-A-Move retains Bubble Bobble's light-hearted, whimsical aesthetics, and of course it never takes itself very seriously. The buck-toothed duo (as well as a few of the baddies from Bubble Bobble in the vs mode) work together to crank the catapult back and forth, load bubbles and fire them. They jump for joy at the end of a successful match or run around in goofy bewilderment at a failed one. The animations add nothing to the game play; they're just fun to watch, and they give Bust-A-Move a little more personality than the typical puzzle game. On the other hand, the bubbles, which are supposed to contain the trapped enemies from Bubble Bobble, look more like disturbing, pastel-colored eggs filled with developing alien fetuses--especially when they twitch! Yarg! The background music is another pleasant little ditty played on an endless loop that will remain with you, tormenting your soul until the cold embrace of death finally claims you. But hey, at least it sounds good coming from the SNES. That system really has top-notch sound.

There's very little to complain about in Bust-A-Move. It's a faithful port of a very simple arcade puzzle game. I would have preferred to see less wasted screen space, and more variety to the levels in the one player game. The catapult changes angles a bit too slowly for the more fast-paced vs mode, too. That dinosaur on crank duty really needs to get the lead out. Other than that, it's simple, fun, cheerful and addictive.

As I mentioned before, the Bust-A-Move games have been going strong since they first hit shelves and arcades in 1994. They've seen a release on nearly every console and hand-held made since the SNES, so it's easy to find a used copy  dirt-cheap. Though the SNES original has yet to appear on the Wii's Virtual Console, a very similar Wiiware version, called Bust-A-Move Plus, is available for less than a sawbuck. Well worth the money if you've never played these games before.

Thanks for reading my review! Next up: Armed with a plastic six-shooter, we're bring law and order to the Old West in Lethal Enforcers 2: Gun Fighters.

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