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SEGA Versus: Bubble Bobble

[SEGA Versus is a new feature that looks back at a multi-platform title of yesteryear. We analyse the game, compare how the version released on SEGA systems holds up against the competition and list the advantages and disadvantages of each. If you have any suggestions of what game you would like to see feature on SEGA Versus next, please let us know in the comments!]

If you grew up in the late ’80s and made frequent visits to your local arcade, you are sure to remember Bubble Bobble. Taito Corporation’s co-operative platforming gem made its way into Japanese arcades in 1986 and released in North America and Europe shortly after. Its colourful graphics and addictive gameplay helped make the game a huge hit amongst arcade goers. The two player co-operative mode was rarely done in video games at the time, and it provided a unique experience that just could not be had elsewhere. In addition to this, Bubble Bobble was also one of the very first titles to feature multiple endings. The outcome of the game can change depending on the players actions. This was mostly unheard of at the time and acted as yet another of the games unique selling points.

Due to its popularity, Bub and Bob (the stars of Bubble Bobble) became a sort of mascot for Taito Corporation. Their recognisable character designs were already a hit with the arcade crowd, so they were sure to be popular with the home console market. It was in 1988 that Bubble Bobble was ported over to the SEGA Master System and the NES, bringing the arcade charm home for many others to enjoy.

In this article, we’ll take a look at four different versions of Bubble Bobble. The first two versions we will put head to head were released for rival 8-bit systems the SEGA Master System and the NES. Shortly after these releases went on sale in Japan, the title was ported over to handheld systems. We’ll compare both the Game Boy and SEGA Game Gear versions as at time of release, both systems were in direct competition with one another.

BubbleBobbleSMS

The first port of Bubble Bobble found its home on the SEGA Master System in Japan during February of 1988. Unlike the SEGA Mark III released in 1985, the Master System had only been available in Japan for a short while. While it had a relatively small launch line up in other countries, thanks to the Mark III, SEGA was becoming quickly known in Japan for its fantastic ports of arcade titles. Games such as Wonderboy and Hang-On helped push their system, bringing the arcade experience home for people to enjoy without worrying about quickly inserting their next one-hundred yen coin or quarter.

Bubble Bobble on the SEGA Master System is, much like with all of SEGA’s other arcade game ports, very true to the original. Of course, console hardware was behind that of arcade hardware at the time, so there were still noticeable differences with components such as the graphics and sound. Regardless, this didn’t stop SEGA from bringing their console followers a fantastic port. The mechanics are largely unchanged, with addictive gameplay and responsive control. All of the stages from the arcade version are present, plus some extra. There are 200 in total, each populated with familiar foes for the player to capture and destroy.

Much like the arcade original, a two-player mode is also present. This works just as well as it did in the arcade, with one player controlling Bub and another controlling Bob. There was no excuse not to play with your family and friends, as two control pads were bundled with the system in Japan, Europe and in North America. Bubble Bobble proved very popular with families too as the unique co-operative mode, cutesy graphics and simplistic gameplay had everyone and their mother wanting to play.

Graphics, while not as detailed as in the arcade, are very solid on the SEGA Master System. The colours are vibrant and the stage graphics are very pretty. Frame rate is mostly solid, although the graphics for the enemies and bubbles can flicker a little when there are lots of sprites whizzing around the screen. The sound is not as complex as it is in arcades due to limitations with the Master Systems sound chip, but that’s not much of a problem. The original tune is included alongside the gameplay and it’s as catchy as ever. When you’ve heard it playing for two-hundred odd levels however, it can become a little tiresome. This is more of a gripe with the original version rather than the Master System port as it also repeated the same music track throughout. Unlike the arcade version, there is also a password system. This is a fantastic addition to the home console port, as it helps create a lot less frustration when running out of extra lives on the more difficult later stages.

BubbleBobbleNES

Shortly after the release of Bubble Bobble on the SEGA Master System, it was Nintendo’s turn to receive a port of the popular arcade hit. Unlike the Master System title (which was developed by SEGA), the NES version was ported by Taito themselves. The system (known as the Famicom/Family Computer in Japan) was going strong and as the name suggests, it was very much a family friendly console. The unique co-operative experience of Bubble Bobble along with its colourful graphics were sure to appeal to the Famicom/NES market, and the game saw release in North America during November of 1988.

While very similar to the arcade and Master System versions, Bubble Bobble on the NES does have a few differences. The gameplay is the same as the arcade original, and the controls are just as tight. Graphics are very nice for an 8-bit system, and the stages are a little more detailed than in alternative versions. Despite the added detail, they aren’t as vibrant or colourful as Master System version, and sprites can appear a little washed out or transparent at times.

The music sounds very reminiscent of the original, and it is a little nicer to listen to on the NES when compared to how it sounds on the Master System. The instrument sounds are less high pitched and the melody is more complex, which was definitely an advantage the NES had over the competition. The co-operative mode makes its return, and it works very well on the NES. The frame rate is solid and much like on the Master System, when things get hectic the sprites do tend to flicker.

BubbleBobbleGB

A little while after the NES release, Bubble Bobble made its handheld début on the Nintendo Game Boy. The black and white handheld was taking the games industry by storm, with fantastic versions of Super Mario and Ducktales recently released in Japan and the US. As with the NES version, Taito took it upon themselves to port the game onto Nintendo’s monochromatic handheld, and it was sure to be quite the challenge. With the Game Boy’s limited memory, low resolution and basic graphics, how would the portable version fare with two fantastic ports already available on home consoles?

The biggest difference in Game Boy Bubble Bobble when compared to the console and arcade titles is the manner of which Taito decided to get around their biggest obstacle, the screen size. Stages are still structured the same, however the screen now scrolls to compensate for the low resolution. This creates a more zoomed in camera view and allows for bigger and more detailed sprites. The downside however is that it is often unclear where the enemies are in the stage, making it very difficult to plan your attack.

Gameplay feels a little different too, as the bubbles fired by the player seem to move at greater speed than in previous versions. Players are still able to earn extra lives as in the arcade version if they collect all of the “EXTEND” letters and an easy to use password system is also included.

This version of the game introduces some story into Bubble Bobble, opening with a little graphic exclusive to the Game Boy version. Players must navigate Bub through a new cave of monsters in an attempt to find the elusive “moon water” that will cure his brother from a grave illness. It’s all a little unnecessary and is most likely a cover up as to why Bob (the bedridden brother) is not playable, but it’s a nice addition all the same.

BubbleBobbleGG

A few years after its release on the Nintendo Game Boy, SEGA saw it fit to port over their Master System version of Bubble Bobble onto their handheld console, the Game Gear. As with other 8-bit SEGA titles, this version of Bubble Bobble was the first in to be released on a SEGA system in North America. It remained exclusive on the Game Gear in the U.S. and did not release in Europe and Japan, who both received the Master System version previously. This was a quite frequent occurrence with Game Gear and Master System titles. Many only released in specific territories, with even big titles such as Sonic 2 only launching on the Master System in Europe and Brazil.

So how does it hold up? Due to the awkward screen scrolling of the Game Boy version, you’ll be pleased to hear that the Game Gear title sees the return of static screens. All of the stage layout and enemies within it are visible on screen at all times, making it a much easier and enjoyable experience. The graphics are comparable to the Master System version as they look almost identical. The backlit display of the Game Gear gives this a clear advantage over the Game Boy one in terms of visuals, with sharper and brighter colours. The downside to this of course, is that the battery power does not last as long. We all remember the days of sitting tied to the mains with our portable Game Gears, but alas, that’s a fault with the hardware than the game itself.

One of the biggest gripes I have with the particular version would be the sound. There’s nothing wrong with how the audio sounds itself, it’s almost identical to that of the SEGA home console release. Unlike the Master System version however, the music loops back to the start whenever you complete a stage. Considering each stage is around 30-seconds-to-a-minute long at most, this can become irritating. The music is quite repetitive as it is, so with it constantly jumping back to to the start whenever you complete a stage you’ll likely be turning the sound down to zero before you reach level three.

Moreover, a two-player link mode is available in this version, allowing gamers to hook up their Game Gear systems via a cable (you heard correctly, wireless in video game systems wasn’t a thing back then!) The Game Gear link cables were fairly easy to get a hold of, and they worked well, making this two-player mode a great addition to the handheld port. It’s also another feature not present in the Game Boy version, which certainly helps give the Game Gear version the advantage.

BubbleBobbleCON

In conclusion, there is no bad version of Bubble Bobble released on these systems. Despite the hardware limitations, they have gameplay identical to the arcade version, and they’re all enjoyable.

The Master System version has the nicest graphics and feels the closest to the original out of the four. The sound is a little high pitched at times, and that’s certainly something that is not an issue in the NES version, which sounds fantastic. Unfortunately, the colours aren’t as vibrant as in the Master System version and that’s definitely something that lets it down. The Game Gear port does a great job of making the Master System version portable, but its irritating looping sound issue means it just falls short of taking the gold.

It is perhaps the Game Boy version that is the weakest of the four, with its lack of a two-player co-operative mode and its graphical limitations. The screen scrolling can be very frustrating at times, but since it was released three years prior to the Game Gear version, we can’t be too harsh on it.

Winner: SEGA Master System

The most accurate port of this game has to be one included as “classic mode” in Bubble Bobble Revolution on the Nintendo DS. Despite some minor vertical screen scrolling, the visuals, gameplay and sound is more or less 100 percent identical to the arcade version.

[Which version is your favourite? Let us know in the comments!]

Lee Sparkes

Lee is a huge retro SEGA nerd and currently resides in bonnie Scotland. Starting out with a SEGA Master System, some of his favourite SEGA titles include Monster World IV, NiGHTS Into Dreams, OutRun 2, and of course, Sonic the Hedgehog. When he's not playing old SEGA games, he's probably sat watching Lupin III.

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