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The Baron’s Workshop review — Burstin’ bubbles

It’s often hard to figure out how to continually update an old game. Bubble Bobble dates back to 1986, and was a game that I was very fond of as a child. It received many sequels over the years, but the series has been quiet for much of the last decade. That is, save for Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, which released on the Switch back in 2019. Surprisingly, it’s now shown up on PC two years later, making in the first game in the series to have made it to the platform. Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron’s Workshop doesn’t appear to be a particularly impressive package at first blush, but there’s more to it than meets the eye thanks to included DLC and a stage creator unique to PC.

In case you’re not familiar, the series places players in levels where they must simply defeat all enemies. As the name implies, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends has four-player co-op. The characters shoot bubbles, and when an enemy is hit, said enemy becomes trapped within it for a set time. If no enemy is hit, the bubble continues to exist and moves with the direction of the wind, if any. If there’s no wind, bubbles rise upward, allowing players to ride on them. Bubbles can be chained together as well, and popping one will cause the others to pop in a chain.

This game has the same basic premise as the 1986 original. Each level is a single screen where you must defeat all of the enemies to progress to the next. The original game had 100 levels, though, and players would progress to the next immediately upon clearing each level. Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, conversely, only has 50 levels. They’re broken up into 10-level sections and are situated next to an emulated version of the arcade original. That older version of the game is actually included here to the left of the five level sets and, honestly, it’s held up quite well.

Stuck in the past

Visually, the game won’t blow any mindbubbles. The art style is rudimentary and the levels are often built with simple geometry and uninteresting backgrounds. It feels a bit cheaply held together, but the controls are responsive and the characters and enemies are cute enough. You find yourself at the start of a level and you just need to kill everything in it. During the initial levels, things can be almost offensively easy. Most levels can be cleared in about a minute, and you have to spend a considerable amount of that time waiting for collectible fruit to appear after you’ve disposed of all your foes.

Each of the game’s five sets of levels features a boss battle. Strangely, they’re often much tougher than the levels that preceded them. They’re not difficult, mind you, although they can feel a bit cheap at times considering the one-hit-per-life rule that endures. If you lose all of your provided lives during the course of a level set, you can continue, albeit with your score reduced to zero.

Each level set grades you from one to three stars. Bubble Bobble 4 Friends will be a lot more compelling to anyone interested in chasing high scores, though. Chaining enemy kills in a quick manner can be rather satisfying, as seeing all the bubbles pop and being rewarded with fruit is as enjoyable as ever. If you retry the boss battles a few times, a level set might take about 15 minutes, although it’s not hard to clear them in 10. This means that it appears the game can certainly be beaten in just a single hour, although I’d imagine it’ll take some around 75 minutes or so.

Bubble Bobble 4 Friends Review 3

Welcome to hell

Thankfully, that’s not all there is to Bubble Bobble 4 Friends. Once you beat the game, you unlock hard mode. It’s the same 50 levels, at least, down to their shapes and geometry. Enemy type and placement, as well as speed have been completely changed, however, making for a far more compelling game of Bubble Bobble. It doesn’t entirely make up for the boredom the normal mode run can supply, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the hard mode levels are a good deal more entertaining than their less challenging counterparts. However, once again, don’t actually expect them to be hard. Just harder.

Things get even brighter once you realize that the arcade machine situated next to the hard mode levels isn’t the original arcade game like it was in the normal mode. Instead, it’s the game’s DLC, which features 100 more levels. There’s a kicker, though: you have to complete all of these without retries. Anyone playing starts with 10 lives and, well, they have to make them last. This mode starts out easy enough, but by the 20th floor, things get trickier. You can practice any level you’ve made it to, and some of them aren’t easy at all, which gives this game a lot more life than it had at launch.

Just like the original game, you can collect the letters for the word “extend.” One notable difference in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends is that, when you beat a level set on normal mode, you unlock an ability that can be equipped at the start of each set. If you collect all of the letters during a set, you can level up abilities. This is actually kind of worth doing, as some of the abilities are quite useful. You can even take these abilities into the DLC, although they won’t last long since you can’t refill them. The DLC also has extend bubbles to collect, but the six of them are spread out over the 100 levels and, well, I don’t think most people will be beating that mode to begin with.

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Here comes the boom

The abilities can help, though. My personal favorite is the bomb bubble, which lets you shoot out a special bubble that explodes after 10 seconds. I’m also partial to the long-range bubble that shoots much farther than the default. These abilities go well with score chasing in the game’s hard levels, and they can add a bit of strategy to your playstyle. If you want, you can even build your own levels for the first time in the game’s creator mode. This is very easy to use and clearly laid out, so anyone can build their own levels. You can download other people’s custom-built levels too, which should greatly, ahem, extend the game’s shelf life.

Bubble Bobble 4 Friends was underwhelming at launch, but with the DLC included and the workshop mode, this is honestly a really compelling entry in the series. It’s still a basic arcade score chaser that won’t have the broadest appeal, but it’s cute and fun, so it’s easy to recommend to Bubble Bobble fans looking to enjoy an old favorite.

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