Bub and Bob (the two lovable characters from the Bubble Bobble franchise) are about to go where no dinosaur has gone before -- Space! It's been four long years since our two bubble-popping lizards graced the Nintendo DS, but Taito has wisely brought back the puzzler for another round on the portable. This is Space Bust-A-Move, a game that wisely ditches what didn't work before and adds enough new content to make this brand new game worth your money. It also proves that in space no one can hear you pop bubbles.
Now that the lame space-puns are behind us, it's time for me to gush over this newest entry in the expanding Bust-A-Move universe. As I unwrapped the shrink wrap and charged up my Nintendo DS, I wondered just how much Taito could add to this 15 year old franchise. I was pleasantly surprised by the answer, which included brand new power-ups, new bosses and enough cool extra modes to keep me playing long after the story is done.
Wait ... did I say story? Unfortunately this game is saddled with a lame story that takes our heroes all across the solar system. These bits are told through simplistic cut-scenes, the type of thing you could expect from an early-90s Super NES game. Of course, you don't come to a Bust-A-Move game looking for a deep story, all you care about are the bubble-infested puzzles that will test your aim, skill and maybe even your patience.
Like every other puzzle game of the era, Bust-A-Move is incredibly easy to learn, but difficult to master. Instead of moving blocks or controlling something falling from the sky, you play a dinosaur character aiming his bubbles from the bottom of the level. You can't move in any direction, the only control you have is lining up the bubbles that you shoot and try to match three or more colors (or symbols, if you're colorblind) together. Do this and they disappear, create a chain reaction and earn massive points.
For Space Bust-A-Move the developers have added a few new twists to the campaign mode. Instead of battling a never-ending assault of colored bubbles, you are tasked with erasing a very specific set of bubbles from the map. At first this is easy; you line up your shot and dislodge the colored bubbles connected to floating yellow circle. Things only get trickier when you realize that every time you shoot a bubble the entire level gets closer to you. The object is to rid the level of all of the bubbles before they get too backed up and reach the bottom.
The game starts out extremely easy, so easy that I suspect just about anybody (no matter your experience with puzzle games) can pick it up and feel good about clearing a few stages. But it gets tough, especially if you're trying to earn all 21 of the special Cosmic Bubbles hidden in the game's puzzles. Clear enough of these puzzles and you'll be whisked away to a brand new world, complete with new challenges and background art.
There are seven different worlds for you to explore (if you can call what you're doing in this game "exploring"), each with three stages of five puzzles each. In other words, each world has a total of 15 puzzles, with a total of 105 total puzzles for you to solve. Most puzzles are short, no longer than a minute or two. But you will have to do five of them in a row, if you fail at one you will go back to the beginning of that stage and try again. Early on this isn't a big deal, but I have a hunch you'll be playing a few of the later stages several times before ultimately making it to the end.
But don't think that you're going to get to the end without a fight, because along the way you'll have to put up with a few nasty (albeit adorable) space bosses. Not only do these bosses require you to use a completely different strategy from the standard puzzles, but they also open up the playing field. In the standard campaign, all of the puzzle levels are played on the bottom screen (with only limited information displayed on the top screen). However, each of the boss battles take up both screens, with a puzzle on the bottom and the baddie on the top. The trick is to complete the puzzle below and match some of the colored bubbles connected to the boss. That's easier said than done, since the boss will fly (or float) all around the screen and throw a number of obstacles in your way. But don't give up, because none of the bosses are so hard that you'll want to stop playing, they just require you to pay closer attention to your aim and take your time.
In all, I was impressed with the single-player campaign. While I didn't pick up all 21 of the Cosmic Bubbles, I did manage to make it through all of the
puzzles in only a few hours. I liked that these levels were bite-size and full of interesting level designs. I also liked the addition of power-ups, which included everything from a bubble that erases entire lines to a bubble that literally explodes, taking everything connected with it. There's also a cool power-up that allows you to erase a bunch of bubbles at once by shooting a bubble that resembles a cannonball. And like many other color-matching puzzlers (Puyo Puyo, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Columns, etc.), Space Bust-A-Move offers a powered-up bubble that, when attached to a bubble, will erase every other bubble with that same color. Usually I'm skeptical of adding power-ups to traditional puzzle games, but they work for Space Bust-A-Move.
On top of the standard single-player campaign, the game gives you more than a few extra modes to buy from the Bust-A-Move shop. There you'll find a couple of fun variations on the theme, as well as the original game, which allows you to play what is essentially the 1994 game that became such a hit all those years ago. While it's fun to replay the classic mode, my favorite variation is also the most stressful. In this mode you only have one bubble to play, so you have to make the right connection on your first try. And don't think you can just sit there and ponder your options; the game is rushing you to decide. All this tension creates a fascinating mode, even if it will eventually turn my hair gray.
Seeing as it's been four years since the last Bust-A-Move game on the Nintendo DS, I was curious to see all of the new touch screen "enhancements" made to the gameplay. Much to my surprise, there weren't any. The most shocking aspect of this game is that it doesn't worry itself with gimmicky controls or trying to take full advantage of Nintendo's portable. You can control the action with a stylus, but all you're doing is pushing graphical arrows. The easiest way to play is by using the D-pad, exactly how you would if you were playing it on any other system.
Along with a stellar amount of solid single-player modes, Taito has jam-packed Space Bust-A-Move with enough multiplayer action to keep all of your friends happy. Along with the traditional versus modes, you will also be able to use some multiplayer-specific power-ups, including items that will make your opponents aimer invisible, an item that changes bubbles and one that will make everybody else blind. Best of all, if you're playing two-players you will only need one card (two if you want to play four-players).
There really is a lot of content in Space Bust-A-Move, making it a great value for $20. The title offers enough new content to warrant the price, all while giving you enough old content to make you never want to play the first Bust-A-Move DS again. The game's presentation is nice and I even liked some of the music. I could have done without the silly story, but there's no question that Space Bust-A-Move is worth your money.