I’m sure we all have our guilty gaming pleasures, and I’m also sure they’re mostly considered as such because they’re a bit crap one way or the other! A couple that spring to mind for me are certainly crap – take International Truck Racing on the Commodore 64, for example, which arrived very late in its life, in 1992, and is a jerky, lumbering Micro Machines-alike that for some reason still hasn’t outstayed its welcome with me! That also came out on the Amiga, and it’s even worse there, which is also where the second game that came to mind is from. This one is MIG-29 Soviet Fighter by Codemasters in 1989, that’s far too difficult and looks very 8-bit, but something about its more “tactical” take on Afterburner sucks me right in every time I play it. Even if I can’t get off the first level. Even with a nuclear bomb!

I have got another one that’s not really crap at all though – far from it, in fact! Until the Taito Egret II Mini came along, I’d never played Bubble Bobble spin-off Puzzle Bobble 2 – or its 2X variety present there (or, indeed, the original) – because one look told me I couldn’t tell the difference between the yellow and the green and probably the purple and the blue too in the chaos of trying to beat a computer or real-life opponent by matching coloured bubbles! No choice when I’d embarked upon reviewing every one of the forty games on that thing though, and it was only then that I noticed the little symbols on each bubble… Now, exclusively matching the bubble’s symbols rather than colours makes it way more stressful than originally intended, especially on the Taito Egret II Mini’s mini screen; I’ve also realised its scoring system is fundamentally flawed, where going big is totally reliant on blind luck getting you a decent starting layout each round to fire and match and pop, as opposed to any great skill or the satisfaction of winning a drawn out back and forth against an opponent. But all that said, I still can’t leave it alone! This thing is addictive as hell, despite my colourblindness and its own best efforts, and somewhat bizarrely I properly love it!

All the same, it was still with some hesitation that I accepted the offer of a review code for Puzzle Bobble Everybubble! on Nintendo Switch; would I have the energy to play enough of it to properly justify a singular rant about lack of colourblindness options in games in 2023, whatever their heritage? It’s hardly a life or death matter after all, and I’ve got plenty of stuff in my backlog that I can enjoy without worrying about my dodgy eyes! That said, Capcom did a marvellous back-fit of a bunch of colourblind options into Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo when it appeared on last year’s Capcom Fighting Collection, so it can be done, and at £34.99 this is hardly a budget title, and I do really like 2X, so finally, having also had assurances I didn’t need to worry from the publisher when they sent the code, here we are!

Puzzle Bobble, also known as Bust-a-Move, started life as a bubble-matching arcade puzzler back in 1994, and was based on the characters and the themes found in that 1986 masterpiece of a single-screen platformer, Bubble Bobble. Brothers Bub and Bob have now been transformed into bubble dragons by a wizard’s spell, so you join them on a bubble-bursting adventure where you need to shoot bubbles at other bubbles of the same colour, chaining them together until they pop and you’ve cleared all of them on the screen, before any reach the bottom. As simple as it was popular, spawning not only a bunch of sequels over the years but loads of clones too, from Team 17’s Worms Blast in 1996 to hundreds of mobile takes, such as Bubble Witch Saga, more recently. I can’t really think of a time the original, in one form or another, has ever really gone away, but to bring us almost up to date, most recently we had Puzzle Bobble 3D: Vacation Odyssey on PlayStation in 2021, spun out of an Oculus Quest VR version around the same time. And with that, we can jump to the present day and Puzzle Bobble Everybubble! By the way, the exclamation mark is part of the name but it’s really annoying so apologies if I drop it sooner or later!

Puzzle Bobble Everybubble! brings back Bub and Bob, as well as fellow bubble dragons Peb and Pab, to the almost equally revered Rainbow Islands, no less, home to the Miniroons, mysterious creatures similar to Bub and co. One day, the Miniroons suddenly start blowing bubbles, covering the whole island in them and causing all kinds of chaos, so it’s time for our four friendly bubble dragons to step in and help stop their bubble blowing blunders… I think! While I won’t delve too deeply into the lore here, and actually don’t even have any idea where Peb and Pab came from, as I write there seems to be some confusion between the publisher, ININ Games, and Nintendo, about whether or not it’s Miniroon, one creature, or Miniroons, a race of creatures! A genuinely cool and ultra-polished pre-game cutscene confirmed the latter, as well as conveying that little tale way better than anyone else has so far, and regardless, there’s loads of bubbles to match and pop, and once again, you have to clear them across a series of increasingly challenging stages!

While the format might be familiar, there are a bunch of new features here to look out for too! We have got a cooperative (if you want) Story Mode playable with up to four players, for all the good that is to me, and likewise the 2 vs. 2 team battles on top of the traditional 1 vs. 1 battle, which you can also choose to play against the computer. Then there’s online multiplayer for up to two players, which again isn’t really for me, but what definitely should be for me is the Puzzle Bobble vs. Space Invaders crossover also included as part of Space Invaders’ 45th anniversary celebrations, where up to four players have to try and erase the bubble-encapsulated invaders by shooting and sticking three or more bubbles of the same colour together. We’ll come back to those, and I’ll see how far I can go with that multiplayer stuff because it does look nice if that’s your thing, but first I can’t resist any longer – I need to dive straight into the graphics settings and see what they’re giving me!

There are lots of colours in the world, and lots of them are very different to each other, so if I was making a colour-matching game I think I’d just choose a handful of those. If, for some unfathomable reason, that wasn’t possible, I’d do what Puzzle Fighter did and offer an option for some colourblindness modes that force some differentiation to suit different people’s needs – I believe they call that accessibility nowadays, and I’ve heard it’s all the rage! But why go to that trouble when there’s always option three – add a pattern to the bubbles! As I’ve already alluded to, at best that’s adding an unintended (and unwanted) layer of stress to the gameplay but you do get used to it so it’s better than nothing (option four!). Or option five – add a pattern to the pattern… Oh dear! It might be well-intentioned but for a game that’s so premium and polished, this looks really ugly, like someone’s gone at the bottom of every bubble with a black marker pen, then stuck an indistinct symbol on it. And they’re tiny, so if you’re sat a distance from the TV or playing handheld then they’re a real struggle to distinguish, and with dodgy eyes like mine that means you’re then half trying to work out what they are and half trying to work with the bubble colours they’re trying to compensate for, just in case! And keep that in mind when we come back to Space Invaders! It’s a solution though, but for Story Mode at least, I eventually just went for the added stress I know and love from previous games (option three above) with the intrinsic symbols on the bubbles! There is a way to darken the background of the main play area too, which I guess adds contrast to the bubbles, but didn’t do anything for me so I left that off too. Anyway, I’m going to hold my peace on this for the rest of the review but if you’re colourblind and you’re concerned and you’re not fortunate enough to have been handed a review code at no cost then please also keep this in mind!

Okay, let’s get back to what we’ve got here, and once you’re past the aforementioned cutscene on the title screen, you’re presented with a choice of Story, Vs and the Space Invader modes, and then there’s a detailed visual recap of the rules and controls for each (which you’ll also get first time during gameplay when each comes up), and finally there’s some far more interesting stuff strangely tucked away in the settings menu than the stuff in there I’ve mentioned so far! As well as the graphics and volume settings, there’s a big icon called Memory Album, and in there is all the cool stuff you unlock as you play, including loads of character and buddy bio cards and a music player where you’ve got everything you’ll encounter in the game to play to your heart’s content. All of this is beautifully presented in the same slick cartoon style as the games and cutscenes, together with some neat audio effects as you navigate around them, and a load of brief facts and info once you’re into what you’re looking for. Great to see and really deserving of its own icon on the main menu!

It’s high time we actually tried playing something, so I’m going to jump straight into Story Mode. This is the game’s main course, consisting of Rainbow Island filled with bubbles to clear over nine different locations, and they’re broken down into fifteen stages, each with clear win conditions that are rewarded by up to three stars; as a simple example, clear the bubbles in less than a minute for one star, fifty seconds for two and forty for three. Fail altogether and you can retry, or if you’re really struggling can retry with an assist, but that will only earn you a maximum of one star. I thought this was a nice touch to make sure you can progress the story one way or another though. However, get three stars on every stage and you can do it all over again on the EX stages for each location, where EX certainly stands for EXpert! Regular stages start out pretty bitesize, to the point that for the first half an hour or so that star system was giving this a bit of a stink of free-to-play mobile gaming, but in reality there’s none of that, and you’re soon wishing you had more time to complete a goal. The final “showdown” in each location is always a beast too – big, strategic affairs that constantly demand your attention all over the screen and will take a few goes to even beat, let alone perfect. Get through the first set of fifteen locations and as well as the next lot, you’ll also be able to enter the Baron’s Tower, an endless stage with three difficulty levels and online leaderboards, where all those initial concerns about things being too bitesize are long-since forgotten!

Basic gameplay is classic Puzzle Bobble, where your character at the bottom of the screen has a coloured bubble in hand and the one up next to one side, which you can swap with if you want to. You’ve also got a little helper on the other side of you, and he’ll hang on to any special bubbles you might come across until you need them. Once you’re ready to shoot, you aim left or right to try and create a chain of three or more, which will cause them to pop, but don’t hang about because the whole lot are constantly descending, and if they get too fire down it’s game over. Or life lost, at least! There’s loads of those special bubbles to help you out, like the Star Bubble, which will pop all the bubbles of the colour that hits it, a bomb that clears its vicinity (that can also cause a very cool chain reaction), and then there’s blanks that change to the colour that hits it, and paint bubbles that paint the bubbles around it the same colour. Not everything that isn’t a bubble is helpful though – planks can only be dropped by clearing the bubbles they’re hanging from, and supports only by clearing everything around them; then in timed games there’s some that will take time away. There’s variants on all of these too, so for example, paint bubbles that paint a line, but you get the picture. Loads to keep things interesting!

I’ve had a real blast playing though this, so I can only imagine the joy it might bring to someone who can actually see what’s going on! Okay, I said I wouldn’t mention it again but it’s really not so bad in Story Mode, once you’re in the zone. Everything is big enough to play with the original symbols on the bubbles if you need to, so you can turn that horrible extra symbol off and more or less enjoy it as nature intended, and doing so was definitely the way once I took the plunge. The difficulty gradually ramps up as you travel through the first location, Rainbow Village, but you’ll only start dropping stars once you’re most of the way through. That’s not to say that “puzzle” word in the title won’t come out to bite you on the backside even before that though, and you really need to keep an eye on the objectives as well as any special tiles at play to work out what’s being asked of you, otherwise you can easily find yourself out of time, just as you’re enjoying the process of matching a big playfield!

There’s also a level of mastery required here, and not just in terms of reading that carefully crafted playfield, but also in the simple act of shooting your bubble! This follows the tradition of earlier games, where you get a short guide-line to assist aiming, but where the ball ends up beyond that is down to your spatial judgement. And there’ll be times you hate your spatial judgement as you screw up a vital shot to clear the chain about to hit the danger line or free the little Chack ‘n thing you’re trying to save before the time runs out! There’ll be more times it feels great though, as you beat the game at its own game and pull off some mighty clear that drops half the screen along with it in the nick of time! Either way – even though it takes a few stages to find itself – all of this brings out that energy in the game so present in the first two original Puzzle Bobbles in particular.

From the cutscenes to the gameplay to the bonus unlockables, this is the ultimate in cute gaming, but somehow it also manages to tread that fine line its predecessors, its pre-predecessors, or something like Rodland or TwinBee also manage to successfully tread, where it never comes across as child’s play. Okay, maybe some of the cutscenes do, but I’d rather watch these than any of that Pixar rubbish most adults seem to lap up! I guess some very Japanese-English translations give it a bit of a pass in my eyes! Anyway, everything is painfully vibrant, with the main play area held up by this rustic wooden frame, perfect for vines to creep all over and the Miniroons to wander about on top of, playfully oblivious to the chaos they’ve caused! Behind that there’s a cartoon-medieval feel to the various backdrops that represent the different fantasy locations around the island, and while they’re all very 2023, it requires no stretch of the imagination for them to “feel” very Bubble Bobble and the world it created too.

A lot of everything on the screen is understandably mostly static, but that’s not to say that what can move doesn’t! There’s life-giving animation all over the place, from occasional tufts of smoke coming out of a chimney in the background to the determined nod of your character’s head as he or she surveys the bubbles, but what’s even better is when they start blubbering as they continue to fire off bubbles when things start looking bleak! Something totally unintentional I love about the characters too is in the character select screen, where you can choose from your four dinosaurs, and as you flick through them the very clean colours and the odd embellishment might change but the same wonderfully stupid expression on all of their faces never does! I wanted to mention the bubble-pops too – as simple as that might sound, if you look closely there are multiple phases of animation in that split second, and where there’s a load of them popping or exploding or having paint thrown across them it’s a surprisingly pleasing spectacle in itself!

The Bubble Bobble gang and the world they live in have really never looked better, and things aren’t bad in the sound department either! A music player tucked away in the bonus material generally bodes well though – almost as much as the seeing Zuntata, Taito’s legendary house- band, mentioned in the opening credits! The soundtrack is as whimsical as you’d expect, and you never know what’s coming next! There’s full orchestral with a kind of Lord of the Rings vibe (a lot like those environments I just mentioned); there’s loungey, big-band J-pop; there’s some funky disco; there’s Charlie Brown-style piano jazz; there’s even that laid-back American seventies kids’ TV show theme tune kind of thing! I’m not sure it’s my cup of tea enough to spend much time in the music player, but in the background as I play I love it! Some incidental crazy Japanese language and Japanese-English shrieking is the perfect accompaniment too, and together with all the pops and drops and everything else it’s an audio feast as much as it is visual.

We should move on to the other game modes now, starting with Vs. Mode, where you’re playing competitive versus matches, either online, local for up to four players or on your own against the computer. Unfortunately I was doing this before launch so couldn’t really try online, but can see there’s ranked matching with randoms and a password matching system for playing with friends… Wonder if next-gen Switch will finally catch up with some of that stuff whenever it comes? Anyway, I’ll assume online is the same as local or solo, and while there’s not a lot to it, what’s there is frantic and so much fun with friends. You’ve each got a playfield on each half of the screen, and chaining bubbles is going to send more bubbles across to other side to make their life more difficult, but otherwise normal rules apply until the bubbles reach the bottom on one side or time runs out for a draw. It’s best of three, and once you have a winner you just start a new game. I don’t suppose that provides enormous longevity on your own here, although playing story mode does unlock more characters to play, but there’s a great time to be had one-on-one or two-on-two!

Our final game mode, Puzzle Bobble vs. Space Invaders, was probably the one I was looking forward to the most, at least until I clicked its icon and realised it was a spin on Space Invaders Gigamax 4SE from 2018 – as bonkers as the name suggests on paper but the reality a little less so, especially if you’re playing solo… It was Space Invaders times four, with the biggest wave of Space Invaders you’ve ever seen all stretched out across a single screen that allowed for simultaneous four-player play or the most long-winded version of Space Invaders ever if not! And this is Puzzle Bobble in the same format. And while I’ve tried to avoid too many colourblind rants as I originally promised up to now, if you’re relying on those horrible little symbols on the bubbles because the regular ones are too small here, then you might as well not bother – you’ll literally spend your whole time looking up at the “Invaders” then down at your next bubble, then back again just to work out if anything matches, then you’ll give up before you get shot and just fire it into place anyway, giving you slightly lower odds of getting a match than if you just try and work out which is the pink and which is the blue or which is the green and which is the yellow instead! It’s all about four times more tiny now too, so while that’s all acting to suck out whatever fun there was originally on a TV, it’s just impossible to play handheld. Oh yeah, once you’re in this mode I can’t see any way back to the main menu without forcing the game to shut down from the Switch Home Screen and starting again, so maybe just steer clear altogether. What a shame!

Also a shame to finish on a downer, so I’m not going to go on about that colourblindess stuff again either because I know I’m in a minority and, as you’ve seen, relatively speaking it turned out alright regardless. Maybe just say buyer beware again instead, before I go on to say that apart from this, and that final crappy but also surplus to requirements bolted-on game mode, Puzzle Bobble Everybubble! is an absolute joy. It’s gorgeous, it’s unthreatening (I really hate the word “wholesome” so I’m not going to say it!), it’s challenging, it’s crazy addictive and it’s polished to hell and back! And there’s loads of it! As always though – and especially when the Switch exclusive tax is involved – you have to ask yourself is there £34.99 worth of all of that here, particularly when you can buy earlier games in the series on the Switch for a fraction of that, but then again they’re ancient, this is brand new Puzzle Bobble in 2023, and if you’re a fan you’ll already know if you’ll get your money’s worth out of it!