by Ryan Lambie
Originally released in 1986, Bubble Bobble is a colorful platform video game with a fiendishly addictive two player co-op mode, which quickly became an arcade hit for Taito. Widely ported to home computers and consoles, Bubble Bobble marked the start of a long-running series of sequels and spin-offs that is still remembered fondly today. Here are a few things you might not know about the '80s classic that started it all.
1. IT HAS ITS ROOTS IN AN EARLY 1980s TITLE.
Before Bubble Bobble, there was Chack’n Pop, a far more obscure platform game released by Taito in 1983. Some of Bubble Bobble’s ideas appear here in nascent form: a single-screen platform game where the player controls a weird chicken-like creature (the Chack’n of the title). The aim is to retrieve a heart from one corner of the maze-like screen before rushing back to the top.
Some of the mechanics are a bit strange: Chack’n’s primary attack is a grenade-like weapon, which is quite difficult to control. Nevertheless, many of the enemies and collectible items are identical to those in Taito’s later classic—the purple enemies called Monstas make their first appearance here, while two levels in Bubble Bobble directly reference Chack'n Pop.
2. IT WAS AIMED AT COUPLES.
Bubble Bobble was designed by Fukio Mitsuji, who joined Taito in his mid-20s and initially worked on such games as Super Dead Heat, Land Sea Air Squad, and the (very good) vertical shooter Halley’s Comet. For his next game, however, Mitsuji wanted to create something very different from the experiences commonly found in arcades at the time. Noticing that arcades in Japan were commonly frequented by men, he wanted to create a game that couples could enjoy together.
"Back then, women were rarely seen in Japanese arcades," Mitsuji later said in a video interview for the video game compilation, Taito Legends. "So I thought bringing more couples would help solve this issue. That's why I designed cute characters and included cooperative play in Bubble Bobble."
3. THE GAME WAS AN EARLY CO-OP.
Mitsuji’s concept was unusual for its time. If two-player games existed at all in '80s arcades, they were usually competitive and violent. The four-player Gauntlet, released in 1985, warned that “shots do not hurt other players—yet ...”, while 1987’s seminal beat-'em-up Double Dragon ended with its players fighting to the death over the woman they had just rescued.
Bubble Bobble, on the other hand, had a far lighter atmosphere. While players could compete over the items that appeared on the screen, the game encouraged cooperation rather than aggression. Indeed, the only way to get to Bubble Bobble’s true ending was for two players to work together.
4. IT CONTAINS HIDDEN EXTRAS.
As well as the game’s central concept—which involves spitting bubbles at enemies to capture them before bursting the bubbles to finish them off—Mitsuji packed in all kinds of bonuses and hidden extras among Bubble Bobble’s 100 levels. The hardest to find are the three hidden rooms, which can only be unlocked by reaching levels 20, 30, and 40 without losing a life, and then entering a special door.
Full of jewels to collect, these hidden rooms also contained coded messages, which, when deciphered, gave clues as to how to complete the game. “If you want to get back your love of truth you must help each other until the last,” for example, hinted that you could only complete Bubble Bobble with two players.
5. NUMBERS WERE IMPORTANT.
There are hidden depths to Bubble Bobble that will only become obvious after long hours of play, such as the way items are linked to certain digits in your score. If the two penultimate numbers of a player’s score are identical—so, 5880, for example—then higher-scoring items will appear once the level’s completed. Similarly, rounds ending with a 0 or a 5 will also generate rarer bonuses.
6. THERE WERE MULTIPLE ENDINGS.
Bubble Bobble may look cute, with its cartoon dinosaurs and bouncy theme tune, but it’s also a tough game to crack. Later levels can only be completed by mastering tricky techniques, like riding on bubbles to get out of otherwise inescapable pits. The cruelest twist comes at the end, where a single player will be told, after 100 levels of action, to “come here with your friend.”
Even in two-player mode, the game has to be completed twice in order to see the true ending; get through the first 100 levels, and “Super Mode” is unlocked, where the same 100 levels are made faster and more difficult to complete. At a time where most games either didn’t have a conclusion, or concluded with a simple “Congratulations!” message, Bubble Bobble’s multiple endings were quite unusual. And the ending you’re rewarded with when completing the Super Mode is very strange indeed...
7. IT WAS ALL ABOUT FAMILY TIES.
The plot of Bubble Bobble sees its two brothers, Bubby and Bobby, turned into bubble-blowing dragons, while their girlfriends have been kidnapped by the evil Baron von Blubba. Completing the game once reveals what’s called the “Happy End,” where the heroes are reunited with their girlfriends and turned back into humans. But complete the game’s Super Mode, and you’re treated to an unexpected twist: the huge boss you’ve just defeated—the hooded, bottle-throwing Super Drunk—is revealed to be Bubby and Bobby’s parents, who must have been transformed by the same grim magic that turned the heroes into dragons. It’s a surreal—and even quite dark, depending on your interpretation—ending to a classic game.
8. THE SERIES IS STILL GOING STRONG.
The popularity of Bubble Bobble quickly made it one of the most widely-ported games of its era. It appeared on such computers and consoles as the ZX Spectrum, the Amiga, the NES, and Sega Master System—even the Game Boy got its own monochrome, handheld version of the game. Bubble Bobble’s success also prompted Taito to create a string of loose sequels and spin-offs, including Rainbow Islands, Parasol Stars and Bubble Bobble Symphony. The spin-off series are still going strong, with recent installments hitting the Nintendo DS, Wii, and Xbox in recent years.
But Mitsuji himself only worked on the first sequel to Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands (1987), a wonderful single-player platform game that differed wildly from its predecessor in terms of mechanics and pace. Mitsuji also created three other games for Taito— Syvalion, Darius II, and Volfied—before he left the company in the early 1990s. His last game came in 1991—an obscure yet delightful platform puzzler called Popils for the Sega Game Gear, which contained much of the elegant simplicity of Bubble Bobble.
For the remainder of his life, Mitsuji taught game design, before he passed away at the tragically young age of 48 in 2008. It was a sad loss for the video game industry, for sure, but his most famous creation delighted a generation of players with its lighter-than-air action. More than 30 years later, Bubble Bobble remains an out-and-out classic.