Review: Gameloft S.A. Bubble Bash!
In recent months, Gameloft has come from nowhere to become one of the leading iPod game developers, releasing six titles that nearly rival Electronic Arts' iPod library in number, and possibly surpass them in aggregate quality. This week, Gameloft unveiled Bubble Bash! ($5), a light action puzzle game with an instantly familiar theme: it's a clone of Taito's famous Puzzle Bobble/Bust-a-Move games, with only small differences. [Updated July 23, 2008: We have added a new section to this February 26, 2008 review with information on the iPhone/iPod touch version of Bubble Bash!. Please see the end of this review for the new details.]
Just like Bust-a-Move, you control a character at the bottom of the screen who fires individual colored bubbles upwards into a matrix of existing bubbles, attempting to make color matches. Match three or more bubbles and they disappear from the top of the screen; the more matches you fail to make, the more crowded the screen becomes, putting your character in peril of dying. Sound familiar? Besides copying Bust-a-Move, that’s basically the same concept as PopCap’s earlier iPod game Zuma, only placing your character and the bubbles in different starting positions on the screen.
Gameloft’s updates to the game range from trivial to non-trivial. In the trivial department, the game’s characters—heroes, friends, and enemies—backgrounds, and decent music have all gone tropical, and you can choose from male (Kale) and female (Malia) characters with different outfits. Just like the company’s earlier Block Breaker Deluxe, Gameloft has also woven a light storytelling mode into Bubble Bash!, whereby completing levels helps you earn items, pieces of a map, and opportunities to talk with people on an island. Unfortunately, the characters, items, storyline and dialogue are filler and in no way compelling; they’re just a diversion from the action. You can change both characters’ clothing, as well as the shell of their helper crab, when you find shorts, dresses, and shells in the game’s levels—these are just simple, boring, and pointless color swaps.
Non-trivial additions are your ability to unlock additional stages through successful play, and boss encounters—one after every 10 bubble-busting stages—that allow you to take shots at evil monkeys, spiders, and parrots. Though the boss encounters repeat, such that you fight a monkey, then later his very similar brother, and the same with the spider and parrot, they do increase in challenge with modest variations on the initial defeating strategy. There are over 100 stages in the main “Arcade Mode” game, with an endless bubble-bursting game called “Crab Fever Mode,” and a “More Fun!” mode that unlocks bunches of extra stages when you collect items in Arcade Mode.
On a positive note, these updates and others add enough variation to the stages to keep them mildly interesting as you continue to play through. Rather than just provide you with the same handful of colored bubbles stage in and stage out, Gameloft adds a new bubble every few stages, including additional colors and types that make matches harder or easier, depending on what touches them. Some bubbles can’t be destroyed, others trigger flower-like surrounding changes in the colors of adjacent bubbles, and still others contain the prizes you need to find to unlock stages. Time limits, closer quarters, and flying birds who add balls to what’s on screen all add small new twists. Otherwise, it’s a lot like Block Breaker Deluxe, only with different physics and art.
Actually, Bubble Bash! is a lot like all of the similar titles that have come before—the Bust-a-Move titles, Zuma, and Block Breaker Deluxe. With the exception of a new balloon gameplay element, whereby the bubbles in Arcade and More Fun! modes often hang on balloons that you can pop with a good shot to clear multiple bubbles at once—one gets the sense that this is just more of the same with slightly updated art. Playing through the game’s early stages one after another is tiring, rather than fun, and though the levels do gradually become more complex and difficult, the first thirty or so don’t get better, just different. In the absence of power ups, upping the sensitivity on the controller and losing once in a while to gain access to a longer trail of shot-predicting dots, does more to improve these levels than anything in the level designs themselves. By the game’s mid-point, however, the levels are diverse and challenging enough to keep you playing out of more than just curiosity.
While we would initially be inclined to describe the result of a Zuma and Bubble Bash! competition as a draw, Bubble Bash! has considerably more diversity and stages on its side, while Zuma’s audiovisual effects and action are a little cooler. We’d give Bash! the edge because there’s a lot more to do here, thanks to the numerous unlockable levels, but neither of these titles is a superstar; Bash is roughly par overall with Block Breaker Deluxe. Consider this worth a try if you’re a big Bust-a-Move fan and don’t mind seeing it shamelessly copied, or if you’re looking for a light puzzle game that can be enjoyed in 15- or 20-minute bursts between doing other things.
iPhone/iPod touch Version
The iPhone version of Bubble Bash ($8) is an almost exact re-release of the same-named iPod game. You’re still playing as one of two native islander characters who shoot colored balls from the bottom of the screen to match three or more of the same balls at the top of the screen.
The biggest change is the artwork, which is now presented vertically rather than horizontally, and slightly more detailed than it was on the iPod; Gameloft has also added in a new Gravity Mode that places your character on an oversized skateboard that can be moved left or right by tilting the iPhone, reorienting the position from which you fire bubbles. Though these changes are positive, we initially didn’t enjoy the new touch-based control scheme, which we at first found harder to use than the iPod Click Wheel to position shots—Gameloft lets you use most of the screen to change the blasting direction. However, if you stick to using a swiping area at the bottom of the screen, the game’s actually easier to play than the iPod version. We think that the prior price was right for this title; you pay for the additional control and art improvements, so our rating remains the same.