How did a game capture mine, and so many other people’s, imagination with so simple a premise. I remember first hearing about Bubble Bobble in the playground. Our local video store kept three or four coin-operated cabinets, and we new that one was being changed. As always this caused a bit of a stir amoungst the regulars. One lunch time I passed a fellow gamer in the hall, and he enthused about the new game. I still remember his description of it: “two little dragons that fire bubbles and jump around on platforms”. The next few weeks called for regular visits to the machine as we slowly figured out how to make a dent on the 100 levels.
The first hook to the game was the simple play field. Each level filled a single screen enabling it to be viewed without scrolling. This meant that you quickly learnt the layout and levels became instantly recognisable. Even when away from the game you could strategise new routes to follow, or shortcuts that may enable a quick victory. I remember many morning paper rounds passed while day dreaming my way through the first 20 of so screens.
On top of this was layed the simple enemy intelligence. The routes and rules followed by the several different enemy characters. Each of them was distinctive in their movement, and attack abilities ranging from simply charging you down to firing a variety of projectiles. Each level had it’s own configuration of attackers, which led to popular approaches to deal with them, and much discussion of the best solution amoungst the regular gamers. This jostling for approach was intesified as every level gift the player with a few second at the beginning before the enemies sprang into action. As a player grew wise tot he game, this time became crucial to either position your little dragon in an oportune location, or to try pre-emptive strikes to reduce their numbers.
Usually after some repeated plays over the first twenty of so levels, the player would start to notice another layer to the action. Each level has it’s own particular air currents. These would blow the bubbles shot by the dragons around a particular path. With this knowledge in hand, it was possible to wow a watching audience with craftly moves other jumping on a well positioned bubble to gain qucik access to a platform during the pre game period, or blowing a series of bubbles into a particular current to cause a chain reation of pop’s to set off an out of reach special bubble.
Even with all this to hand for the player there was still more to discover. And with these layers of play stacking up, the more of them you had down the better you could impress anyone watching the play and more importantly the better chance you had at beating the other player to the big points. There was a few days in our local arcade where it seemed that some of the players had some magical knowledge of which bonuses where going to appear. This became particularly infuriating for their opponents as they would find themselves contantly out positioned for the large end of level fruits and prizes. It slowly seeped out down the hierarchy of players, that the bonuses where not simply random as we had thought but were triggered by particular collectables.
This was the final layer to the puzzle, that triggered power-ups. They were each controlled by collecting certain items. And in tern each of these items were triggered by the play doing something specific. Some high value power-ups were triggered by collecting certain lower value items. One, particularly fabled item: “the gates” were only available if the player hadn’t died in the first twenty levels.
So here we have it, the playfield, the enemy intelligence, the air currents and the triggered power-ups. What on first visit appears to be a simple platformer, actual exhibits the sort of depth that many modern games struggle to deliver today. Much akin to the pinball machines of the same era, the more you played the more you realised there was to do. What at first seemed to be knocking a ball around the table (in our case a dragon) opened up into a very rich and player controlled enviornment. Something more akin to the open sandboxing we are seeing in the latest generation of games.
I was recently reminded of this layered player experience when I discovered (somewhat belatedly) that weapons in Halo 2 needed to be used in very particular ways to be effective. Halo had a whole layer of play beyond the basic play mechanic. I needed to use the plasma based weapons to knock off my oponents shield before I could use the bullet based guns to kill their flesh, geneous!