As we disucssed it was the controlled yet open play of Bubble Bobble that hooked players, slowly revealing more of it’s mechanics as they learnt the game. But what comes after one of the most accurately weighted platformers that all but defined it’s own genre?
The easy answer would be a follow up, reworking the graphics, adding levels and bonuses. But not for Taito. With a waiting crowd of gamers watching, they launched a game that again on first appearances was a rather basic, if odd little platformer. I remember having similar conversations with people as I tried to enthuse about how much more this was than it predecessor, without much luck. It seemed that rainbows and insects and platforms don’t lend themselves to parabolic rhetoric.
This was a much denser game, even controlling the character and getting around the screen was a challenge in itself. I remember pumping an arcade machine with countless coins, still unable to make it off the first island. In fact so tricky was this experience, that it wasn’t until Rainbow Islands hit the Amiga that I really got started with it. The play dynamic took a risk, it was complex. The player moved differently depending on their context. If on the ground they could be controlled as usual, but once on a rainbow and they would always walk to the end once initiated, and jumping would crumble these fragile platforms. But givem time and the wisdom of these movements slowly embedded themselves in your head. You could start to perform similar bubble jumping tricks, just now it was rainbows that took the role of play-partner.
I was looking for what I had loved about Bubble Bobble, and not having much luck. Where were the simple fully visible levels, the sequential power-ups, the planning and chain reactions. All this seemed to be greatly lacking. But with some determination to obtain something out of this frustration a few chinks of light started to appear.
I slowly realised that the power-ups were now not only based on what else you had collected, but how you rainbowed the enemies. Knock a rainbow down on them and out popped a power-up. Hit an enemy with a rainbow and you got a point bonus item.
I remember the particular game when I noticed another pattern emerging for the diamond items. It seemed like the red ones were always on the left and the purples always on the right. Then the penny dropped. The place were the defeated enemy landed determined the colour. The screen was invisible assigned a strip of colour from the rainbow. From the left to the right the colours progressed, red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue, purple. The rest of my play that day was spent trying to collect the full set of diamonds, progress onto the later islands forgotten for a while. This was only intensified once I read that to really complete the game you needed to collect the diamonds in order on each island.
This kept me busy for a while, but gradually I continued the task in hand, getting to the last island and finishing the game. But not for long, as I soon started noticing another layer. Bonus fruits were hidden through the level and could be unearthed by dropping rainbows at ground level. Again the rest of that days (and weeks) play was spent re-exploring the levels trying to find all the bonuses. This had a secondary effect of turning the players attention back to the score as the challenge was now to achieve a near perfect maximum for each level rather than just racing through. Later plays on different systems reveal subtle differences, the Megadrive/Genesis version resetting the bonus fruits on each level whereas the Amiga version let the fruits continue to rise in value until the player died.
So with these things now understood, the rainbow dynamic, the power-ups, the diamond collecting and the bonus fruit. The player was ready to tackle the game proper. Here for me is the strongest aspect of the game, these various aspects could easily have detracted from the whole. Whereas in practice they meshed together, becoming a background of mini-achievements to the main aim of progressing upwards. Something modern games could do well to learn from this “less is more” approach. Game features need to be both balanced and integrated. It is important that they don’t detract from the key hook of a game, but at the same time add to the immersion.
Pro Evolution/Winning Eleven is a great example of this, where the strong football play dynamic is supplemented with well balanced and well fitted special and advanced moves. These are able to exist in the background of the play, tempting mini-achievements, that can be drawn on as the player is able, but never intrude on the run of the play.