Taito’s big mid-’80s three, although not a trilogy, are often remembered by gamers of the era as being linked. These three fantastic arcade platformers, each with their own distinct styles, eventually found their way to the Master System. Let’s find out if these conversions blow thousands of bubbles, paint the whole world with a rainbow and erm, shoot frozen whales in the face as well as the arcade originals.
AKA: Final Bubble Bobble (JP)
Played Before: Yes (Arcade, Atari ST, C64, NES, ZX Spectrum)
Also on: Amiga, Amstrad, Apple 2, Arcade, Atari ST, BBC, Commodore 64, Famicom Disk System, FM Towns, Game Boy, Game Gear, MSX, NES, PC, X68000, ZX Spectrum, basically EVERYTHING EVER
Progress: Round 28
Bubble Bobble, the only simultaneous two-player game of these three, is well known among lovers of challenging, screen clearing arcade games. Itself being the natural progression from Taito’s slightly weird Chack ‘n Pop, Bubble Bobble’s influence is clear to see in other arcade games such as Tumblepop, Snow Bros and Nightmare In The Dark. What’s happening here is that Bub and Bob have been turned into dinosaurs and their girlfriends have been kidnapped by the brilliantly named Super Drunk. Your task is to descend through 100 single screen stages, clearing each of its enemies against a time limit. It’s that simple. And there is a twist at the end if you make it through all 100.
Bub and Bob have the ability to blow bubbles which can trap the bad guys that roam around each level. Popping a bubble with an enemy inside releases a bonus points item or occasionally a power-up. Enemies escape their bubble traps after a short amount of time and, while there’s no explicit timer, too much dilly-dallying can be deadly. Delaying your screen clearing activities causes enemies to change colour and become angry, moving at a higher speed. Take even longer to clear the stage of enemies and the dreaded indestructible Skel Monster will appear. He only moves sporadically in one direction at a time, tracking Bub and Bob’s movements, so management of him is possible but not recommended. On later levels, Skel Monster appears almost instantly, ramping up the challenge to test even the most skilful player.
To my fairly limited knowledge, the majority of levels are present and mimic the arcade version’s layouts and behaviours well with only a few changes made to cater for the Master System’s limitations. As I’m a bit crap at Bubble Bobble and rarely get more than about 30 stages in, I wasn’t able to fully compare every level with the arcade version. Apparently, there are a few different levels, but I don’t think I’ve seen those. I did notice a slight problem with round 16 where a small change to the layout in the lower area makes it difficult to get started and climb the screen, but this is a minor fault only really noticeable by people who are a bit odd and obsessive.
The graphics are colourful and distinct, with all items and sprites easily recognisable. There’s occasional sprite flicker and disappearance when a lot is happening on one line, even in one player mode, but this is mostly confined to level starting layouts and isn’t really a problem during gameplay as long as you’re paying attention. Even with all of the sprites flying around at a pace, I didn’t notice any trace of slowdown. The sound effects match the graphics in being generally about as good as can be hoped for. The bubble sound is a little obnoxious and could grate after a while but, if you’re potentially going to be listening to it for a few hours, the background music is the most important thing. It doesn’t disappoint with the high-pitched, screechy tones that plague so many Master System games and instead delivers a decent, chimey rendition of the familiar theme that remains bearable even through extended play
Bubble Bobble is packed full of secrets, mostly reliant on hidden counters for performing various actions and others that are more straightforward to discover. The easiest ‘secret’ is generation of EXTEND bubbles. It’s simply a case of popping four or more trapped enemies simultaneously. On the next ‘open’ level, one with a looping exit at the top and bottom of the screen, bubbles containing the letters from EXTEND will appear. Pop bubbles containing all six letters and you’re rewarded with an extra life. You’ll also probably reveal the power-up sweets by accident as they rely on firing or popping bubbles or jumping a certain number of times. In addition to these basic secrets, there are other special items, such as umbrellas that skip a number of levels and canes that reward you with a giant fruit bonus at the end of the round. These require slightly more contrived conditions to be fulfilled before they’re revealed. One item did appear that I’ve never seen before in the arcade version, which made some ice swirl around the screen, freezing enemies instantly. The secret point bonuses appear on the same rounds as in the arcade version and all of the power-ups are present. Bubble flow paths around the screens also seem to follow the same routes.
This conversion is good enough to allow the player to learn how to be good at the arcade version without needing to spend lots of money in an arcade, and is proof that excellent things can happen when the original developer handles a port. Everything is intact, looking and sounding fantastic. This is arcade port perfection.
AKA: Rainbow Islands: The Story of Bubble Bobble 2
Played Before: Yes (Arcade, Atari ST, C64, Mega Drive, ZX Spectrum)
Also on: Amiga, Amstrad, Arcade, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Game Boy Color, NES, PC Engine CD, ZX Spectrum
Progress: Monster Island before I couldn’t be bothered to try any more
Bub and Bob are back again, this time in human form, and have gone to the Rainbow Islands to help the inhabitants who have been transformed and to get back the diamond rod, which has been stolen by a mysterious villain. Let’s jump, break rainbows and collect fruit and veg as we climb seven colourful islands, plus one secret one, and try to help them achieve a happy ending.
Having played the arcade and Spectrum versions of Rainbow Islands more than is healthy, I was looking forward to seeing how it would fare on a console that’s perfectly suited to colourful platform games. I was also interested to see how the limitations of the Master System were handled. Sadly, there’s nothing subtle about the changes made. Things start quite well, with the very colourful title screen and title music is an attempt at the arcade version’s brilliant high score theme, though obviously missing the original’s bendy notes. In-game music has been changed, presumably for copyright reasons, so a version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow is nowhere to be heard. Upon pressing start, you’re greeted with the most boring status screen in the history of the world, which appears to foreshadow what comes after. Considering Rainbow Islands is the very definition of a colourful game, the graphics in this port are a severe disappointment, lacking the expected vibrancy that the Master System is certainly capable of. As well as being a bit boring to look at, level layouts have also been changed, seemingly for no good reason, and they bear no relation to those featured in other versions.
Each world is split into four rounds and themed. The islands are populated with bad guys that roam the platforms or follow a set flight pattern, many of them acting in the same way but some having their own distinct behaviours. Insect Island eases us gently into the action with caterpillars, ladybirds, spiders and bees doing their best to hinder progress. Combat Island is up next and is full of the expected tanks, planes, helicopters and cannons. Monster Island’s Halloween theme is third and features floating skulls, bats, ghosts, Cyclops, Frankenstein’s monsters, and vampires. There are also deadly fires on platforms and wall-mounted skulls that fire at you, which are both very unwelcome additions. Robot Island is next with two types of miniature robots, wall-mounted cannons, flying robot heads, spanners, bouncy bolts and floating nuts (fnar!) in a fetching purple and navy palette. Like Monster Island’s fires, spikes are introduced here both on top of and under platforms and many sections involve careful negotiation of mazes of spikes. Doh’s Island is a complete change of pace, featuring the shapes from Arkanoid floating around almost passively. However, this doesn’t make them any less dangerous! Music is absent here, the only background noise being Arkanoid’s two-tone sound effect when you jump, and there are also laser beams to avoid. The next world appears to be based on Kiki KaiKai and has themes of ancient Japan. I have no idea of the correct terminology for these characters, so it’s guys in masks, lanterns, cracked gravestones and those bouncy umbrella things that aren’t umbrellas. A special mention must be made for the background colour here, which approaches something I’d call ‘baby poo green’. The final world, if you’ve failed to collect all of the large diamonds, is based on Darius, features space-themed enemies from that game and is backed with a version of the Cosmic Air Way theme. This is an odd choice as it suggests that King Fossil was responsible for causing the islands’ problems in the first place. If you do manage to collect a large diamond on every level, the true last level is accessed. This is based on Bubble Bobble and comes complete with that game’s enemies and main theme. At the end of this, we encounter the true boss, Bubble Dragon. In turn, he reveals himself to be our old friend Skel Monster in disguise. Skel bounces around the screen in a predictable fashion until you rainbow his stupid wrinkly face in and get the true ending.
Every world ends in a boss encounter, usually with a giant version of one of the featured enemies. These are neutered, slow motion shadows of their arcade selves and it’s quite embarrassing to watch them drag their way around the screen exposing themselves to easy defeat. On defeating a boss, there’s no spray of items or giant diamond to collect. Instead, the screen fades to black and, if you’ve collected all seven small diamonds, the player is subjected to a completely pointless cut-scene with ‘Bubby’ given the choice of opening a treasure chest for a special item or talking to a character for some story exposition, not that it’s really needed. Bizarrely, at the end of world 6, Bub flirts with stage boss Cindy and they arrange a date, only for Bob to come along and cock-block Bub by revealing that he already has a girlfriend.
On to the rather unsubtle changes, then. Due to sprite limitations, Bub can only fire two rainbows at once and they begin to flicker when more than four are present so that they can all remain visible. This doesn’t completely ruin the game, but does detract somewhat. An advanced technique that is crucial to success in the arcade version is to fire rainbows at the same time as doing a small jump into them, thereby breaking them all immediately. When attempting this with two rainbows in the Master System version, only the first rainbow breaks. The other doesn’t as it hasn’t yet been drawn and then sits orphaned when it eventually appears. It’s also very difficult to quickly climb the screen by firing while continually holding the jump button as rainbows break easily. These changes and Bub’s exceedingly slow initial walking speed contribute to the laborious nature of upwards progress and mean rethinking your approach for more experienced players. In the arcade version, hanging around for a short length of time or bypassing enemies will make them turn a different colour and get angry enough to actively hunt Bub down. That doesn’t happen in this port and it seems to take an eternity for the time limit to expire and the islands to start sinking too, so the sense of urgency to push the player onwards is also lost.
The game also slows down quite considerably when more than three enemies are present on-screen, which makes me wonder why the level layouts were redesigned if it failed to mitigate this problem. Rainbow and star items also wrap around the edges of the screen and come onto the other side. This odd behaviour can be used to your advantage but it does feel a bit like cheating. Of course, the player can’t walk off the side of the screen and come back on the other. There appear to be only a few special items available. One makes rainbows explode into stars when broken, another emits a star when you jump and a third makes stars rain down the screen, killing any enemy they touch, but this is so badly implemented, it looks like the game has glitched, with flickery stars appearing at random through the middle section of the screen. I did see the violin-looking object on the final world but failed to collect it so have no idea if it releases a protective fairy as it does in other versions.
The Master System version of Rainbow Islands is an adequate platformer in its own right, but that’s not the point. Taito has got this port totally wrong. Added to this, there’s a bug in the European version that resets the game after the 7th island. This has been fixed in the Brazilian release so play that version if you really have to. This is definitely not Rainbow Islands as we know it and a demonstration that if you can’t do a game justice on the hardware at hand, you probably shouldn’t release something as woeful as this.
Played Before: Yes (Arcade, Atari ST, C64, NES, ZX Spectrum)
Also on: Amiga, Amstrad, Arcade, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Mega Drive, PC Engine, X68000, ZX Spectrum
Progress: Stage 2-2
Wally Walrus has kidnapped all of the kiwis from zoological gardens in Auckland, presumably because they taste delicious or fetch a high price, and has hidden them away in various locations around New Zealand. Luckily, Tiki escapes from his evil clutches and sets about rescuing his fluffy friends. I’ve never seen a kiwi in the wild, but I’m fairly sure they can’t operate projectile weapons. Or fly balloons. I’m sure it’ll be fine.
Tiki stars off in the north of New Zealand and travels gradually south, visiting Rotorua, Waitomo, Cook Strait and Mount Cook along the way. Each world is split into four stages and populated with various odd beings. There are torpedo firing snails and hermit crabs, men with boomerangs, bears on floating platforms and bats that drop spikes, among others. They’re all out to get Tiki and he fights back with a bow and arrow, a laser gun and bombs. Tiki is only able to jump a little way and can’t fly, so utilises floating platforms, hot air balloons and chickens to get around. He also dons his cute snorkel mask to swim but can only stay underwater for a short time before drowning, so use of the air pockets is key to survival in these sections. At the end of each stage, one of Tiki’s friends is freed from his cage, presumably flying off to a safe place, and every fourth stage ends with a boss encounter.
Many stage layouts have been changed, often with consideration to fitting them into the limited capacity cartridge, so they are generally quite compact and set against a tight time limit before a largely unavoidable demon comes and to kill Tiki. This version is unusual in the 8-bit ports in that it still features the hidden warp doors that are revealed by shooting certain places in mid-air. If you can discover their locations, it’s possible to complete the game in under ten minutes. It’s advisable to try and find these as the game’s difficulty is quite high and there’s no continue option until you beat levels 2 and 4. Taito’s collectable EXTEND letters that grant extra lives don’t feature here, so expect to get very good at The New Zealand Story in order to see the ending. To temper this slightly, and unusually for a platform game, Tiki can actually touch most of the enemies without dying. Anything with spikes is deadly and projectiles will also cost a life, but you can feel free to walk past many of the enemies to rescue your kiwi friends more quickly. It’s still advisable to hammer the fire button as you storm through anyway, just in case.
Outside of the distinctly unattractive title screen, The New Zealand Story’s graphics are colourful, solid renditions of the arcade original but the Master System again shows its limitations as things get a bit flickery when a few sprites are lined up. This doesn’t occur too often, due to the way the levels are laid out, but can sometimes make projectiles difficult to see. This is a minor complaint and the sprites are all very well drawn and recognisable with good quality animations. Like the NES version, the background music is a neutered version of the main theme, meaning that you’re subjected to a 12-second loop most of the time. This is only one third of the length of a single loop of the arcade version’s theme, so does begin to grate after a while and could have done with the full rendition. Overall, though, there’s very little to complain about and a commendable job has been done to make this bright and bouncy arcade game fit into the Master System.
Exciting SEGA ratings:
The New Zealand Story