When Bubble Bobble 4 Friends arrived on Switch roughly a year ago, publisher ININ decided to launch the arcade revival in Europe first. Why? Simply because the first Bubble Bobble was a runaway success during the late ‘80s, with most European computer formats receiving a highly rated conversion. The Master System version from 1991 was also outstanding.

Decades on, the arcade original remains brilliant – the ability to capture enemies in bubbles before bursting them is still a fun and playful mechanic, holding much appeal.

That appeal extended to 2019’s Bubble Bobble 4 Friends. The Baron Is Back is an upgraded version for PS4 and Switch, adding a new mode to bring the stage total up to 200. Switch owners can grab it as a free upgrade, while newcomers can purchase this not-quite-full-price package as a new release.   

The new content goes some way to fixing the original’s shortcomings, which were mostly centred around the game’s length and difficulty. To recap, it’s possible to blitz through both the campaign’s normal and re-arranged hard mode in around 2 hours. It lures you in with bright ‘n breezy visuals and a jaunty rendition of the original’s theme tune, before adding platform requiring precision jumping and wind that blows bubbles off course.

An attempt at creating a smooth difficulty curve isn’t quite realised though, as some stages feel either sloppily or lazily designed. The enemy design isn’t up to much either (hello, static building block with googly eyes), and the bosses are much of a muchness – dodge their attacks and hit’em when they’re dizzy.

Hard mode features more aggressive enemies, such as cannons that now fire in multiple directions instead of just one. It’s a stiffer challenge, but infinite continues make it all too fleeting. Also proving that gamers have it easy these days, if you fail several times in a row, the option to become invincible is given. Oddly, this doesn’t affect trophy unlocks.

The 1986 arcade original has also been thrown in, featuring scanlines and similar options, while the ‘big new thing’ is the retro-inspired Arcade of the Future.

This mode features arcade-style presentation and has 100 floors to complete in one run – just ten lives are at your disposal and there are no continues. Even when playing in four-player (a focal point here, with Bub and Bob joined by Peb and Pab) the pool of lives still stands at ten. You can, however, practise the last floor reached – a thoughtful touch. If you found the original campaign too easy then this new challenge will test your mettle. It experiments with camera placement, zooming in closely for some stages, and also throws some surprises into the mix.

But once again, not every stage is a masterclass in design – some are merely empty square or rectangular rooms filled with bouncing enemies. While the developers definitely favoured quantity over quality, Arcade of the Future is still a substantial addition that won’t be beaten quickly without teamwork and practise.

Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron Is Back is a likeable package – a fact helped by the presence of the arcade original – but it still lacks that elusive ‘moreish’ quality. After succumbing to a few cheap deaths that feel like iffy collision detection is to blame, or hitting a brick wall in Arcade of the Future due to reaching a stage that simply throws everything at you, the option to select ‘No’ from the continue screen becomes all too tempting.

At least there are more modes to jump in and out of now, and the ability to post online rankings is an enticing enough draw to blitz through the campaign again between tackling new stuff. So although Bub and Bob aren’t exactly back with a bang, this is still worth making some noise about.

Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron Is Back is out now on Switch and PS4, both at retail and digitally.

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