As I’ve pointed out previously, I loved Bubble Bobble, especially on the Commodore 64. However because in those days I wasn’t well-versed in gaming lore, I had no idea that a sequel – in the form of Rainbow Islands – existed. Needless to say, as soon as I found out, I raced out and buy it for my Amiga.
This turned out to be a good call, although my initial impression was one of disappointment. There had been so many changes to the Bubble Bobble format! The heroes – Bub and Bob – were no longer cute dinosaurs and didn’t blow bubbles, whilst the gameplay was much closer to a traditional platform game.
Then I started to play the actual game and instantly forgot my concerns and learned to love Rainbow Islands in its own right. Yes, in one sense, 100 more Bubble Bobble style levels would have been fun, but would the game still be remembered today? Probably not. Even if it was, it would probably be remembered more as a quick cash-in on a popular title, than a brilliant game. Taking the sequel in a completely different (but clearly related) direction was a masterstroke that ensured both titles are still fondly remembered.
The first thing that grabs your attention is the graphics. Sure, Bub and Bob look like they are victims of the current obesity crisis and guzzled a few too many turkey twizzlers, but with their rounded features and rosy cheeks, they are every bit as cute in human form as they were when dinosaurs. Enemies are wonderfully designed and imaginative; just as cute as Bub and Bob and match the theme of the islands they inhabit. Add to this the riotous use of colour and you have a title that is a visual delight.
Nor does the game just impress the eyes; it sounds great too. A lovely quirky, plinky-plonky version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” loops continuously during levels. This might sound annoying, but the tune quickly gets into your head and I defy anyone to play this game and not be singing along to it within five minutes. Indeed, even though I haven’t played the game for some time now, I’m whistling the song even as I type. Along with some appropriately cutesy sound effects, it all makes for a fun and quirky atmosphere.
Happily, the game itself (programmed by industry veterans Graftgold) delivers on the gameplay front. As with everything else, this had changed significantly from its predecessor. This time around, Bub and Bob have to negotiate their way to the top of each level, avoiding (or trapping) enemies, and reaching their goal before the water levels rise and drown you. To help Bub and Bob reach otherwise inaccessible platforms, they can create rainbows, which can be used as ladders. Any enemies caught under a rainbow and stomped on are killed and offer up a bonus of some sort as a reward. Meanwhile, the addition of a few boss battles helps to keep things fresh and stop the game from becoming too repetitive.
What really sets Rainbow Islands apart as a worthy sequel is the level design which is simply sublime. Early levels are fairly easy and teach you the mechanics of playing. Later levels get seriously tough and require split second timing and sometimes a large dose of luck to get off with lives intact. Crucially, the game is scrupulously fair. Many enemies have set patterns to the way they move, so you can observe them (keeping an eye on the rising water, of course) and make your move at the safest time. If you die, it was because you mis-time your move, not because the game is cheating.
Similarly, the use of bonuses for killing monsters introduces a brilliant risk and reward mechanism. It is possible (though tricky) to simply race your way to the top, avoiding all the enemies, However, if you want to score lots of points or gain extra helpful powers, you need to kill the monsters to release the bonuses. The temptation is to try and trap all the enemies to get all the bonuses, but this can get you into trouble – either by tempting you to go after a bonus item that is close to an enemy, or slowing your progress upwards so that you risk getting caught by the rising waters. As the levels go tougher, so the bonus items become more essential – but the risks associated with going after them also increase.
All these elements come together brilliantly to produce a game that is great to look at, nice to listen to and addictive and frustrating in equal measure. Even today its bright colourful graphics, solid sound and quirky gameplay stand up well.
Bub and Bob – I salute you. Stars of two very different, but in their own way exceptional games (and that’s before we consider their third, home computer only outing, Parasol Stars.)