Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Taito Corporation
Release Date: July 28, 2009
It's hard to believe that the Bust-A-Move series (also known as Puzzle Bobble in Japan) is 15 years old. The arcade game, which was a puzzle-themed version of Bubble Bobble and included characters from that series, was an instant hit with fans thanks to the easy-to-understand rules and constant pressure to finish the level before the ceiling drops on you. That success has helped bring the series out of the arcades and onto several consoles, both home and portable, over the past few years. While fans have loved the game, they've also been particular about any drastic changes to the series, dismissing any version that messes with the classic formula. After the last Nintendo DS version bombed with fans, Taito and Square Enix have gone back to the drawing board with Space Bust-A-Move, a game that purists will love because the changes aren't very drastic.
Space Bust-A-Move contains a story mode this time around, and while it's simply a means to give the solo player something to do, it also features the game's one major change. According to the story, one of the galaxy's most evil beings is trying to gain supreme power over the cosmos by trying to retrieve all of the cosmo bubbles. With the guidance of a space princess who's trying to stop him, you guide brothers Bub and Bob through 24+ levels in search of the cosmo bubbles and stop his nefarious plot once and for all.
The big change here is the inclusion of cosmo bubbles. While they're nothing special, these bubbles are ones that you're charged with not popping. You can still pass the level if they do pop, but you will be unable to get to the final world unless all of them are collected. This turns each level into a little puzzle as you try to find a way to free the cosmo bubbles without accidentally popping them in the process. It's a fun mechanic and proves to be a good set of challenges as opposed to annoyances. The only drawback found in the story mode, though, is the inclusion of the guide dots at the beginning of each level. It's understandable to have them in the first world, but by world 5, one would think that the player is skilled enough and won't require assistance.
Beyond the story mode, there's plenty more for the single player to deal with in the game. Versus mode has you selecting a difficulty level and a character in a quest to defeat all of the other opponents. Endless mode is exactly what one expects in that it goes on and on until the player lets the bubbles reach the ground. Both of these modes, along with Story mode, let the player earn cash that can be used to unlock items, such as new bubble art, pointers and new modes, including a puzzle mode with 60 different scenarios to solve and a mode where you have to clear the board with just one bubble. All in all, this is a game filled with stuff to do when you're not finding real opponents to duel against.
Multiplayer is fully featured in Space Bust-A-Move, and fans couldn't be happier. Players can choose to play with up to four players locally in versus mode, with the top screen displaying everyone else's progress. Like versus mode with the computer, the objective is to get your opponent to fail by throwing different bubble patterns at him and initiating power-ups to disrupt his field. The multiplayer method worked well for the series in the Nintendo 64 era, and it still proves to be a worthwhile endeavor here. Locally, the game supports up to four players with just one cartridge, making it easy to convince friends that they should partake in multiplayer matches, since all they need is their own DS to play with. For those who don't have anyone locally to play with, the game supports online play via Nintendo's network for up to four players. Like local play, the gameplay is smooth with little to no lag present, making it a title that can stand up beside Tetris DS as being the perfect online puzzle games for the system.
The controls bring the focus back to more traditional methods. The d-pad is used to control the pointer while the A button shoots. In versus modes, the X button initiates power-ups. The control method is the same one that fans have been using for quite some time, and it remains the preferred method thanks to the accuracy it gives when trying to line up the perfect shot. Alternatively, users can play with the touch-screen if they want, but unlike Peggle, a game with similar controls, users can't just drag the pointer to where they want to shoot. Instead, they have to hit the arrows near the pointer to determine the direction and use the shoulder buttons or tap on the pointer to fire the bubble. Due to the speed and precision needed to get high scores in this game, this method is too cumbersome to be enjoyable.
The graphics are a good example of how sprites can still be a viable way of making games look good. The sizes of the characters you play with may be small, but they still look and animate well. Every expression, from bliss to worry when their ceiling starts to drop to the pain of losing, is clearly seen through their very animated faces. The backdrops, while not animated, look fine when they're still, and the frame rate holds steady, though without many moving elements, it would be surprising if the frame rate fluctuated. The only real complaint that can be levied against the game would be for the pointer. With the brightly colored backgrounds, it can sometimes be difficult to see the pointer's direction thanks to its metallic color and lack of distinguishable border. The smaller size doesn't help, and while one can just buy different pointers and use them instead, the fact that your default one is somewhat small means you'll be forced to deal with this for a while before things get better.
The sound is bouncy and whimsical, just the way purists like it. Even when you are close to losing, the music fails to lose the happy charm that it had when the level began. The same can be said for the effects, which remain the same as the ones used years ago in the older versions. Though there aren't any voices present in this version, things are practically unchanged, and the game is better for it.
Space Bust-A-Move brings the series back to form by getting rid of the fluff that didn't work and going back to the basic stuff that did. Fans aren't going to see much change in the graphics and sound, but the series was never really about that anyway. It was always about the gameplay, and with the classic gameplay mixed in with various modes and a tight control scheme, there's little left to complain about. Die-hard fans will be happy to get a faithful version of the puzzle game they love while new ones will instantly fall in love with this near-timeless take on the puzzle genre. Every puzzle fan should have this title in their portable library.Score: 8.0/10
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