The Taito company name easily brings to mind two game franchises: Space Invaders and Bust-A-Move (or Puzzle Bobble in other territories). The former is not only one of the first shoot-'em-ups ever made but also a title that caused enough of a frenzy in Japan that more 100 Yen coins had to be minted to keep up with the game's demand at arcades. The latter, a spin-off of Bubble Bobble, was a big hit for arcades and the Neo-Geo system and became a common staple for PCs, home consoles and portable systems. However, the people behind Bust-A-Move kept trying to innovate and improve the series with every new platform, sometimes with bad results. With the release of the Nintendo 3DS comes Bust-A-Move Universe, the franchise's attempt at bringing the game into the third dimension with the same classic gameplay people that have come to love. The end result is decent but lacking in a few key expected elements.
The core mechanics of the game are the same. The player is presented with rows of bubbles at the top of the screen, and a ceiling lowers after a certain number of moves. Your job is to throw bubbles of different colors into the play space. Match three bubbles of the same color, and those disappear while other bubbles attached to the matching pair fall if they aren't connected to another bubble at the time. The player clears the level once all of the original bubbles are gone, but the player loses if any bubbles attached to the set reach a marked line at the bottom of the screen.
There are a few new additions to the general gameplay in Universe. Bonus Time is a new mode activated when six or more bubbles drop from a match at the same time. Here, the player is given the opportunity to throw as many bubbles as possible before time runs out. Once time expires, those thrown bubbles immediately pop for a score, and bonus points are given for any matches made during that time. Players also have access to a special meter that fills up after time, giving the user three different weapons to use, depending on the level. Spark Bubbles change the color of any bubbles around it to the color of the bubble that was hit. Wild Bubbles match two like-colored bubbles instead of the standard three. Finally, the Laser Bubble lets you eliminate any bubbles that fall within the shown blast area. The weapons may be considered too powerful by purists, but they help out newbies and are valuable in a pinch.
Along with some of the good changes come a few bad ones. For one, the ability to bounce bubbles off the ceiling is gone. Anyone who's used to employing strategies that require bounces to the ceiling to make tricky matches can forget about using it in Universe. The guide line, which is usually employed for the Easy difficulty and the opening levels of Normal, are present all the time in Normal difficulty. It goes away once you start playing on Hard, but with people's tendencies to go straight to Normal, they might find this game easier than previous incarnations.
The game is split up into two different gameplay modes. Challenge mode has you trying to score as many points as possible within a time limit while a never-ending horde of bubbles come down toward you. You can pick between a 100-second, 300-second, or infinite time limit, and in addition to the special abilities in the game, you also have access to special bubbles in the field that perform helpful actions. Bomb Bubbles destroy other bubbles in its blast radius while Rescue Bubbles push the bubbles up the screen by one row. Bonus Bubbles award higher points when popped in conjunction with other bubbles while Side Bubbles destroy bubbles on a given side and push the rest in the indicated direction. Finally, Rainbow Bubbles destroy other bubbles to the side and below its arc. For those just looking for high scores, this mode is perfect without destroying too much of the franchise's formula.
Puzzle mode provides a bulk of the single-player experience. Here, you're presented with eight different worlds, each containing 10 different levels. Unlike Challenge mode, there are a finite number of bubbles on the field, and clearing out all of the bubbles will help you clear the level. There are two unique aspects to the mode to help out high score fanatics. Scattered through each of the worlds are keys, and after you obtain all of the keys, you can rescue a kidnapped friend for bonus points. At the end of each world is a boss that must be destroyed within a given time limit. You'll throw bombs instead of bubbles, but they'll only explode when you match three bombs of the same color. If you manage to rescue your kidnapped friend in the world, you'll gain a rapid fire ability, and beating the boss also nets you bonus points. Strangely enough, rescuing your friends and beating the bosses aren't requirements for the completion of this mode, so it's a short experience that lasts about two hours for fairly skilled players.
There is one omission that will confuse fans: the lack of any multiplayer modes, which have long been considered a series staple. Universe is a strictly single-player affair, and there is no local or online multiplayer. It is still a fun game, and the endless Challenge mode can be good for those looking for high scores. Without a leaderboard in play, though, the fun will be short-lived for those who are competitive in puzzle games.
The controls have barely changed from version to version, and this title is no different. The circle pad on the 3DS still isn't as precise as arcade joysticks, but it is comfortable to use without being too slippery. The shoulder buttons are perfect for nudging the launcher slightly in either direction. The launch and special move buttons also fare well, even when you're firing bubbles at a rapid rate. Control-wise, everything works rather well.
The sound retains some of the classic qualities of the older entries in the series. The classic bubble shooting and popping sounds are the same, as are the bounce sounds. The voice of the announcer brings back memories of Bust-A-Move 2 with its child-like sound and delivery. The musical score also evokes memories of the same game because it consists of various remixes of tunes from that title. There are some small things missing, such as the sound of the gear cranks and the sighs of the dinosaurs when defeated, but overall, the sound is more than good enough.
The graphics are quite clean in 2-D. Bubbles, while small, are crisp in quality, and the creatures within each one are visible and have a good amount of detail. The backgrounds are also sharp, as are the other elements such as the starscape and the playfield. Launcher movement is smooth, and even with the number of effects displayed, the game maintains a solid frame rate. Puzzle games never really need excellent graphics to excel, but it helps that things looks quite good in Universe.
To be honest, 3-D isn't really necessary for this game, but it does add some visual flair to the proceedings. The wheels on the side of the play field look good, as does the background as it rolls in on the top screen in a nice, fluid manner. Popping bubbles looks a little bit cooler because the creatures within each one are now seen popping up toward the screen before falling into the background instead of just shrinking. Boss fights also look better; the boss faces can be seen jumping out of your shooting field and shaking off bomb bubbles. It's clean, but the random pictures of the series dinosaurs popping up on-screen will catch people off guard because the pictures are so large and are presented on a different plane.
With its lower price point, Bust-A-Move Universe was supposed to be a no-brainer for puzzle fans to pick up alongside their new 3DS consoles. The core of the game is still brilliant in its design and just as addictive as it ever was. However, the lack of modes and the reduction in difficulty has created a title that feels like a huge step backward for the franchise. If you don't mind the lack of multiplayer and are perfectly content with what's available here, try renting Universe. Otherwise, it's best to wait around and see if a new version will rectify the mistakes in this one.
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