OK, now there's a lot of different versions of Puzzle Bobble 4, so I'm told, and as such, it was difficult to pick which version to cull the screenshots from. At least, it was difficult for my idiot writer because such is his absolute incompetence that I've actually witnessed him scalding himself with piping-hot tea while making it. How he gets through any given day without bludgeoning himself to death on the various utensils in his kitchen is a mystery worthy of Miss Marple, but the point is that he's mostly used shots from the arcade game, with Playstation shots where appropriate. Also, for the sake of my sanity, we're sticking to the Puzzle Bobble name. For this is how it should be.

Ah, Puzzle Bobble. Bit of a spring chicken compared to the great puzzle classics such as Tetris and Puyo Puyo (well, only by a few years but shush) but it shares two problems inherent in those series. First, it keeps on going, which often gets people asking for something new from the developers. The second problem is that when the developers do try something new (giant Puyos, new Tetris shapes, etc.) then they often fall flat on their arse, which gets people (sometimes the same as the last set) saying if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Then the next version rips out said features, going back to the classic formula. And so, history repeats itself, ad infinitum...

For me, Taito's classic bubble-busting series began this trend with Puzzle Bobble 4. It was the last one I seriously played.

Released in 1997 for Taito's at-the-time aging F3 arcade system, it's the final game in the 'traditional' Puzzle Bobble series (before we got Super Puzzle Bobble and I lost track of the series) and the first time you play the game, things are looking up. New sprites! Funky music! And all the classic Puzzle Bobble action you crave, just more of it! For the most part, this is true. The basics are all in place- match three or more coloured bubbles together to make them pop, don't let them go over the deadline, drop dangling bubbles for bonus points, etc. etc.- and once again, a whole new cast of characters are thrown into a bubble-fuelled battle, and there can only be one. I'm sure you never expected Bub to be throwing down Puzzle Bobble matches with a sentient totem pole or some kind of bizarre Jar Jar Binks-like creature; the cast list is truly out there in this one. Hell, there's even a plot this time, some nonsense about the Rainbow Bubble being split and scattered across the universe, causing mayhem, and that lovable scamp Super Drunk shows up as the final boss again (this time as a grotesque moon-shaped monstrosity called Madam Luna, whose screams still haunt my sleep). Complete with the requisite Puzzle, Vs. Com and Vs. Player modes, things seem pretty normal until you actually start playing it and, oh, oh no.

To begin, we have the standard Puzzle mode which is somewhat ruined by the incredibly aggravating and almost nonsensical pulley rounds. At least once in every course, you'll have to tackle a round where bubbles are suspended on opposite sides of a pulley, requiring you to keep them balanced lest the heavier of the two get weighed down, bringing it closer to the deadline. Sounds like a righteous idea in theory, but in execution, not so much. The implementation of the idea is a little shoddy, as a few of the levels punish the player unfairly for popping lots of bubbles on one side of the pulley (doing so upsets the balance so much that one side will slam down the screen twice in a row, often resulting in death) and the pulleys will often attach themselves to other parts of the puzzle which doubles the confusion and bogs things down ever further as you have to chip away at the bubbles to get the one at the centre of the pulley. They're clumsy, they're awkward and you'll dread these rounds

The thing is, even if they did implement it right, they've put it in the wrong game. The way I play it, Puzzle Bobble is mostly interested in egging the player on to beat each round as fast as humanly possible to get a nice juicy time bonus at the end- hence the designs of stages often having craftily hidden (well, maybe not so crafty) ways of ending the round as fast as possible. As such, it's a nippy little puzzle game, and the pulley rounds just slow things down to a crawl, especially anything beyond the 3rd time you see one, killing the speed of the game. Sure, there's plenty of more traditional rounds, far outranking the pulleys, but they still have a real negative impact on your enjoyment of the puzzle mode. Your progress is halted at least once every 5 rounds, and you just want to get them over with so you can get back to the real Puzzle Bobble.

Next on the agenda, the Vs. Mode is given a far more ruinous addition than the pulleys, the poorly-implemented chain reaction system. The traditional way of attacking your opponent in Puzzle Bobble is by dropping dangling bubbles, which get sent over to your opponent's side in the bubble formation of your chosen character. Nice and simple, right? The chain reaction system adds to this by sending those dropped bubbles back onto your board- if there's a clump of at least two bubbles matching any of the ones you just dropped that are free, it'll be thrown up there and pop 'em, and if any bubbles drop from that lot that match up with bubbles on the board, they'll repeat the process, and so on. It's a bit like the combo system in Puyo Puyo, but the difference is that Puyo Puyo is a game that thrives on planning ahead. Again, Puzzle Bobble doesn't have time for that, so while it's possible to plan an elaborate chain reaction combo, it's usually not worth the effort, as a constant barrage of smaller drops does the job just as well while also keeping your board clear.

What happens instead is that you'll pull these reactions off unwittingly, and here's where we get to the problem- they turn the tide of battle too dramatically. One second you've got the bubbles breathing down your neck, and one Chain Reaction combo later, your screen is halfway, maybe totally clear, and now it's your enemy that's feeling the pinch, and then more often than not, the same thing happens on their screen, and so we come full circle. For the record, this isn't just an isolated incident- I've seen this scenario play out dozens of times in battle mode. This results in painfully drawn-out matches that carry on for far too long compared to the rapid-fire nature of previous Puzzle Bobbles. For some games, features that give players a somewhat unfair advantage can keep things close, but here it doesn't keep things close, it just sends everything spiralling out of control. And this is just with a live opponent, because fighting the computer opponent with this system makes the Vs. Com mode nearly interminable- God help you if you want to beat Madame Luna on Expert, because you'll be buried in seconds.

It's a shame, really, because if they'd taken these parts out, the game would've been fine. It wouldn't have been very good as a sequel, arguably, but it wouldn't be completely broken either. The amount of improvements from Puzzle Bobble 3 minus these two additions are near non-existant; it's essentially the same thing, just dumping the bright, colourful graphics of the third game for a slightly more sedate, less intense colour scheme (which actually works pretty well- the graphics are a bit easier on the eye than previous games, as are the character designs for the most part) and a new batch of attack patterns for a new batch of characters (10 this time, offering a tiny bit more variety than before and being, well, less broken than Jack or Sonic Blast Man from 3). As it is, though, it's a bit of a mess, with the spirit of Puzzle Bobble trying to claw its way to the surface, and nearly making it seconds before the new rubbish buries it again, with the chain reactions being far more damaging to the game. If you can ignore these two elements for long enough, you might be able to get some fun out of this, but seriously, why bother when you can just play Puzzle Bobble 2 or 3, eh? Eh?!

Fortunately, the home ports (the Dreamcast, Playstation and PC ones, at least) made a valiant attempt at fixing the damn thing. In addition to the obligatory Win Contest, Edit and Challenge modes fresh from the home versions of Puzzle Bobble 3, and the new Story mode with 110 all-new puzzles to wade through, they added the option to disable the Chain Reaction system. By simply switching it off, the game becomes at least 50% better, and the battle mode more closely resembles Puzzle Bobble 3, with the character-specific attacks- just as it should be. The remaining 50% of suck is, of course, caused by the pulley stages that still linger. At the very least, the 2-player battle mode returns to its former glory, and that's why you play the damn thing really, ain't it? Additionally, in a possible attempt to curry the favour of long-time Puzzle Bobble fans, 4 characters from Puzzle Bobble 2- Monsta, Mighta, Woolen and Packy- are added to the roster, unlocked by playing through the Win Contest mode until they challenge you, and Madame Luna and Super Drunk (given the stupid, stupid name of Dreg) are also playable. These extra characters are available in all modes except the normal Vs. Com mode, which is a shame because in the classic Taito tradition, the translation is appalling and, as such, absolutely hilarious.

Of course, the weird thing about Puzzle Bobble 4 is that, at the time of the home port's release, most magazines complained that it was nothing new (apparently having only played it for 2 minutes, not even reaching a pulley round) and one particular review says "only virgin Bust-a-Move-rs need apply", which indicates two things; first, that the majority of people won't really notice the damaging changes to the Puzzle Bobble formula that kill the game, and secondly, that the magazine in question probably couldn't be arsed. Sequels like Puzzle Bobble 4 simply can't win, because the masses will look at it and think it's the same thing all over again, while the hardcore will bitch and moan about the changes (like I'm doing right now and then other hardcore fans will bitch at me omg meta-review!) and so nothing of value is achieved.

This happens to be a particularly convenient way of summarising Puzzle Bobble 4- nothing of value was achieved from it, and it only led to the downfall of the series... At least, from my perspective. From this point on, Puzzle Bobble fell off my radar- the Super Puzzle Bobble series (including the shit All-Stars version) with its weird and unintuitive additions such as convener belt walls (seriously, what), Ultra Puzzle Bobble and its distinct lack of charm, and it's the fourth game that called this pattern- a slew of releases adding needless gimmicks to the formula that simply didn't work. It's only relatively recently, with releases like Puzzle Bobble Galaxy and Puzzle Bobble Plus, games that are mostly devoid of the stuff that bogged down other entries, that show that the series is finally getting back in the good books, and back to good old simple bubble-busting fun. Of course, then we get back to the 'same old, same old' problem that's dogged every puzzle game since the dawn of time. It's such a shame, because Puzzle Bobble was very special to me. Like most Taito games, the original three are very close to my heart, and I just felt 4 didn't do it well enough.

If that's the case, then what are puzzle games like Puzzle Bobble, Tetris, Puyo Puyo et al to do? If you'll permit me to be an idiot an incompetent game designer at this point, I'd say the best option is a combination of the Tetris DS approach (include the original game, add a few extra modes that don't detract from the classic), the Puzzle Bobble Plus approach (allow people to download new sets of puzzles, eliminating the cries of rehashing) and, if the developer absolutely has to add in some new kind of gameplay system, give people the opportunity to turn it off. Not all changes to puzzle games like this are totally disastrous- the gravity blocks added in Puzzle Bobble 3 give a lot of freedom to both the player and the level designers, and Puyo Puyo Box was good at highlighting the different gameplay modes of the sequels without detracting too much- but giving the player the choice with new elements that are particularly different is just a bit classier than forcing it down their throats, you know?

And in the case of Puzzle Bobble, for fuck's sake Taito don't take Bub and Bob out of it!

You tried that once twice three times before, remember?


For damn-near ruining a perfectly good series, Puzzle Bobble 4 is awarded...

In a sentence, Puzzle Bobble 4 is...
The shark-jump of the series.

I hope the writer is able to get off his high horse and get back to the index somehow.