Some puzzle games come and go so quietly most people won’t realise they ever existed at all, some burn brightly, once, and then spend the next decade or two commanding almost comically high second-hand prices, and a rare few settle in for the long haul, puzzle series that become so ubiquitous it’s difficult to imagine what gaming was ever like without them. Over time these latter examples eventually transcend crude earthly definitions like “good” and “bad” and instead simple be, everyone free to settle on whichever one they enjoy the most whether that’s an LCD Puyo Puyo keychain dangling from a favourite purse or the all-encompassing synethesia of Tetris Effect played from within a VR headset – that one special version, new or old, you’re happy to play even when you’re not sure you want to play anything at all, the one where the instant it you turn it on it feels as though you’ve never been away.
Taito’s Puzzle Bobble 2 is one of those beautiful genre unicorns for me.
That little pearl of an idea at its core – matching three or more bubbles of the same colour so they pop and disappear – so simple on paper yet so tricky under the constantly changing circumstances, is such a satisfying spark of puzzle-action this game’s kept people happily bursting ceilings filled with bubbles since 1995, practised hands developing an almost supernatural knack for lining up shots capable of rebounding off walls at obtuse angles before nestling in exactly where they were needed most and reacting to a rainbow’s worth of options with lightning speed.
And those newcomers unfamiliar with either the series or maybe even gaming as a whole will still find Puzzle Bobble 2 to be a wholly approachable and welcoming experience, a game whose rules can be firmly grasped purely by watching others in the room play. Taito’s multi-format classic has no interest in trying to amaze anyone by pretending it’s especially complex, difficult, or clever – you pop the bubbles and then you pop some more, and that’s just about all there is to it because what’s there is a lot of fun. Even the special bowling ball, clear bubble, and star bubble, exceptions to the usual colour-matching rules can be understood in full simply by playing the game, and knowing those rules once learned can be applied to both the solo puzzle mode as well as the frenetic versus action helps players confidently switch between the two as the mood takes them. To further aid the new or nervous every mode has an optional practise difficulty setting to play with, tailor-made learning experiences with unique puzzle layouts and even their own amusing versus characters to compete against. These training modes are much shorter than the main events – and Puzzle Bobble 2 does warn of this before they’re selected – but that’s all part of their appeal, they’re a little go to see how you get on, a quick taster session without any pressure or expectation yet still retain all the colourful presentation of the real thing. By ensuring all players at all levels receive the same colourful treatment everyone benefits: If everyone’s welcome then everyone’s more likely to stay and keep on playing and maybe even improving, blessing the game with a healthy pool of fresh players at a wide range of abilities and levels of personal investment – and everyone knows wherever they fall on that scale they have the game’s permission to have a go at something they may have otherwise not have dared to try, even if it means they might fail.
And if failure does come – whether by your own fumbling or an opponent’s interference – it comes so fast you’re back on your feet and ready to try again within seconds – and given a temporary aiming assist line too, just to help make the next attempt go a bit more smoothly than the last. Whether you narrowly miss out on a victory or are utterly crushed there’s no cruelty in Puzzle Bobble 2’s losses, no malicious prolonging of a bad situation – most of the time you’ll be walking the tightrope between doing well and being in a bit of trouble, and if things do go badly those scenarios tend to appear and then resolve themselves quickly. Whatever happens the game’s encouraging tone makes retries and even game overs a pleasant and painless exercise: they’re just another part of the full experience, a “You’ll do better next time and we’ve got the tools to help you practise!” clap on the back before looping back around to the title screen for another go.
And all of the above still holds true for the slightly rejigged Puzzle Bobble 2X releases of the game as well: There’s nothing to new to learn and no strange techniques to worry about here, no drastic upsets to that perfect formula – just a little bit more of the same fabulous game. Which is of course supposed to be terrible because paying customers must demand more content at any creative cost but in practise all it means is that those who do have access to it – that’ll be anyone playing via a Saturn, DOS, or an apparently Japan-only PlayStation release – have an easygoing alternative to spend some time with and those who don’t still have a full and complete game to enjoy, the differences in practise not amounting to much more than interesting trivia to wheel out if the situation calls for it: 2X’s Edit Mode, allowing users to create their very own puzzle stages, is one obvious example – it’s a nice idea but honestly for most it’s a novelty to be tried once and then forgotten. The good news is the amiable insignificance of these additions means there’s no definitively “correct” version of Puzzle Bobble 2 to hunt down for eye-watering collector’s prices and no otherwise competent and convenient ports deemed only “OK” for you to make do with as you begrudgingly decide to compromise with the “wrong” one for your wallet’s sake – any version of Puzzle Bobble 2 you can get your hands on is a guaranteed good time. Some are more arcade-authentic than others, some have a few extra bells and whistles or personal quirks, but the core idea is so strong and so easily transferable that it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing this on Taito’s F3 arcade hardware with its bright red carts and distressingly noisy fan, the good old PlayStation, or the Neo Geo Pocket Color’s pint-sized Puzzle Bobble Mini – it’s a game that’s easy to get your hands on whatever consoles or handhelds you happen to have at home (even modern hardware’s covered thanks to Hamster’s Arcade Archives series) so long as you’re not hankering after an arcade original or a boxed copy for the wonderful Neo Geo Pocket Color (or a boxed copy of any other game for SNK’s handheld, ever), prices tending to fall somewhere between “Is that even worth selling?” to at their absolute worst “About half of a modern new release, maybe”.
Which is all great news for us – Puzzle Bobble 2 may be twenty-five years old but it’s never been easier or cheaper to buy on whatever you want to play it on, and apart from a few cameos no longer being as fresh in people’s minds as they once were (that’ll be little yellow Chack’n, various references to Darius – see if you can spot King Fossil in one of the screenshots above – and Bubble Bobble‘s enemies as well as final boss Super Drunk) it hasn’t aged a day. But best of all it remains a puzzle game that truly feels like it’s made for everyone, from people who know when to call the leading duo Bub and Bob, Bubby and Bobby, or Bubblun and Bobblun, to those roped-in relatives only playing for the first time because they happened to be in the same room as the game when it was switched on and couldn’t think of an excuse to leave before someone pressed a controller into their hands. And because it’s for everyone it’s easy to keep Puzzle Bobble 2 alive – you didn’t have to be there the first time around to “appreciate it properly”, you don’t have to immerse yourself in gaming history, genre knowledge, or even possess any prior skill with videogames at all – a four-way input, a single button to send those bubbles upwards, and five minutes of curiosity is all it takes to create a brand new forever-fan.