There was a time when it felt like you couldn’t move for arcade titles eager to scoot you from one allegedly real-world location to the next, each stage set against a backdrop showing a famous landmark or some focal point that suggests a tourist’s idea of the region: Bomb Jack, City Connection, Street Fighter II… heck, even OutRun tries to take you across a fantasy form of America via a series of left/right choices. Pomping World, also known as Pang or Buster Bros depending on where you lived, was no exception to this globetrotting little trend, starting you (and a cooperative friend if you like) off at the foot of Mt. Fuji and ending at the most important place in any retro game – Easter Island, moai heads and all (an additional trio of bonus stages set in outer space await anyone capable of getting that far without using a continue).
Although most people probably don’t know that – and it’s not because Pomping World suffers from any of the usual retro troubles either: The game was ported to a variety of popular European home computers as well as the Game Boy and PlayStation on top of this PC Engine release, and while not cheap it’s fair to say that wherever you live there’s a realistic chance you’ll be able to find a local version at a reasonable price. So what’s the problem? There’s no nice way to say it – the problem is the game’s just not cool enough for anyone to notice.
Perhaps the rigid single screen structure makes old arcade games like this look static and boring without the crushing cultural weight of a name as big as Bubble Bobble behind them. Perhaps fighting through stage after stage just to see a pixelated version of Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família isn’t as exciting as it used to be. Perhaps Mitchell’s name isn’t strong enough to gene- OK, Mitchell’s name definitely isn’t strong enough to generate any residual buzz about a game that originally debuted in arcades in 1989, the same year as a personal favourite of mine – Chiki Chiki Boys – and some other games with weird names like “Strider” and “Final Fight” that’ll probably never catch on. Osman/Cannon Dancer may be a beautiful game but it was hardly an amusement centre mainstay to rival the likes of Daytona USA (or even Numan Athletics) and neither Puzz Loop, which you might have seen on PlayStation late in the hardware’s life, nor Polarium for DS, are going to make anyone think much more than “Oh, I remember that“. Perhaps this particular version is the wrong sort of PC Engine port; releasing on boring old CD-ROM² (the earlier CD releases with the green spine), meaning it lacks both the retro chic of a HuCard release and the raw graphical might of more immediately fancy and more desirable Super CD ROM titles.
The sad thing is Pomping World doesn’t deserve to be left languishing unloved due to a string of near-misses outside its control and unforeseeable shifts in gaming preferences. It’s a brilliant game, one that like all the best arcade titles sounds incredibly simple in theory – pop every bubble (officially “balls” according to the manual, which sounds pretty boring if you ask me) in the stage and then keep on popping them until you run out of either stages or lives, whichever comes first – but is a fascinating challenge in practise. Those bubbles will split in half when shot, going from large to medium to small to tiny, and it’s only the tiny ones that can actually be popped for good. Oh and they all kill on contact too which puts you in the thrilling position of making your own trouble, having to not only try to keep up the pace to avoid death by time over but also try to pop them when it’s safe to do so, carefully whittling down the overall number instead of shooting whatever you please as soon as you can.
Even shooting works a little different than expected here (outside of the laser-spitting vulcan – I’ll get to that in a bit), as our brave heroes, better known as… uh, Player 1 and Player 2, apparently… aren’t armed with normal projectiles but instead fire harpoon guns in a straight vertical line that only stops when it hits something, trailing a handy bubble-popping length of wire behind them. It’s slow moving, it vanishes the instant it touches an object (which causes all sorts of issues in the tight places found in later stages) – and you can (usually) only fire one at a time, leaving you completely defenseless for a while if you happen to misjudge your shot. So the best course of action is generally to fire a little off to the side and into the bubble’s arc rather than directly underneath one of any size, giving yourself a little time to move out of the way rather than risking a life on an all-or-nothing attack – unless you’ve picked up a helpful item that might change the best way to play. These are randomly dropped from burst bubbles and destroyed platforms, and have a wide variety of effects. We’ll start with the one you probably don’t want to touch – a bundle of dynamite. This immediately pops everything down to its smallest size, which could mean anything from doing nothing at all (if you only had one tiny one left) to lumbering you with a deadly sixteen tiny bouncing bubbles if you happened to have two large bubbles lazily boinging around the screen. Even then there’s context and tactics to consider, as smaller bubbles are the quickest to pop – just the thing you need when you’re running out of time – and they can also bounce through the smallest gaps, which can be either a potentially lethal hazard or a good way to get more out of the way bubbles to bounce on over to you without putting yourself in unnecessary danger, depending on the stage layout and a bit of luck. Time based items are more straightforward: the stopwatch freezes everything apart from you in place, allowing you to pop the briefly harmless bubbles with carefree abandon, and the egg timer slows the movement of all bubbles on the screen. The barrier’s just as easy to understand – it’ll protect you from a single hit. And then there are the harpoon types, all three of which have a huge impact on how you pop your way to victory. The double harpoon’s the easiest to grasp: you’re allowed to have two harpoons on screen at once, effectively doubling your rate of fire if you’re feeling brave or allowing you to miss and quickly correct the error or release a defensive harpoon while another moves uselessly up the screen. The vulcan mentioned earlier is a laser gun (not that the incongruously realistic machinegun-ish thing used to represent it in the manual looks like one) that can shoot as fast and as often as you hammer the fire button. As game breaking as that sounds it’s very easy to get overconfident when you’re wielding one of these, forgetful that these bubbles are still splitting and still arcing through the air even as you try to take them all down, that eight tiny bubbles are eight instant-kill problems falling towards the floor. And then there’s the “Power Wire” power-up, which gives you just one harpoon, but one that will stick into any block it runs in to, forming a single-use impenetrable barrier. This can be a life-saver in tight spaces… and a reliable life-ender if you miss, leaving you desperately dodging bubbles as you wait for the now-useless wire-wall to decay away so you can fire another, hopefully better, shot.
Two types of crab, two different birds, and one sort of angry wasp are also on hand to throw a few unexpected problems into the mix, appearing from time to time and stunning you for a short while if they make contact as they trace their predefined pattern across the playfield. As with everything else though they’re passively dangerous – they never actually seek you out or react to your position and should be considered like all the rest as action-puzzle elements to be tactically managed rather than objects to be shot down on reflexes alone.
Pomping World is a tightly designed arcade classic, a game that has just a few core elements but happily keeps rearranging them in new and imaginative ways, a game where you’re constantly juggling an ever-shifting range of risks and priorities, always trying to find that sweet spot between getting the one task you’ve been given done quickly and putting yourself in harm’s way. It’s a satisfying experience and one that requires just as much skill as any other arcade game from the era, so it’s a shame to see it so soundly pushed to one side in favour of Taito’s evergreen arcade hits and practically anything else from the late Eighties that springs to mind. I’m not going to claim it’s an unmissable titan for the ages, but it at the very least deserves to be known as a good idea executed well, and recognised as a game whose lowly modern stature doesn’t reflect the quality found within.