A few months ago Taito released Puzzle Bobble DS in Japan. This was the company's version of its Bust-a-Move for the Nintendo DS, offering a very straightforward but extremely polished rendition of its action puzzler for the portable crowd. Instead of snagging the Japanese version, Majesco instead had a different game in the works for the DS. This game may share the core gameplay, but other than that the Japanese version and the just released US rendition, reviewed here, are completely separate products. Majesco's game captures the classic flavor of the Taito design, and the addition of the cool touch-screen control actually advances the series further with mechanics that speed up the action, making things fun and a tad more frantic. The game's surrounding presentation's a little on the weak side, but the cart's actual gameplay, both single and multiplayer, is totally rock solid.
Bust-a-Move, in a nutshell, is an action-based puzzler that puts players to the task of tossing colored bubbles up to a stack of other colored bubbles. By linking three or more of the same colors together, those bubbles will disappear from the bin. More importantly, if those bubbles were supporting other bubbles in the stack, their removal may cause the dangling chain to fall out of play to give the player more room to work with. The added twist is that the stack is on a constant downwards move, and if any bubble in the stack crosses the line at the bottom of the bin, the game's over.
It was a design that was developed around the era of the Tetris craze, where every company tried its hand at the "tile matching and removing" genre. The unique element of Bust-a-Move was its heavier focus on a "shooting" gameplay mechanic: the idea is to aim and fire the gamepieces into position instead of casually plopping them into place, which leaves much more room for error. It's not an easy task firing these balls into place from a distance, and more often than not you'll cause more problems that eliminate them if your aim is off. This action focus definitely gives Bust-a-Move its own unique feel, and though games like Snood have ripped the theme off wholesale, the classic design is still the way to go.
Bust-a-Move has been done and redone several times in the past decade, but the Nintendo DS version easily features the biggest change to the core gameplay. Though the game can be played the traditional D-pad way by changing the control mechanics in the Options menu, Bust-a-Move now offers a clever and really fun touch-screen control. Using the stylus, players fling the bubbles up to the top screen by pulling back on the token like a slingshot. Though momentum doesn't come into play (it doesn't matter how far you pull back), the actual angle and trajectory is altered by the direction you slide the slingshot left or right. Confusing as it sounds, it really isn't - the developers address any issue with a marker that shows the initial path the ball will take when you let go of the touch screen. The drawn path is cut short about a quarter of the way up the top screen, so you still have to eyeball the angle so that your aim is true.
This touch screen mechanic works because it allows players to speed up their play considerably. With the original control means, the aiming dial would rotate at a set rate, so the pacing was pretty much capped at the maximum speed of the aiming mechanism. This new touch screen control, however, moves at the pace of the player's hands. You can now fling bubbles up as fast as your stylus can flick them. You still have the same freedom of angles and rebounds as before, but the touch screen interface enables a much more fluid and faster play, and results in a lot more energy and fun during the action. And the addition of a "quick-swap" mechanic adds even more to the design - players always have one ball in reserve, and can change to that ball during any move.
As fun as the game is, its general presentation is pretty bland and empty; the level progression gets the weakest focus in this puzzle batch. Players simply move uneventfully through groups of challenges, and once all of the challenges in the group have been wiped out, the highest score is saved for that grouping before the player moves on. The DS game still features the same cutsey characters and over-the-top sugary feel, but it actually feels a little on the empty side in features and production values. The touch screen provides a great control mechanic, but the LCD screen real estate seems too underused. The Japanese version released just a few months prior, seems to have the tighter presentation, and it even had a bunch more features including the ability create and trade several custom puzzle designs.
But Bust-a-Move DS is still a great multiplayer design, complete with five person competition requiring only one copy of the game to battle. The single player option has a Vs. Computer option to learn the chain mechanics - in this mode, any sphere that falls out of play due to a player's chain will be automatically thrown back into the bin if there's a grouping available to connect. This has the potential to bring the entire bubble pile tumbling down, adding a bit more to the strategy of which bubbles to pop first. There's also that "Screw You" element of attacking the other players in the network, but it's much more frantic when more players fill the game's seats during the competition.
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