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You couldn't walk into a chip shop in the '80s without seeing a Taito coin-op sitting blipping away in the corner of the room. The Japanese developer's name was once uttered with the same reverence as those of other great arcade game manufactures like Konami, Capcom, and Namco. From Space Invaders to Rainbow Islands, Taito owned the arcades. On PS4 the company has been silent. Until now.
The shy developer rarely does an interview outside of Japan, but this issue we sit down with Tsuyoshi Tozaki, the director of Bubble Bobble 4 Friends (a remake of the classic '80s coin-op), to discover why now is the time bubbles are blowing up. On PS4 Taito is looking at releasing a collector's edition featuring rare art and insights from the series' history, among other goodies. And what of PS5? "We'll consider it," is the answer.
Tsuyoshi Tozaki interview
Is there a pressure of expectation when updating one of the company's classic games?
Of course, I felt a lot of pressure, because Bubble Bobble is one of the big iconic titles. Because it was my first title as a director and I felt so much pressure, I thought I might transform into a bubble dragon! It also made me very happy to make an updated version, because I played the Famicom Disc System version of Bubble Bobble with my elder brother when I was a child. My parents and brother are also so glad that I made the new game in the series. When making the game, we took care to create something that would satisfy fans of the original version, while also making sure that the bubble action is easy to do and feels good. We tried to make the controls not too 'old style', and to make it interesting for the people today.
When updating a classic series such as Bubble Bobble, where do you begin?
We started the process by playing the original Bubble Bobble. We found some materials from that time in the storehouse archive, and the development team read them extensively. We also played Bubble Symphony and Bubble Memories many, many times. We played the games and read the materials to know the essential ethos, the core aspects and fun elements of Bubble Bobble. After deliberation, we realised that the most enjoyable aspect of the game is the unique bubble action, and focussed on that.
We made it easier to ride on the bubble, which was quite hard to do in the original version. In the original we had to hold a button down, but in this new version we can just ride on it. If you press the jump button, you can jump normally, and if you pull the thumbstick down you can break the bubble under the character. In addition, the speed of the floating bubbles and the flying distance of the bubbles were set to always be consistent, and we further adjusted Bub and Bob's walking speed. So players can ride easily on bubbles they made themselves.
What is it about Bubble Bobble that has remained so endearing to fans?
I think it's because the series has a very positive and cute atmosphere and, of course, the main characters and even the enemies being so charming and endearing. There are also a lot of cute fruits! However, the game contains many levels from easy to difficult so everyone can enjoy it, that's the reason why the game has been loved by a lot of fans for a long time. Also, there are no other games using bubble action, like catching an enemy in a bubble and defeating it, this is one of the most innovative points of the game.
In this new title we can select Bub and Bob from the original arcade version, and Peb and Pab, who have cute ribbons on their heads, from Bubble Symphony are also available for the first time. Bonner, who is the most charming enemy character in my opinion, is shown as a boss. I had an image of the game being like a kid's bedroom, so we made the characters and stages like toys. It improves the atmosphere of the game. After defeating an enemy, or bursting several bubbled enemies in a group, some fruits will drop into the playfield. The variety of these fruits comes from the original version. If you clear the stage in a short time, the fruit changes to a 'parfait', and the items from the original arcade version are hidden in it, so please look out for them!
How hard was it to balance four-player gameplay in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends?
In the original Bubble Bobble the number of enemies does not change, even if there is one player or two players. So, in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends we decided not to have more enemies even in multiplayer games to balance the difficulty of each game level. We prepared some stages in which the roles of the players are divided, such as defeating enemies, picking fruits, or making bubbles. It was so hard to arrange each position so that the game is enjoyable, even when there is only one player, but not to make the stages too easy for four. This was quite challenging for us, so the team played the game with four players or just one many times to perfect it.
Does the PS4 edition feature the original 1986 game?
Of course the original version is included. It's been 34 years since the first game was published, and I think there are a lot of people who haven't played it, so we wanted to make the game all fans can enjoy – both the original and the latest title. I didn't think it was as nice to just select the original version in the game's main menu, and I wanted to show that the two versions combine together. So we put a small arcade machine in the kids' room, and if you select it on the world map, you can play the original version. Actually, also on the world map, the screen of the arcade machine is really working! Our engineer is particularly proud of making this, so please check it out! As you are playing, you can watch your gameplay on the screen of the arcade machine. But you cannot control it, so you will be defeated soon.
What new game modes can we expect in the PS4 edition?
The biggest change is in the additional new area, The Baron Is Back. This stage features the invincible enemy Baron von Blubba, who appeared in the original version of the game. Baron von Blubba is very popular with our players, so we decided to include him. Actually, we did an event for April Fool's Day this year which saw Bub arrested because Baron von Blubba didn't get a role in Bubble Bobble 4 Friends. The new area contains many difficult stages, in response to users' requests that they want it to be much more challenging. And, inspired by the original, you have to play 100 stages successively in the new area. Baron von Blubba appears just on his own stages.
You cannot catch Baron von Blubba in the bubble and defeat him with any skills, so players must successfully avoid him as he chases them everywhere, and defeat all the other enemies. The number of Barons will change depending on the stage. Baron von Blubba will advance toward the player in a vertical or horizontal direction at regular intervals, but since the timing of each of Baron's moves is different, you'll have to be strategic to clear the stage. There's also a boss character to look forward to on the final stage! We also added an online ranking feature, which was something requested by many users.
What has been the inspiration for the new PS4 stages?
In the new area, the pixel graphics of the original Bubble Bobble and the 3D graphics of Bubble Bobble 4 Friends are combined together, because the original arcade machine in the room is dominated by Baron von Blubba. The game stage is actually the game inside the arcade machine, and the title screen is designed as pixel art, and Peb and Pab also appear as pixel art. The stages are like a polygonal Bubble Bobble 4 Friends style, but Baron von Blubba, who dominated the game, appears as a pixel graphic as he was back in the original game. When I was planning to add Baron Von Blubba to Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, I came up with the idea that, as Baron von Blubba appears only in the arcade machine in the game, we could use the pixel graphics and polygonal graphics together on the same stage!
Do you have a favourite strategy or power-up to use?
The trick to breaking bubbles in a chain is firstly to know the airflow, then find a place where you can gather bubbles. Then you need to consider the most efficient order to pop the bubbles, because after you've held an enemy in a bubble for a while, it will get angry and break out. Thirdly, you need to blow additional bubbles so they don't separate from one another. You can defeat all the enemies at once, so please try it. As for skills, I think it is better to choose one depending on the area you're playing in, but my favourite is Stop Wind.
In the game you can see airstreams and know which direction your bubbles will go, but when you use the Stop Wind, you can ignore the airstreams. For example, if you use it on the stage where the wind blows fast, it becomes much easier to ride on bubbles. Please check out the YouTube channel Bub's Broadcast, as we share more information about strategy and techniques there.
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