Review: More fun than popping bubble wrap ? and just as annoying!
Unlike other gaming consoles, the Xbox is pretty weak when it comes to puzzle games. So it was with great anticipation that puzzle lovers greeted Ultra Bust-A-Move, the Xbox-exclusive version of the classic bubble-popping game, complete with new game modes and Xbox Live support to boot.
For the most part, it delivers exactly what Bust-A-Movers expect: a simple, yet enjoyable way to spend a few minutes or ? if you're really ambitious ? a few hours. Gameplay is pretty basic and very easy to learn. There are a bunch of colored bubbles hanging above you, and you shoot bubbles at them from a launcher at the bottom of the screen. You can also bounce your shots off the walls if you want to show off your snooker skills. If your bubble touches two or more like-colored adjacent bubbles, they disappear along with any other bubbles they were supporting; clear all the bubbles and you win. You have to be quick, though, because the ?ceiling? will slowly drop over time, and if any bubbles pass through the ?floor? where your launcher is, you lose.
It sounds pretty simplistic, but like all good puzzle games, it's very addicting. The bubble arrangements change with each game, and get progressively tougher as you advance up the level ladder to the point where a single missed shot could make things very unpleasant very quickly.
In addition to the classic game we all know and love, developer Taito earns the ?Ultra? moniker by adding three new single player and two new multiplayer game modes.
Pop by yourself?
The Seesaw Game
is most interesting new single player game. It looks exactly like a standard bubble board, except it's balanced like a seesaw. The bubbles have ?weight? so sticking or clearing bubbles on one side will make it tilt appropriately; if the board tips over, you lose. This is my favorite variation because it forces you to think strategically: do you want to clear bubbles on the side and risk tipping it over, or should you rebalance the board by sticking a bubble on the other side but risk blocking yourself later?
The Blind Game
is exactly like the classic game, except all of the bubbles on the board are colorless. You are forced to shoot ?blind?, but when your bubble (which is colored) touches another, the true color will be revealed. This is another fun variation that can get especially hairy when the ceiling is low and you still have blind bubbles to clear.
The Shot Game
gives you only one shot to clear the board. It's a good way to practice your aiming and bank shots but other than that, this is the least satisfying game mode. You take your shot and you either win or lose; either way, the game is over in an instant. It might be fun for those with attention deficit disorder, but the rest of us will give it a pass.
?Or pop with others
Lay down the gauntlet and challenge a friend to a bubble-popping dual to the death, either offline or on Xbox Live. The Versus Challenge
is the classic game where you and your opponent battle to see who clears their board first. If you want to be nasty, just remember that any bubbles you drop (i.e. bubbles that are supported by the ones you just cleared) are added to your opponent's board, so a single, well-placed shot can cause your opponent to snatch defeat from the hands of victory.
In the Count Game
, both you and your opponent play on the same board and take turns shooting. The player who drops the most bubbles wins. Strategy plays a key role here, because while you want to set yourself up to gain points, you can also set up your opponent; conversely, if you block your opponent, you also block yourself. At the same time, you both have to work together to clear the board before the ceiling gets too low, otherwise the game ends and you both lose. The Color Game
is similar, except you need to clear a target color. Clearing other colors don't count; the winner is the one who gets the most target colors.
All of the multiplayer game modes are very fun and can get quite frantic as the ceilings start cranking down. You can also play against the computer, but this gets frustrating very quickly since the computer's dead-eye aim is always perfect, leaving you at a distinct disadvantage as the difficulty level increases.
Arrgh! My eyes! And ears!
Not surprisingly, you won't find any radical normal-mapping, dynamic shadows or ragdoll physics here. Graphics are pretty basic, though the bubbles and characters are in 3-D.
The characters look like a bizarre cloning experiment gone bad, with elements of Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and Clive Barker's Hellraiser all mashed into one. You can unlock more characters by beating an entire game mode, which in theory should help you in multiplayer since the characters supposedly have different bubble shooting patterns, but I haven't noticed any significant differences.
The weird looking characters crank your launcher when you move it and shake their heads nervously when the ceiling gets low, but other than that, they don't do much (though one character falls on its back and seems to writhe in agony if you lose ? which is actually quite funny to watch).
The backgrounds, though, are another story. There should be a huge warning label on the box: ?Do not play this game without heavily tinted protective eyewear?. The backgrounds are best described as ?psychedelic Japanese cartoon? and use exceedingly bright colors that clash horribly ? in fact, everything is so bright and so bizarre that it'll likely trigger bad acid flashbacks. Needless to say, the backgrounds are distracting ? but they can also be deceptive as well. I've fired many shots into what I thought was the wall, only to discover the hard way that the ?wall? was something in the background instead. Grr.
You can't do much about the backgrounds (other than cranking your TV's brightness down to zero) but fortunately, you can do something about the sound ? like turn it off. Quickly. The pops of bubbles exploding and the ratcheting sound of the launcher are pretty basic but pleasing to the ear; the music, on the other hand, will drive you up the wall. Like the backgrounds, the music is overly bright and cheery, and is so damn annoying it could make for a great interrogation tool to turn even the most hardened al Qaeda terrorist into a quivering lump of Jello. What's even worse is that the music speeds up as bubbles get close to the floor, which is supposed to act as a warning for you to hurry up and get clearing, but instead makes you want to claw your ears off. Since there is no option to adjust the music volume, you either have to live with it or dive for the mute button before you go stark raving mad.
When you do well, you are encouraged by cheers from a man and a woman ? but the ?cheers? sound more like yelps of pain (the man especially sounds like someone spilled hot coffee in his lap). The woman also announces ?Game over!? when you leave ? and she obviously takes it as a personal insult when you do because she sounds really
Fortunately, there aren't many gameplay issues, but they should be mentioned. The launcher, for example, moves at a glacial pace which is agonizing if you have to swing from one side to the other in a frantic attempt to clear bubbles that are precariously close to the floor. If you quit before you finish the very last level in a single player gamemode, you cannot restart where you left off, which means you would have to start from the very beginning all over again the next time you play. Your aim needs to be very precise since the game is not forgiving; and with the distracting backgrounds, putting your bubble exactly where you want it can be a source of frustration.