Bubble, bobble, toil and trobble
When I recently drafted up an interview for the director of the new Bubble Bobble 4 Friends release for Switch, I was filled with hope. Bubble Bobble was one of my favorite games growing up, and there was more than one reason to believe it was poised for a comeback.
Not only was it getting a new game (which admittedly didn’t look all that “new”), but in some circles, there was even a bit of Smash Bros. buzz. After rumors hit that Smash Ultimate would be getting SNK representation on the roster, speculation around the potential for Bub and Bob – the stars of Bubble Bobble – making it to the big battle was beginning to bloom. While they aren’t owned by SNK, they are unquestionably icons of the Neo Geo brand, with many of the Bust-A-Move games being exclusive to the console. It was a bit of stretch to think that these two bubble-blowing dragons were the rumored entrants to Nintendo’s crossover sensation, but stranger things have certainly happened. Three season’s worth, in fact.
When I asked Tsuyoshi Tozak, the director of the upcoming Bubble and Bobble 4 Friends, if Bub and Bob might make it to Smash, their only response was “Let’s skip that question.” The last time I got a “no comment” like this from a developer, it was when I asked the creators of Cuphead if they might ever make a traditional animated show about their characters. A month later, the Cuphead cartoon for Netflix was announced. So take that how you will.
What I do know for sure is that if I ever need advice on doing my nails, Tozak-san is the first person I’m calling, though with my luck, they’ll probably ask to skip that question too.
Born in 1980, Tozak-san is barely older than the Bubble Bobble franchise itself, but they have fond memories of that era. They told us “The Legend of Zelda, Solomon’s Key, and Milon’s Secret Castle were my childhood favorite games. Maybe I liked characters with a hat on their head. All the games had fantastic game design and the music was great.”
“Above all, the game The Legend of Zelda had a large world map at the time. There were a lot of exploring elements – you had to destroy rocks with bombs, or push objects away to get ahead. There was also a boss who was difficult to defeat without bows and arrows. You had to find the solution yourself and that was fun to me.”
You might have noticed that Bubble Bobble wasn’t on their list of their NES greatest hits, but that’s not to say that it wasn’t a big influence on this new title. Not only is the original game included in the total 4 Friends package, but Tozak-san told us that, for them, “This project became a good opportunity for me to relearn game development by playing Bubble Bobble. The team first played the original version thoroughly and rehearsed it. Fukio Mitsuji, who was responsible for the planning and graphics of the first work, was also someone who had taught game development, so I sympathized with his way of working. This time it was decided that the game would be developed in 3D. We made sure that becoming 3D wouldn’t change the playability and entertainment level.”
If you’re surprised to hear that this new Bubble Bobble game, the first in the series for consoles in about ten years, was an opportunity to “relearn game development,” then you’re not alone. Looking into Tozak-san’s history in game development is similarly surprising. They worked on Space Invaders Gigamax, a giant limited-time Space Invaders event game that once utilized a building in Tokyo as an outdoor screen. They also worked on Taiyaki: DenNeco de GO, a Facebook game about a cat that is also a TV who eats fish cookies.
This is not what I expected.
The biggest surprise for me was hearing that their first job in the industry was on Sega’s Nail Puri line of nail sticker generators. I didn’t think of these vending machines as “video games” exactly, but Tozak-san begged to differ, letting us know with pride that “…in my previous company I worked on the development of Nail Puri as a designer. That was a sticker printer where you could create your own nail stickers. I was responsible for the design of stickers and in-game banners. At that time I also wore nail stickers myself and enjoyed them.”
So what’s the connection between nail stickers and Bubble Bobble? From the sounds of it, a lot of it comes down to a certain intangible sweetness that makes both jewelry and video games feel right. When you look back on what made Bubble Bobble special way back when, a lot of it boils down the synesthetic connection between the buoyant physics of bouncing on a bubble, the candy-like appearance of the world, and the satisfying “pop” that comes along with a job well done.
Tozak-san seemed well aware of this, and has made gamefeel a priority for 4 Friends, stating “It’s a bubble action game, so we put a lot of emphasis on the presentation of bubbles. We’ve been thinking about how to make the bubbles look charming. At first we tried realistic bubbles, but in order to adapt them to the atmosphere, they gradually changed in a more illustrative style. Then there’s questions like ‘How should Bub and the others jump on the bubbles? Which forms should they have then?’ With such thoughts, we also put much value on the depiction of the softness of the bubbles. We wanted to program their forms and movements at first, but we could not achieve a harmonious movement, no matter what we did. Also with regard to the processing load we came to the conclusion to manage these with manually created shape-changing methods.”
Their musings on bubble performance didn’t stop there. They noted that they “…have also made efforts in programming. In the first Bubble Bobble all the connected bubbles burst at once, but this time there is a chain reaction with time delays, which leads to a better feeling when you make them burst. There’s also something happening with the sound. The pitch rises bit by bit to make the combo more noticeable.”
I’m still taken aback by that line about giving a lot of thought to making the bubbles look charming. Just imagine if that was your job. If you got to spend 40 hours a week just thinking about bubbles, and how to make them look more charming? Just imagine if we all had jobs like that? Would we even have fistfights anymore? Would anyone ever be sad ever again? Maybe someday, the world will answer these questions for us.
To close out, Tozak-san let us know that if they could have any super-power, they would “… like to have the ability to travel through time. I would like to see the famous Japanese warrior Nobunaga Oda, and also dinosaurs. I also want to observe how the world changes by meeting with them. In the end, excessive change would lead to a chaotic world and I’d have to struggle to undo everything because I’d want the original world back. So Back to the Future. Haha.”
At one point, they also told us that we may be surprised to hear that they are “a big fan of Bianca”. I don’t know what that means. They could mean anyone from Pop Star Bianca Ryan, tennis player Bianca Andreescu, or maybe just some person named Bianca that Tozak-san really likes. In this case, not knowing is better than knowing. Some doors are best left unopened. Like a spoiler, but instead of being related to a relatively inconsequential piece of fiction, it’s real life.