Puzzle Bobble (1994), also known as Bust-a-Move in the West, pioneered the tile-matching puzzle genre, not only inspiring generations of mobile games like Candy Crush Saga, but also spawning uncountable clones throughout the decades. The 2D game is known for its simple but elegant gameplay, and Puzzle Bobble VR: Vacation Odyssey makes a valiant effort at translating those time-tested ingredients into a 3D environment for the first time. Puzzle Bobble VR’s numerous and oftentimes simple levels may not hook you initially, although there’s something to this demure bubble-popping adaptation that makes it feel like it could really take flight in the future.
Puzzle Bobble VR Details:
Available On: Oculus Quest
Release Date: May 20th, 2021
Publisher: Survios, Taito Corporation
Reviewed On: Quest 2
Walking in the footsteps of Angry Birds VR: Isle of Pigs (2019), Puzzle Bobble VR puts a virtual spin on its arcade tile-matching forbear, and it changes up the format by placing a bubble cannon in your hands and transmogrifying the neat rows of bubbles into globular 3D masses.
The objective is to pop all the bubbles in each level by firing color-matching ammo and eventually destroying the puzzle’s core. Across most levels, you either have a time limit or a max bubble limit to worry about. Score as high as possible to earn coins, which you can use to unlock special abilities like bombs, a paint swatch that lets you change ammo color, and a mechanism that lets you physically turn the puzzles as you please. That last one is important, because all of the puzzles seem to have a mind of their own and the only other way to adjust them in 3D space is by shooting a bubble at them to turn them in the air on their core, which is also their main axis.
Just like Angry Birds, you only need a single star to continue to the next level, although in Puzzle Bobble VR it pays to get good and pick up extra coins where you can so you have a steady supply of power-ups. You’ll need them to get through particularly obstinate puzzles that rear their heads every so often.
On paper, all of this sounds like a great recipe for casual fun. And at some points it really delivers on this promise. Playing through the overwhelming number of easy puzzles on your way to get to that perfect concoction of strategic bubble-popping feels like drudgery though. It took me over an hour to get to a puzzle that actually required a game plan beyond simple color matching, which was about a third way through the story mode. For that hour of gameplay, it feels like you have to earn your fun slowly and methodically. As new bubble modifier pieces arrive, the game really starts to hit a better flow. If you’re looking for a challenge right away, you’ll have to work for it.
Ok, the difficulty thing isn’t entirely true: there are harder levels interspersed all throughout the game, not just the last half where things pick up. That difficulty though is often tied to the fact that some puzzles move about the sky on their own topsy turvy routes. It’s a pretty cheap mechanic to make an easy puzzle more difficult, but I found it mostly frustrating because the two-handed manual bubble launcher doesn’t offer a great shooting experience.
Because aiming is based on aligning your hands like a bow and arrow, and you have multiple potential targets to hit, shooting can feel fiddly as the preview of your bubble dances around wildly, provisionally clicking into place where it may not belong. I would have liked a more solid and tactile shooting experience that didn’t feel so shaky, and maybe a canon that didn’t take up so much precious FOV real estate. It’s big.
It’s not like there isn’t fun to be had; the game is dotted with some truly interesting puzzles in the first half that are complex and require foresight and strategy to pass. These were pretty few and far between, and like I said, you’ll just have to grin and bare it until you start hitting those true gems in the latter half of the game.
Once you’re done with story mode, you can keep playing via ‘Infinite Mode’, which lets you attack a never-ending wave of bubbles slowly floating up to a black hole. There’s also an online 1v1 mode that pits you against an opponent in a race to reach the core of identical puzzles. I imagined this would have been more of the same, like with the infinite mode, except against another person by your side. I really wanted to include this bit in my review, but even after launch I wasn’t able to find a match. I would suspect this will be true for many people looking to play the game, since the focus on single-player content is the real attraction here.
Puzzle Bobble VR is bright, low poly, and totally on-brand for the franchise. The music is also a joy to listen to, which is no wonder considering it’s from TAITO’s in-house band, Zuntata. Stepping into the world feels a bit unceremonious—you’re just thrown into a screen to pick a game mode—but it’s not like I was expecting much more.
In the story mode you’re shuttled from level to level in a linear fashion across a map with different islands. Environments can look a little flat looking at times and lower resolution than they ought to be, but are overall well made and work as simple backgrounds to the main task at hand. They help give you some context too, as the bubble puzzles all essentially start to look alike after a while. After you play, you may not remember a specific puzzle’s architecture, but you may remember you had a hard time on the lava island with a puzzle with too many poison bubbles.
Because the game uses a slingshot mechanic, you have to be really cognizant that you’re not drawing back too far past your head, or bringing it too close to your chest. Otherwise you’ll partially lose tracking, making aiming even more difficult.
The game’s auto calibration detects the user’s height, making it play equally well in both seated and standing mode. You’ll need very little room to shoot bubbles, although you might not want to play in front of a monitor or TV so you don’t accidentally tap it with your non-dominant shooting hand.
Puzzles are splayed out in front of you at a comfortable height, so the risk of neck strain is very minimal. There’s no artificial locomotion, as you’re always standing in one spot in each level, making it a very comfortable game.