All game genres have examples of properties with such strong fundamental mechanics that they can be endlessly tweaked and repackaged. Even so, drawing from the well of a successful concept too frequently can certainly cause it to lose its luster. The Tony Hawk franchise, for example, clearly comes to mind as a series in which interest has waned, largely due to overexposure. The wonderful mechanic of taking the balance and guesswork out of the simplest parts of skating, allowing the player to instead focus on the puzzle-like aspect of finding the appropriate line to complete any given task simply got old with annual rehashes of the same theme. On the other hand, there are concepts that seem impervious to this kind of numbing effect. There have been countless Breakout clones or Bejeweled riffs. Yet they seem to have not worn out their welcome quite yet.
Perhaps this is an easier goal to achieve with puzzle games with strong foundations. The overused truism of “simple to learn, difficult to master” is intrinsic to the best puzzle games, and as such, it probably has some bearing here. In a game where the rules are simple, but applying them effectively can be difficult, increases in skill somehow seem more satisfying than in games where part of the skill is in understanding the complex rule set to begin with. Tetris is a prime example of this kind of game, and we have seen it revisited countless times.
The gameplay in Bust-A-Move has always been relatively simple. While Tetris requires players to essentially organize and pack a variety of shapes, and most color matching games like Columns or Lumines tweak that formula to further increase the importance of chaining, the Bust-A-Move series has always sought to provide players the satisfaction inherent in pulling off a difficult single shot. It is enormously rewarding to pull off a perfect bank shot or to nestle a bubble in the appropriate place resulting in the lopping off of a branch that eliminates several bubbles from play.
While Bust-A-Move as a property might not seem like a modern classic, it’s a 15-year-old franchise with many similar entries. As such, it might have been nice for Space Bust-A-Move to have represented a reinvigoration of the aforementioned concept. Pac Man: Championship Edition and Space Invaders Extreme have both recently demonstrated how changing the framework inside which a strong central mechanic exists can revitalize a series, giving it an intensity that it hasn’t seen in years. While there are a handful of extra single player modes available in Space Bust-A-Move, it’s largely a game that remains in familiar territory. Further, aside from “Pressure Mode”, which tasks the player with clearing a series of boards with a single shot apiece, none of these extras are that interesting. The “Challenge Mode” is a time limited high score challenge, but as fun as the core shooting of Bust-A-Move can be, it’s not quite flexible enough to make this mode addictive.
To be fair, there are some modest updates to the Bust-A-Move formula that are present. While the ability to purchase different bubbles and arrows from the shop is interesting, skinning the game doesn’t really seem worth the effort. However, there are different kinds of bubbles this time around that actually affect the gameplay in very interesting ways. From bubbles that pop another bubble regardless of color to bubbles that can only be collected unpopped (requiring that the bubbles surrounding them be popped instead so they can drop), the strategy is subtly and welcomely different this time around. But those slight differences can still only carry interest in the game so far.
The main story mode doesn’t have much of a plot, but it’s probably unfair to criticize a puzzle title for a lack of narrative depth. It’s really just used as a mechanism to change the backgrounds. At the same time, the boss battles are actually fairly inventive and fun (despite having to sometimes complete difficult shots across the gap between the two screens), and as such, it might have been nice to have had a real reason for taking part in them. Puzzle Quest demonstrated that such an approach can be very successful, and I think such a dynamic could be brought very successfully to the Bust-A-Move formula.
In many ways, Space Bust-A-Move plays it safe, down to the traditional control scheme. Having experimented with touch-screen controls in the past, it’s interesting that the developers chose to abandon them here. But at this point in the series, it’s debatable as to whether the control scheme is the right place to experiment anyway. Rather, as mentioned above, I think it might be more interesting to simply present the game wrapped inside of another gaming concept.
In any case, the Bust-A-Move formula has a good deal of charm, and this entry is no exception. It’s quite a lot of content for $20, and serves as both a fun series iteration for longtime fans as well as a good introduction for Bust-A-Move neophytes. The fundamentals of the series have yet to wear out their welcome, but it might serve future titles well to explore ways in which to present those fundamentals in a fresh context. Other long-running franchises or concepts have been successfully reinvigorated recently and such an approach to another Bust-A-Move title would be welcome.