The release of the TurboGrafx-16 Mini offered me my first opportunity to play Castlevania: Rondo of Blood on something approaching “original” hardware. I had conquered Richter’s Big Adventure through emulation before (on the Wii and PSP), but I never completed the quest holding an actual approximation of a TG16 controller. And you know what confused me?
Damn, this thing got no buttons. That is practically a Nintendo Entertainment System Funpad for Babies™! This was the controller meant to steer Rondo of Blood? The game that is the direct prequel to one of the greatest games of all time? Which appeared on a system with a controller that contained, like, so many buttons and an eventual analogue stick or two? And all Richter had to beat back the forces of evil was little more than A & B? No, that cannot be right. A game that was a contemporary of Mortal Kombat 2, Mega Man X, and Secret of Mana surely could not be so limited by a controller and remain fun.
And then I used that same TurboGrafx-16 Mini to play Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble III. And now two buttons being loads of fun makes perfect sense.
Bubble Bobble has always been one of the most low-key best games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It is one of those unique-to-the-era experiences wherein game designers were not quite sure how to bridge the gap from arcade to home console parameters, and, what the hey, let’s just have a fun game with mostly contained levels and an overarching plot/theme that does eventually see a finish line. Bubble Bobble may have been experienced one non-scrolling screen at a time, but it had a variety of level configurations (hundo or so), interesting monsters, and a two-player simultaneous mode that could make enemies into friends and friends into enemies. Complete with a built-in hard mode and an excuse to call your neighbor over for bubbling times, Bubble Bobble had everything you could ever ask for in 1988 (or so).
Unfortunately, not everything about Bubble Bobble was perfect. Bubble Bobble technically has precise controls, but sometimes getting your chosen dinosaur to do exactly what you want is a bit finicky. Who among us has not been trapped behind a wall, and forced to suss out the exact button combination to get Bub to properly bounce on a series of bubbles? Or been surprised at the relative difficulty of finding the correct way to pop a trapped opponent? Or finally reached the final boss, and then been downright confused at what you were supposed to do with that potion? Bubble Bobble is a great game, but we take for granted how much of its gameplay was predicated on knowing exactly what to do in any given situation. Granted, the same could be said for many games, but Bubble Bobble was one that could have used a little more tweaking to be immediately understandable.
And tweaks did occur in time for Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble III. Rainbow Islands (effectively Bubble Bobble 2) had a variety of… let’s call them… “innovative” gameplay elements that… may or may not have worked. Parasol Stars wisely decided to drop the meteorological-based play of Rainbow Islands and give the (now human) Bub and Bob a pair of parasols to better simulate classic Bubble Bobble gameplay. In much the same way a monster was once stunned by a bubble, now an umbrella can paralyze an opponent on contact, and then they can be pushed, thrown, or just eliminated at will. And you are going to want to use that push command plenty, because there are other monsters that are about “4 times your mass” size, and they can only be conquered by using smaller monsters as projectiles. Or maybe you could use those actual projectiles laying around…
As much as any other part of its progenitor title, Parasol Stars seems to distinctly build on the finale of Bubble Bobble. Now every “world” has a boss, and every boss is encountered in the same room as a potion that will grant magical powers to your parasol. No mere umbrella is going to vanquish Super Tom-kun, so the elements of water, fire, lightning, and star (it’s an element!) are going to have to help out. And, while you can simply launch little “bubbles” of these elements at your foes, you do have the option of “charging” and multiplying their power into a massive, unique attack. Fire lights the floor ablaze! Water creates a flood! Star makes stars (but, like, more stars)! And, considering these elemental potions create gameplay that is closer to Mega Man than anything involving bubbles popping, you can more easily focus on the task at hand. No need to figure out a boss pattern and how the hell your offense is going to work! These may be familiar elemental attacks at work, but the upgrade from Bubble Bobble to Parasol Stars has never been so obvious.
But that’s not all, folks! Despite Bub & Bob seemingly only requiring the limited general offensiveness of OG Bubble Bobble, there is a lot more to these magical parasols than meets the eye. You can find elemental bubbles in normal stages, for instance, and effortlessly balance these balls to charge up floods ‘n fires. And you can fire the bolts in multiple directions, just like launching monsters all over the place. And navigating these stages is a breeze, too, as you can ride the breeze with those umbrellas. Float leisurely down for an enemy ambush. And all you have to do is hold a button a little longer! Bub and/or Bob have got a myriad of options, and you can control it all with two buttons!
Only two buttons. Because that is all you’ve got.
1991 was a fun year for buttons. This was a few months after the release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. This was the very same year that Link needed every last tool in his arsenal to go back to the past. Battletoads proved amphibians needed a lot more than two buttons for eclectic gameplay. And, dang, this was the year that Street Fighter 2 premiered in arcades. Remember Street Fighter 2? Six “action buttons” and to do anything fun, you still had to memorize special motions? Or at least hammer that jab button? And it’s not like the same year’s Fatal Fury was any better!
And amidst all this, here is Parasol Stars, just quietly featuring two infinitely controllable characters bopping around thanks to two buttons.
Not every game needs every button. Mario has proven for years that he seems to steer best in 2-D with 2-buttons. Sonic has only ever needed one button. Your average JRPG or strategy game needs little more than what you would find on a mouse. Whether you are venturing into the Cave of Monsters or traipsing across the Castlevania countryside, you do not need that many buttons. A few easy to remember, intuitive button combinations (Hold A to float, press Forward+B to throw, etc), and you will be set for an entire adventure. The TurboGrafx-16 proved this time and time again, and Parasol Stars is a shining example of two buttons being absolutely all you need.
I, II, and an umbrella? That is the perfect equation for the finale of a fantastic story.
FGC #598 Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble III
- System: This game saw more systems than you think… just mostly in other countries. But there was no arcade version! TurboGrafx-16, though, definitely. It seems other releases, like the NES version, stuck to Europe. Did we see the Atari ST or Gameboy ports?
- Number of players: Two player simultaneous, because this game is great.
- Port-O-Call: Working Designs was responsible for the TG-16 American localization. This is good, as the game does not contain much text, and I am moderately certain they did not pump up all boss health to unhealthy levels. There was also supposed to be a Commodore 64 version, but an irate spouse destroyed the production files during a bitter divorce. No, I am not kidding.
- Story Time: The canon explanation of what is happening here is that some nefarious force is sucking the color out of various planets, and visiting these spots and beating their bosses is restoring the universe to its former glory. … Except you only ever see the black and white worlds on the map screen, and color is instantly restored the minute you stop by any given planet. So it seems more like this monochromatic curse is just, ya know, a level select graphic flourish.
- An end: You must collect three precious star cards (or whatever) to gain a key that unlocks the final two “worlds”. There is nothing over the course of the game that indicates that those collectible “miracles” will do anything but clear out some enemies, so I want to say I would be pretty damn pissed if I went through the whole game in 1991 and was granted some ambiguous “try again” message. That said, the infamous “bad end” is kind of an expected thing in this franchise…
- Snack Time: Bub and Bob can collect piles of food just in their first level, and much, much more over the course of their whole adventure. Is a residual side effect of the Bubble Bobble curse a bottomless stomach, or are they hoarding provisions for their entire planet? Whatever the case, score a fridge somewhere, kiddies, all of those watermelon slices are going to spoil.
- Horse Puncher: This is another game wherein you routinely fight unicorns. I need to keep track of how often this happens.
- Did you know? The boss fight theme for this game is straight up Kaoma’s Lambada. This was something of a copyright issue then and now, but nothing compared to how the previous Bubble Bobble game, Rainbow Islands, heisted (Somewhere) Over the Rainbow. Such a thing was possible back in the early 90s! Nowadays, we can’t even preserve the Neon Genesis Evangelion end credits…
- Would I play again: I bought the TG-16 Mini for Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, but Parasol Stars is easily the best “hidden gem” on the system. I will play this game again, if only because I will need something to test a second controller. Does that add up to four buttons?
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… SaGa Frontier for the Playstation! Or maybe SaGa Frontier Remastered for the Playstation 4! Whatever works! We’re gonna spark some skills either way! Please look forward to it!