Japanese Free-to-Play Hell: Bubblen March

My dear sister recently moved into a new job out of the country, and bequeathed unto me her iPhone. Up until that point, I’d been using Android phones, and while I still prefer the Android OS as a whole, one of the big things that iOS offers is ease of switching between music/app store territories. Just make a new Apple ID account, throw in a random overseas address, and BAM! You have a new account in whatever country you please, and can download pretty much anything from their stores. Actually paying for said apps and music is another story, since you’ll need someone to buy you iTunes cards from that territory, but there’s still ample free apps for you to grab if you don’t want to go through the trouble.

As we’re well aware, Japan’s mobile gaming industry has eagerly embraced the free-to-play model, and being the brave soul that I am, I’m trying to wade through that muck in the iOS app store and see if any¬†free-to-play spinoffs of beloved franchises getting¬† are actually worth a damn. Yes, a lot of free-to-play games are garbage, and I say that having defended the model as not completely terrible: It’s all about implementing it correctly, in a way that makes the player feel satisfied, not strongarmed, to spend money on a service. Taito’s shown that they can do that well with Groove Coaster Zero, a fantastic free-to-play music game that offers numerous tracks as paid expansions. I’d recently seen a few of their upcoming mobile game announcements: a Wizardry roguelike, Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders (it kills me that this isn’t out yet), and a match-3 puzzler called Bubblen March. Being the Bubble Bobble nerd that I am, Bubblen March immediately caught my attention, and it wasn’t long before it was sitting on my iPhone’s app set.

I’ve been playing for a couple weeks now, and my feelings towards Bubblen March are… complicated, to say the least.

IMG_0069[1]

Bubblen March stars Bubblun, our beloved Bubble Bobble dragon whose name gets a really weird, first-I’ve-ever-seen-of-it romanization in the title. He’s joined by the smaller dragons, the Miniluns, and the popping bubble-beings known as the Awawas. Bubblen and friends travel through the stories of various Western fairytales like Red Riding Hood and Snow White.

And yes, Bubblun is indeed wielding a nailbat in that title screen.

In order to play Bubblen March, you need to make an account on the Ameba social networking/gaming service, which isn’t particularly hard to do (though perhaps moreso without any Japanese knowledge). Once that’s done, you can hop right into the game, starting with a set of tutorials. Tap a stage on the world map, confirm at the next menu, and you’re ready to bubble it up.

IMG_0067[1] IMG_0070[1]

The stages take place on a 6×6 grid of Awawa bubbles with an animation of Bubblun and company playing up top. The rules are simple: match 3 or more of a bubble color in any order (doesn’t have to be straight lines) to eliminate them. Instead of moving or shifting individual bubbles, however, you shift entire rows by swiping with your finger, akin to world-class eSports game Yoshi’s Cookie. Unlike the careful cookie-shufflingg of YoCo, though, if you try to move a row and can’t make a match it’ll shift back to its original position. This means you can’t shift bit by bit to line up killer bubble combos Puyo-style, which also means that a lot of your big combo chains will come down primarily to luck. (Shifting controls are also a bit finicky; I’ve had cases where the game misreads my desire to swipe vertically as horizontally.)

But at least there’s a bit of leeway in the combo system: much like Magical Drop, if you make a match and then make another match within a small time window, it’ll count as a combo. Getting 10, 30, 50, and other odd-numbered multiples of ten combos will give you a short “fever” mode with point multipliers and extended combo windows, making it possible to rack up impressive combo digits if luck is on your side and you’re good at spotting potential matches quickly. Getting lots of combos creates helpful bomb pieces, which eliminate other pieces surrounding them and count towards a combo when touched, while matching a big cluster of Awawa gives you an orb that lets you eliminate all pieces of any color when you press it.

As you progress, obstacles will start to appear in the stages. There are the standard nuisance rocks that require a piece to be broken beside them to be eliminated, along with blocks that obscure part of your view and panels you’ll need to knock down by blowing up a piece on top of them. The two most aggravating obstacles, however, are the cages and the minecarts: cages can randomly appear over a piece in certain stages after a move (usually if you fail to make a match), and they prevent the row and column that piece is in from being shifted until said caged piece is cleared. Minecarts are similar, but only prevent vertical shifting in the column they’re in – which doesn’t sound so bad, but you can only eliminate them by getting them into the bottom row, and it’s usually a stage goal to eliminate X number of them when they appear. The stages where you have both cages and minecarts are the absolute worst because of how hard your movement will get restricted. At least the game mercifully resets the board if it detects no matches can be made.

IMG_0093[1] IMG_0079[1]

Clearing each stage involves hitting a set goal, usually a point value or a number of Awawa eliminated, though stages where you have to clear a set amount of panels or minecarts off the field also start to show up after a while. Stages either operate under a 90-second timer or a set amount of moves you can make before the stage ends (though you can generally buy items in advance to increase these limits). Stage goals are also either cumulative or single-play: cumulative stages let you keep earning towards you goal until you reach it, no matter how many plays it takes, while single-play stages reset and require you to try again (and are the stages you will come to loathe the most). Each stage also has three sub-goals that will earn you stars, and much like how Mario’s stars function, you’ll need a certain amount of them to advance past set points.

Every round you play costs a heart, and they regenerate slooooooooooowly: one every half-hour, or every fifteen minutes during special events, up to a maximum of five. If you have a lot of friends, however, you can somewhat offset this: every four hours you can send people on your friends list a heart to use. These are only good for 24 hours, so you can’t really stockpile them for a rainy day, but if you’ve got a full and active friends list you’ll be getting a lot of extra plays. Of course, you can always just outright buy a giant stockpile of hearts to use whenever.

IMG_0090[1] IMG_0091[1]

There are two types of currency in Bubblen March: Medals, which you can earn (somewhat slowly) through normal play, and Bubble Rubies, which are the premium currency you can also earn (at a goddamned snail’s pace) through normal play. Bubble Rubies are the more versatile and valuable of the two, being what you spend yen directly on, but they can also be exchanged for a hefty pile of Medals if you choose. Medals are primarily used to buy helper items before you start a round and upgrade Bubblun’s weapon (which helps earn more points with each elimination from the board), while Bubble Rubies can be used for instant item offers, continues, extra play hearts, and higher-quality Minilun costumes.

IMG_0089[1]IMG_0092[1]

Oh jeez, I’ve talked this much and I haven’t even gotten into Miniluns and the costumes yet? Well, Miniluns act as helpers that can provide additional effects when you trigger certain conditions, like rewarding you with extra medals or making special items appear on the board. You start with two Miniluns and can buy more (with gradually increasing amounts of Medals and Bubble Rubies, natch), then you buy them a random costume from one of the two tailors: the 20,000 Medal machine, which can make B and C grade costumes, or the 500 Bubble Ruby machine, which can make anything from B to S grade costumes. When activated, the Miniluns join you in the upper part of the stages, upping the cute factor even more. By spending 100 friend points before a stage, you can also summon a friend’s main Minilun and get their costume’s effects, which you activate by tapping a special item on the field. You’ll get more friend points to use when people use your Minilun, so that’s all the more incentive to get a good costume that people will want to friend you in order to use for themselves.

It’s worth noting that as a free player playing for a couple weeks and not spending Rubies on anything else, I’ve only managed to go to the Bubble Ruby machine once, after saving up miniscule amounts of cash from completing certain stages and random rewards after finishing daily challenges. Contrast this with something like PAD where you get a magic stone or 5 each day for simply opening the app.

It’s this stinginess – and the constant nagging for extra cash – that really drags Bubblen March down.1 The base game itself is simplistic to the point where it’s little more than a time-waster, and I’m okay with that: simple titles meant to be a diversion for a few minutes are ideal for mobile. What I’m not okay with is when Bubblen March goes full-on Candy Crush and tosses both heavily luck-reliant and grind-heavy levels at you. The stages where you have one play to try and clear a goal (especially ones with the damn carts) start to hit a point where the odds are clearly stacked against you, meaning you either pump hearts into playing them until you get lucky or spend medals/rubies on a (fairly expensive) helper item or a continue out of frustration. Other stages have a cumulative goal (and star goals) needing to be reached that can take multiple plays… unless you continue or buy special items to help boost scores or get easier items.

IMG_0068[1]

Essentially, the game’s trying to coerce you into buying stuff by saying “Well, if you go into this stage you’re probably going to suck unless you’re lucky, but if you spend a bit on some helper items, there’s the potential to suck less! But no guarantees.” Since I’m not willing to ask my overseas pals to buy me iTunes Japan credit to spend on anything but game music, I’ve been brute-forcing my way through several of these stages, and it can get downright infuriating at points. Grinding out a goal isn’t really bad at all, primarily because you have the freedom to make big combos and score lots of medals in the process. Single-try stages, however – especially the ones with movement limits – have the potential to stymie me for far too long. No amount of skill or planning seems to really help, it’s all about crossing your fingers and hoping the right bubble color appears in the correct column so you can finally knock down that panel.

So then, why do I keep playing? Well, if there’s one thing Bubblen March has above a lot of its match-three brethren, it’s presentation. Bubblen March’s story bits mix absolute adorability with utterly bizarre slapstick, all based around the fairytale themes. Yet more often than not it starts to veer a bit away from the traditional tales we all know and love. Take, for example, the part early on where you meet the Big Bad Wolf, who promptly attaches itself to Bubblen’s face as such.

IMG_0047[1]A little further on, the first time you meet Red Riding Hood’s “Grandma,” she has been unceremoniously eaten by a giant plant that requires much thwacking:

IMG_0052[1]

Later on, in a different set of levels, a certain Prince Charming is found dancing with a quite un-charming Cinderella stand-in:

IMG_0081[1]And so on. The stills themselves are kind of funny, but it’s a lot more funny to see it all animated. (I haven’t even posted some of my favorite examples, just on the odd chance you decide you want to play this for yourselves. No spoilers!) The game is genuinely cute and charming in a way a lot of these sorts of games try to be but fail miserably at, and that goes a long way with me. Alas, at the stage set I’m at (Three Little Pigs) the story scenes have become more sparse, but I’m hoping it will pick up again in the next set. Assuming I don’t get stuck on another stupid “drop the mine carts” stage and get too frustrated to proceed.

Even the maintence notice is adorable

Even the maintenance notice is adorable

Bubblen March is one of those games I keep coming back to, but find it hard to justify why. As amusing as the visuals and cutscenes are, it feels almost shameful to admit that I’m willingly putting up with an exploitative, mediocre-to-frustrating puzzler in order to get to them. Yet here I am, grinding through yet another of those godforsaken cart-elimination stages to see what sort of bizarre scenario Cinderella’s been thrown into now. But hey, at least I know I won’t ever pay for it.

Submit a comment