Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Battle of Bubble Bobble: May 31, 2008

I had no idea what I was getting into when I bought a Game Boy Advance Bubble Bobble port as a birthday present for my younger sister, Katie.

She sat there, dazed. "This is the worst birthday present I have ever received."

I held my heads in my hands. "Fuck Bubble Bobble."

Rewind twenty years.

The Atari ST version of Bubble Bobble was quite the fixture at the Salisbury family household. Many hours were spent playing co-op with my sister, seeing how far we could get before our lives ran out. Bereft of any sort of documentation, we devised our own names for the various enemies in the game, like "toasters" and "buttkins."

As such, it seemed like the ideal birthday present seventeen years later, when my sister and I were spending a fair amount of time during my visits engaging in GBA multiplayer gaming. Unfortunately, she promptly lost the game cartridge and as such co-op Bubble Bobble remained firmly in our childhood, my few singleplayer attempts accomplishing nostalgia and little else.

And so it went on, year after year, until the forgotten birthday present reared its head a week ago when I received the following loaded text message from Katie:

"found bubble bobble. bring home your gba"

And so is was at 9:00 PM last Saturday night that we finally managed to power up our connected GBAs and engage in multiplayer Bubble Bobble for the first time in over twenty years.

My god, the music alone brought me back, although Katie made it clear that my singing along wasn't necessary. The cute dinosaurs, the various powerups, it all returned me to my childhood in a dizzying rush.

We knocked off the easy intro levels and proceeded into the ones that actually require some skill. We killed toasters, we slaughtered buttkins. We ate giant cakes that fell from the sky. We collected letters that spelled out "EXTEND."

We actually managed to progress well beyond the levels familiar from childhood, as the GBA port allowed us to continue from death by plugging in virtual quarters. "PRESS START!" our little dinosaurs would implore, awarding us with new life and a "THANK YOU!" when we complied. Uncommonly polite for a dinosaur.

One sweaty, eye-straining hour later we had passed level 80.

"How many levels do you think this game has?" Katie asked me.

"I really have no idea. 100, maybe? 150?"

The answer came five levels later when yet another dino death resulted in us both being dumped unceremoniously onto a GAME OVER screen that said we had beat 85 out of 100 levels.

"What the hell?"

The defeat music was taunting in its jauntiness.

I stood up and stretched, a little dazed from staring at a small screen and existing via twitch reflexes for well over an hour.

"Did the game end because we both died at the same time?"

"No idea," she said. "Maybe we ran out of attempts?"

"I kind of doubt it. But at least we know now that there are 100 levels. We almost made it."

"Almost isn't good enough."

"Yeah," I said, arching my back to work out the kinks earned from an hour of hunching.

"No, I mean it. Almost isn't good enough."

I turned to look at her.

"You're not going to want to do this, but it's my birthday, and an hour from now we're going to join the ranks of people who have beaten Bubble bobble.

"Oh god."

"I won't lie to you, it isn't going to be fun."

"Oh god."

"The first few levels are going to be painful."

"Oh god."

"But this is about something bigger than fun. This is about being able to look the world in the face and saying that yes, we conquered Bubble Bobble at 11:30, May 31st."

"Oh god."

"So go and slap a little water on your face or do whatever you have to do, because we're about to beat Bubble Bobble."

"We're about to beat Bubble Bobble," I said.

And so there we were, gritting out teeth and heading back into the cave of monsters at 10:30 on a Saturday night. We didn't want this second session to meet the same abrupt end as the previous one, so we did a bit of testing and determined that the permadeath was caused by both players running out of lives at exactly the same time. We quickly developed a system: when both of us were near our last lives, one of us would commit suicide and restart while the other stayed safe. It served us well, and we found ourselves making good progress.

We cleared level ten.

"Ten town, ninety to go," I said.

"Jesus Christ."

Katie didn't lie, it wasn't fun, although we churned through the levels with a certain workmanlike efficiency. Any power-up that ended the level quickly was pursued at all costs. The level-skipping umbrella was the holy grail, and allowed us to bypass a decent portion of the mid-20's.

There was a hypnotic groove we settled in, the levels flying by in an eyeball-straining blur. Level 36 brought a massive popsicle that gave me a ridiculous amount of points. Katie grabbed a potion somewhere in the 40's that killed all the enemies and filled the screen with collectible music notes.

We knocked off level 50 and I said, "Halfway there."

She grunted.

Nine levels later (59 down, 41 to go) the platform blocks spelled out "BR10."

"I don't even know what that's supposed to mean," I said.

My sister replied, "I'm well past caring."

Somewhere around level 65 I checked my watch. Almost 11:30, we had already been at this for an hour. Somehow it seemed like this journey had already occupied well more than sixty minutes, its true toll not easily measured by time.

Level 72 took us awhile, as just getting out of the starting gates required a certain bubble/jump combination that only I seemed capable of. It took many tries, and several deaths via the time-limit enforcers--dubbed "mousers" by us as children--before I managed to defeat all the enemies.

Level 73 was another tough one that required bubble jumps to even get to the elevated platform where the enemies were. I managed to break through and was on a tear, trapping baddie after baddie in bubbles.

Katie's voice carried a bit of alarm when she said, "Hey, you have to commit suicide!"

I scoffed and popped a bubble, destroying the trapped enemy. "Kicking too much ass to die."

"Okay fine, I'll do it."

And then the buttkin killed me, my dinosaur mirroring the same death spiral currently being performed by Katie's.


We both hunched forward, rapidly pressing the Start button, everything hinging on some offset of syncopation in our deaths. We pressed, and pressed, and pressed, the rapid dual clicking of the button the only sound.

The only sound, that is, until the jaunty music of the GAME OVER screen Bubble bobble dumped us to.

We both screamed, Katie slamming her GBA down as I rolled off the couch onto the floor. I covered my face with my hands and either laughed or sobbed uncontrollably.

"I am so angry right now," Katie said.

"Oh my god," I said.

"We had a system," she said.

I just kept laughing and sobbing, my face still covered.

Katie shook her head, her voice deadpan. "You're my brother, and I love you, but right now I want so bad to kill you and carve onto your gravestone the words 'kicking too much ass to die'."

"Oh my god," I repeated. "I never want to see my GBA again."

She sat there, dazed. "This is the worst birthday present I have ever received."

I held my heads in my hands. "Fuck Bubble Bobble."

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