Review: Pirate Pop Plus

Disclosure: A free code for Pirate Pop Plus was provided to VGBlogger.com for review consideration.

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Throwing back to a simpler time of game design, Pirate Pop Plus by Dadako and 13AM Games is a score chase arcade action game inspired by the classic Buster Bros/Pang series, where the solitary objective is to pop bubbles to score points.

The setup goes a little something like this: An evil Bubble Pirate is using his bubble cannon to capture villagers and, as the great hero Pete Jr., you must burst the bubbles to save the island’s inhabitants and ultimately defeat your bubble-butted arch nemesis. Gameplay takes place within a small, single-screen arena walled in on all four sides. As the Bubble Pirate spews out bubbles, you must move Pete side to side to avoid the bubbles as they ping about the stage, while simultaneously firing an anchor tethered to a chain up the screen to burst the bubbles before they hit you.

The pirate always launches one giant bubble, but with each hit the larger bubbles divide into smaller bubbles that move faster and are harder to target and evade. Points are scored with each hit, while successive pops build a combo for maximum point output. Any miss resets the combo to zero. Upon reaching game over, you can enter your initials on the leaderboard, which keeps track of high score, level reached, and coins collected. Sadly, though, the game currently does not offer online leaderboards to compare scores globally. (At least on Steam–I’m not sure about the 3DS and Wii U version.)

Power-ups and collectibles randomly drop throughout, including 2x multipliers, fruits that add bonus points, gold coins, protective bubble shields, clock stoppers that temporarily freeze all bubbles in place, letters that can be picked up to spell out the word “Bonus” to trigger a bonus round, and alternate weapon types such as an airsoft gun, which shoots projectile bullets, and anchors that clamp to the ceiling and leave the chains in place across the screen, sort of like tripwires that will destroy any bubble that bounces into them

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Things get even crazier when the Bubble Pirate, that dastardly fiend, pulls out his gravity gun and changes the plane of movement to any of the arena’s four walls. Which means you never know if you’re going to be dropping anchor from the floor, along the sides, or completely upside down. The spontaneous gravity shifts can easily throw your bearings out of whack, but they also present an opportunity to get above any bubbles that are on the screen so you can safely do your popping while bounce around on top of them like little trampolines of encapsulated air.

Character movement is an important factor as well, because you can’t just stop on a dime when running side to side. Momentum carries you into a short slide animation when stopping to change directions, so you have to be careful to stop a little shy of where you ultimately want to stop. Similarly, there is a certain nuance to learning to judge shot timing based on the distance and angle a bubble is bouncing. Sometimes it’s better to shoot ahead of a bubble so that the anchor’s trailing chain does the popping, rather than taking the riskier position of trying to get directly under a bubble to shoot it with the anchor itself. Pirate Pop Plus‘ mechanics definitely hit the easy to learn, hard to master sweet spot.

What truly sells the game, though, is its simulated GameBoy-style presentation. The gameplay screen is bordered by the face of a fake portable gaming device called the Pocket Game, which renders the gameplay in astonishing 4 color pixel art accompanied by some snappy chiptunes that totally get you in the bubble poppin’ mood. You can see the front faceplate, power button, D-pad, and action button, while the D-pad and action button actually animate in sync with your actual inputs. It’s such a cool effect. Visually speaking, the only problem with the limited color palette is that sometimes the smaller bubbles have a tendency to blend in with coins or parts of the background, making them difficult to see due to the lack of color variation in distinguishing multiple screen elements. This isn’t a frequent occurrence, but it does cause the occasional cheap hit.

Pirate Pop Plus has two modes of play. Normal mode is the starter option, in which you have three or four hearts to survive through what seems to be an endless score chase. A form of progression seamlessly transitions the background art through a series of different “levels” the longer you stay alive and popping as the difficulty steadily increases. So far my best run has been to level 8, and there’s an achievement for reaching level 9. I’m not sure what happens after that point. There’s also a Hyper mode, which requires wagering 25 coins up front to play. You only have one heart (which equals two hits before game over) to survive through more challenging, faster paced gameplay. However, the risk comes with a potential reward of doubled points, as well as a greater abundance of coins to loot.

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In addition to needing them to ante up for Hyper mode, coins collected across all attempts are banked as a currency to spend on unlocks, including extra soundtrack options, alternate playable characters (each has slightly different attributes and movement speeds), and a wealth of customization options for the simulated Pocket Game device. In true Nintendo fashion, the Pocket Game comes in a diverse range of faceplates and button colors, from plain colors to a see-through crystal casing that shows the device’s inner circuitry. Decals can be unlocked to stick around the screen, as you might have done to personalize your handheld as a child. You can even buy backlighting options to change the rendering color of the pixel art, which helps balance out the fact that every play attempt takes place within the same sequence of backgrounds. Sure, banking enough coins to be able to afford many of the unlocks does become somewhat of a grind, but it’s also providing another form of replay reward to go along with the primary task of chasing down a higher overall score.

Pirate Pop Plus is a wonderful celebration of retro high-score-’em-up gaming, both in its simple, focused design and its splendid presentational flourishes that fully immerse you in the mindset of playing on an old GameBoy or GameBoy Advance. It’s the type of game you can play in spits and spurts, to pass the time for a few minutes between other games or obligations, or become completely absorbed by, playing just one more game as you attempt to beat your top score or add to your virtual coin bank.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Simple, addictive high-score-’em-up arcade gameplay
+ Simulated GameBoy presentation with a variety of customizations
+ Wide range of shop unlockables for added replay value

Cons:
– No global online leaderboards
– Low-color pixel art can cause occasional visibility issues

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available on 3DS and Wii U
Publisher: Dadako
Developer: 13AM Shipping Solutions / 13AM Games
Release Date: PC- 11/4/2016, 3DS/Wii U – 10/20/2016
Genre: Action/Arcade
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Steam or Nintendo eShop for $4.99.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!