Given the way the Knight Sabers and their power suits are so firmly ingrained on the memories of anyone who once watched OVAs on vastly overpriced VHS tapes, you’d think there’d be more games around for the Bubblegum crew than this PC Engine Hucard and an even more obscure PC-88 release, Crime Wave. Unfortunately this is not the case, and while the likes of Sailor Moon and Dragonball have enough console releases to sink a battleship if you want to take part in an interactive adventure with Priss and co. your options are this or nothing at all.
A quick word of warning – while the whole gang’s here I do hope you like Nene, because you’re going to be spending most of the game as her and watching the drama unfold from her perspective. Yay! Or not, if the reactions on my Twitter feed are anything to go by. If it’s any consolation you can force her to rummage through a bin for no reason whatsoever, although I’m not entirely sure whether the joke’s on you or her there.
Enough rambling, it’s time to discuss the game! Bubblegum Crash is a very typical old Japanese adventure game that unfortunately suffers from all the drawbacks of being a very typical old Japanese adventure game without having the likes of Snatcher’s style or 3x3 Eyes: Sanjiyan Henjou’s polish.
There are a lot of little faults to pick on but the game’s biggest sin is inconsistency, managing the almost-impressive job of running against common sense, genre convention, and it’s own flippin’ menu labelling too. Take for example the LOOK command, which is often - but not always - used to… move to a new location. Oh, OK. The command that’s actually labelled MOVE is the one you’ll need to use to operate switches, because of course it is. To really underline the unpleasantness of the user interface I should point out that TALK and HEAR are completely separate commands, and they don’t even have the decency of following the expected talk/listen/talk pattern of a standard conversation either – sometimes you’ll need to repeat one or the other several times, then switch to the other to trigger the correct response. Logic and reason clearly left the development team long before release, leaving unfortunate souls with no idea which is the right option for any given conversation and prompting a lot of icon-jabbing and repeated lines unless a guide is followed to the letter – which you absolutely should if you want to try this game out for yourself.
Needless to say, playing Bubblegum Crash as intended isn’t the satisfying whodunit adventure it could have been, nor an exciting slice of future-Tokyo action for fans of the series.
It’s not all bad though! On paper Crash offers you a lot of freedom, as everywhere bar the final dungeon (more on that later) is accessible from the start – great! [checks notes] Oh sorry, I meant to say ‘awful’. You have no reason to visit these locations until you’re supposed to go to them, meaning a game that already allows you to waste time picking up objects you have no use for drags on even longer when you’re not even sure where to go. The inconsistency I talked about with the UI raises its ugly head again here, with the game sometimes automatically taking you exactly where you need to go, sometimes giving hints such as ‘Hmm… maybe I should go to [PRECISE LOCATION YOU NEED TO VISIT]?’, and for others leaving you completely high and dry.
Should you stick at it there comes a point where Bubblegum Crash suddenly throws a trio of minigames your way – two of which are mercifully never seen again, and one other that you’ll wish was a one-off.
The first is a one-on-one battle against a chap who turns out to be the last boss; you have two attacks to choose from and… that’s it. That’s really all there is to it. As far as I’ve been able to tell damage taken and received is completely random, so all you can do is pray to the RNG gods and hope for the best. The good news is you have to lose the first battle. The bad news is the game resurrects this tedious luck-based system to handle the completely superfluous random battles in the final dungeon (oh heck I mentioned it again!), as well as the last boss fight, and you have to win every last one of those encounters.
Priss has the dubious honour of starring in the final two minigames – a bike chase followed by… whatever the heck the other one is. The ‘chase’, which could have been a highlight of the game if the development team had cared enough to try, involves dodging missiles fired at you down a three lane highway. And by ‘dodge’ I mean ‘turn slightly to the side’. At the end of each highway section you have to choose between going left or right – your reward for picking the correct path (there’s no way of knowing) is a repeat of the missile-dodging you just did, and your punishment for failure is an empty stretch of road to scroll through until you hit the next left/right choice.
With that out of the way you’re plunged straight into the weirdy puzzle game bit – Priss has taken leave of her senses and although she really needs to catch up with this Boomer she will only follow the yellow lines on the tiled road you arrange at her feet in what is possibly a misguided attempt at injecting further variety into the game. For the record, adventure games don’t need variety, they need a gripping plot for the player to unravel and experience at a reasonable pace. Bubblegum Crash has none of these noble qualities.
After a touch more adventuring we’re finally at the Nightmare Maze from Hell – two floors of identical bright blue corridors to navigate without a map or any other helpful markers to guide your way. Oh, and the elevators between levels go up to specific walled-off points, preventing you from bumbling around on the top floor until you’ve found all the switches there (yes, there are four switches to find in this awful place to unlock the final boss door – lucky you!) and finally escaping this tedious anti-climax.
An English translation is available for those not put off by the text above, but for my money if you want to experience a good-but-old Japanese adventure game even die-hard Knight Sabers fans will be better served by Psy-O-Blade.