Bubbler is an isometric action game that was published in 1987 under the Ultimate Play the Game banner, but in reality is a US Gold game that wasn’t developed by the original Ultimate team. And it is an insanely difficult, but playable, game.
Bubbler is by no means a bad game, but it is indicative of the naivety of the people who published it, thinking that they could put out a game under the Ultimate label and people would believe that the Ultimate team created it. In fact, US Gold did this for four games: Pentagram, Cyberun, Martianoids, and Bubbler. And not many people bought into this marketing ruse. I certainly didn’t at the time (and I say this as someone who was a big fan of Ultimate games during my teenage years). And all four of the aforementioned games were not as good as the games the original Ultimate team put out from 1983 to 1985.
The first thing I have to say about Bubbler is that it seems inexplicable to me that the game’s designers would choose an amorphous, symmetrical blob as the playable character of an isometric action game with directional movement. Yes, there’s a direction indicator at the bottom of the screen (two, actually – one for each player), but that doesn’t excuse the decision to use an object that looks the same from whatever direction you’re viewing it to navigate a pseudo 3D environment. Even Bobby Bearing had features that showed which way he was facing; but to fall back on a direction indicator (which, by the way, takes up far too much of the screen) means that your eyes are constantly moving away from the play area to see what direction you’re facing and therefore greatly increases the risk of losing a life. You therefore have to play Bubbler intuitively at times, which is not easy to do.
So how to do you play Bubbler? All of the US Gold Ultimate games gave little to no instructions of how to actually play the games properly, so it’s a reasonable question to ask. Well, the idea is explore, bounce around, and to ‘cork’ the bubble machines that are found dotted around each of the five provided levels. “And where are the corks?” you ask. Well, they are nowhere obvious, but to obtain a cork you need to drop down any of the trapdoors that are also located around the levels. When you have a cork in your possession the cork indicator (above the time indicator) is filled. And from there you must make your way to any nearby bubble-maker and jump on top of it. Then repeat the process until all the bubble machines in a level have been corked, then make your way to the exit.
From the second level onward a number of the trapdoors drop you to your doom, so as well as all the lethal meanies that spawn from circle-shaped pads, and the bubbles that push you around, you also have to remember which trapdoors are safe to go down. On top of that: some of the bubble machines are located in places that you can only find if you make a leap of faith into places you think would be instant death. On top of that there’s a timer bar that counts down and kills you when it runs out. You can at least re-fill the timer by corking a bubble, so must use this to your advantage. Even so: Bubbler must rate as one of the most difficult Spectrum games of all time. There is a video of someone completing the game on YouTube, but they did it using rollback, which is an emulator feature that allows players to rewind and try again. Completing Bubbler on a real Spectrum (without rollback, quicksaves, or cheats) is pretty much impossible.
For all of Bubbler‘s playability and intriguing gameplay mechanics, it is held back by the game’s difficulty and lack of level passwords. Which is a pity because it is arguably the best Ultimate game, post Gunfright.
More: Bubbler on Wikipedia