The Red Lantern: Cheesing the Bubble Bobble high score

Bubble Bobble is a game released by Taito in 1987 on an arcade cabinet and proved to be popular enough to spawn a port on basically all successful commercial home consoles. It gained popularity in part because the gameplay is tight and polished, but also because the spritework is very cute and the music very catchy. In this piece I present a to me novel strategy for beating the high score, but I suspect someone has thought of it and it has been lost to time on a tape backup of a BBS somewhere.

Bubble Bobble brochure, Wikipedia

If you don’t know what Bubble Bobble is, here’s the gist: You and your buddy play as one or two dragons, Bub and Bob. The one is green the other one blue and besides cosmetics and where they spawn they are identical in-game. Your dragon spits out bubbles that can trap enemies which you can then pop. When all enemies are dead you win the level. You pick up power-ups and point items in every level and the list of items is impressively long considering the age of the game. If you are too slow an invincible skeleton whale called Skel spawns and follows you while gradually increasing it’s speed eventually inevitably killing you. If you get to level 20, 30 or 40 without dying you get access to a bonus level which gives you around 350k points. There are 100 levels in total and finishing the final boss yields 1 million points. The max score the game can represent is just under 10 million. If you lose all your lives in two-player game you can insert a coin and respawn with 0 points.

Most people play the game and enjoy themselves while doing so. What most people don’t know is that the player’s actions influence what special items spawn in the next level. Some items make your bubbles shoot faster or longer, others kill the enemies and give you bonus points.

The most obvious way to get a lot of points is to go after the potion special items. A potion fills the empty space with an item (depends on the potion) and if you collect them all you get 100k points. These potions spawn when the dragons fall through the level 15 times or more in total. There are plenty of levels in the beginning you can do increase the fall-through counter and if you manage a couple of bonus levels you get a lot of points.

If you take a look at the special items list you will notice a category called Lanterns and one of them is red. It gives the player the effect of all three candies an three rings. The effects are:

  1. Bubbles fly faster
  2. Bubbles travel farther
  3. Rapid-fire bubbles
  4. Earn 500 points for each jump
  5. Earn 100 points per bubble blown
  6. Earn 10 points per pixel moved

This item seems a little unfair and it kind of is, but the effects 4, 5 and 6 disappear when you complete the level or die. To make the red lantern spawn player 2 must join the game 5 times meaning he/she has to die a total of 25 times. Remember that this was released on coin-operated machines which would make this endeavour somewhat costly and probably less fun than just playing the game 5 more times.

Once you get the lantern you can run from left to right on the screen popping bubbles like a rabid dragon while the points rapidly increase. After a set period of time our friend Skel shows up and makes sure you stop it with these game-breaking shenanigans… or does he?

A Skel spawns for each player in the game and a Skel disappears when it kills a dragon. Skel is a mighty skeleton who does not discriminate against your particular pixel pallette. He really hates those pesky bubble-shooting dragons and does not care if they are green or blue.

Since coins are free and player 2 can spawn willy-nilly, what happens if player 2 gets killed by Skel 1, respawns and then gets killed by Skel 2? Something very, very interesting: the Skel timer resets. Player 1 now has yet another ~20-30 seconds to rack up points before the next batch of Skel show up.

Armed with this knowledge my colleague and I gave it a go. We primed the RNG by spawning 5 times with player 2 and then letting both dragons die which makes a red lantern spawn in the next game’s first level. I played the cheating bastard player 1 and he was on Skel duty by my side.

Once the red lantern was picked up the bubbles flew from the mouth of my dragon in a frenzy of green pixelated glory, a sight only overshadowed by the steadily rising score up in the left corner. We weren’t sure it would work more than once, but after Skel spawned second, third and fourth time and counter was reset yet again, we knew we had won. Victory was indeed ours, marked by the sound of arcade buttons being mashed and the smug smiles on the face of two grown men who may have spent more time discussing Bubble Bobble strategies than anyone had since the mid-90s.
We finished with a high score of 1.9 million before calling it quits, marking the end of a long journey. Eventually we got bored of Bubble Bobble and went on to ruin many other classics for the people at the office.

Thanks for reading if you made it so far.

/ J

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