At the time of writing, the world is gearing up for a fourth official installment in the Bubble Bobble series.
Wait a minute, I hear you ask, fourth? What happened to the third? I don’t judge you too harshly for asking this question; I know some people who weren’t even aware that Rainbow Islands was the second Bubble Bobble game, so for you to be unaware that there had already been a third one is entirely understandable.
It doesn’t stop it being a huge shame, however, because 1991’s Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble III is a wonderful game; one of my all-time favourite single-screen “kill ’em all” platformers, in fact, beaten only by Rod-Land. And yet, for various reasons, very few people either know it exists or remember it.
Part of the reason for this is the fact that unlike the original Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands, which originated in the arcades and were subsequently ported to every platform under the sun, Parasol Stars began its life as a PC Engine exclusive. And as most PC Engine enthusiasts will tell you, the PC Engine was a wonderful system, but it was woefully overlooked and underappreciated back in the day, and remains a system that doesn’t get a ton of attention even today.
This isn’t to say Parasol Stars didn’t get any ports, however. Working Designs localised the PC Engine original for the North American Turbografx-16, but this was only available in very limited quantities. Ocean Software ported the game to NES and Game Boy later in 1991, and developed Atari ST and Amiga versions a year later in 1992. The ST version is actually where I first encountered the game; a demo was on a cover disk of an ST magazine, and I was immediately smitten with it, though sadly I’ve never owned my own full copy of it on any platform.
Enough sob stories, though; if you’re one of those people who didn’t know this game existed, you probably want to know what it’s all about. Well, functionally it’s pretty similar to Bubble Bobble in particular in that it’s a game about killing everything on screen. This time around, however, rather than blowing bubbles to trap enemies, you’re armed with an umbrella that you can unfurl either in front of you or directly above you.
The umbrella is both offensive and defensive in nature. Opening it protects you from enemies and things they might happen to fling at you, and it also stuns enemies. Once an enemy is stunned, they can be grabbed atop your umbrella, then flung out in front of you to dispatch further enemies, and when they eventually hit a wall, they’ll turn into the obligatory point-scoring fruits and desserts typically seen in a game of this type. As always, taking out more enemies in one go results in more significant point bonuses from the collectible items, and many stages feature hidden bonus items that can be uncovered by flinging enemies through particular parts of the level.
There are a few additional twists on the formula besides just whacking enemies and flinging them at others. For starters, many stages feature water droplets dribbling from the top of the screen. These can be collected similarly to stunned enemies and flung, or if you collect five atop your umbrella, you’ll create a large droplet which bursts and becomes a flowing torrent of water when you throw it. This can be used to clear large areas in one go — or in the case of some stages, reach enemies that otherwise seem impossible to get to.
Certain stages feature elemental water droplets with specific functions; once again, collecting five of these allows you a special ability that varies according to the elemental type. Lightning droplets, for example, toss out a large lightning bolt that passes through enemies and walls, allowing for a full line of carnage if you aim it correctly.
The game is broken up into visually themed worlds with a thematically appropriate boss at the end of each; the first world is themed around music, for example, which means all the enemies are musical instruments, and the boss is a “one man band” type of arrangement that, inexplicably (and delightfully), plays Lambada at you.
Bosses often feature unique mechanics; the first, for example, allows you to collect a “lightning in a bottle” power-up that means whenever you unfurl your umbrella above you, lightning droplets will gradually gather ready for you to fling at the boss. The game doesn’t tell you exactly what these power-ups do; it’s up to you to experiment and figure things out for yourself. Or read the manual, if you have it. Which, let’s face it, these days you probably don’t.
Mechanically and structurally, Parasol Stars isn’t doing anything particularly new or massively special in its own right, but the whole thing is executed with such glorious slickness that it’s just a consistent pleasure to play, whether you’re challenging it alone or with a friend in the simultaneous two-player mode.
And for those without access to a PC Engine or Turbografx, the Atari ST and Amiga versions are extremely solid ports that are remarkably true to the console originals. There were originally supposed to be ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 ports added to the mix, too, but the former was cancelled, and the latter’s code was lost when the freelance developer’s wife got hammered and angry, destroying both his computer and all his backups in the process. She sounds nice.
That’s pretty much your lot for opportunities to play this hidden gem at the time of writing; the Bubble Bobble Featuring Rainbow Islands release for PlayStation and Saturn was originally set to include Parasol Stars as well but ended up… not doing so for some reason. It was available for the Wii Virtual Console platform in Japan, but since Nintendo took down the whole Wii Shop Channel, that’s no longer available.
There is hope, however; the original (and best) version of Parasol Stars will be making a triumphant return as part of the PC Engine/Turbografx-16/CoreGrafx Mini console that Konami is set to release in March of 2020, making this wonderful game readily available for the whole world to play once again. And I for one cannot wait!
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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