In 1986, TelecomSoft decided it was time to break out of the mould of publishing original games and try their hand at coin-op conversions. Taito in Japan were one of the leading coin-op game companies at the time, and they already had a slew of arcade hits behind them.
TelecomSoft’s Jane Kavanagh flew out to Japan to secure the rights to Taito’s Flying Shark, a bi-plane shoot ’em up which was going to be the up-and-coming hot title to hit the arcades that year.
However, TelecomSoft got more than they originally bargained for when the deal to sign Flying Shark had to include a little known coin-op called Bubble Bobble as part of the overall package.
Undeterred, TelecomSoft signed up both titles for the Firebird label. Tony Beckwith managed Bubble Bobble from the publishers side, and it was decided that Software Creations (based in Manchester, England) were to be given the job to develop conversions for the main 8-bit platforms, (ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and the Amstrad CPC), with 16-bit Atari ST and Commodore Amiga versions to follow soon afterwards.
Development began in earnest in early 1987. A Bubble Bobble coin-op (set to ‘free play’) was shipped to Software Creation’s offices to allow their team to play it as much and as often as they needed. Taito did provide Firebird with some source code, but it was commented in Japanese and had to be translated, and even then it was mostly nonsense and so proved to be less than useful.
Taito also sent over some documentation, showing the map for each screen as a character grid with each block on the grid being 8×8 pixels in size. Overlaid on each map were arrows to indicate the air flow for each block. There were a few lines of handwritten text at the bottom of some pages, but these annotations were again in Japanese.
All of the Bubble Bobble conversions featured graphics by Software Creation’s resident graphic artist, Andrew Threlfall, with 8-bit music and sound effects by Tim Follin, and David Whitakker looking after the 16-bit sonics. Ste Ruddy was given the C64 version to program, with Bubble Bobble being his first experience of writing a coin-op conversion. Ste had a lot of trouble getting the bubbles to work properly on the C64. In the end, they were created as software sprites updated every three video frames, whilst the player and baddie sprites were updated every two video frames via an interrupt.
A few compromises had to be made to allow the C64 to cope with the game. The coin-op had up to seven baddies on screen at once, whilst the C64 version could only cope with six due to the number of sprites that the machine could display at one time. Thanks to the respective hardware limitations of the home computers? smaller frame buffers, all of the Firebird conversions also ended up displaying one line less than the original coin-ops? screen display.
The Spectrum version was coded by Mike Follin, who wrote a few other Firebird releases on the Spectrum, including Vectron and a conversion of the classic Geoff Crammond game, The Sentinel. Mike also happened to be musician Tim Follin’s brother. If you look at the screenshots, it appears that the Spectrum version only featured 80 levels, as level 80 is the same as level 100 (the final round) on the C64 conversion! The Amstrad CPC conversion was handled by ‘Zero the Hero’ (a.k.a. Peter Gartside).
David Broadhurst was employed by Software Creations specifically to write the 16-bit conversions of Bubble Bobble, which were started a few months behind their 8-bit counterparts. During the ST and Amiga’s six month development cycle, Ste Ruddy gave David his ‘wild and wacky’ air flow Data from the C64 conversion to save David some time and probably his sanity! David completed the ST version first and then ported it over to the Amiga afterwards. He then spent a month coding the NTSC versions for the US market.
Although it was obvious to Software Creations and Firebird that Bubble Bobble was huge fun to play, its potential greatness wasn’t realised until Newsfield’s Zzap 64! magazine raved about the C64 conversion in their double-page spread review.
It’s worth pointing out that many people have commented since that the Firebird conversions were not that accurate in regards to the gameplay rules that determined the behaviour of the various items, bonuses, baddies and so on. In hindsight this is true, but back then those conversions were the best that the programmers and the hardware of the day could offer. The differences included using the ‘up’ motion to jump (instead of a second fire button) because all joysticks back then tended to only have one fire button!
The lack of useable technical information from Taito meant that an awful lot of the games more subtle features had to be programmed from simple observation. Each of the programmers who worked for Software Creations have said what a great time they had coding and playing Bubble Bobble for Firebird, and this shines through when playing the various conversions.
It’s also interesting to note that years later David Broadhurst was working freelance for Probe Software when they won the job to convert both Bubble Bobble and the sequel, Rainbow Islands for the PC and the original PlayStation console. As a result, he was able to re-visit the game and fix the smaller display and all of the gameplay elements that couldn’t be shoe-horned into his earlier conversions.
Finally, an unpublished BBC micro conversion that claimed to be from Firebird surfaced on the web a few years ago. Coded by Peter Gillet with graphics by Martin Kelsey, this version was written entirely off the developer’s own backs. Only once the game was nearly completed (based upon hours of playing the C64 conversion!) did they approach Firebird. Unfortunately for them, their efforts were in vain. By the late 1980s, the BBC Micro market was no longer considered commercially viable by Firebird and the licensing costs added on top of that factor made an official BBC conversion a non-starter. Peter approached a few other publishers (including Superior Software) but they all passed, and so the unofficial conversion remained hidden until Peter submitted it to a PD library and it eventually surfaced on the web.
EMAP’s Ace magazine bagged an exclusive 5 level demo for the Spectrum and C64 versions of the game via a cover mounted cassette for their November ’87 issue. This was quite a big event back then, as magazines hardly ever included cover mounts or demos.
However, thanks to a mix up at the duplicators, Ace magazine were actually sent the master to the full Spectrum version, and it was only when someone at the magazine was testing the demo that they noticed they were going beyond level 5, 6, 7…! Thankfully (for Firebird) the correct version was sorted before it went to the duplicators!