Rainbow Islands: The Story of Bubble Bobble 2 was originally released to arcades in 1987 as the spiritual successor to Taito's bubble-busting classic. Although the sequel bore little in common with its predecessor save for its whimsical themes, Rainbow Islands succeeded as a unique platformer that was easy to jump into yet difficult to master. Rainbow Islands: Towering Adventure on Xbox Live Arcade recaptures the spirit of the original arcade release, but many aspects of the game feel a little too stuck in the past.
Like the original Rainbow Islands, you play as a young boy with the ability to shoot rainbows that can be used as platforms or to attack enemies. The object is to reach the top of the level before time runs out. Complicating your ascent are enemies that litter the stage, such as a boss that continually creeps up from below until he catches you at the end of each level. There are also special restricted areas on the screen where your rainbows immediately dissolve. You'll get power-ups that increase the range of your rainbows, the frequency with which you can fire, and your speed. It's a simple concept that works well in an arcade-style platformer.
Unlike the original Rainbow Islands, level progression in Towering Adventure is seamless. Individual levels are stacked together into one long ascent, and any extra time you've accumulated in one stage rolls over to the next. If you're fast enough, the bosses can be skipped by racing past them. Otherwise, battles slow the game's pace to a crawl and typically consist of dodging large-range attacks while dropping rainbows from above. These fights are more frustrating than challenging because a single hit makes you easily susceptible to multiple attacks, dropping minutes from your available time. This damage mechanic is where Towering Adventure differs most from its predecessors. Instead of having a limited number of lives to work with, you're racing against the clock to reach the next level. Getting hit by an enemy deducts a 30 second penalty from the clock, but killing foes in rapid succession leaves gems scattered throughout the stage that can add precious seconds to your time. Your success depends on balancing speed with accuracy, and the slight sense of urgency makes for a more engaging experience.
The game plays essentially the same if you're playing by yourself or with a friend, but like Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands is exponentially more fun if you're working as a team. This holds true for the local multiplayer in Towering Adventure, which makes the lack of an online cooperative mode all the more disappointing. Working in concert with another player on the screen, it's easier to nab gems and attack enemies. The action is also much more frantic, as having an extra player adds a certain level of friendly competition. You battle for power-ups and race to keep up with your teammate because leaving a straggler behind knocks a few seconds off the clock you both share. Deliberately sabotaging your partner's progress can also be every bit as entertaining as working together.
Instead of online co-op, Taito serves up a perfunctory competitive online option where you race your opponent to the top of a level. Avatar support in this mode is a nice touch, but because your opponent isn't even on the same screen as you, there are no opportunities for sabotage and you might as well just be running a time trial. Challenge and Time Trial modes are also available and support Xbox Live avatars. In the Challenge mode, the goal is to see how far you can get without using a continue. Time Trial is a race to get to the top of the screen as fast as you can. Although these modes offer different objectives, the gameplay doesn't really change because the time limit is always a factor.
Towering Adventure has received the obligatory presentation overhaul of any updated classic that is released on Xbox Live Arcade. The soundtrack is appropriately bubbly and inoffensive but consequently largely forgettable. Nevertheless, the highlights of the game's audio are the sound effects. Every action you take yields the same rewarding bleeps and bloops as the classic platformer, evoking a satisfying nostalgic grin with each shooting rainbow, busted enemy, or collected gem. Stages and enemies are colorful and saccharine sweet, but the generic design of your character is disappointing. It's curious that Xbox Live avatars are only supported outside of the main story mode because they go a surprisingly long way toward improving the game's already charming style.
Rainbow Islands is at its best when it's played on the same couch with a friend who appreciates its nostalgic value. Towering Adventure does little to attract new audiences, but small tweaks like the improved time mechanic and continuous level progression should please those of you with fond memories of the original game. In that sense, this is the closest Taito has come to reproducing the classic Rainbow Islands experience. It's just a shame it couldn't bring the game up to current standards with proper online support and more variety in the game modes.