Bust-A-Move 4 is an action-packed Japanese puzzle game that requires quick thinking and a lot of coordination as you work to combine groups of colored bubbles to rack up points and move on to the next level in a dizzying array of colorful, challenging stages. It's a simple-looking game, but its graphics and gameplay are actually very engaging, just as its play mechanics have turned out to be quite original.
You can tell Bust-A-Move 4 was originally a video game. The pixelated menu text, the primary colors, the conspicuous lack of mouse support, and the hand-drawn animation all lend the game a sense of early-'90s arcade antiquity. That's understandable, considering Bust-A-Move 4 is a straight port of the Japanese arcade game Puzzle Bobble 4. But once you get past the initial shock that you're essentially playing an emulated arcade game on your PC, you'll find that Bust-A-Move 4 actually looks quite charming. The game's cute, colorful characters have the same sort of appeal that makes Pokémon so popular, while their little bubble-firing catapult machines look like something out of a Da Vinci sketchbook. And the bubbles themselves are all brightly colored and they even vary in style on different levels.
Bust-A-Move 4 looks clean, simple, and attractive, but strangely enough the game actually suffers from slowdown from time to time, even on computers much faster than its low system requirement. The problem goes away if you play in low-resolution mode, which makes the bubbles lose a lot of their geometric appeal as they're reduced from spheres to pixelated blobs. The resolution switch only seems to affect the look of the bubbles, as everything else about the game, including its very silly animated story-mode sequences, defaults to a low resolution that won't leave you with much of a first impression. The game's decidedly bubbly soundtrack might also rub you the wrong way at first, but just like all the wacky character speech (most of which is in Japanese), it'll probably grow on you soon enough.
That's partly because the game itself is a lot of fun to play. It's not very different from previous Bust-A-Move games if you've ever played them; your goal in the single-player mode is still to clear a screen of colored bubbles by matching colors in groups of three bubbles or more, which causes the group to pop. All the bubbles you're trying to get rid of gradually shift down, which forces you to act quickly, because if the bubbles reach the bottom of the screen, you lose. Bust-A-Move is best described as a combination of billiards and Tetris; you'll need a good eye and mathematical precision to bank a bubble off the wall and around to the other side. The game has adjustable difficulty settings and lots of different levels and styles, most of which are enjoyable and addicting and can keep you entertained both during quick breaks and long stretches of time.
The game stays interesting because there's actually a lot of variety in the levels. Some have precise solutions, while others have bubbles suspended by balanced pulleys whose two sides shift up and down depending on whether you add weight by tacking bubbles on or lose weight by popping them, which requires you to be especially cautious. There are also certain special types of bubbles throughout the game that complicate things because they can't be popped by conventional color-coded means.
Bust-A-Move 4 also features a competitive mode that pits you against the computer or a human opponent in a pitched battle. Unfortunately, the versus mode fizzles out a lot faster than the single-player game. In the versus mode, each time you pop more than a few bubbles at once, you also dump a bunch of bubbles on the opponent's side of the screen. In fact, you can only win the competitive mode by making your opponent lose. But between the constant nuisance of stacks of bubbles piling onto your screen from out of nowhere, and the versus mode's chain reaction system that makes color-coded sets of adjacent bubbles all burst on your side and pile up on the other side, the versus mode actually seems too hectic. Chain reactions happen by accident all the time, yet if you actually try to make one happen intentionally, chances are your opponent will mess up your delicate pattern somewhere along the way. The versus mode almost succeeds, but unfortunately it's too easy to get lucky and a lot more difficult to play with the sort of precision and planning the single-player game demands.
Nevertheless, the versus mode still makes for some fast-paced fun if only in small doses, as the balance of power has an exciting tendency to keep shifting between both players. You can both play on a single computer, or you can hook up over a network or a TCP/IP connection. Bust-A-Move 4 even includes a level editor, though the developers must have thought of most everything in the many hundreds of levels in the game. You don't need the CD-ROM to play, which makes the game perfect for laptops. And between its low price and its low system requirements, Bust-A-Move 4 turns out to be an ideal diversion for the puzzle-game fan looking for a little or a lot more action than most other puzzle games provide.