The Bust-A-Move puzzle series, which first started hitting game systems almost a decade ago, has made its way, often several times over, to almost every console since. Now, after what seems like an eternity, the series has finally arrived on the Xbox in the form of Ultra Bust-A-Move, a budget-priced, Xbox Live-enabled version of the game. Despite Taito's diligence in providing Bust-A-Move games on every system, it's never really strayed from the formula. Additions of new gameplay elements, such as chain reactions, have changed the puzzle series' gameplay slightly, but not enough to make owning more than one Bust-A-Move game worthwhile for anyone but the biggest fans of the series. But Ultra Bust-A-Move's Xbox Live support is the most significant addition yet, making this budget title appealing despite its otherwise all-too-familiar gameplay.
The premise of Ultra Bust-A-Move is simple. Each level begins with a collection of different-colored bubbles on the screen. From the bottom, you can shoot new colored bubbles into the picture, either directly or by bouncing them off the adjacent walls. Connect three bubbles of the same color and they'll disappear, dropping anything that may be supported by them. As you shoot bubbles, the grid shifts down slowly, so you must work quickly to ensure that you clear the screen before the bubbles fill it up. To aid and hinder you are different bubble varieties, such as the rainbow bubble, which doesn't adopt a color until an adjacent bubble disappears, and the bomb bubble, which removes all the bubbles in its immediate vicinity.
A solo player can opt to play the classic game, or one of the three challenge modes, which are variations on the original theme. The seesaw challenge demands the same screen-clearing objective, but under the pretense that the entire field is a seesaw. As you shoot bubbles to one side or another, the weight will pull the whole field in that direction. Add or eliminate too much weight on one side, and the whole thing will topple. Shot game is another challenge, giving you a board with at least one possible shot that will clear the whole thing. It's your job to figure out that move and execute it perfectly, or risk starting over from the beginning. Blind is the third challenge option, presenting you with a screen full of question-mark bubbles that reveal what color they are only after coming in contact with a bubble you've shot at them. This requires you to first shoot bubbles at random to reveal the hidden colors, and then proceed to clear the screen as you would normally. Of all the challenge modes, shot game is the most interesting, particularly because it requires the sort of eagle-eyed precision that you might master at a pool table.
Multiplayer against an AI-controlled opponent or another player has multiple game modes as well: versus, count, and color game. Versus mode is the classic gameplay with a competitive twist--dropped bubbles will start a chain reaction, coming back up into your screen and linking up with two more bubbles of the same color. Also, anything that you clear will be sent over to your opponent's screen, so speed matters much more than in single-player. In a count game, players take turns on one board, trying to get rid of more bubbles than the opponent, which invariably depends much more on luck of the draw than on skill. The color mode operates similarly, except that points are acquired only when clearing a row of a certain color, and it stays your turn as long as you can make bubbles disappear with each move. Color game is particularly fun, despite being also based somewhat on luck, because the ability to see the next color on deck gives you some freedom to sabotage your opponent.
The Xbox Live component of the game facilitates playing in the versus mode online against one opponent. This is a wonderful addition, because of all the modes, versus has always been the most compelling, but it's also about as bare-bones as an online mode can get. With Xbox Live you'll almost always be able to find an opponent. The serious downside to the Xbox Live feature is that there is no punishment for people who quit the game. Points are allotted only to the winner, and are even adjusted to account for level differences, but players can quit at any time, with no punishment to themselves and no reward to you. Safeguarding against this is an increasing necessity for online games--unfair tactics, like quitting out of a game, should be punished. This makes Bust-A-Move fun to play only against people you know, which in some respects defeats the purpose of putting it on Xbox Live in the first place.
One thing that has changed in recent years are the game's characters, which went from Bub and Bob, the dinosaurs from the Bubble Bobble series, to generic little humanoids who resemble the Powerpuff Girls. Character choice is mostly aesthetic (each character does have a unique set of colored bubbles to send over to the opponent in versus mode), but the new characters are cutesy, rounded creatures who lack the charisma of Bub and Bob. In fact, the whole game seems to be a lot more colorful, to the point of being a little over-the-top. The backgrounds are sometimes distracting, when they really should be more sedated. The game is also in 3D, which is difficult to notice on the bubbles, but makes the little avatars' movements more noticeable, for better or worse. They also react vocally to everything that is going on, wailing and squealing dramatically, which, depending on the character, ranges from the hardly noticeable to the very annoying. Similarly, the music is only slightly irritating, which means you probably won't notice it until you realize you're humming the video game equivalent of a circus theme.
Ultra Bust-A-Move is worth picking up if you're a big fan of the series and want to play it competitively online, but it's not unique enough to recommend without factoring in the Xbox Live compatibility. If you've played a Bust-A-Move game before, you probably know exactly what to expect from Ultra Bust-A-Move. Throughout the years, the Bust-A-Move series has remained a pillar of consistency, and this game does not forsake tradition.