Starring the awesomely named Bubbles, this game features sea urchins, black holes, and bizarre controls. But is it a sink… or a swim?
Note: This was originally written for 1 More Castle in June 2015. The original writing has not been updated.
Retro Platforms: Nintendo Entertainment System
Platform Reviewed: Nintendo Entertainment System
Everyone knows that underwater blimps and sea urchins have some of the most hostile relationships known to humanity. Well, the sea urchins are definitely sinister villains, but I’m not exactly sure what kind of a creature the playable protagonist is supposed to be; what I do know though is that the main character’s name is Bubbles, which automatically makes her one of the coolest retro characters ever. Bubbles is a treasure hunter who wants to find golden loot in an underwater mystery maze, but it’s never really made clear whether the urchins are hunting her down out of evilness, or out of her secretly being a thief. Either way, Clu Clu Land actually avoids many undesired tropes of underwater levels by having an entirely unique manner of control, one that focuses on nonstop forward momentum and pole-based turning. It’s certainly creative, but is the gameplay actually fun?
I’m not really sure what Bubbles is supposed to be: she looks like a blimp (with eyes) while moving around, has emerging crab-like claws when she reaches for a turning post, and looks like a furry blob with mammalian limbs during score additions between levels. Despite the weird inconsistency with her design, I think Bubbles actually looks pretty cool overall, and there are lots of drawn details that give her personality: her legs actively kick around, her eyes are large and elaborate, and there’s a subtle lighting effect that adds visual depth. The simple but cute variety extends to the enemies, which are adorably fuzzy yet aggressive in behavior; their eyes reflect this viciousness too with how they seem to be angled. I also like how the urchins curl inwards while they’re stunned; it’s really innocent and funny, if a bit simple in appearance. Characters are well-animated too, with directions being clear, turning having a satisfying feel, wall-bouncing looking elastic, and visuals processing smoothly.
The gameplay and visual presentation of Clu Clu Land are closely connected, particularly with pictures being gradually revealed as more mystical bars of gold are discovered. On top of being a creative way to mix the two elements, the images are also simple yet fun in appearances: some form symmetrical devices, others reveal cheerful animals, and a few unexciting ones involve unconnected patterns. I also like the small shining effects that gold and items have, although the game’s basic limits become more apparent over time; this is most notable with the stages themselves, as backgrounds lack imagination, often repeat, and never have much of a style apart from interesting pipe-like borders. When a clock item is picked up, the coloring brightens significantly to indicate a freeze effect, but this looks awkward and makes the stage design feel unnatural. Ultimately, the art styles for the stages themselves are lacking, but the contents inside the borders look pleasant enough!
Music in Clu Clu Land definitely lacks in variety, which is even more evident when the in-stage songs never last over 20 seconds without repeating, but what’s there is fairly cheerful and matches the action well enough. Main themes have smaller and more relaxing bass sections combined with really upbeat melodies, both using retro beeps and boops without ever sounding annoying to human ears. The songs are generally calm and not too distracting, helping keep the experience positive while not negatively affecting the gameplay; the main theme also gets more frantic and fast-paced when the timer’s about to run out, but in a way that provides a fun sense of urgency without seeming negative. There are also melodies for things like starting a new game and finishing levels; they get you feeling ready and work as smooth transitions! As for sound effects, they generally match a positive mood and don’t have any irritating qualities, although there aren’t many of them. Gameplay actions have unique sounds, like the satisfying crushing of a stunned enemy into a wall, although some sound effects like collecting fruit are forgettable. The overall audio in Clu Clu Land is basic and repetitive, but it’s generally upbeat.
Rather than moving to an end level flag or staying alive for as long as possible, Clu Clu Land has an admittedly creative objective of revealing hidden gold in order to form a predetermined picture; this merges the game’s visuals closely with the gameplay and encourages you to explore most of your surroundings. What the pictures represent usually become more apparent as you start filling them out, leading to satisfying “Aha!” moments as you strive to complete the rest of a puzzle and excitedly narrow down the remaining areas to explore; this is additionally helped by a useful (and well-placed) countdown that tells you how many hidden bars are left. There are symmetrical drawings too, such as completing one eye of a smiley face heavily implying where the other one is located. The only time the picture mechanic seems less ideally used is when several possible pictures consist of unconnected line patterns instead of realistic images: there’s more trial and error involved, and because there can be numerous components, completing a puzzle feels less rewarding during these particular stages.
But of course, Bubbles can’t just expect to steal a bunch of golden treasures without encountering some kind of opposition, so there are three different enemy types: sentient sea urchins, illogical black holes, and a never-stopping timer. Sea urchins are the most active threat: after spawning from a black hole, they roam around the screen, causing your death by spontaneous explosion if touched. The spiky fiends sometimes home in on you directly, but most of the time, they’ll wander around and inevitably block ideal paths from time to time; a strategic way to avoid them is to first reveal gold bars that can immediately protect you, since the sea urchins refuse to pass through shiny things. Black holes never move, but dashing into them without spinning around an adjacent pole also causes instant death; these things are particularly annoying in design when some gold bars require you to pass over them while turning, and my problem with these situations is that the difficulty mostly comes from awkward controls. Lastly, there’s a time limit which carries across lives: time runs out, explosion and thus lost life. It continues even while respawning, but that’s the only negative aspect; otherwise, it provides fun pressure.
Seeing how many levels you can complete, and going for a high score, are equally encouraged in Clu Clu Land. During the arcade-like gameplay, you earn hundreds of points as you reveal gold bars, collect fruits, find high-valued moneybags, and grab occasional extra life-granting flags; most of these appear as sudden collectibles, leading to short-term risk versus reward scenarios. Additionally, you can continuously fire stunning rays at sea urchins, which temporarily paints them orange and lets you push them into walls; besides the satisfaction of brutally crushing these dreaded fiends, this act also awards points and ensures that new opposition won’t appear for a while. I also like how there’s a visual warning to when the enemies are about to change back, and sometimes you may just want to stun enemies but not take the time to kill them, so there are multiple possible approaches to consider. On the downside, black holes getting in the way seems like an arbitrary limitation, and there’s also a minor yet noticeable bug with not being able to horizontally (vertically works) crush two stunned enemies at the same time. Between stages or after running out of lives, you also receive point bonuses based on remaining time, defeated enemies, and revealed gold bars; it helps that these sections are also pretty relaxing!
The controls in Clu Clu Land are extremely bizarre, and even after playing the game dozens of times, they can still be hard to perfectly adapt to. Bubbles doesn’t simply move in any direction that you point her towards; instead, she’s constantly moving in front of her, and you can only turn by grabbing poles via extending arms from the sides of Bubbles. It seems incredibly unusual, not to mention difficult to get used to. For starters, because of where the arms are located, the grabbing controls vary based on your current movement direction. Second, you have to hold that direction as you’re turning in circles as opposed to freely moving the control pad, and you also have to gauge when it’s safe to let go, which isn’t always clear (especially if you turn around a post while revealed gold bars visually obscure Bubbles’ extended arms). And finally, your speed changes between levels, sometimes getting fast to the point of the challenge not being in figuring out your path, but keeping to it. Are the controls bad? I can’t really say, but they definitely take a while to get used to and are the biggest source of difficulty, especially for the aforementioned black holes that can be a little frustrating to move around. You never really get completely used to them, and I imagine they’ll be divisive to many players. On an unrelated note, you can also choose your starting direction upon respawning; it’s nice to have the option, but it’s not a major feature.
Looking past the like-them-or-hate-them controls, there are other various gizmos tossed into the game in order to add some appreciated (if somewhat limited) variety. Trampolines can appear in the same way as hidden gold bars, usually following a symmetrical or picture-complementing layout. These rubber band-like objects bounce you backwards, but not before you potentially hit an enemy on the other side; there’s also the rare but broken possibility of accidentally moving into a new trampoline that’s immediately across another one, causing you to get stuck for the rest of a life. Speaking of rare, there are also clock items that temporarily pause enemies and the timer, although the visual effects aren’t too pleasant. Occasional bonus stages are also fun, encouraging you to maximize golden loot in a timed level, with every wall containing a bar. One last notable thing is a two-player mode that allows for simultaneous play; players can funnily bounce off each other, and there’s potential for both cooperative and competitive gameplay, with the latter being encouraged via point bonuses to the top performer!
From a presentation standpoint, Clu Clu Land is a mixed bag: characters are lively, revealed pictures complement the gameplay, and scoring mechanics are well-drawn. The music, although short in length and somewhat forgettable, is also cheerful and upbeat, matching the exploration themes that the game is based around. Sadly, the levels themselves lose visual appeal after a short amount of time, and even some details like pipe theming or a few looping screens don’t hide their basic natures. As for the gameplay, the controls don’t leave a positive impression during a first playthrough, but as you get used to them over time, they eventually encourage a different kind of strategy-making that’s fun and active at best, but sometimes clumsy at worst. Uncovering hidden pictures is an exciting task, and with a few exceptions, the enemies are worthy adversaries that help the action be positively frantic in nature. There’s decent variety too, and the fun bonus stages and two-player options are definitely welcome. Despite its perplexing oddities, there’s thankfully more good than bad in Clu Clu Land.