Review: Bubbles more fun to Pop on WiiWare

pop1.jpgWhat makes a great Wii game?

As Nintendo’s motion-controlled monster continues to storm the market, the question remains without a consensus, and developers have struggled in their search for an answer. Several third-parties have attempted to emulate the spirit of games such as Wii Sports, but most seem to be missing the point.

The “Wii spirit” that makes the system’s best titles so extraordinary seems an elusive capture. And while WiiWare’s Pop doesn’t quite reach that level, it embodies the system’s unique qualities and does a surprisingly admirable job of “getting” what Wii is all about.

Created by Australia-based developer Nnooo, Pop embraces simplicity, but maintains an ardent sense of style. The premise couldn’t be any simpler; bubbles gently float across the screen, and players must “pop” as many as possible before time expires. Popping bubbles awards players points and additional time; big bubbles are worth more time than points, and small bubbles are worth more points than time. It is a simple concept, but in practice, there is more to this game than a description of its premise might indicate.

Players control an on-screen cursor with the Wii remote. Using the console’s silky smooth IR functionality, players merely point at the screen to move their cursor over a bubble and press either A or B on the remote to pop it. Casual players may stop there, but acclimated gamers will be pleased to know Pop goes a little deeper.

Bubbles float across the screen in “waves,” which essentially serve as levels. Each wave consists of new bubbles of different color schemes; while one wave may give players a series of blue, green and aqua bubbles, the next will shift the direction of the bubbles and change the colors to red, orange and yellow. These colors are important and make up a fundamental aspect of Pop’s deeper gameplay mechanics. By consecutively popping bubbles of the same color, players can build massive combos and build multiplier chains to boost their scores.

pop2.jpgPlayers can also grab bubbles by holding down their button of choice, either A or B, and shaking the Wii remote up and down. This inflates a held-bubble to massive proportions, at which point releasing the button will cause it to explode, popping any like-colored bubbles in its wake. Players can also move a held-bubble to any part of the screen, allowing for strategic placement and even bigger combo explosions. This is an important mechanic in Pop, particularly when there are so many bubbles on the screen that popping any substantial amount of like-colored bubbles can be difficult. Stringing these combos together in Pop can be surprisingly addictive, providing a thrill not dissimilar from Wii’s own Geometry Wars: Galaxies.

To master Pop, players will need a quick and accurate aiming hand. Because the bubble waves have depth, some will float behind others, often obstructing clear shots. A player on a blue-bubble combo may find a blue bubble has floated almost entirely behind a green one, save for a small part of the bubble’s left side, leaving a miniscule target. These situations happen by the second in Pop and call for a very precise shot, not to mention speed; combos dissipate if a player takes too long between shots. Pop demands both accuracy and swiftness from any player hoping to reach the high scorer’s table.

Speaking of which, Pop offers several awesome online features. The game utilizes the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection to give players access to worldwide online leader boards similar to those in Trauma Center: New Blood and the aforementioned Geometry Wars. Pop also uses Nintendo’s WiiConnect24 service to send selected Wii friends, who need not own Pop, message board posts boasting of your progress. After a dominate high score performance, for example, a friend’s Wii will glow blue with a message about your new Pop high score. This is a terrific feature for fellow Pop fiends hoping to maintain competition over long distances, not to mention brag about outstanding scores.

pop3.jpgThrow in an accomplishment system similar to those used in countless Xbox 360 games, add the several distinctive power-up and penalty bubbles, not to mention the list of single and multiplayer modes, and Pop becomes a surprisingly robust package. It may be built around a very simple mechanic, but given its modest price of 700 Wii points, Pop actually offers a solid value.

To judge the “graphics” of Pop is difficult and perhaps pointless; the game is composed of transparent bubbles on static backgrounds, a vibe not unlike Nintendo’s eclectic DS title Electroplankton. But Pop is extremely colorful and aesthetically pleasing. It may not be beautiful in the PS3 sense of the term, but Pop’s sleek style transcends graphical nitpicking. Wii games do not necessarily need to out-tech their next-gen counterparts to look beautiful; they just need a little polish and some style. Pop offers both in colorful, alluring spades.

Hardcore gamers may scoff at the simplicity of a game like Pop, but in reality, this game almost has an arcade-like feel that should appeal to the score-maxing gamers among us. Its simple controls and concept make Pop a natural fit for casual gamers looking to unwind and children looking to have some mindless fun, but “easy-to-play” and “difficult-to-master” are not mutually exclusive gameplay traits.

Pop may initially seem a mind-numbing tour through the casual gaming doldrums, and granted, after hours of repetitive bubble popping, things are bound to get boring. But Nnooo has created a WiiWare title with the features and polish that, at the very least, put some Wii games costing seven times as much to shame. And in contrast to lengthy single-player adventures and other more complex offerings, it is actually refreshing to load Pop and enjoy the simplicity of some well-executed pick-up-and-play gaming on Wii.

Magnetic visuals, addictive gameplay and much-appreciated online Wii features that many $49.99 retail games are skimping on earn WiiWare’s Pop three surprising stars out of four.