This is another one from one half of the Guy Gardner Colon Warrior team, Jerod Mackert.
Sometimes games invoke fear in ways you wouldn’t expect. Oddly enough, the first time I encountered unexpected terror in a game was playing Taito’s timeless classic Bubble Bobble as a child. I’ll be honest here; Bubble Bobble is not a scary game (though, if you think about it, a game about two children turned into lizards and forced to travel into the center of the earth to fight a drunken elder god is about as frightening a concept as anything else out there). Bubble Bobble‘s aesthetic is completely cheery and optimistic, which is probably why my sister and I have been playing it since I was eight. But there is a dark side to the cave of monsters in the form of one of gaming’s most terrifying enemies: Baron von Blubba.
For the uninitiated, there is a certain amount of time that the game gives you on each stage to complete it, possibly because it was originally an arcade game, and more time spent dawdling on a stage equaled fewer quarters being pumped into the machine. The time given varies from stage to stage; often, you’re given plenty of time, while other stages revolve around the fact that you need to finish it quickly. Once a certain amount of time passes, a “Hurry Up!!” message flashes on the screen and the music and enemies speed up in an attempt to psyche you out. As a child, this seemed especially unfair, since you were clearly having a hard enough time with the level, and faster enemies were not helping matters. What was already a challenge quickly became a stressful experience. However, the worst was yet to come. Once even more time has passed, an ominous tune plays, and Baron von Blubba, an unkillable whale skeleton, appears to make life even more miserable for you. He can pass through walls, typically gets right in the way that you need to go to beat the stage, and if you’re playing with a friend, one comes for each of you, making them even harder to avoid. The only way to make him go away is by beating the stage or dying, and with enemies moving faster than usual and an undead menace chasing you around the screen, it was often the latter.
The stage that most exemplifies how frustrating this mechanic was to me was Stage 57. This stage required you to hop on your own bubbles to reach the top while avoiding fire from above. Beating it requires a combination of skill as well as a little luck (at least for a player of my skill level), since the beams that are firing down at you are sometimes unavoidable if you’re trying to hug the wall to jump on bubbles. Once the “Hurry Up!!” message appears, and the enemies speed up and start firing at you at a faster rate, death is almost unavoidable, but there’s still a chance. Once Baron von Blubba shows up, however, you are pretty much doomed unless you’ve made it to the top already and can avoid him. At that point, it’s actually easier to just accept your fate and let him kill you, which is a pretty bleak message for a kid to take away from an otherwise happy game. As a kid, Baron von Blubba was just a little too much to handle, and was probably the first time I actually had to deal with anxiety in a videogame. I had dealt with plenty of scary moments in games up to that point (the original Castlevania was one of the first games I ever owned), but there was something about that whale’s cold, lifeless eyes as the game yelled at you to hurry up while reducing the chances of success that really put me over the edge. To this day, I still feel the wave of panic come over me when those five awful notes play and Baron von Blubba appears to settle the score.
- Released: 1986
- System: Seriously literally almost anything that can play a videogame at this point
- Developer/Publisher: Taito