Review: Captain Bubblenaut

Maybe it's the over-saturated state of the App Store. Maybe it's the diminished novelty of touch-based gameplay six years after the original iPhone launched. Or maybe it's just me. But whatever the reason is, I've struggled for the last year to find any games on my iPhone with something original to say (although Super Hexagon and Year Walk are wonderful exceptions).

That's why Captain Bubblenaut was such a welcome surprise. Thanks to a clear, unwavering focus on a fresh play mechanic and a charming combination of blocky art and retro sound effects, Bubblenaut proves there's still plenty of creativity and fun in mobile gaming.

Here's Captain Bubblenaut's instruction manual — feel free to take notes
Here's Captain Bubblenaut's instruction manual — feel free to take notes

It's clear that Captain Bubblenaut was designed in service of a single, fun mechanic, and anything that could've detracted from that was either scrapped in development or kept out of the conversation altogether. At first glance, Captain Bubblenaut may resemble one-button momentum-based games like Andreas Illiger's Tiny Wings, but there's a key difference: you don't have direct control over Bubblenaut. Instead, your finger moves the ground itself.

“Swooping” — dragging your finger along the screen to move the terrain laterally — challenges the player to think less about momentum and more about geometry. It also unexpectedly hearkens back to the recursive level design in classic arcade games like Pac-Man and Joust, which gives the game a classic feel. This combination of retro design tailored to the inputs of a modern platform really resonates with me because it successfully channels the fun of coin-operated arcade machines from the pizza places of my youth, but I have to wonder at the confusion millennials might feel the first time they see Bubblenaut careen off one edge of the screen only to reappear at the same height on the opposite side.

Erf's primitive square-shaped denizens are practically begging for a swooping
Erf's primitive square-shaped denizens are practically begging for a swooping

True to its classic roots, the player’s primary motivation in Captain Bubblenaut is to chase down a high score. Each stage of the game features rows of Erflings for Bubblenaut to roll through, and swooping through groups of enemies in a row awards bonus points, which makes mastery of the swooping mechanic critical to earning higher scores. After you've spent a few seconds in one region of Erf, you'll blast off to the next pastiche of cartoon anthropology to obliterate another swath of Erflings — this time with better defensive gear.

Once you're out of lives, the game presents you with your final score and encourages you to invade Erf again. Fortunately, there's no lag time between levels or when you're starting up a new game. They're small details, but when a game depends on enabling a "just one more" player mentality, eliminating or cleverly obfuscating load times is critical.

Your patron: a kinder and less-materialistic alternative to the King of All Cosmos
Your patron: a kinder and less-materialistic alternative to the King of All Cosmos

The game's fun to play on its own, but it really benefits from a cohesive combination of pixelated characters, crunchy retro sounds (by Super Meat Boy'sDanny Baranowsky) and a rich score (from Gone Home'sChris Remo).

Viewed as a whole, Captain Bubblenaut is a charming and surprisingly challenging game that demonstrates the merits of building an experience around a single, effective mechanic.

Recommended for:

  • Its singular emphasis on a fun, natural play mechanic that aptly fits the platform
  • A great sense of unity between visuals, music, sound and play
  • Anyone in search of an original, polished two-minute high-score challenge to play during those random free moments

Captain Bubblenaut was developed by Dean Tate and Owen Macindoe and is available on iOS for $1.99. A copy was provided for review by the developers and was played on the reviewer's iPhone 5. The reviewer currently holds the second-highest score on his Game Center friends list, just behind Jeff Green. Please see our review policy.