Genre: Single-Screen Platformer
Publisher: Taito / Working Designs
Version reviewed: PC Engine
Recommended version: PC Engine
If you like this game: Mario Bros. (ARC), Bubble Bobble (SMS), Rainbow Islands (PCE)
During one of my recent visits to a video game shop (one of the few remaining that still sell retro products), I overheard one of the greasy teenagers behind the counter lamenting that he "didn't even know that Bubble Bobble had a story". This saddened me because it means that he's probably never heard of Bubby, or by extension played this amazing game or its predecessor, Rainbow Islands. The story, truth be told, is barely anything (the bubble dragons were returned to their human forms at the end
of Bubble Bobble, and now they found magical parasols that they can use to fly around and come to people's aid), but that's beside the point.
What we have here is easily one of the best games ever produced for the PC Engine. It takes the genre started by Mario Bros. and takes it to its absolute zenith - it's actually hard to imagine any significant improvements that could come after this.
The graphics in Parasol Stars are up there with the best the system has to offer, with scaling, parallax scrolling, and detailed-yet-cartoony visuals in both the foreground and background. Stunned enemies will turn blue and rotate in place, then eventually turn and stay red and move around at an increased pace if you leave them. Defeated enemies will temporarily turn grey until they hit the ground and turn into collectable fruits or snacks. There are also water droplets (which sometimes have symbols inside them to depict any elemental property they might have), and while the screen may become crowded with sprites at times, there is never any flicker and you can always tell where both good and bad things are with little issue.
It is, in fact, the wealth of items that gives us the core fun of this game. Items are inherently randomised every time you start the game, leading to sky-high replay value as the game is never the same twice. Like with all good games, there are of course some hidden tricks such as the rows of items that can be revealed by picking up an enemy with the titular parasol and tossing it in a certain place within the stage, which will eventually relinquish extra credits if you keep throwing droplets or enemies through them. These rows and enemy placement will always remain the same, but the exact items that are revealed via this process and other, floating items that sporadically appear will be different each time you play. There are also "Miracle" tiles that surface in some stages, sometimes with varying elemental values - you'll have to master the game to figure out how to manipulate these - that instantly remove all enemies and grant you an extra life for every third one you grab. The player is expected to collect all of them to gain access to the final stages and unlock the "true" ending of the game.
The music, once you hear it, will probably stick in your head and never go away for the rest of your life. Admittedly, just one piece plays for almost the entire game, only letting up for bosses, secret rooms and the "entering a new world" sequence, so it will eventually drive you crazy but until then, it's fantastic (unless you're scared of clowns, in which case it might be a tad too circus-like for your taste). When you reach world 8, the tune will change to a completely different - albeit still catchy - one to show that things are getting serious. The extra, hidden worlds also have their own great music, which you may or may not recognise from another game. Even the name entry screen is a pleasure to listen to.
Multiplayer mode is, unfortunately, a bit of a chore. The lightning and fire droplets will freeze anyone that comes into contact with them in place for a few seconds, which can become annoying during boss battles where you become afraid of attacking the boss in case you end up making the other player unable to move and unwittingly aid in their slaughter. You can also lift each other onto your parasols and throw each other into items, walls (which will stun) or even enemies (which will kill). It sounds like good-spirited tussling and ribbing on paper, but believe me when I say that, since there is no way to completely co-operate without this interference, it ultimately adds up to nothing but inevitable frustration. Parasol Stars is challenging enough as it is, without what is essentially an extra adversary there to accidentally toss you around and get you killed.
Parasol Stars, therefore, is not only the best game in its genre, but also the best game on its relevant console and maybe, perhaps one of the best games ever made.
Longevity/Replay Value: 10/10