Rainbow Islands is a tough act to follow -even if you are from Taito's successful cutesy stable - but Ocean's Parasol Stars conversion is quite easily a contender for 1992's game of the year. Bub and Bob's travels have seen them up against some of the weirdest sprites Taito's fevered minds could provide, with such characters as Baron Von Blubba already familiar to veterans of Rainbow and its predecessor, Bubble Bobble. One of the nicest touches of the series is the continuity of characters, themes and ideas. For instance, the little hooded demons and razor-toothed fish that the bubbling Brontosauri encountered in the first game, returned in the sequel under a variety of disguises - only to reveal their true identity whenever they got killed. And, once again, they make more comebacks than Gary Glitter throughout Parasols sixty-four stages.
In terms of gameplay, Parasol Stars is a heady mixture of ideas from its predecessors. Set across a number of single screens, the basic aim of the one or two-player game is to clear a screen of nasties whilst amassing as many bonuses as possible. Retaining their human form from Rainbow Islands, the game's odd scenario tells of how the freshly-saved inhabitants of the Rainbow Islands expressed their gratitude by giving the dungaree-clad pair a magic umbrella each. However, as news swept the area of an evil being called Chaos Tikahn overrunning other planets in the galaxy, a space wind magically swept the brollies and their passengers towards their new adventure.
Depending on the world -and there's Casino, Machinery, and Music among the eight to battle through -the backdrops and sprites change to reflect the differences. Thus, as you 'brolly' your way through Woodland World, all manner of vengeful vegetation scurries about and the end-of-level Bosses are larger versions of these. The screens follow a basic pattern of symmetrical platform arrangements, upon which Chaos's minions roam. Bub and Bob are then dropped into the bottom corners of the screen, and the aliens kick into life. With the titular
Parasols replacing their past arrangements of deadly rainbows and encapsulating bubbles, you may think that the twins are pretty much unarmed. However, these are magic Parasols and, as such, can be used to scoop up an errant nasty and lob them across the screen at their cohorts - alternatively, the players can also pick up their partner and use them instead! In addition, water, fire and zappy droplets also can be gathered and thrown from the raised Parasol's surface and, when five are collected, their effectiveness doubles - the water droplets, for instance, combine to create a Bubble Bobble-style waterfall to sweep away all in its path.
Control over the two heroes is via the joystick, with the directional controls guiding them as they run and jump, and when used in conjunction with the firebutton, readying the all-important brollies tor action. As can be expected from a console conversion, everything is geared towards simplicity, and programmer Mik West has also tightened a few areas where the PC Engine original came a cropper. Bub and Bob are both extremely responsive, and the sprite detection is generous without being inaccurate. The individual screens vary in size, but the largest span two screen widths, and scroll horizontally to accommodate the action. In addition, these are patrolled by up to fifteen enemy sprites who follow set patterns before homing in for the kill. Normally, with so much moving on-screen, you'd expect it to slow down dramatically, but in Parasol there's absolutely no sign of slowing whatsoever, and even when the screen is literally covered with sprites and bonuses, the frenetic pace is retained.
As the nasties are picked off and thrown around, all the usual goodies you expect of the series start to appear. Fruit, lightning bolts, and assorted gems can be collected for extra points, and extra weapons and speed-up boots enhance the twins' performance. Although the aim of the game is to clear each of the screens, performing specific tasks in a predetermined order will reveal special hidden rooms within which bonuses galore lurk -they're tricky to find, but can also offer short cuts to the later worlds. This is one of the best features of Parasol and, indeed, the Bub and Bob series. The flexibility of the gameplay allows the players to complete the screens either by progressing through the levels or simply to amass as many bonuses and find as many hidden features as possible - and as there's so much to see within the eight worlds, Parasol's lasting appeal is guaranteed.
Quite why Parasol was never made into a coin-op I'll never know, as it is a worthy addition to the Bubble Bobble family. With a predecessor as illustrious as Rainbow Islands. Parasol's gameplay had to be exceptional if it were to succeed. Happily, there's more to it than the first two, with a nice puzzle element complementing the heavily-disguised shoot 'em up action perfectly.
Each backdrop is subtle in the use of colour, with plenty of dulled hues depicting the backdrops, and these are a good contrast to the bright and gaudy sprites. This gives the impression that something evil is amok which is added to by the larger guardians who await your attentions every eight stages. Like the smaller sprites, these are both cute and deadly, and as the bosses leap around the screen they unleash mouthfuls of deadly minions, but, fortunately, special powers can be picked up to make your task easier. Eventually, their energy will be completely weakened and they will erupt into a blaze of goodies which must be collected before the screen whites out to the next world.
The Bub and Bob series went from good to excellent in the transition between Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands, and this third instalment keeps up the tradition. It's by no means better than Rainbow, and somehow doesn't come across as polished, but it's still one of the best games I've played on the Amiga. Graphically, it fits in perfectly with the others but the area where Parasol succeeds the most is in the ever-essential gameplay stakes. The game's gentle learning curve eases the player into its intricacies, and although there's plenty of scope for progress, there's no way this will be beaten in one sitting. In all, one of the best games to appear from Ocean's home-grown studio and a credit to the Mancunian giants. The trouble with the word 'classic' is that it is given out willy-nilly, cheapening its worth. Parasol Stars, however, is truly deserving of the accolade. Sheer brilliance, and no mistaking.
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