Can boring old toys make great new games?
Those whose childhood reaches back into a time before electronic entertainment became as ubiquitous as it is now may remember killing time with the little devices filled with water, with a pump to propel marbles into cavities rings onto poles. But even as nostalgic smartphone interpretation, this is nothing new, but rather has been around at least since 2011, when Zeca Labs' Aqua Ring Toss appeared on the iOS appstore. But most of these electronic toys grow old just as quickly as their analog counterparts and their stubborn physics simulations often make the task infuriating rather than fun.
Not so Bubble Ring Fling. Unlike most of the competition, this is not just some sketchy indie job stitched together in someone's basement, and it shows. It was designed by Kim Donggun and his DevCAT Studio. DevCAT are well-known for the Mabinogi series, but Kim Donggun is actually one of the great veterans of the Korean games industry. His career started in the mid-1990s, when he created obscure PC gems like Astrocounter of Crescents.
The startup screen praises its "DevCAT silverine fluid dynamics technology", presumably the physics engine that was developed for this game. The controls are nothing special in concept; a touch-controlled pump that blows a current through the bowl, pulling loose objects with it, and transmission of the phone's gravity sensors is all there is to it. But DevCAT absolutely nailed the feel, which is realistic enough to evoke the real thing and unrealistic enough to never frustrate. There's even a mechanic to flick apart rings that appear stuck together by tapping on them. Only after abusing the pump rings can get stuck in a corner until the pressure goes down, but then it's entirely the player's own fault. The tilt controls are so good, it's easy to forget there even is a pump until it becomes necessary to meet some particularly tense time limits.
More than a throwback
Bubble Ring Fling's other big strength is its variety of interesting mechanics and puzzles. After the first few stages, which provide a chance to get to grips with the controls, the game starts introducing colored pins, which can only be cleared by rings of the same color and fulfill specific functions. The blue and green ones always cause equally colored obstacles to move around, whereas populating a red pin makes everything that is red disappear.
What sounds simple on paper soon grows surprisingly complex with interlocking mechanisms that have to be solved in the correct order, all while under the pressure of the timer and while fighting physics. Some stages may look like they're just for show, like the chaotic asterisk-shaped structure whose parts elegantly reform into a spiral. At first it seems the only way is to balance the remaining ring through it, but it is actually possible to pinch it in between the walls just right so it gets pushed in the middle when the switch is triggered.
Five different items are also introduced one by one. The Magnet allows to directly drag one ring to anywhere within a short time, whereas the Whirlpool grabs all objects around it. When applied correctly, both items are capable of solving a stage within few seconds. The clock on the other hand prolongs a stage by stopping the timer for a few seconds. The Gold Doubler does just what it says, it simply doubles the gold gained from one round. The Magic Blue Wand finally flips the switch for blue walls without the need to actually placing a ring. It feels the most superfluous of the bunch, as many stages don't even have blue elements. The use of items is limited, but all stages can be cleared without any of them, so using the tools feels more like a form of cheating rather than a necessity to play the game.
DevCAT did a fine job in structuring the early parts of the games as tutorials, with on-screen hints at the start of the respective stage. Bubble Ring Fling takes ample time introducing the various elements, but no stage feels like filler that's just there to explain a mechanic. All the while the basic gameplay is so enjoyable that it never feels like a tutorial.
Another element are basketballs that have to be guided through hoops, often multiple times before they disappear. Basketball stages are usually focused more on dexterity rather than puzzle solving, which also means that they are involved in some of the more frustrating challenges, especially when a lot of balls are involved. But finally getting them right is among the most satisfying parts of the game, especially as all balls and hoops explode into a huge amount of marbles.
These marbles are drained into the pump's hole at the end of every stage and accumulated into gold. But there's nothing to do with it until the next bonus stage, which essentially is just a pachinko machine, the "Lucky Mermaid". It's much better than actual pachinko, though. The same tilt mechanics of the main game are still active here, so there is at least some control over where the marbles land. It's even possible to just launch them one by one and steer each one precisely through the highest multiplier passage, but that would be boring. It would also take hours to get several hundred marbles through this way. It's much more fun to fling them around by the dozen, even if a bunch of them gets eaten by the sharks. Outside of weekly events on sundays, every bonus stage can only be played once though, so it's still not advisable to be all too careless.
So, about that world tour business...
After the bonus stage, the resulting score is run through a multiplier based on the stars obtained in that area and converted into mileage. The English version of the game bears the generic title Bubble Ring Fling but in Korea the game is called Ring Toss World Tour. Accordingly, the whole experience is informed by a travel theme. Every stage represents another location on a stylized, neatly angular world map. All the menues are styled like passports, boarding passes and other travel documents by South Cat Airlines. While playing, a photo from the region is shown in the background, and in major cities even the bowl toy itself has some thematic ornament in black ink printed on its back wall. Passing these notable tourist spots is awarded with fancy stamps in the virtual passport.
Mileage serves as one currency in the game, which is mostly used to buy costumes for the player's personal flight attendant, Nana. Nana is the mascot of the game, and while she has no direct role in the gameplay, she shows up before and after every stage to cheer the player on or to show her disappointment after failure. With each appearance, she wears a different costume (unless the player picked a specific one for her to wear all the time).
Only a tiny part of Nana's wardrobe can be bought directly in the mileage store, though. Trough reaching certain stages, assembling sets of the many collectibles that sometimes appear upon clearing a stage, and various other achievements, she can obtain a whopping 180 different costumes. Some of them are clearly designed for sex appeal - she starts with a belly-free flight attendant uniform - but it's not nearly as shamelessly pandering as the non-clothes so many other free-to-play games use to lure in players. The vast majority falls under "fun stuff to wear" rather than something designed for the sole purpose of pandering and ranges from tidy businesswear to silly cosplay.
Puzzle games are not known for orchestral bombast or thrilling techno music, and Bubble Ring Fling is no exception here. When on the world map, the same musical tune plays throughout, so it's fortunate that it just plods on, inconspicuous and inoffensive. During the stages, the music changes to a kind of "mysterious, childlike wonder" athmosphere that wouldn't seem out of place in a Tim Burton movie or a particularly pretentious commercial. Every cleared pin or hoop is commented upon with pandering exclamations like "Splendid!" or "Excellent!", spoken by a creepy soft voice.
However, the label "World Tour" does oversell the game a bit at this point. So far the journey only goes across Western and Central Europe (with a small detour along the North African Coast) and North America. Shortly after reaching Mexico, the path ends at a traffic cone. The plan was to expand the game further over time, but no new stages have been added in quite a while, so it remains dubious how much is yet to come.
Still, aside from the large empty spaces on the world map, Bubble Ring Fling hardly feels like an unfinished game. The route spans 380 stages, which would have been more than enough for several games in another time and place. Reaching perfect ratings everywhere, finding all the collectibles and unlocking all of Nana's costumes would take quite some time even if it weren't for several artificial bumpers on the way.
Free to (not) pay
Bubble Ring Fling is a free-to-play game. This circumstance necessitates a few elements that are not necessarily in place to maximize enjoyment. Fortunately though, these are comparatively non-intrusive. Most items are bought with gems, and there are only rare opportunities to obtain those or the items directly via a built-in event calendar stamp card. Still, it's not that bad, as buying items with cash is never mandatory to succeed (with the possible exception of the three-star ratings in some of the basketball stages, but those are not needed to carry on with the rest of the game). Plus, Whirlpools and Magnets have been made available for purchase via in-game mileage with a patch.
The parts that do feel forced are those that lock the player out of further progress for a certain time. Attempting any stage consumes one of five hearts. This doesn't pose a problem while clearing one stage after another, because finishing a new stage for the first time also restores a heart. It only becomes an issue when returning to older stations to compete for three-star ratings, as any given stage rarely lasts even a minute, whereas it takes fifteen minutes for a heart to be restored naturally. This can be frustrating when it happens just as the target in a difficult stage feels so close. But paying with gems is not the only alternative to waiting - it's also possible to get a lot of friends to play the game in order to chip hearts to each other.
Worse are the stations that demand a travel permit after roughly every 20 stages, which come with waiting times up to several days. Analogous to the hearts, these can be skipped by shelling out gems or getting "letters of recommendation" from friends. When neither is available, these road blocks also impose a good opportunity to try and get the highest ratings in the earlier stages.
Thanks to the option of social interaction and other distractions in place of money spending, it almost doesn't seem exploitative enough to turn a profit. It is also not the kind of game that puts the player under constant pressure to make progress, unlike many infamous free-to-play games. Buying things without need almost feels like the right thing to do just because the game is so good.
Play it while you can!
The only worry is that passing the travel permit stations forces an online connection. One day, when the game is not officially available anymore, these will become insurmountable walls even to those who already downloaded the game. In its home country, Ring Toss World Tour was promoted by Apple's app store as one of the best games of 2014, but experience shows that only exploitative simulations and RPG grindfests have any serious chance at sustainable success in Korea. Even the most promising games in other genres have proven exceedingly volatile, and the slowing of major expansions (although minor patches are still happening) does not necessarily bode well for Bubble Ring Fling. Hopefully it can hold out longer than most of its peers.
Bubble Ring Fling may well be close to the ideal smartphone game. It is not at all revolutionary in its concept, but inventive and excellent in its numerous variations on a familiar theme. The incorporation of the tilt controls in the puzzles is clever and superbly executed. While it may feel a bit quaint and quiet, these are attributes very few puzzle games can shake, and it's not always something they should attempt. The freemium elements do disturb the flow a little bit, but at a very moderate degree. Saying it's worth the price of admission would be preposterous, as all it offers can be experienced for free. Even burning through all the checkpoints with money wouldn't amount to an unreasonable price for a game of this caliber. It can easily compete with any full price puzzle game found on handheld consoles in terms of content, quality and production value.