“We don’t need to have just one favorite. We keep adding favorites. Our favorite book is always the book that speaks most directly to us at a particular stage in our lives. And our lives change. We have other favorites that give us what we most need at that particular time. But we never lose the old favorites. They’re always with us.”
My single mother didn’t always know what to do with her two boys, especially during the hottest days of the never ending Hawaiian summertime. Because of the downright awful nature of education in that state in the 90’s, we were periodically homeschooled, charter schooled, private schooled, online schooled, self-taught, and public schooled, and we often sought the air conditioned respite of the glittering local arcades for shelter from the sweltering heat. Don’t worry, I turned out pretty smart in the end. Although, in retrospect, I almost could wish I’d spent more time at the beach rather than at the arcade…
One of the neon sanctuaries we (my younger brother and I) frequented was Fun Factory, a gilded place of Edison lightbulbs, circus sideshow lettering, the smell of buttered popcorn, and tons and tons of arcade cabinets. I can attest to the veracity of its tagline.
It’s where I first noticed girls. It’s where I was caught by a truant officer. It’s where I got kicked out for spending hours looking for loose coins under the machines. It’s where I got a Halloween-themed soundtrack with tickets I’d saved up only to discover the whole CD was just a bunch of atmospheric noises. It’s where I graduated from Chuck E. Cheese pizza to competitive bouts in Marvel vs. Capcom, Tekken, Primal Rage, and Samurai Showdown, where I honed my shooting skills with House of the Dead and Time Crisis, where I must’ve spent enough money over the years to fund someone’s college tuition
Fun Factory was notable because it was on the second floor above a comic shop and a McDonald’s, a paradise for children and teens. It was also the only arcade in the world where I’ve ever been able to play one of my favorite arcade games of all time: an obscure little title named Tumblepop.
Data East’s two-player platformer was a quirky, cartoonish game about twin ghostbusters traveling the world to suck up monsters. Ghostbusters was a movie I really liked as a kid, followed by the animated series, so I think that basically attracted me to Tumblepop. Maybe I even thought it was an adaptation of the movie. Hey, look, I used to run around my grandma’s backyard shooting the hose into the air pretending I was trapping ghosts. I also used to think it was hilarious to say “This game sucks” because the heroes were armed with vacuum cleaners. Obviously, I was a young Jim Gaffigan.
The game was also developed by Nintendo (according to the almighty wiki), a company I’d already grown fond of at home with an NES and SNES, so maybe that kind of trademark innocence was what drew me to this particular cabinet as well, out of all the vicious fighters and bloody shooters. I played a lot of Bubble Bobble before this and Tumblepop seemed like a natural transition from 8bit to 16. I remember thinking it was so cool, like an anime, and I played it all the time, at every visit if I could, until the day they finally rotated it out. I wish I knew what’d happened to that cabinet. I wish I’d carved my initials in it or something.
A modified port is available on the Game Boy and they later re-released that version of Tumblepop on the 3DS Virtual Console. It’s just not the same, though. Can any arcade port ever be as good as the original?
The arcade version has the ghostbusting twins criss-crossing a map of Earth with each of the game’s areas playable in any order (except for the last two). After completing an area, the brothers move on to the next. There’s Moscow in Russia, Mt. Fuji in Japan, the Giza Plains in Egypt, NYC in the US of A, the Arch in Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Antarctica, the outback in Australia, and outer space.
A boss awaits after finishing a series of stages in each region, themed after the enemies or setting. In Moscow, there’s a bunch of clowns and invisible men mucking about, so the boss there is a huge clown throwing bombs tied to balloons. Horrifying.
There’s actually a lot of cultural references in this game too, like greys, daruma and kappas, a djinn and the kraken. You can spot a few characters from other Data East games like Joe and Mac. One of the bosses is the Flatwoods entity, a nod to American urban legend of all things.
The stages themselves are single screens with multiple platforms your character can jump onto or down through. You’re armed with a backpack vacuum cleaner capable of sucking up multiple enemies, power ups, and items worth points. Certain items will upgrade your vacuum’s reach but be warned, you can’t hold the enemies you’ve sucked up indefinitely. Eventually they’ll overload your backpack and break out to murder you, so you have to spit them back out. This is all part of the game though since you can use their tumbling bodies as a projectile to hit more enemies and cause extra items to appear out of thin air.
You do have a time limit, which expires with the appearance of a nasty gargoyle creature that will hunt you down and gut you like a fish, but the levels are pretty quick and easy to get through. Even if there’s a ton of monsters right at the start, you can suck a few of them up and turn them into a huge wrecking ball of death, spit them out and let ‘er rip. A few stages include a spawning point which will steadily create more monsters until it too is destroyed.
You might’ve noticed the word TUMBLEPOP at the bottom of the screen. No, this isn’t there just to remind you what game you’re playing. You can collect each letter separately as an item and once you collect the whole word then you’ll be transported to a bonus stage with tons of diamonds and an extra life.
I remember Tumblepop as loud, obnoxious, sugary, and addicting. It’s plethora of short stages in multiple areas invited a lot of coin-eating replay value. This is a game I’ve not heard anyone else talk about, ever. Heck, I had to really dig to find the name of it again, as I’d forgotten about it until a retro-gaming epiphany struck me. Have you heard of Tumblepop or does it exist only in the fantasy of my own nostalgia? Has anyone else out there ever actually played this game?
The 8-bit Review
My eyes!!!!! Just kidding. My ocular orbs are fine. But seriously, the graphics in Tumblepop are brighter than a politician blushing after being caught in a lie. The graphics are so candy-colored with those psychedelic, rainbow-blasting vacuum cleaners, I used to lick the screen in the arcade because I thought the snozzberries might actually taste like snozzberries. As it turns out, it just tasted like salty sweat and bacterial infections.
I love the 16-bit era so much. Heck, I love it so much I tried to push for a “16-bit Review” instead of an 8-bit one until I realized the lunacy of trying to grade 16 elements in every single game review. What I love about the 16-bit era is the definition of the sprites by those lovely, black outlines. The bosses in Tumblepop especially look great and I liked the anime appearance of the twin busters in the intermissions.
The music in Tumblepop is some kind of smarmy gameshow mumbo-jumbo. It’s inarticulate beeping and booping, with a heavy synth bass in the background and tinkling chimes. At times it sounds like the echoes of some distant carnival calling to you to have fun. But that’s only until it dawns on you that, one: carnivals are creepy now that it’s 2017 and two: the game uses the same basic melody over and over again in each region, just mixed up a little differently each time. Think of a catchy ringtone jangle but in America it’s got a marching band riff, in Brazil it’s got jungle drums, in France it’s a 3/4 waltz, and so on. It’s fun but there’s such a thing as too much.
The gameplay of Tumblepop is pretty great. Stacking power ups makes you feel OP, that is until some lucky humanoid kills you in one hit. You can’t get hit at all or you’ll lose your life and all your upgrades. Each stage can b beaten in less than a minute so ultimately the game feels like a big collection of short mini-games which change scenery now and again.
Arcade games excelled in accessibility. They were capable of teaching you how to play with a single tutorial screen at start up. Two buttons and an 8-way joystick meant things would never get too esoteric. That’s why you always saw a mix of ages in the arcades, adults and teens and young children. Remember those cabinets that had the built in manuals under the plastic frame right above the joysticks, like the ones which showed you how to execute special moves if it was a tournament fighter?
With a little practice, Tumblepop wasn’t all that hard. I remembered it being harder than it was, so I guess this is one instance where my adultish skills and reflexes actually improved over my adolescent ones. Once your character is fully upgrades, you’re unstoppable if you play smart and act fast. Bosses can be troublesome now and then but that’s what extra lives are for.
Once you beat Tumblepop, there’s really no reason to come back to it again. Only that’s what I did. I found the gameplay very addicting. I guess that’s how arcade games are supposed to be. It’s not so much that I cared about beating my old score. It’s not that I wanted to speedrun it or anything like that. I just liked to play it.
It sounds like the player character says the word “unique” every time you finish a stage but this is turns out to just be propaganda. Tumblepop closely resembles many games from this time and it turns out to be an arcade clone. See Snow Bros. Nick & Tom. Tumblepop even had clones modeled after it, such as Diet Go Go and Joe & Mac Returns. Data East knew not to stray too far from a working formula.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Tumblepop is one of my favorite relics out of the arcade past. Is it too late to ask for a Data East arcade collection… maybe for the Nintendo Switch? I’d buy that for a dollar.
Aggregated Score: 6.1