Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more

Rainbow Islands is the second game in the Bubble Bobble series, and precursor to Parasol Stars. The original coin-op release was designed by – the sadly late – Fukio Mitsuji, and developed and published by Taito in 1987.

The Amiga conversion was handled by Graftgold and published by Ocean in 1989 following a protracted wrangle over the publishing rights. Telecomsoft (British Telecom’s software division who published under the Firebird and Rainbird labels) originally licensed the IP from Taito and commissioned Graftgold to port the arcade version. However, as agreed, when the completion date passed and no game emerged, the rights reverted back to Taito’s, who also staked their claim over Graftgold’s work in progress.

The situation was further complicated when Microprose purchased Telecomsoft in 1989 on the basis that Rainbow Islands would be included in the sale.

In the end, neither company went on to publish the home conversions; that mantle was passed to Ocean Software.

Andrew Braybrook took charge of the coding, the graphics were the responsibility of John Cumming, while Jason Page composed the music.

For a dusty old, short-burst coin-op platformer, it’s game-play mechanics are surprisingly deep, and it will take even a gaming virtuoso a considerable while to master. There are secret levels, secret rooms, secret power-ups and even secret secrets to discover. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret. Even if you manage to speed-run your way through the game, you would miss much of its hidden delights, and feel compelled to replay it the right way.

Having rescued their girlfriends from the lascivious clutches of Baron Von Blubba in the first game, and reversed the spell that transmogrified them into dragons, Bub and Bob are now faced with the challenge of freeing the enslaved inhabitants of Rainbow Islands from the clutches of the same old duffer who caused us so much trouble in the first place. Curiously we don’t discover any of these plot details until we reach the end of the game.

It’s a two-player game where you alternatively play as one or the other of the sibling protagonists, relinquishing control of the joystick to your partner after each lost life, though regrettably, unlike in Bubble Bobble there’s no co-operative play mode. For this reason alone many fans of the series prefer the brothers’ first outing.

Your objective is to climb to the pinnacle of each vertically scrolling level before the timer runs down and you are drowned in the rapidly rising sea. This mechanic was proficiently recycled a year later in Psygnosis’s ‘Killing Game Show’, though the ‘hurry up’ element is fairly common in general. Flood and Qwak are two classic examples.

There are seven islands in all to conquer, each delineated by their own distinctive novelty theme and split across four levels that build progressively in difficulty, culminating in an end of world boss. As is often the case with arcade games of this era, these tend to take the form of an inflated version of one of the level’s more diminutive enemies.

To dispatch said baddies you have your trusty rainbow gun at your disposal, which discharges what it says on the tin in numbers and speeds determined by the type and number of power-ups you collect.

Snap up a red potion and you’ll be rewarded with an extra rainbow, up to a maximum of three, whilst yellow potions turbo-charge your rate of fire. The icing on the cake, a pair of wings that will allow you to jump mid-air, and a pair of running spikes that enable you to scoot around the levels like Oscar Pistorius (minus the shotgun) can be collected to complement your prismatic weaponry.

Rainbows aren’t just for gay rights activism (not that this isn’t a commendable pursuit), they serve a number of pragmatic functions here. They can be employed as makeshift platforms allowing you to ascend where there aren’t any, unleash them directly into enemies, or crumble them over their noggins by jumping on top of them.

Either way will kill an ordinary baddie in one shot, though yields a different kind of power-up depending on how you go about it. The former method results in a point-scoring fruit collectable, and the latter a potion, screen-clearing explodey star, or gemstone if you’re lucky.

You are effectively killing for jewellery. Blood Diamonds people!!! This game endorses the slave trade and financing the atrocities committed by dictators in war-torn countries. Boycott it now!

Or not. If you can trap a trio of baddies under your rainbows and collapse them over their heads simultaneously, you’ll earn a massive 4000 points bonus, which is great news because you know what points mean? Prizes! If Bruce Forsyth taught us anything, it’s this.

Where most games allow you to earn a fixed number of points through collection of certain objects, Rainbow Islands has an entire boolean function system mapped out that requires a degree in Pointsology to comprehend. The nuances read like the AND-OR-NOT logic gates section of a physics textbook, and to complicate matters further, they aren’t documented in the manual (which is actually more of a flimsy pamphlet).

Long before the days of strategy wikis, you would have had to decipher the mechanics of this system for yourself, purely through trial and error. An impossible mission for most, a career-defining crusade for a professional gamer! 

Aside from trying to purchase a half-decent house in the UK without cashing in your vital organs, beating Rainbow Islands is the toughest thing you’ll ever attempt. It was initially designed as a quick-play coin guzzler so naturally the game takes every opportunity to kick the stuffing out of you.

One encounter with the rising sea, a projectile or baddie and you’re toast! Lose a life and you’ll lose all your hard-earned power-ups too, leaving you woefully vulnerable. It’s a boot in the teeth while you’re still nursing your kicked shin. Often there’s simply no way back from such a debilitating blow and it’s ‘game over’.

On a positive note, enemies won’t respawn once they’re been culled, there are three checkpoints per level, and should you die mid-boss scrap, you get to have another shot straight away.

You may find that some of the design elements push your deja vu buttons. As a homage to one of Taito’s gaming antecedents, the theme of Doh’s Island is modelled on Arkanoid. Whereas in the arcade version, the gaming winks are ratcheted up several notches; all the hidden levels represent microcosms of titles from their back catalogue. Magical Island is based on ‘The Fairyland Story’, the spiritual precursor to Bubble Bobble, while the impetus for the Darius and Bubble islands obviously requires no explanation. You may also be able to spot a few recycled sprites, and even some (almost) product placement from ‘WcDonalds’.

In fact, Rainbow Islands is laden with clever Easter eggs (laid ’em with eggs?). On Monster Island there’s an adversary that looks remarkably like ‘Thing on a Spring’, a platforming, puzzle game released in 1985 by Gremlin Graphics where the goal is to navigate your way through a factory whilst avoiding the demonic toys.

The eponymous protagonist was in turn based on Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout so take your pick as to the inspiration for the sprite in Rainbow Islands. Who knows, perhaps it was a slinky instead? They pre-date both of the above, what with not requiring electricity.

Is it just me or do the tanks on Combat Island fire tampons as projectiles? Are they representatives of the women’s liberation front by any chance?

The righteous place of Rainbow Islands in gaming history has been acknowledged elsewhere in gaming. In Lemmings, for instance, level 29 is named after the classic hit and the platforms take the shape of our favourite multicoloured weapon.

Rainbow Islands’ graphics are fairly rudimentary. They’re bright, colourful, and well-drawn, though nevertheless, aren’t exactly going to set the world ablaze. That’s fine, they’re proficiently pleasant, and the absurdly addictive game-play more than compensates for any shortcomings in the visuals.

Have I mentioned that everything is sickeningly cute? It’s actually illegal to review Rainbow Islands without making reference to the cutesy factor, so there’s that box ticked. There’s no chance of me being arrested now, which is nice.

It’s not rocket science really. Japanese culture has gravitated towards infantilizing anything and everything for as long as I can remember, and Rainbow Islands emanated from Japan. It’s a game designed to appeal to kids’ penchant for bright, flashy colours and shapes, and to relieve them of their restless, shiny spare change. ‘Attract screens’ are so-called for a reason.

The theme tune, originally composed by Hisayoshi Ogura, is an artistically mutilated rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz. This had us all furiously toe-tapping and head-bopping along with the arcade version and home computer ports, yet was substituted for a less copyright-battle-legal-hell-provoking tune for the console ports.

The Gameboy Colour port stands out in that the original track has been supplanted with that of Bubble Bobble. Similarly, the developers shimmy around the issue by simply muting the music where their Taito Legends compilation is concerned.

I know a song that’ll get on your nerves, get on your nerves, get on your nerves.

I know a song that’ll get on your nerves, get, get, get on your nerves.

Anyone ready for the chorus?

Oddly enough it didn’t bother me. The sound effects offer ample variation, and the darkly foreboding switch of pace during the boss encounters seems to be sufficient in breaking up the repetition of the main theme.

Note the presence of simultaneous music and sound effects… in 1989! How often did that happen this early in the Amiga’s gameography?

This could easily be dismissed as shortcut programming, though in my rose-tinted delirium I’d like to believe the coin-op’s 1-up chimes were ported over to the home platforms specifically to simulate the exhilaration of playing in the arcades. Either way, it’s a neat and very welcome touch of attention to detail. 

The Rainbow series is the schadenfreudey, Nelson Muntz of the gaming world. As with Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands features multiple finales, and which one you are ultimately presented with is determined by how you go about completing the game.

Battle your way through 100 levels in the first game and you’re almost mockingly invited to “come here with your friend”. In other words, go through the whole rigmarole again in two-player mode to see the “true and happy end”. Haw haw!

In the sequel you are obliged to collect all seven gemstones per island, plus the gargantuan one awarded at the apex of the final stage on each island.

Which colour gemstones the bosses and minor assailants leave behind when they peg it depends on which column of the screen they occupy at the time. Picture the screen split into 7 sections going from left to right and in sequential order of colours as dictated by the structure of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet). 

Fail to acquire all 7 of the gemstones by the end of the game, and you’ll be told in no uncertain terms that you’re incompetent and must try again. Won’t someone pleeeeeeaaase think of the poor kiddy’s fragile egos?

The game’s dual epilogues are largely the same from one port to another, except for that of the PC Engine. Following the standard expositional sequence and dialogue of the arcade’s ending, Bob descends smoothly from the sky buoyed by his umbrella to the melodic cadence of a Japanese pop song known as “A boy who crosses the rainbow” by Takako Oota.

He touches down with a smug grin, and arms outstretched like a toddler full of inquisitive wonder, commences a slow-mo stroll in time to the beat, just as the vocal kicks in. He enters a cut-out segment of Mario Land style landscape and saunters through it at the same jaunty pace while the seasons change around him and the Rainbow Islands ‘cast’ take their place in the curtain call. All the while, the credits roll interspersed with depictions of a cutesy, green-haired Manga girl under an assortment of guises and poses, who is probably instantly recognisable if you’re Japanese. I’m not sadly.

The warbling vocals put me in mind of a drunken company night out in a karaoke cocktail bar. The kind adorned with so many fluorescent lights you’ll feel like a dazed bluebottle trapped in the window display of a neon sign store. It’s atrociously bewitching. I have it playing on a loop as I write this and feel myself slipping into a hypnotic trance that I’m not remotely inclined to shake free from.

While I didn’t have the foggiest clue what the lyrics meant the first time I heard them, the whole scene spoke to me. It said, “We’ve come to the end of our epic adventure, and witnessed disturbing things that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. We’ve overcome obstacles as a team and will grow spiritually as a result”.

The scene is wrapped up with Bob looking yearningly at a distant rainbow.

It’s the pixelated, gaming equivalent of all those seminal, cheesy, 80s coming of age movies that rise to an insouciant, uplifting crescendo and fade to black with a preppy pop song by a denim-clad hairband.

Imbibing this ethereal spectacle is tantamount to joining a cult. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Rainbow Islands was well received in Amiga-publication-land generally, yet Amiga Power really, really… really… really liked it. It was pronounced the “greatest Amiga game of all time” two years running in 1991 and 1992, and lingered in the top 10 for the next two years. 

Retro Gamer’s readers were a tad more measured, though extremely impressed nonetheless. They declared it the “30th best game of all time” in October 2004, and that’s quite an accolade because there have been one or two nice ones over the years. Not so many pre-70s mind you. Amiga devs were so lazy back then!

My personal favourite was rock and twig. You poke the rock with the twig, and when it comes to a halt, you poke it again. Classic!

The scores awarded by the English language Amiga magazines at the time of release ranged between 70% and 97%, though the trend was to err towards the upper 80s to mid-90s.

While many critics hailed the Amiga conversion of Rainbow Islands as ‘arcade perfect’, it’s really not if your definition involves the notion of porting it over as accurately as possible.

The three secret islands that are reached in the arcade version by collecting the diamonds in the correct chromatic order are entirely absent. That’s 12 levels missing in action altogether, including the ones that make sense of the series’ running plot.

There are also black borders above and below the playfield, thereby ‘letterboxing’ it, and the game runs at a reduced frame rate of 25 as opposed to the silky smooth 60 of the arcade.

Nevertheless, the Amiga conversion is a solid, manically addictive and exquisitely polished game in its own right, and entirely deserves its legacy as one of the best platformers for the system.

Rainbow Islands was ported to *deep breath* …everything! Mostly the variants are faithfully similar recreations of the arcade game, and on the whole were well received.

Only the ‘extra version’ breaks the trend in that it features the same enemies, bosses and island themes, except they appear in a shuffled order. This was released sparingly into the arcades, and as a selectable option in the Mega Drive release.

As with any ultra-popular arcade game there are bound to be a number of shameless, unlicensed clones. The one that stands out for me is Edd the Duck released by Impulze for the Amiga in 1991. It’s so bad it’s goo… still off-the-scale atrocious. Even so, it’s a worthy curio, mainly because it’s Edd the Duck of broom cupboard fame!

Amiga Power rated it 35% and denounced it as, “one of the most primitive attempts at a platform game we’ve seen”. The Spectrum version was worse still in that it can’t be completed due to a show-stopping bug. To progress to the next level you must collect 20 stars, so given that there are only 19 available in level 7…

Several remakes for modern platforms are also known to exist.

A collection of 29 emulated arcade games including Rainbow Islands known as Taito Legends was released in 2005 for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PC.

The Nintendo DS was treated to its own translation in 2006 by the name of Rainbow Islands Revolution courtesy of developers, Ignition Entertainment. It’s a radical departure from the original in that the protagonist, Bub, is manoeuvred around the screen in a bubble using the stylus. He still fires rainbows, though also by prodding the touch screen with the stylus.

An enhanced 3D remake for the PSP known as Rainbow Islands Evolution was developed by Marvelous Interactive and released in 2007.

Rainbow Islands: Towering Adventure was developed by Taito and released for WiiWare and Xbox Live Arcade in 2009. This variant revolves around time; losing it, boosting it and beating the clock to reach the pinnacle of each vertically scrolling level. Damage and lives take a backseat. 

Rainbow Islands has always been a quintessential Spectrum game to me as that’s the platform on which I first encountered it. When I eventually experienced the Amiga port in 1991 I considered myself to be retro-gaming down memory lane.

Those of you who didn’t own a ZX Speccy at the time will find this tough to swallow, but the version I enjoyed was as addictively absorbing as any other, and this speaks volumes for the quality of the original coin-op when you scrutinise the limitations of this cassette tape-driven lightweight.

Logic dictates that Rainbow Islands should have long since faded into obscurity; its music is exasperatingly repetitive, it lacks the two-player option of its forbear, the protagonist’s weapon is ludicrous, the difficulty curve is exclusionary and seemingly unfair, it’s replete with kooky Japanese Engrish and the visuals were primitive even back in 1989.

Yet somehow its reputation as the exalted gold standard of game-play perfection has endured over the course of nearly three decades! (put your party poppers on ice for next year’s anniversary).

To get to the bottom of this enigma I feel it would be apt to employ a linguistic meme that appears to be ‘trending’ at the moment: to introduce a scenario that on the surface requires at least a paragraph or two of interpretation to unravel, and then swiftly sum it up in a single word.

A few examples might help…

I better not get drunk and dance naked on the tables at the local bar because… YouTube.

Your pet cat won’t feel a thing when it gets mown down by that monster truck because… 9 lives.

Let’s ride this hip zeitgeist like a kaleidoscopic, meteorological phenomenon caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets. Whatever the term for that is. 

So how could this be applied to Rainbow Islands? What about one of the following?

It’s the greatest game of all time because… Taito.


Retro gamers never tire of its alluring, exotic charms because… Japanesy.

Of course, neither of these do it veritable justice, and I’m talking utter drivel. Nevertheless, what I have achieved is to pad out this conclusion so it at least seems like I’ve made the effort to reach one, and ultimately, isn’t that what really counts?

The purpose has been accomplished. The adventure is over. Thank you very much for your playing.

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