The life of a pirate ain’t easy. One minute ol’ Pete Jr. is sleeping soundly amid piles of booty, and the next he’s awoken to find all his pals are trapped in floating spheres thanks to the work of the dastardly Bubble Pirate. There’s only one thing to do: grab a harpoon gun and get to poppin’. Pirate Pop Plus is a simple arcade-style action game with tight controls and a fully realized 8-bit aesthetic. The only thing holding it back from true greatness is a lack of lasting variety, but it’s tough to argue with $5 for an afternoon of excellent, old-school action.

Pirate Pop Plus is a single-screen action game where you control a dude armed with a harpoon gun, firing chained spikes up at deadly bouncing bubbles. Hit a bubble and it splits, leading to two smaller, faster moving targets. Keep destroying bubbles to progress. Leave a bubble up too long and it will start bouncing closer to the ground, making it ever tougher to take a safe shot. Power-ups occasionally drop from recently-destroyed bubbles, helping to keep the action varied. There’s a 2x power that lets you fire multiple chains at once. A gun fires rapid projectiles that pass right through the bubbles. An anchor will let chains stick in place, destroying any bubble that bumps into them.

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The action is simple, but there’s just enough strategy to keep it engaging. Bubbles can be destroyed by the chain that extends along with your harpoon, making interceptions just as important as straight shots. You have to risk going after score-boosting items versus power-ups, and you have to make sure you’re not grabbing powers that might replace something more useful that you’re already holding. A successful run is partly down to the luck of good power-up drops and partly down to pure skill, making the cycle of “one more try” attempts incredibly satisfying.

Pirate Pop won’t be winning any points for originality as it borrows heavily from a '90s arcade title known as Buster Bros., but given the relative obscurity of its source material that’s not really a problem—especially since this game executes so well on the premise. Where it does build unique mechanics is with its antagonist, the Bubble Pirate, who intermittently shows up to toss new bubbles at you and mess with the forces of gravity. The 2D arena is a perfect square and you’ll be regularly tossed around to each of the four sides, with each switch sending the on-screen bubbles careening in reaction to the new source of gravity. You can’t jump, but when the gravity switches leave you hurtling through the air you can bounce on top of bubbles, leading to big score multipliers if you can chain together enough bounces.

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You can also shoot the Bubble Pirate whenever he appears on-screen, causing him to drop either a power-up or some coins to spend at the in-game store. Here you can unlock new music, new faceplates, and new accessories for the faux-handheld that the game takes place inside. Pirate Pop obviously looks better and runs far more smoothly than a Game Boy title could, but its devotion to four-color graphics and excellent chiptunes means that it’s a far more effect nostalgia trip than most games advertising “pixel art,” and the promise of a transparent handheld is just as enticing now as it was in 1995.

The shop also features a handful of new characters to unlock, each of which has their own strengths and weaknesses across three stats --- at least in theory. In reality the characters are barely distinguishable from each other, aside from those who have more or less health. Differences in speed are barely noticeable in stages so tiny, and even after hours of play I can’t figure out what the third stat signifies. Maybe power-up drop rate? In any case, these additional characters don’t add much variety to the game’s basic action.

And that’s the primary issue with Pirate Pop --- when you get down to it, the game doesn’t offer any variety. All the action takes place in a single screen with a gradually increasing number of bubbles moving at gradually increasing speeds, with the only long term goals being new high scores and new swag at the item shop. You can drop some coins to challenge Hyper Mode, but that’s just a higher risk, higher reward version of the same gameplay. That core action is fun, but it won’t keep you coming back for more than a handful of hours.

This review is based on a digital download of Pirate Pop Plus provided by the publisher for Wii U.