Zynga taps an arcade legend to create their arcade debut

Mark Turmell is a man who understands arcade games. As the brains behind Midway classics like Smash TV and NBA Jam, his body of work consumed more than its fair share of quarters during the coin-op glory days. So when social gaming giant Zynga decided it was time to move into the world of arcade-style Facebook games, they knew just who to turn to. Newly recruited by the Big Z, Turmell has taken the lead on Bubble Safari, an up-and-coming bubble-popping experience not unlike Facebook favorites Bubble Witch Saga and Bubble Island – or if you’re an old school arcade veteran, Bust-a-Move.

“I used to love playing that in the arcade,” says Turmell of the passion behind his choice to come on board. “There’s something just magical about matching colors.” Bubble Safari follows the story of a monkey named Bubbles. He and his girlfriend are happily living life in the jungle, when, out of nowhere, they’re poached! Bubbles manages to escape, but his girlfriend isn’t so fortunate. Lucky for her (and unlucky for the poachers), Bubbles used to be part of the space program, and he’s learned a few tricks that might just help bring her back.

As players pop bubbles, they’ll release fruit that gets collected in buckets at the bottom of the screen. The more fruit unleashed the better, as you’ll need to gather a certain amount if you want to advance. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to pop those bubbles and earn that fruit – skill shots, power-ups, and bubbles from friends will all do a fair bit to modify your gameplay – but all of these pale in comparison to experience you’ll find in “on fire” mode.

If your nostalgia bone feels tickled, don’t worry. You’re not going crazy. Fans of Turmell’s classic NBA Jam should no doubt remember the “on fire” mode that would trigger whenever you made three baskets in a row. Instantly, your shooting abilities would ramp up to near-perfect levels, your swagger would be in full swing, and you’d end up with a flaming basketball in your hands. Now, Turmell is bringing a similar experience to the world of bubble-poppers:

“I took that same mechanic, that same mentality of powering up to do a lot of damage in the rack above. There’s a big strategic element in this game where players are looking for those opportunities to catch on fire to do more destruction.” And that’s not the only standout feature, we were told. While developed in Flash like most Facebook releases, Turmell is quick to point out that Bubble Safari isn’t just your run of the mill web-game. Rather, it boasts an impressive 60 frames per second in what he’s calling “the best Flash-based arcade engine that has yet to be created.”

Bubble Safari

Only time will tell if Turmell’s claim is the real deal, but in his voice you can’t help but sense a desire to once-more craft magnetic experiences. To return to a place where he can deliver “the visual effects and the flare that you’d expect in a polished arcade experience.”

Bubble Safari will be launching with 65 stages, but like all Zynga games, there are already plans underway for additional content and ongoing tweaks as time goes on. In fact, Turmell seems particularly delighted to have the opportunity to fine tune the game in response to player feedback. “A lot of the old lessons that I’ve learned, going into the arcades and watching the consumers play and tuning the game immediately for those consumers, for those players, resonates today.”

As someone from the arcade era, I remember feeling like a kid in a candy store, with interactive worlds bared out before me in rows. With all this technology at his hands, however, perhaps it’s Turmell who’s the kid once more. He’s even gone the extra mile to make sure players spend energy very much in the same way they would quarters. One token of energy will get you started, and you’ll be able to continue through stage after stage until you lose. Once you do, you’ll need to pop another “quarter” into the slot. All the while, Turmell will get watch the consumers play. Here, he reflects on what’s changed… and also, what hasn’t.

Bubble Safari

“When I think about arcade games … they’re easy to pick up and play, they’re easy to understand, they’re engaging right away and they’re not too complex,” Turmell says. “That kind of brings me full circle to Zynga … at its core, Zynga is making social, accessible, and free to play games. All of the things that really made the arcade business fly are coming full circle and are in [social] games today. For me, it’s kind of like coming home.”

Of course, the announcement of Bubble Safari begs a much bigger question: is this merely the start for Zynga and arcade-style games? “I think that there’s a whole category here… as you can imagine, there’s a lot of interest in this space. It’s certainly one of the things that I push for just based on my own background.” And it sounds like Mark might just get his wish. When speaking with a Zynga representative, we were told that they have “a healthy [assortment] of Zynga arcade games in the pipeline.” Could a Zynga Arcade branding, not unlike Zynga Casino, be far behind? It should be interesting to see how this one plays out.

Can’t wait to try Bubble Safari out for yourself? Zynga is hoping to simultaneously launch the game on both Facebook and Zynga.com – a first for the company – sometime tomorrow. Be sure to stay tuned to Gamezebo for our full review!