Gaming's most reviled mascot is still trying
This anthropomorphic bobcat has become the face of bad video games over the years, and not entirely undeservedly so. Bubsy has a number of games under his belt (which is fun because he doesn’t wear pants) and precious few of them approach the word “good,” with the remainder wallowing in different layers of terrible.
Inexplicably, the Accolade brand re-emerged in the video game industry and attempted to launch a Bubsy comeback story. They’ve taken two swings at making the Bubster a money-making property once again, and as far as I can tell both of those attempts have failed. However, I personally feel that Bubsy should get one more swing at bat before he goes away forever. There’s something there, and while the loss of Bubsy as the butt of never-ending bad game jokes wouldn’t exactly be a tragic one, the idea of someone finally pulling off an actually good Bubsy game is an enticing one, and they’ve actually managed to come pretty close in these last two attempts.
To fully understand why I am not a crackpot when I suggest that Bubsy should be anything other than dead and buried in a ditch somewhere, you have to look at Bubsy’s history. That all starts on the Super Nintendo.
Rather than go into the wonderful rabbit hole that is Bubsy’s multimedia promotional campaign surrounding his original release, we’re going to focus on why Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind isn’t actually a bad game. I’m not saying it’s a good game, mind you. But it isn’t flat-out bad.
What could possibly go wrong?
The core concept here is pretty sound, and you can tell when looking at the SNES version of the game that a degree of actual love and care went into making it. Bubsy is very much a game that takes pages out of Sonic the Hedgehog’s playbook. Bubsy as a character is cute but edgy the same way Sonic was back in the Genesis days. He has a T-shirt with an exclamation point on it, so you know he’s extreme, but he’s also cute and furry with a sort of kind face. He spouts quips with real voice overs, which is decidedly un-Sonic, but he moves with the same sort of inertia Sonic does, can reach pretty fast top speeds, has idle animations that show off his impatience for players not playing his game, and can jump on top of enemies to deal damage. He’s well drawn and very expressive, just like Sega’s mascot.
The game’s level design harkens back to Sonic as well. Bubsy is what I’d call an exploratory platformer. Each stage has a beginning on the left and an end on the right, but what's in between is a crazy labyrinth filled with bonuses and yarn balls aplenty to collect. The game really rewards exploration, or at least it wants to when it isn’t getting in its own way. The worlds are filled with weird enemies, bright colors, and an honest to goodness more than decent art direction. I truly believe that if you could just correct a couple of the game’s tragic flaws, it would be a perfectly enjoyable platformer.
But its flaws are HUGE, and they completely ruin the experience for anyone but the most dedicated Bubsy fans who have the time to devote to learning the level layouts and enemy placements.
Your reward is death
Like Sonic, Bubsy encourages you to go fast AND slow at the same time. Unlike Sonic, there’s no real reward for going fast. Sonic rewards speed with flashy tricks like loops and corkscrews to run through. Bubsy rewards speed with death. In fact, Bubsy rewards everything with death. Quick and frequent death. Bubsy is more fragile than Bill from Contra. Not only will one hit from any enemy kill you, but falling too far will too. You can use your glide to save yourself from big drops, but if you manage to forget, you wind up with a puddle of Bubsy. This problem is compounded by the fact that enemies appear out of nowhere, often killing you from off screen. Sonic has the ring system in place, so if you make a mistake, as long as you have one ring left, you can keep taking hits.
Bubsy has no such structure in place. He just dies over and over unless you slowly and carefully plod through every level, taking the time to really examine your surroundings before moving forward, which isn’t as fun as it sounds, (and it doesn’t sound fun at all). This is where the voice overs actually prove to be a problem because the one liners Bubsy spouts at the beginning of each stage are kinda funny the first time, but after hearing them for the 12th time following cheap deaths, you kinda want to strangle him.
All this game really needed (I’m not saying it couldn’t have used more, but really NEEDED) was a life bar. Allow Bubsy to take a couple of hits before he dies, put a few health pickups out in the world, and you have yourself a pretty fun little game. The later levels can get kinda problematic in that they’re super easy to get lost in, but if you didn’t have to keep starting from the previous checkpoint from the frustratingly cheap deaths, it might not be so bad.
So when Bubsy II launched, it introduced a health meter similar to the one in Cool Spot. That should fix things, right? Unfortunately, no. Not by a long shot.
Bubsy II didn’t have the benefit of the character's original creator on its side, and it shows. Bubsy II is a shoddy product from top to bottom. It’s completely unpolished, sounds and looks awful, and controls like garbage. Bubsy II is the game most people who have never played Claws Encountered think Bubsy is. But it’s not. By comparison, Bubsy 1 is a freaking masterpiece.
It got worse, though. A third Bubsy game came out on Atari Jaguar that same year, and it essentially took the worst parts of Bubsy II and combined them with the bad parts of Bubsy 1. Bubsy in Fractured Furry Tales and Bubsy II were clearly made by people who hated Bubsy and were only making the games because Accolade commanded it. You can almost always tell when there’s no passion in a product, and these two games are perfect examples of that.
Then we have the universally reviled Bubsy 3D. Bubsy 3D is fascinating. It’s a fully 3D platformer completely devoid of influence from Super Mario 64. Bubsy’s creator came back to make the sequel on the condition that he could make it a fully 3D game, a feat that nobody had really accomplished in the video game space up to that point. As a 3D platformer, you can really see how hard they tried to make it work, which makes it all that much more sad that it didn’t. No, Bubsy 3D is not a good game. But it wanted to be, which isn’t something you can really say about the previous two Bubsy outings.
When the game’s creators saw Super Mario 64, they knew they were in trouble. Nintendo had perfectly nailed what they had been trying to do, and launching after them was effectively a death sentence. They finished the game for Accolade, but it was too late. Ports to other platforms were cancelled, the game was lambasted by the press and gamers alike, and Bubsy faded into obscurity.
The unlikely comeback trail
Over the years that followed, Bubsy became an internet joke. The poster child for bad video games, which is almost fair given how awful Bubsy II was, but in a world where Awesome Possum exists, I would hardly consider Bubsy the height of failure. His status as a sort of “love to hate him” character lead to the Steam release of Bubsy Two-Fur, a double pack of Bubsy 1 and 2, but the real weirdness was yet to come.
In October 2017. Bubsy was back with a brand new adventure for the PlayStation 4.
Launching on Halloween for some reason, Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back came out of nowhere, as did a freshly revived Accolade to produce the darn thing. Someone out there thought trying to make Bubsy relevant again in 2017 was a good idea, and I honestly can’t fault them entirely. If they could manage to make a good Bubsy game, it would probably do very well for itself.
They hired Black Forest Games to develop the thing, the studio behind the modern Giana Sisters games. Those aren't exactly masterpieces, but they’re competent at the very least. Black Forest knows how to make a good game. They also hired Chris Huelsbeck to compose the game’s soundtrack. He’s the guy who wrote the legendary Turrican soundtracks. This meant that Bubsy had some pretty decent pedigree behind him for his big comeback. It seemed like Bubsy might actually be successful this time. And the resulting game was…
It wasn’t offensively terrible like Bubsy II, but it wasn’t heartbreakingly almost good like Bubsy 1 either. It was just okay. Completely middling in almost every way. The visuals were bland, the gameplay felt generic, and the music was pleasant enough but ultimately forgettable. I honestly have no earthly idea how this one went so wrong. At least if it was spectacularly awful it would have been memorable, but it wasn’t. It was fine. Just… fine.
But it did do a couple of things right. For one, it brought yarn balls back into the mix. Having the Woolies and yarn balls made it feel a little more like Bubsy 1. It’s a small touch, but I appreciated it. Collecting orbs and whatever other weird doodads just didn’t feel right in previous sequels. Bubsy is a cat. He likes yarn. That’s the joke. It isn’t a great joke, but that’s kind of this game’s schtick, right?
They also fixed Bubsy’s controls, mostly. He no longer moves like Sonic, so actually moving from point a to point b in a traditionally designed platformer doesn't feel like a chore. He has a new a forward pounce move which gives Bubsy a much needed melee attack that doesn’t involve him landing on the heads of his enemies. And of course, he can take a couple of hits before he dies, so on paper, things were looking pretty good.
They kept things simple when it came to his actual design. Bubsy looks likable and sort of cute like he did in his first game. He spouts out his one liners while you’re playing and that can get a little tiresome, but it’s not as bad as it could have been, largely thanks to Bubsy’s voice being… good? He’s supposed to be a little obnoxious, and Bubsy’s current voice actor does a good job of capturing that while maintaining an air of being likable.
The trouble is, it just feels soulless. On paper this could have worked, but nothing about the game’s presentation is the slightest bit memorable. It all looks and sounds fine, but it’s completely unremarkable. There are definitely some highlights in Chris Huelsbeck’s soundtrack, but his work comes off as somewhat phoned in. It probably would have been more effective had the game it’s attached to been better.
The flames of Bubsy
By all accounts of sanity, that should have been the end of it, but no. Accolade wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. Another Bubsy game was in development, and this time it was being developed by a rather unexpected studio, Choice Provisions.
Choice Provisions is the studio behind the Bit.trip and Runner series of games. For some reason, they agreed to make a new Bubsy game, which landed just a few months ago as Bubsy: Paws on Fire. I’m a huge fan of the Bit.trip series, and I have an incredible amount of confidence in the team at Choice Provisions. When this was announced I was genuinely hyped because I really do want to play a good Bubsy game. I want to play a game that lives up to the franchise’s (admittedly limited) potential, and I want every game Choice Provisions puts their name on to be a success.
But Paws on Fire is basically a new Runner game.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that it’s not as good as any of the previous Runner games. It’s a sort of neat Runner game with a Bubsy skin, and a somewhat ugly one at that. The folks at Choice Provisions definitely solved the personality problem Woolies Strike Back had. This game has character out the ears. The only real problems are that they redid bubsy in their distinct “ugly” art style, which I think results is one of the worst-looking Bubsy designs in the series history. Also, it really isn't a Bubsy game. More of a Bubsy spinoff.
It’s not bad by any stretch. It’s actually pretty fun because, well, it’s kinda like Runner 2.5. It isn’t as awe-inspiring as Runner 2, and it’s not quite as ambitious as Runner 3. It’s just kinda there, full to the gills with some weird Bubsy trivia along for the ride.
Choice Provisions dug DEEP for this one, going so far as to include areas used in the original game as a backdrop, and pulling characters from the unaired cartoon pilot. You have to hand it to them, they put a ton of effort into the game, and it’s the best Bubsy ever made, not like that’s a high bar or anything, but it still stands.
Hope for Bubsy’s future
Again, what kills me about it is just how close they are to actually making a solid Bubsy game. Bubsy’s attack move and life bar are great. Paws on Fire introduces multiple playable characters to the mix, and they’re a really fun addition. If they could just get one more swing with a different developer, I’m sure they could nail it.
Bring back some of the classic Bubsy music from the first game in addition to new stuff done in the same style. Ditch the polygonal graphics and make something with some really nice-looking sprites. Keep the multiple playable characters, but put them in the exploratory platformer setting of the first few games. It’s a tremendous uphill battle, but if they succeed, it would be totally worth it.
Think about it. All they have to do is make a genuinely good, memorable game with Bubsy. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, just something really solid and fun, and it would sell like hotcakes. The world would be dying to see the “good Bubsy game” after all these years of being a complete joke, and who could blame them? I know I would like to see it!
Well, what do you think? Can Bubsy be good, or is he a curse on any studio that dares to invoke his name?