Video game designer Michael Berlyn got his start in the industry as an implementer working for Polarware. The first game of note he worked on was a piece of interactive fiction entitled Oo-Topos. Released in 1981, it was well-received among PC gamers, and he would continue his work on other adventure titles with Polarware before joining Infocom in 1983. Around this time, a company named Accolade was founded in San Jose, California by Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead. They saw their revenues increase with each passing year after releasing several acclaimed games for Amiga, Apple II, and the PC, including Test Drive, HardBall!, Law of the West, and Psi-5 Trading Company. Mr. Berlyn would join this company by 1990, and the first game he designed for them was Altered Destiny. However, it received a fairly lukewarm response, generally passed over in favor of Sierra’s output.
Shortly after this project saw completion, he became burned out on the adventure game genre and wanted to try something new. The answer came in the form of a game Sega had released in June of 1991 in order to compete with Nintendo: Sonic the Hedgehog. With Nintendo having dominated the console gaming industry for the entire third generation, Sega proved a formidable opponent. Sonic the Hedgehog was the embodiment of the era’s zeitgeist. He had a hip attitude and his gameplay was lightning fast compared to the slow, ostensibly out-of-touch Mario. Mr. Berlyn was so impressed with Sega’s game that he ended up playing it fourteen hours a day for a whole week. Already, he was figuring out how he could implement his own take on this game. Within the next few years, Accolade had created the lead character for Mr. Berlyn’s vision: a bobcat named Bubsy.
The game, named Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind, was to be released for both the Sega Genesis and Super NES in 1993. Accolade stopped at nothing to extensively promote their game. Director John Skeel sought to create a game as fast as Sonic the Hedgehog, yet as deep as Super Mario Bros. It would be easy to pick up and play, but difficult to master. He was even intended to be voiced in the game proper. His catchphrase “What could possibly go wrong?” was derived from a quip courtesy of the development team. They even commissioned a pilot for an animated series that aired later in the year, though the show was never picked up for any further episodes.
Nonetheless, as a result of Accolade’s marketing campaign, anticipation for Bubsy reached a fever pitch. The character even won a “Most Hype for a Character of 1993” award in the publication Electronic Gaming Monthly. When Bubsy was released, it received positive reviews from nearly every review outlet at the time. Though not as popular as Sonic the Hedgehog, critics enjoyed the level design, graphics, and the sheer amount of personality possessed by the title character. It was especially enjoyed by those who had a Super NES, as for it would be the closest they could get to playing Sonic the Hedgehog themselves without a Sega Genesis. In an era that saw no shortage of quality 2D platformers, does Bubsy stand to this day as a pinnacle of the genre?
Analyzing the Experience
The planet Earth has been besieged by a horde of aliens called Woolies. They came with one goal: to steal the world’s supply of yarn balls. As the owner of the world’s largest collection of yarn balls, a bobcat named Bubsy has a lot to lose should the Woolies’ plan prove successful. He therefore sets out on a journey to repel their invasion and, in a sense, save Earth.
As soon as the game begins, the sheer influence Sonic the Hedgehog had on Bubsy becomes apparent. As you use the control pad to move Bubsy, he gains momentum very quickly. Though he is not explicitly stated to have super speed, the distance he covers in a short amount of time speaks for itself. As a platforming protagonist, Bubsy’s primary method of dispatching enemies is to jump on top of their heads. You’ll know you’ve performed a successful attack if Bubsy and the enemy get enveloped in a cartoonish violence cloud after the former bounces off of the latter. Though having drawn a lot of inspiration from Sonic the Hedgehog, Bubsy doesn’t have the ability to curl into a ball or perform a spin dash. He does, however, have the inexplicable ability to glide in the air when you hold down the jump button.
It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the amount of cues Mr. Berlyn took from Sonic the Hedgehog could make it a good homage to a beloved classic. Unfortunately, playing this game for more than two seconds reveals Bubsy completely fails to grasp what allowed Sonic to enjoy his strong following among fans of the Sega Genesis. If someone were to approach this game with a completely fresh perspective, they may be inclined to criticize the controls. This would be a defensible point. After all, a well-designed platforming game means nothing if you can’t control your character, and anyone playing Bubsy would be hard-pressed to go longer than five seconds without crashing into an enemy.
The controls are particularly bad whenever you’re made to navigate small platforms. When you consider the name of the genre, you can see why this would be a serious issue. It’s a bit difficult to explain unless you’ve experienced it for yourself, but Bubsy lacks the precision Mario has. A skilled Mario player can have Nintendo’s mascot land on even the smallest platforms. This hypothetical player would then have a difficult time guiding Bubsy past platforms longer than his sprite. I feel one reason why this is the case is that the stage design ultimately isn’t suited for the kind of high-speed gameplay Sonic the Hedgehog helped popularize. It instead comes across as a grotesque hybrid of Sonic’s rollercoaster-inspired level design and the more technically complex variety associated with Mario’s games.
Still, though the controls in Bubsy certainly aren’t exemplary, I feel they’re symptoms of a larger problem. Platforming protagonists tend to vary wildly when it comes to how they can take a punch, kick, slice, or any other kind of unspecified enemy strike. Mario would be defeated in a single hit without the aid of a power-up while other characters, such as Mega Man, relied on a life meter. Sonic the Hedgehog was unique because he could survive any attack as long as he possessed at least one ring – his series’ analogue to coins. A successful strike would cause him to drop all of his rings at once. The standard post-hit invincibility made it easy for players to recover at least a few, which would ensure his continued survival. Sonic the Hedgehog was such a fast character, his game couldn’t keep up with him at times. As such, having his rings act as a shield demonstrated a lot of foresight on the development team’s part. Players could freely take advantage of Sonic’s speed, yet if they inadvertently guided him into a hazard, they wouldn’t be punished too much for their mistake. It’s certainly not the kind of game that could have worked with Mario’s power-up system. It’s a shame, then, that Mr. Berlyn didn’t grasp this as he drafted Bubsy.
While Mario and Sonic both have an impressive arsenal of power-ups at their disposal, Bubsy gets nothing. He doesn’t have any kind of long ranged attack or unique gadgets to play around with. Jumping on enemies is his first, last, and only solution to dealing with any enemy he may come across. This is especially bad because one successful attack is enough to put Bubsy out of commission. In a game with such fast pacing, this is inexcusable. You have this character who can arguably run as fast as Sonic the Hedgehog, yet you are unable to take advantage of his speed in any meaningful way without running into an enemy and dying. Bubsy can collect certain tee-shirts that allow him to take a single hit, but you usually have to go out of your way to find them. Even if you know where they are, it doesn’t change the fact that Bubsy is a sitting duck for a majority of the experience.
The game shows a bit of mercy in that Bubsy starts off with nine lives, which is a markedly higher amount than most contemporaries would give you, and even throws many opportunities to procure more your way. It’s ultimately of little solace because you will burn through them quickly attempting to navigate these stages. About the only reason anyone is able to make any significant progress in this game is because, unlike in Sonic the Hedgehog, you can use a password to return to any given stage.
Having already established the Bubsy is remarkably less capable as a video game protagonist than his popular rivals, it seems unfathomable that he could get any worse. Astoundingly he does; not content with being unable to take damage, he can’t survive large falls either. Characters in this genre can usually fall multiple stories with no ill effects. This is primarily because under certain circumstances, you can neither see the ground, nor calculate how much of a drop it is to reach it. You can negate the fall damage by having Bubsy glide just before touching down, which makes me question why they even bothered programming this mechanic in the first place.
Along those lines, a subtler flaw about Bubsy is that it can be difficult to gauge where the stage ends and the always-fatal bottomless pits begin. In most games, the screen stops scrolling downward when you’ve reached the bottom of a stage. You can then infer that continuing to go down would spell your character’s demise. This isn’t true in Bubsy; the screen continues to scroll down until the bobcat waves goodbye in a fashion similar to a Looney Tunes character and plummets out of existence. Some cases are more obvious than others, but without the basic platformer design sensibility in place, don’t be surprised if you jump into a bottomless pit by accident.
Compounding this game’s issues is that the visuals are decidedly subpar. It is said that graphics don’t make the game, but in the case of Bubsy, they actively detract from the experience. In the above screenshot, you could get the impression that you can have Bubsy run up the tree branches. Such is not the case; you can only have him stand on nests and any growth of leaves that happen to be on the tree. While the leaves make some kind of sense because they are of a different color from the rest of the tree, the same can’t be said of the branches. Being of a similar color palette as the nests, you will have to actively remind yourself that they’re just scenery.
These deceptive visuals are evident throughout the rest of the game as well. Any decent platformer is going to feature spikes as a hazard and Bubsy is no exception. Not only are they far more of a threat than in most games owing to Bubsy’s milquetoast constitution, they often blend into the background. It’s not so bad when you’re examining the game’s individual frames, but as you’re playing, you usually won’t see them until it’s too late.
Though critics may have praised the non-linear level design of Bubsy back in 1993, I feel it to be the game’s Achilles’ heel. Bubsy boasts some of the most confused level design I’ve ever seen in a platforming game. Even in blatantly worse platformers such as the NES edition of Dragon’s Lair, where you’re meant to go is obvious. This isn’t always true in Bubsy. While going right is still your general goal, it’s often easier said than done. You will frequently have to enter doors that lead Bubsy to a completely different part of the level with no idea of where they lead. Sometimes, they can even lead to more than one exit.
This problem reaches its peak late in the game in a series of stages that take place near a lake. Staying true to the cat stereotype, Bubsy cannot swim. He goes a bit further than Sonic in this regard in that merely touching the water is enough to kill him. His head doesn’t even have to be submerged. Littered throughout these stages are switches that control the water levels. These switches are mostly pointless, as the end of the stage can be reached without activating them. Given that there are many hazards at the bottom of the lake and how inadvisable it is to backtrack for any reason, you may as well not drain it at all for all of the good it will do you. If anything, the lake is easier to navigate when it isn’t drained because you can ride a raft to the other side. The only downside to this approach is that the bad controls make dealing with enemies on the raft exceedingly difficult. To make matters worse, the boss of this region is fought on such a raft, meaning you have to worry about falling in the water in addition to avoiding its normal attacks.
Because Bubsy is riddled with problems in normal gameplay, it’s not terribly surprising that the boss fights are horrible. Most of them require no further strategy than jumping on top of them enough times. This proves easier said than done because many of them shoot an awe-inspiring number of projectiles Bubsy’s way. Wrestling with the controls is bad enough when you’re platforming, but you will soon learn dodging projectiles in close quarters is even worse. Many of the later bosses even spawn Woolies, and you won’t be declared the winner until you defeated them all. This means you can defeat the boss only to die to one of its underlings immediately afterwards. This is a distressingly common occurrence because the hit detection is abhorrent. You will see Bubsy die even after clearly jumping on top of the boss for reasons that can only be comprehended by examining the game’s code. With no reliable way to learn from your mistakes, you will constantly lose to these bosses even when you’re doing nothing wrong.
Ultimately though, I feel the biggest problem with Bubsy concerns the title character. Many video game protagonists from around this time are stand-ins for the player, yet Bubsy has a definite personality to him. Only after guiding him for a few stages will you wish the programmers didn’t bother. It’s true that Mario and Sonic were more defined by their abilities than their personalities, but actions speak louder than words – particularly in an interactive medium. Bubsy, on the other hand, is one of the most obnoxious characters of his generation. He’s cocky, overzealous, and reliant on an insipid catchphrase. Even his animation while standing normally betrays an insufferably smug demeanor. He wouldn’t feel out of place among the cast of the kind of nineties cartoon inspired by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is absolutely to his detriment when you remember how poorly many of them have aged.
In all honesty, Bubsy being egoistical isn’t bad in of itself. There are plenty of egotistical leads across multiple mediums that are fun to watch or play as. However, it takes a significant amount of charisma to get audiences to enjoy these types of characters, and Bubsy is woefully deficient in this regard. He has a knack of reacting to the names of the stages, which are themselves the result of many insufferable puns derived from films people playing this game should be watching instead. You will then learn he has zero sense of comedic timing because he delivers his punchline as soon as the stage’s name appears onscreen, giving the player no chance to process it – assuming they care, of course.
What really sounds his death knell is that he has absolutely none of the skill to back up his ego. This is a character who is actually more frail than the protagonist of Lester the Unlikely, yet acts as though he could take on the Woolies singlehandedly. Actually attempting to guide him to the goal reveals he is in over his head, making the game feel more like an extended escort mission than a true platformer. It still doesn’t stop him from claiming credit for your triumph.
A work is usually only as good as its lead, and Bubsy does an excellent job proving this axiom true through a bad example.
Drawing a Conclusion
Bubsy may have received decent reviews when it was released, but it honestly had nothing practical to offer gamers at the time. Genesis owners were lucky enough to have Sonic the Hedgehog debut on their platform. If they decided to look into Bubsy, they would be astounded over the many ways in which it falls short of Sonic the Hedgehog despite being released two years later. It did have a little more to offer Super NES owners in that it was the closest they could get to playing a game like Sonic the Hedgehog without purchasing the rival console. However, what it had to offer was still of negligible value in light of its myriad issues. Unsurprisingly, it was eventually overshadowed by the quality 2D platformers released on the platform in the coming years in addition to the admirable ones that already existed before 1993 such as Super Mario World. None of them may have captured the same appeal as Sonic the Hedgehog, but it’s for the best that they forged their own identities rather than recreate another’s success.
There may not have been much of a reason to try Bubsy back in 1993, but it has fared especially poorly in the long term. With Sega eventually leaving the console race, getting a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog is easy no matter what platform you currently favor. Why settle for a paste imitation when you can get the genuine article for a low price? Even if you are interested in checking out Bubsy to get a glimpse of what the medium was like in the early nineties, I couldn’t recommend it. Though some care may have gone into it initially, Bubsy is, at the end of the day, a cynical product whose creators only grasped that Sonic the Hedgehog was liked without understanding why, yet wanted to profit off of its success. With a haphazard level design, slippery controls, and a character who is, in the worst sense of the term, a product of his time, there is no practical reason to ever pick this game up.
Final Score: 2/10