The year 1993 marked the debut of Bubsy the Bobcat. Released for both the Super NES and Sega Genesis, Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind was seen as the Western equivalent of Sonic the Hedgehog with its hip protagonist and high-speed gameplay. After winning a “Most Hype for a Character of 1993” award from Electronic Gaming Monthly, Bubsy proceeded to garner a fair amount of critical acclaim. Critics were especially fond of its level design, graphics, and the title character having a definable personality. Super NES owners passingly familiar with Sonic the Hedgehog were especially excited about playing Bubsy, for it would be the closest they could come to playing the rival console’s premier game. Even before Bubsy saw its launch, Accolade, the developer behind the game, set their sights high for what they wanted to be their flagship franchise and began drafting ideas for a sequel.
However, production of this game was handled by a different team with no input from creator Michael Berlyn. To make matters worse, this new team was openly hostile to Mr. Berlyn’s character. Accolade had spent beyond their means in order to promote Bubsy, which included creating a pilot for an animated series that was never picked up. They even attempted to reverse engineer Sega’s cartridge copyright protection in order to avoid having to pay any licensing and publishing fees and making Bubsy a console exclusive. Sega ended up suing Accolade, though the judge ruled in the latter’s favor on the grounds that they wrote a majority of the cartridge code themselves and it was intended to be a cross-platform game from the beginning.
As a result of their expenditures, Bubsy nearly bankrupted the company. It paid off in the end when the game sold well, but the damage had been done. The team behind this game freely admitted they hated working on it and that they didn’t care if what they created was a quality product or a complete mess. Such was the extent of this team’s resentment for the character that they would sarcastically repeat Bubsy’s lines to annoy one another. Mr. Berlyn once mentioned that during a visit to their office, the team had even gone as far as stringing up Bubsy dolls from the office ceiling as though they were executing them. Another had been stabbed through the head with a pencil. The sheer apathy that went into this product can even be seen in the game’s title. While the original game’s formed an elaborate pun on a famous film, the sequel was simply named Bubsy II.
Bubsy II saw its release in 1994 for the Sega Genesis and Super NES, before receiving a port for the Game Boy the following year. The public, unaware of the turmoil surrounding its inception, proceeded to give Bubsy II mostly positive reviews. Many outlets claimed that whatever issues plagued the original game were excised in this installment. Did this new team, despite their best efforts, manage to churn out a quality product worthy of standing alongside the greatest 2D platformers of its day?
Analyzing the Experience
A new theme park has been announced, and an excited Bubsy can’t wait to visit the attractions. He plans on visiting the park shortly after it opens along with his younger twin relatives and his friend, Arnold the Armadillo. In an attempt to try out as many rides unobstructed, the twins decide to break into the theme park the evening before it is slated to open. However, unbeknownst to any of them, the theme park is operated by a corrupt entrepreneur. The theme park is littered with virtual worlds that will trap anyone who enters it.
One of the biggest differences between Bubsy II and its predecessor presents itself as soon as the player delves into the game for the first time. While the original Bubsy sensibly placed players in the first stage to begin with, Bubsy II allows them to choose where to begin the game. From the onset, Bubsy is given the choice to visit the theme park’s west or east wing. Each wing is three stories high and every floor contains five different stages. Once you have completed every stage on a floor, a sixth door opens, allowing Bubsy to face the floor’s boss. Upon winning the boss fight, he will advance to the next floor where the process will begin anew. The antagonist of this scenario will be fought when Bubsy enters the boss door on the third floor. It does not matter whether Bubsy enters the final boss’s chamber from the east or west wing; you will receive an ending either way.
There are thirty stages in Bubsy II and five different themes between them. A given stage can be set in virtual representations of medieval times, an Egyptian tomb, a music-themed wonderland, outer space, or in the skies above Earth. Stages with the medieval, music, or Egyptian theme are the most similar to stages from the first game. Your goal is to find a large, orange sphere, defeating any enemies that may stand in your way while trying to avoid any hazards – natural or otherwise. While Bubsy II is typically a 2D platformer, stages set in the sky change the game’s very genre. The title character hops into a biplane and can shoot down any enemy he comes across. One button shoots a projectile that travels forward while the other drops bombs. Space-themed stages combine these two styles of gameplay. While you are made to negotiate platforms for a majority of these stages in low gravity, certain tunnels will lead to Bubsy commanding a spaceship, which controls similarly to the biplane.
In light of the sheer amount of issues with the original Bubsy, it doesn’t bode well that its sequel has a similar presentation. To give credit where it’s due, I will say the team behind Bubsy II did a reasonably good job addressing its predecessor’s biggest problems. First and foremost is that Bubsy can actually take multiple hits without dying this time around. Specifically, it takes three hits for him to lose a life. He can still be killed instantly whenever he touches a spike or falls from too great of a height, but this is doubtlessly a step in the right direction. Because of this, the developers thought to introduce a new item for players to find: the bandage. Logically, collecting it fully restores Bubsy’s health.
If an item that allows Bubsy to recover his health was the only addition to this game, it would be a substantial improvement over the original, but the team didn’t stop there. This time, they decided to give Bubsy actual power-ups. Though he can’t exactly shoot fireballs or run at exceedingly high speeds, he does wield a Nerf gun. Unlike its real-life counterpart, this firearm does substantial damage to any enemy it hits. There are three other power-ups that can help Bubsy on his journey: smart bombs, diving suits, and black holes. Smart bombs obliterate every onscreen enemy, turning them into marbles. Marbles serve the same purpose as yarn balls in the original game; they give the player points for each one collected at the end of a stage. Once equipped, a black hole will allow Bubsy to exit a stage instantaneously.
The purpose of the diving suit is more situational. Once equipped, it drastically hinders Bubsy’s mobility and prevents him from jumping. The only thing you can do with it is enter a body of water. Doing so will take Bubsy to a minigame dubbed Liquid Lunacy.
The goal of this game is to collect as many bubbles as you can. You must defeat any jellyfish you find along the way and avoid the dervish chasing Bubsy. By bouncing off of the fish, the player is awarded extra marbles. There are two other minigames that can be accessed by going through certain doorways.
One of them is called Frogapult. Its on-the-nose name betrays your goal; you shoot frogs at the objects in the water. The launcher moves back and forth while Bubsy’s distance from the spring determines how far the frog will fly. Some targets while others are stationary, and if you managed to hit five of them, you will be rewarded with an extra life.
The last minigame is Armadillo Drop. Assuming control of Arnold the Armadillo, you must get him to face his greatest fear by guiding him through a maze located in a truck’s engine. On the way down, there are plenty of marbles and extra lives to collect. There are three different exits Arnold can take. Two of them deposit the armadillo under one of the truck’s wheels while the center one allows him to escape unscathed. If you can guide him there, you will gain bonus points.
Once you reach the end of a stage, Bubsy visits a gift shop. From here, you can have him buy or sell items as you see fit. Trading cards are required for transactions at these shops. Notably, you can trade extra lives for ten cards apiece if you so desire. While doing so may seem reckless, an extra smart bomb may be just what you need to reach the end of the stage.
From a superficial standpoint, it would appear Bubsy II is everything a sequel could ask for. The reluctant developers took note of the issues plaguing the original game and did a reasonably good job addressing them. Bubsy can take multiple hits without dying, the controls have more polish to them, and choosing the order in which one can play the stages is a nice touch. On top of that, Bubsy is afforded means of defending himself besides jumping on enemies. This is greatly appreciated when you consider how bland of a character Bubsy was in his debut game.
Unfortunately, closer examination of this game reveals that its improvements merely upgrade a deeply flawed experience to a problematic one. Indeed, the greatest irony of Bubsy II is that every single one of its improvements come with a particularly glaring downside. Though the original Bubsy was poorly optimized for the kind of game it was trying to be, you could theoretically complete it without taking damage. The game would stop at nothing to bombard the player with cheap deaths and bosses whose attack patterns were nigh-unavoidable, but it could be done. When Accolade was given the task of creating Bubsy II, they made the rookie mistake of crowding stages with enemies because the title character is more durable than before. One of the sky stages even features a tunnel which guides Bubsy directly into an enemy that is impossible to avoid. If he was on the brink of death beforehand, you are completely out of luck.
Although I appreciate that Bubsy has actual power-ups in this game, their actual utility varies wildly. The Nerf gun is the weapon you will likely use the most because it has plentiful, cheap ammunition and a reasonable damage output. However, it is very unwieldly. If you’re attempting to play this game like Mega Man or Commander Keen, you will be taken aback when you realize Bubsy can’t actually use the gun while running. Strangely, he can shoot while airborne, which can trick you into believing he can use the gun in motion, but it’s not quite the case. Regardless, using the gun causes Bubsy to go through a unique animation that can’t be cancelled, leaving him vulnerable to enemy attacks as he is using it. As it stands, the Nerf gun is impractical in most situations because very few enemies are immune to the standard jump attack.
The smart bomb is probably the single most efficient weapon in the game, delivering an attack the enemies can’t resist. If you’re attempting any kind of crowd control, the smart bomb is your best friend. They’re surprisingly inexpensive given how effective they are, only costing two cards apiece. If you find yourself foregoing the Nerf gun, it may be worthwhile to sell all of its ammunition to obtain them. The only downside is that you cannot use them in boss fights. Because there never a pressing need to stockpile diving suits, you are better off selling them. I question why the developers bothered including an item for such an obscure purpose – it’s not even required to complete the game.
Finally, the black hole is the single most pointless item in the game. While being able to exit a stage at any time sounds like it could come in handy, if you’re ever in a situation in which you need to use it to survive, you have already effectively lost the game. Using it when you are one hit away from losing your last life would ultimately do nothing but delay the inevitable. It’s not as though you can use the black hole in an incomplete stage so you can skip it. This isn’t to say the idea of exiting a stage couldn’t work, but the developers shouldn’t have made players use an item to accomplish that. Case in point, Super Mario World allowed players to revisit stages should they so desire. Whenever a player entered a stage already cleared, they could pause the game and push the “SELECT” button to exit it. While the black hole could be used as an emergency escape, it’s usually a better idea to tough out a stage. If you die in a stage, you’re sent back to the last checkpoint, but if you leave it prematurely, you must start over from the beginning. Otherwise, the only substantial use one could have for the black hole is to exit a cleared stage they entered by accident. This is an unreasonable price to pay for such a simple mistake.
While the power-ups are a big waste of potential, the controls are a much larger issue. I will say the controls in Bubsy II aren’t quite as bad as those of the original in that the title character doesn’t fly forward intermittently, but they still aren’t good. This is primarily because you still have to accept that the game is not optimized to handle such a quick protagonist. If you make Bubsy run at top speed for more than two seconds, his odds of survival plummet drastically. Though he can theoretically take three hits before dying, there is an overabundance of spikes and other sharp objects that are capable of killing him instantly. Indeed, one of the biggest problems plaguing the original game was that spikes blended into the background.
Playing Bubsy II demonstrates that the developers did not learn their lesson from the title character’s previous outing. The spikes in these virtual worlds are practically camouflaged. I can imagine many newcomers would be unable to figure out how they died the first time playing this game. I could also envision them being in denial that what they ran into is a hazard.
Indeed, a significant reason why Bubsy II is such a frustrating game to play is because, just like its predecessor, it is severely lacking in basic visual cues. In the above screenshot, one would reasonably assume that Bubsy is positioned to the left of a brick wall. Not being a ghost, there is no reason why he should he be able to pass through it. This never occurred to the development team, for the wall in question is actually in the foreground. These are the kinds of design decisions you will have to put up with for the entirety of the experience. Sometimes, you’ll be able to pass walls or other barriers that are actually in the foreground. Other times, you’ll try applying that logic to the rest of the game only to realize the seemingly benign object blocks your progress. This lack of internal consistency makes for a highly frustrating experience.
The reason why this seemingly minor slight is worth complaining about is because it ultimately ties into the game’s fatal flaw. All I can say is that anyone who played the original Bubsy only to have a difficult time navigating a given stage hasn’t seen anything yet. Bubsy II boasts some of the most confused level design I’ve ever seen in a platforming game. The typical guiding principle in such a game is “when in doubt, go right”. In Bubsy II, you’ll find yourself going wandering all over the place to reach the goal. It is impossible to overstate how convoluted these levels are, and with Bubsy being such a fragile protagonist, this is not the kind of game that is conducive to exploring for a significant length of time. Don’t be surprised if you end up changing directions more than six times in these stages. As a result, it would be more accurate to say that you don’t really clear a stage in Bubsy II as much as you cause it to come to a dead stop out of nowhere.
The game does have arrows telling you where to go, but they’re so sparse that they’re seldom helpful. Even worse, sometimes arrows will be pointing to a solid wall. No, you can’t pass through these walls; you must explore the immediate area thoroughly in order to find the switch that opens it. In some cases, the switch is so far away from the wall it opens, you won’t know they’re connected when you reach it. This issue is especially glaring in the Egyptian-themed stages because many of the switches, such as the one pictured above, look like background decorations.
Personally, I feel the most damning indication of this game’s subpar level design can be seen in the stages set in the skies. Shoot ‘em ups are defined by how they scroll automatically; it would seem difficult to mess them up on purpose, but this team found a way. A newcomer could mistakenly assume they will reach the end of the stage simply by hanging on long enough and blasting any enemy that gets in their way. This strategy would be entirely sound – until they go crashing into a wall, that is. What they may not have caught onto right away is that it’s possible to turn the plane around. If one hoped the sky stages would be a reprieve from the chaotic mess that is the rest of the game, this development destroys such a notion in one fell swoop. It really says something that Accolade managed to somehow make their shoot ‘em up stages needlessly obtuse.
It is easy to conclude that these issues, while dire, still allow Bubsy II to come out ahead of the original. After all, Bubsy forced players to run all over the place with only one hit point and zero power-ups. However, there is one factor that completely negates any of the goodwill from these ostensible improvements, so make sure you have every single grievance in mind when you look at the following screenshot.
That’s right, Bubsy II has a continue system. You can collect more in case you expend all of your lives, but if you run out, you must start the entire game over from the beginning. It doesn’t matter whether you lost all of your lives on the first stage or fighting the final boss. What makes this facet especially bad is that Bubsy, as flawed as it was, had a password system. Meanwhile, if you attempt to play through Bubsy II in its original form, you must complete the entire game in one session. In summation, the developers put you into a game that often comes across as a light Metroidvania with its non-linear stage design only to render all of your progress null and void if you run out of continues. In most cases, I would have assumed this was the result of the developers not thinking through their implications. However, as previously stated, the team behind Bubsy II had no aspirations of making a good game, so this issue is the result of apathy rather than incompetence. To be honest, I’m not sure which would be worse.
Drawing a Conclusion
One could make a case that the original Bubsy was an openly cynical product for copying Sonic the Hedgehog without taking the time to realize why it is such a beloved classic. While I certainly agree with that sentiment, Bubsy II is in a league of its own in terms of cynicism. Whether you’re running around the stages not knowing what to do or attempting to use the pointless power-ups, the sheer apathy that went into this game can be felt every second you’re playing. Bubsy II may not be the worst game ever made, but it is without a doubt one of the greatest insults ever issued by a major developer. Everyone who liked the original game was swindled into buying a completely soulless product with not an ounce of passion behind its creation. To be completely fair, given how poorly the original game turned out, I can understand why a development team would be less than enchanted about working on a sequel, but I feel my point stands.
The fact that the developers didn’t care to make a good game is enough to condemn Bubsy II on a philosophical level, but the actual experience it provides doesn’t fare any better. As a 2D platformer, there is no getting around that Bubsy II is woefully behind the times. Even developers of 2D platformers, a genre that originated in the arcade scene of the early eighties, began allowing players to save their progress because they realized the importance of their audience experiencing everything their work has to offer. There is no point in designing an incredible endgame stage if no one will reach it, after all. Notably, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, which was released several months before Bubsy II, featured save files after its two predecessors did not. Especially in light of how Bubsy featured a password system, the team behind the sequel had no excuse for making players complete a fairly lengthy game with an exploratory level design in a single session. One might say Bubsy II having two sets of stages adds a level of replay value many games lack. To that, I would counter such a gesture means nothing if the game in question isn’t even worth playing one time.
Final Score: 2/10