Although it managed to receive some accolades for setting out into uncharted territory, fans and critics alike would eventually dub Bubsy 3D one of the worst games ever made. Coupled with having to compete with Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 and Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot, the latter of which debuted on the same console as Bubsy 3D, the game had no chance of retaining any kind of long-term appeal. If there was any chance for the series to recover its fleeting relevance, Accolade’s dissolution in September of 2000 completely ruined it.
For the longest time, the series was looked back upon as a curious novelty from the 1990s. It thus came as a surprise when, in June of 2017, a new Bubsy game was announced. Rights to the franchise had been acquired by the Hong Kong company Billionsoft. Developing the installment would be Black Forest Games – a company based in Offenburg, Germany that had previously revived the Giana Sisters series in 2012 to a generally favorable reception.
Although nostalgia for the 1990s arguably saw its peak during the 2010s, the announcement of a new Bubsy game was met with much derision. The creators leaned into the series’ bad reputation, creating a social media account for the character for the purpose of making self-deprecating jokes at his expense. Whatever goodwill this may have generated was lost when the game debuted in October of that year. Although it wasn’t as disliked as Bubsy 3D, critical reviews were almost universally negative. Fans were only slightly more kind to the game, but it clearly wasn’t a hit with them either. How, exactly, did this game manage to invoke so much ire in the press?
Analyzing the Experience
After finally making it back to Earth, Bubsy is ready to face off against the alien force known as the Woolies once again. They have taken the bobcat’s prized Golden Fleece, and he will stop at nothing to get it back.
Once of the first things you may notice when you gain control of Bubsy for the first time is that, in a stark contrast to his two-dimensional side-scrolling installments, he is significantly slower. Considering that his creator directly based him off of Sonic the Hedgehog, a character famous for his super speed, I can see this development upsetting fans of the original games. However, I will say that’s to the game’s benefit. The original Bubsy was not optimized to handle such a fast protagonist. The ring system present in Sonic the Hedgehog allowed the title character to run at fast speeds while also allowing the player leeway should they make a mistake. At the same time, there was always a possibility the player could lose all of their rings, imposing a consequence if they do not collect any more.
Bubsy forewent this sensible design choice by making its own title character unable to take any damage at all. This meant players could not take advantage of his high speed, lest they send him careening into a spike pit or other hazard. Sure, the character, in true cat form, started off with nine lives, but this was a cheap fix for a serious problem.
No, Bubsy as he is in The Woolies Strike Back, is relatively easy to maneuver. The Black Forest Games team clearly understood the problems with the ostensible golden-age installments and did their best to fix them. This is especially evident when you play the game and realize the field of view is greatly expanded. Combined with Bubsy’s slower running speed and protection from fall damage, you won’t burn through your lives just trying to get from one end of the screen to the other. Though one could argue it’s less exciting this way, I find I can’t complain. Even Sonic’s games were beginning to make this mistake. Later entries were more concerned with breaking land speed records than maintaining the solid level design of the Genesis installments.
Even better, Bubsy is quite a bit more survivable than he was in his original outing. By finding a black tee-shirt, Bubsy can take an extra hit before losing a life. This does technically make him more fragile than he was in Bubsy II, but with the improved gameplay, it isn’t really an issue. In addition, he has a way of defending himself outside of jumping on enemies. Specifically, he can perform a Pounce Attack – that is, he leaps forward and strikes an enemy. Jumping on enemies in the original games was excessively difficult due to their often-erratic movements and the narrow field of view afforded to the player. With his Pounce, Bubsy can sweep enemies from the side. It can also be used to break down weak walls.
The developers of this game also clearly understood what a joke the character had become by the 2010s because they, demonstrating a level of self-awareness their predecessors lacked, included the ability to mute Bubsy’s voice. Sure, it has no effect on the gameplay, but considering that leaving the option unaltered will make you less inclined to help the obnoxious bobcat succeed in his mission, it’s highly appreciated.
Unfortunately, if it’s one aspect of the original Bubsy games this studio emulated perfectly, it would be the extreme lack of care beyond its token improvements. The controls in The Woolies Strike Back are more manageable than those of the originals, but that does not mean they’re good. Jumping on enemies is as imprecise of a science as ever. Unless he jumps on an enemy dead-center, Bubsy will whiff right by them. This even runs the risk of making players steer into the direction of the enemy to correct themselves only to cause the two of them to collide.
The Pounce Attack is rather worthless as well. Not unlike the rocks from Friday the 13th, Bubsy’s Pounce Attack has a bad habit of sailing right above an enemy’s head. You have to calculate exactly where Bubsy will land when using the attack on an enemy. This translates to using the attack when standing far away from them or right up in their faces. One may get the impression it is more prudent to ignore the enemies in favor of making a beeline for the goal, but because Bubsy is still relatively fragile compared to other platforming protagonists, it is unwise to leave them alone if you intend to explore the area.
Granted, there really isn’t much of a reason to explore the levels anyway. There are keys scattered throughout a given stage that opens up a reservoir containing several yarn balls. If you can open it, you receive a sizeable bonus. If you fail to find all of the keys, you can simply march right towards the exit with impunity. As opposed to Bubsy 3D, which encouraged players to explore the levels extensively in search of rocket parts to unlock the true ending, The Woolies Strike Back gives the player nothing to shoot for. Sure, your score will suffer, but considering that 2017 was well beyond when points were relevant to gaming, it’s difficult to care.
I will give Black Forest Games credit for improving the level design. One may assume, based on my preceding comments, that I am actually damning the level design with faint praise when I say this. This person would be entirely correct. Nonetheless, I can say the level design is an improvement. It’s almost surreal because up until this installment, Bubsy featured some of the most confused level design in the medium’s history. His inaugural game couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be exploratory like Metroid or straightforward like Sonic the Hedgehog. The result was a convoluted mess where doors could lead to multiple locations and the main character could walk through walls. This was a problem that only became worse with each installment, so I do give credit to The Woolies Strike Back for stopping the decline.
However, this game stops at putting an end to the decline; it doesn’t go the extra mile by reversing it. What the level design lacks in incomprehensibility, it more than makes up for in simplicity. Save for the odd curveball here and there, you can get away with heading right the entire time. Another part of what makes the level design disappointing is that it doesn’t really incorporate the environments in any meaningful way. I really don’t like having to give the original games any kind of praise due to their incredibly obtuse natures, but I feel I must to keep things fair. For all of their faults, the levels in the original Bubsy and Bubsy II did throw a variety of challenges the player’s way. The latter even included shoot ‘em up sections. None of that ambition worked in their favor, but I still give those teams some credit for trying. I find I cannot do the same for Black Forest Games’s effort. On his journey to stop the Woolies, Bubsy goes through a pleasant meadow and a dry desert before making his way to their spaceship. Other than a change of scenery and the occasional environmental hazard, you are basically doing the exact same things in each stage. No variety, no personality, no care, no nothing.
As you may have also surmised from my description of Bubsy’s journey, it is also remarkably short. When I first saw the world map, I assumed that the screen would scroll to reveal more of the path a la Donkey Kong Country 2. I was wrong; the world map of The Woolies Strike Back really does fit onto a single screen. Indeed, one might say that, in a strange way, the unpolished controls and questionable hit detection are the only reasons the game has any kind of challenge at all. If these issues didn’t exist, even a novice would be able to complete the game in an hour. As it stands, they would have to settle for clearing it in two hours. A game the publishers charged $40 for could be completed in one sitting on a Saturday morning long before the clock strikes noon. Even the most insipid, assembly-line products commissioned by Activision had more to them than this game. At least Call of Duty had a reasonably enjoyable multiplayer mode to fall back upon. What does The Woolies Strike Back have? Once again, the answer is nothing.
Is there anything good about this game? Sort of. I think the boss fights are some of the best the series have ever had. It’s an extremely low bar, but once you adjust yourself to the shaky hit detection, the boss fights have an intricate design to them, presenting a multifaceted challenge with fair tells that aren’t painstakingly obvious. However, this bit of goodwill is wasted as well. Their fatal flaw doesn’t really have to do with how they’re implemented, but rather factors that extend beyond the game itself. The simple truth is that there are plenty of other games with boss fights just as good and often better than the three in The Woolies Strike Back in addition to providing much more content in general.
It’s difficult to praise a series for doing something well when, in a vacuum, said triumphs are only so in relation to its past blunders. Of course, The Woolies Strike Back looks amazing when compared to its disastrous predecessors, but merely being better than the worst isn’t enough. It’s as though when making the game, the developers fell back on the fact that what they were creating wouldn’t be as bad as Bubsy 3D. While they did, in the strictest sense, succeed, it is a hollow victory not worthy of being celebrated.
Drawing a Conclusion
The Bubsy franchise is one that has had a rather strange afterlife. Once everyone decided Bubsy 3D wasn’t good, many became more critical of the originally acclaimed 2D entries. This criticism was well-deserved because while many were stunned that a viable franchise could fall so far, Bubsy 3D merely took problems the series always had and made them unignorable. A barely controllable mess with horrible level design is pretty bad in two dimensions, but it’s absolutely insufferable in three. In the early days of the internet age in particular, the public perception of the series began to sour, and it would later be dismissed as one of the countless Sonic the Hedgehog clones despite its reasonably successful inaugural title. Not helping matters was that the Sonic franchise itself would experience a massive downward swing in the 2000s starting with Sonic Heroes – the series’ first objectively bad mainline entry.
However, in the 2010s, once American AAA developers began to employ increasingly unethical business practices such as review embargoes and microstransactions, enthusiasts began longing for the medium’s early days. I found I couldn’t really sympathize with these nostalgic sentiments because, while the American AAA industry had well and truly lost their way in the 2010s, there were many equally unethical business practices present in the so-called golden age. Those were the days in which developers made their games as cryptic as possible to push the sales of hint books – a practice not dissimilar to microtransactions. And while it is shady of companies to engage in review embargoes, their predecessors could take advantage of the lack of a centralized database to sell games based off of brand recognition alone. It’s inaccurate to say the greed only started in 2009 following the release of Modern Warfare 2 when Bobby Kotick decided ethics were roadblocks to success – it was always there.
Despite this, I found I wasn’t entirely unsympathetic to the fans’ sentiments either. Critic Bob Chipman pointed out after the announcement of The Woolies Strike Back that creators had done a good job distancing themselves from the medium’s roots as much as possible. With a greater emphasis placed on computing power over substance, AAA productions universally adopted realism as its art style. One could argue this drastically limited what kinds of games could be made. Adding Fire Flowers, floating rings, or life-replenishing hearts in the average 2010s American AAA game would only succeed in invoking the Uncanny Valley effect.
On the back of that, I must point out Mr. Chipman’s thesis wasn’t entirely sound. He strongly suggested that the diversity in the character designs made the efforts of those following in the footsteps of Sonic the Hedgehog superior to the dime-a-dozen military shooters flooding the market throughout the 2010s. If franchises such as Battlefield or Call of Duty were guilty of anything, it was trying to capture lightning in a bottle. You would be lucky if the various Sonic the Hedgehog clones were playable. One may argue these character designs required more imagination, and the extreme cynicism that allowed Activision’s business model to stay afloat for an anomalously long time is far worthier of contempt. However, it still doesn’t change that a work crafted from the deepest recesses of one’s imagination may as well not exist if it’s so horrible, nobody else wants to experience it themselves. I know if I lost a bet and had to choose between playing Call of Duty: Ghosts or any of the Bubsy games from the 1990s, I would choose the former without hesitation.
Now, The Woolies Strike Back is in a bit of a strange position because, as of 2017, it was by far the most playable Bubsy game. The first three games tried and failed to be Sonic the Hedgehog whereas the fourth tried and failed to blaze the trail for 3D platforming. This may give some people cause to declare it the best of the franchise’s first five games – for whatever little that is worth. However, I find I cannot agree. If the previous games tried and failed to achieve some level of greatness, The Woolies Strike Back is guilty of not trying at all. Moreover, a work isn’t good or even average just because it’s not the worst thing out there. As it stands, The Woolies Strike Back is an improvement over the original games in the sense that the series traded in bad design sensibilities for standard ones. The game wasn’t impressive in 2017, but even if it had been released in the 1990s, it still would have been ruinously behind the curve.
The Woolies Strike Back isn’t the worst game ever made – not even being the nadir for the Bubsy series itself. However, by that same token, I couldn’t possibly recommend it in any fashion – not even an ironic one. While Mr. Chipman deservedly called out the modern-military shooter scene for its many, many unfortunate implications and extreme jingoism, I have to say that what The Woolies Strike Back does isn’t so different. Much like how the Call of Duty series represented the American AAA industry’s lack of creative vision, The Woolies Strike Back is a transparently cynical attempt to cash in on the nostalgia of the medium’s earliest adopters. If anything, The Woolies Strike Back is worse off, having less to offer than the average, contemporary Call of Duty installment. Keep in mind that, the Call of Duty series had already spent a better part of a decade diluting its content to maximize profits for little effort, so for The Woolies Strike Back to provide even less than that is truly astounding. While I can accept that there are several efforts worse than The Woolies Strike Back, giving the Call of Duty franchise a claim to the artistic high ground over itself cements it as one of the weakest games of the 2010s.
Final Score: 1/10