Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back

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?

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Bokosuka Wars II

Kōji Sumii’s Bokosuka Wars proved to be a revolutionary game upon its 1983 debut on the Sharp X1. By commanding the forces of King Suren, players needed to smart tactics to defeat the evil King Ogereth. Having won a Software Contest held by ASCII Entertainment, Bokosuka Wars laid the building blocks for both real-time strategy and tactical role-playing games. Even now, it is considered one of most notable releases of the early 1980s in Japan. However, its reception in the West was far more mixed. Because it never saw an international release, it remains a practical nonentity among Western gamers. The few that are aware of its existence dismiss it as a half-formed action-adventure game due to primarily being exposed to its Famicom port, which significantly downplayed the strategy elements. Nonetheless, its impact on the medium is very real, and those who enjoy series such as Fire Emblem or Shining Force have Bokosuka Wars to thank for blazing the trail in the first place.

It seemed that the game would enjoy its status as an obscure, standalone, if highly influential title. However, in the year 2016, something unexpected happened. A sequel, simply entitled Bokosuka Wars II was released for various platforms, including the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. In the thirty-three-year interim between entries, the medium had changed quite a bit. While the original Bokosuka Wars was in a class of its own, people now had names for the genres it invented. In light of the incredible amount of evolution that took place between 1983 and 2016, what does Bokosuka Wars II have to offer?

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Super Pitfall

David Crane’s Pitfall! ended up being one of the most popular games on the Atari 2600, selling over four-million copies when it debuted in 1982. Players assumed the role of an adventurer named Pitfall Harry, who sought to collect all of the treasures in a jungle. It broke the mold for gaming as a whole, codifying many conventions of the side-scrolling platformer genre. Pitfall! was also notable for having been one of the most successful products conceived by a third-party company: Activision. During the first and second console generations, companies didn’t think to credit developers for their work. Some crafty developers would circumvent this by placing Easter eggs in their games, but the behavior was discouraged. This is what caused a collection of developers, including Mr. Crane, to form Activision in the first place. Such was the game’s popularity that despite its sequel, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, having been released in the wake of the North American industry’s crash, it still managed to become one of the Atari 2600’s most lauded titles.

One year later, the North American gaming industry would regain its footing with a little help from a Japanese company named Nintendo. Following a long, arduous campaign to convince retailers to stock their own gaming console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), it proceeded to sell millions of units. Included with the purchase of these systems was a copy of Super Mario Bros. This game could be said to have perfected the side-scrolling platformer formula using the blueprints Pitfall! drafted. While Pitfall! itself was a beloved classic, Super Mario Bros. ascended to a level of fame that left a definable impact on pop culture after it became the greatest-selling game in history at the time.

With many famous games predating the crash such as Pac-Man and Galaga having well-received ports on the NES, it seemed only natural that the Pitfall! series would be represented on the console as well. For this installment, dubbed Super Pitfall, Activision outsourced the job to a Japanese developer named Mirconics. This company was primarily in charge of porting arcade games to the NES, including Elevator Action, Ikari Warriors, and 1942, so Super Pitfall would be their chance to make a good impression with an original work. Were they able to do so?

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Bubsy 3D

Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind allowed the title character to become Accolade’s mascot, being one most successful Western console games of 1993. Despite the game’s success, series creator Michael Berlyn left the team shortly after its release. Despite this, Accolade wished to keep their character’s success going, and commissioned a sequel. However, because Accolade nearly went bankrupt developing Bubsy, this new team had nothing but contempt for Mr. Berlyn’s character. They made it clear in interviews they were forced to make a follow-up and didn’t care about its quality. This apathetic team ended up making two games: Bubsy II and Bubsy: Fractured Furry Tales. Both debuted in 1994; the former on many of the same platforms as the original and the latter on the ill-fated Atari Jaguar. The little amount of care that went into these works was evident. While Bubsy II made marginal improvements to the gameplay, Fractured Furry Tales proceeded to mimic the original. Not surprisingly, Bubsy II ended up receiving more acclaim from critics.

Mr. Berlyn made it no secret that he hated both games, as he was not involved in their creation. Fortunately for him, he was about to get a chance to make a triumphant return. The second and third installments of the Bubsy series did not fare well commercially. Therefore, Accolade approached Mr. Berlyn to develop a new installment in their rapidly sinking franchise. He agreed to their terms under one condition: the new game was not to be a retread of the original. Moreover, he sought to set his sights higher by doing something the gaming world, by and large, had never seen before. His team was to explore uncharted territory by making this new installment a platforming game with a fully three-dimensional presentation. The amount of ambition that went into this game was truly remarkable. Characters models would be composed of flat, shaded polygons, it was to feature cutscenes animated by hand, and Mr. Berlyn intended to give Bubsy a true voice.

Satisfied with how the game was turning out, Mr. Berlyn attended the Consumer Electronics Show in January of 1996 in order to demonstrate the beta of their work – aptly named Bubsy 3D. While he likely intended to make waves, little did he know that he was about to receive a brutal wake-up call.

As early as 1991, Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo had been playing around with the idea of a three-dimensional game starring his company’s own mascot, Mario. A mere five years later, he and his team were bringing this vision into reality in the form of a game named Super Mario 64. Mr. Berlyn realized after seeing its beta that his own game was vastly inferior to Nintendo’s offering. Indeed, Nintendo had stopped at nothing to ensure Super Mario 64 was as polished as they could make it, and delayed the game’s console, the Nintendo 64, to June of 1996. This was a luxury Accolade didn’t have. To make matters worse, another developer named Naughty Dog was about to enter the console business by having their own 3D platformer, Crash Bandicoot, debut on the PlayStation. This would ensure direct competition between it and Bubsy 3D.

Mr. Berlyn, realizing he couldn’t take what he learned from watching the Super Mario 64 demonstration, vowed to use the little remaining time to make Bubsy 3D as good as possible. The game was released in November of 1996 – five months after the domestic release of Super Mario 64. Despite being seen as an overall worse effort than Super Mario 64, Bubsy 3D managed to receive mixed reviews, earning acclaim from sources such as GameFan, GameZilla, and derision from others, including Next Generation and Electronic Gaming Monthly. Despite this, PSExtreme was particularly enthusiastic about the game, giving it 93% and their “Gold X Award”. The reviewer in question compared it to a Warner Brothers cartoon. Against the truly fearsome Nintendo, how has Mr. Berlyn’s effort fared in hindsight?

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Ballz

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior took the world by storm when it debuted in arcades in February of 1991. The competitive fighting game had existed since the mid-eighties, but Street Fighter II codified the genre. Countless enthusiasts formed long lines around the arcade cabinets, which eventually collected over two-billion USD in gross revenue within the next four years, meaning roughly nine-billion quarters were spent to play this game. Not surprisingly, when Capcom created ports for the prominent platforms of the fourth console generation, they became instant bestsellers.

In the wake of this overwhelming success, many developers saw potential in the exciting, new genre. One such developer was the San Francisco-based PF Magic. Their game was to be released on the Super NES, Sega Genesis, and 3DO. Tapping into the often sophomoric zeitgeist of the nineties, they titled their fighting game Ballz. Just to hit home that subtlety was off the table, the opening of the game stated “To be the champion, you gotta have Ballz!” Predictably, Nintendo wasn’t pleased and demanded the wording be changed for the SNES port. This version states “You gotta play Ballz!” The Genesis version was originally going to have online multiplayer support, which would have been made possible with the Edge 16, a planned modem adapter for the console. The plans for peripheral were scrapped by the time Ballz saw its release in 1994. Despite this setback, Ballz was released to a fairly warm reception. Famicom Tsūshin awarded it twenty-eight points out of a possible forty, Electronic Gaming Monthly gave the Genesis version a 6.2 out of 10, and GamePro wrote a positive review, praising its balanced gameplay and humorous sound effects. How does Ballz fare when compared to the countless other classic fighting games released around this time?

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Anubis II

In the 2000s, British developer Data Design Interactive had the idea to remake the classic Amiga game Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimision for the then-current console generation. This plan fell through when Zoo Digital Publishing, unimpressed with DDI’s efforts, canceled the project. Not to be deterred, DDI continued with the assets they created. Changing the theme and the protagonist, the end result was Ninjabread Man. The game was universally panned upon its 2005 release, becoming even more notorious in 2007 when DDI ported it to the Nintendo Wii under their Popcorn Arcade branding. Around the same time, DDI released another game utilizing the same engine as Ninjabread Man dubbed Anubis II. Does this game fare any better than Ninjabread Man, which is considered the textbook definition of shovelware?

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Nerves of Steel

In 1993, a company named Rainmaker Software released their inaugural title: Isle of the Dead. It was released around the same time as id Software’s Doom. As both it and their previous effort, Wolfenstein 3D, codified the first-person shooter in the minds of gaming enthusiasts, Isle of the Dead was left to fall by the wayside. Computer Game Review magazine claimed it to be “the best knock-off of Wolfenstein 3D that anyone has created” – a quote proudly emblazoned on one of the boxes. Actually playing Isle of the Dead revealed it to be a less-than-satisfactory product, combining the worst aspects of early adventure games and pioneering first-person shooters. It is considered by the few who played it to be one of the worst games of the nineties.

Even with this setback, Rainmaker Software was not ready to throw in the towel. Two years after the release of Isle of the Dead, Rainmaker Software finished their sophomore effort: Nerves of Steel. Isle of the Dead fell into obscurity shortly after its release while Nerves of Steel immediately became a practical nonentity in the history books. Due to its poor commercial performance, Rainmaker Software ended up dissolving shortly thereafter. Could Nerves of Steel be considered an improvement over Isle of the Dead – for whatever that is worth?

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Ninjabread Man

The year 1983 marked the founding of a video game developer known as Data Design Systems. Despite developing many games on popular platforms such as the ZX Spectrum, the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive), nothing from their of their output managed to capture the attention of critics even in the face of their scant successes.

This began to change in the 2000s wherein they had an idea to remake Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension, a well-received Amiga classic, for a new generation of console enthusiasts. Zoo Digital Publishing commissioned Data Design Systems, now called Data Design Interactive, to bring this project into reality. Unfortunately, the publisher was unimpressed with DDI’s efforts, and subsequently canceled the project. Not letting this setback deter them, DDI soldiered onwards with the assets they created, changing both the theme and the character. The project was completed in 2005, debuting on the PlayStation 2 under the name Ninjabread Man. It eventually saw a North American and Australian release in 2007 for the Nintendo Wii as part of a series bearing the company’s Popcorn Arcade branding. Was this a game worth a two-year wait?

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Ride to Hell: Retribution

At the age of fourteen, Brain Jobling created games for the Atari 800, ZX Spectrum, and Commodore 64 personal computers. With the money he made from these projects, he founded Zeppelin Games in 1987 at the age of seventeen. From here, he and his company based in Newcastle upon Tyne, England developed games for various contemporary computer and console platforms, including Jocky Wilson’s Darts Challenge, Universal Warrior, and Sink or Swim. One of their most notable ventures came about from working with the famous U.K.-based publisher Codemasters to produce two titles based on the Micro Machines franchise and a tennis game bearing Pete Sampras’s name. In 1994, the company was acquired by Merit Studios, Inc., an American developer. They continued to develop their own games and were in charge of distributing Merit’s output in Europe.

The directors then managed to buy the company back from Merit Studios with help from the French publisher Infogrames in 1996. They were able to accomplish this when the gained developer and publisher status for the Sony PlayStation, renaming themselves Eutechnyx once the process was finished. This started a three-year agreement with Infogrames on the PlayStation and PC platforms, meaning that by 2000, Eutechnyx would become a fully independent developer once more. Since reacquiring the company in 1996, Eutechnyx focused primarily on racing titles, including a 2006 adaptation of The Fast and the Furious.

In 2008, Eutechnyx announced an entirely new project with the tentative title Ride to Hell. It was conceived as an ambitious open-world game similar to Rockstar’s bestselling Grand Theft Auto franchise. The game would be set in the deserts and small towns of California in the late sixties with characters representing the era’s biker counterculture. Collaborating with a company named Deep Silver Vienna, they intended use a film-style production model for development, employing motion capture and extensive voice acting. However, various outlets such as IGN reported that the project was canceled, and Deep Silver removed the game from its website. This turned out to be untrue, as Eutechnyx continued working the project, heavily revising its original concept. In early 2013, the Australia Classification Board assigned the game an R18+ rating, signifying its impending release. In April, the game resurfaced along with two other installments sharing the same branding. The three proposed games were: Ride to Hell: Retribution, Ride to Hell: Route 666, and Ride to Hell: Beatdown. The first game would be a biker themed brawler handled by Eutechnyx. The second was intended to be focus on road combat with development helmed by Black Forest Games. Finally, the creators sought to release the final title on mobile platforms.

Unfortunately for Eutechnyx, only the first of these games, Ride to Hell: Retribution, would see an official release in June of 2013. The dismal sales killed the series before either of the other two games had a chance to be made. Despite this setback, Ride to Hell: Retribution quickly became Eutechnyx’s most well-known product with many prominent gaming critics extoling its qualities. Does it live up to its immense reputation?

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Rise of the Robots

In the year 1991, Capcom’s classic game Street Fighter II: The World Warrior debuted in arcades worldwide. The game quickly became a hit and grossed an estimated total of $10.61 billion in revenue, only trailing Namco’s Pac-Man and Taito’s Space Invaders in that regard. As a direct result of this, many companies tried to follow in Capcom’s footsteps, leading to the creation of other successful franchises in the coming years such as SNK’s King of Fighters and Midway’s Mortal Kombat. Though early on, these titles were considered mere clones of Street Fighter II, once companies began to distinguish themselves from their obvious source of inspiration, it was clear in hindsight that Capcom codified an entirely new genre: the fighting game.

During the height of the game’s popularity, a privately owned developer named Mirage was founded in Cardiff, Wales. Within the company, a team of five programmers led by former Bitmap Brothers member Sean Griffiths sought to provide their own take on the rising trend. Entitled Rise of the Robots, Mr. Griffiths stated their work wouldn’t be a conventional fighting game – they were to use robots that fought and acted in a manner atypical for the genre. He claimed the computer-controlled combatants boasted a high level of artificial intelligence like which the gaming world had never seen and that they would “definitely have one over on Street Fighter II”.

As courageous as his claims were, the marketing campaign was even more impressive. One commercial in particular extoled the qualities of Rise of the Robots while it was being developed. It was to be a futuristic fighting game that would require an unprecedented level of strategy to complete. The graphics were created using Autodesk’s 3D software, and Mirage used the best technology available to them to animate the various robot fighters. Each of them took nearly two months to render, with each expected to have one-hundred frames of animation. The backgrounds were developed by a freelance interior designer by the name of Kwan Lee, who responded to Mirage’s advertisement for a graphic artist. The campaign also asserted the fighting moves were conceived by a martial arts expert, and that the opponents would actually learn from their mistakes, being able to read the player’s moves and counter accordingly. Furthermore, Brain May, best known as the lead guitarist of the legendary classic rock band, Queen, was hired to compose the music. Mirage was willing to ensure that every enthusiast could have the opportunity to play their game, making it available for the SNES, Genesis/Mega Drive, Amiga, 3DO, Phillips CD-i, and even Sega’s portable Game Gear console.

Mr. Griffiths and his team weren’t going to limit themselves to a single medium for their franchise either. There were plans to adapt Rise of the Robots into books, comics, television shows, and even a film. The takeaway from this is that in 1994 as the game was being developed, nearly everyone versed in the medium talked about it in one form or another. One of the publishing companies, Time Warner Interactive, successfully drove up hype to the extent that the name Rise of the Robots was nigh inescapable. Ironically, despite all of this effort, mentioning the game to newer fans will likely have them respond with confusion. Chances are great that most of them have never heard of it. How could a game with such an extensive marketing campaign possibly fall into obscurity?

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