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Publisher: Accolade, Retroism
Platform(s): Windows, Sega Genesis, SNES
Back in the early 90’s, the battle for platforming supremacy was being fiercely waged between Sonic and Mario, not only being mascots for their respective consoles, but generally outselling all other titles by a considerable margin. Needless to say, it only made the prospect of creating the next big platformer all the more appealing with the results being varied to say the least, for with every Cool Spot or Kid Chamelon there was a Tearaway Thomas (a misguided attempt on the Amiga who while faster than Sonic also came with zero controllability) leaving gamers to wonder if anyone was capable of beating these two titans.
So enter Bubsy, a catchphrase-spouting homage to Warner Bros. cartoons who has to save the world’s collection of yarn balls from aliens called “Woolies” and with Bubsy having the world’s largest collection of yarn balls he sees it as being down to himself to stop them. In doing so Bubsy has to battle across sixteen stages ending in the Woolies mothership.
Perhaps it was nostalgia about the colourful cartoonish visuals or the still catchy 16bit soundtrack, but dusting off the Mega Drive (or Genesis for those outside of Europe), I was sure that it was going to be a fun trip back to a simpler time for gaming. Sadly, this was not to be as instead, I found an experience which made me wonder what exactly it was about this game that has stuck with me for all these years, let alone how it managed to spawn a further three sequels ending with the abysmal Bubsy 3D on the Playstation.
Designed to tap into that same cool element that Sonic embodied, no doubt thanks to the games creator Michael Berlyn being such a big Sonic fan, having found inspiration in the original game he’d openly admitted to being addicted to while dealing with his burnout from working on adventure games. Berlyn here is clearly trying to push it further still, so hence Bubsy wears a white t-shirt with an exclamation mark for no discernible reason, he dies in comical ways from crumbling to pieces, squishing into an accordion or when falling into water takes on an admiral pose as he sinks. All things the marketing team behind this game were keen to plug while promoting this game, even having Bubsy being portrayed as a wisecracking smart-alec despite the fact outside of a few overplayed soundbites, he doesn’t project this at all in the game.
The game design is unquestionably colourful and cartoonish, while wearing its Warner Bros. cartoon influence on its sleeve. Each level name is a cat-based pun while the level design at times can make it feel like you’ve stumbled into Toon Town from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That especially so with the rail carts and the gumball machine which shoots out its own gumballs. There are even moments in which Bubsy has to avoid a runaway piano! Bubsy meanwhile is a fun design and certainly is animated in his movements, tapping his feet or teetering on the edge of platforms, while his actual abilities are limited to killing enemies by jumping on them, turning him into cartoon dust cloud or his ability to glide between platforms.
One of the Main issues with the game is that while Mario and Sonic had their own unique forms of an energy bar–Sonic with his Rings and Mario’s mushrooms–Bubsy has nothing to compare, as the player is given nine lives (because he’s a cat) while a single hit, falling in water or more surprisingly falling from too great a height kills him instantly. Then it’s back to the last checkpoint. Due to the large amount of extra life t-shirts on the levels, I can only assume that this was the developer’s attempts to deal with the sheer amount of deaths a player will suffer on any given level.
Unsurprisingly, this bizarre choice of semi-realism makes for controller snapping levels of frustration, putting it into that special circle of gaming hell inhabited by the likes of Battletoads and Ninja Gaiden, a game so hard it spawned its own definition in “Gaiden Tough.” At the same time, it’s also a situation not helped by a broken hit detection which can see you getting killed for being slightly too close to an enemy. The real kicker though is when you die from walking down a steep hill too fast. Seriously. Bubsy is just a fragile soul that the mere act of falling over will kill him and it’s something which certainly burned me on more than a few occasions seeing him run down a hill only to suddenly stumble and die. It’s also around the third or fourth time you’ve been caught out by things like this or its wonky hit mechanic that the soundbites and comical deaths stop being funny and instead become strangely taunting.
While the sequel attempted to correct the combat mechanic by giving Bubsy a Nerf gun, and adding a multiplayer option were you can control one of Bubsy’s relatives, it’s sad to say they never got a handle on his character. This is arguably the best of the three games and while the potential for something special is clearly there, the wonky hit mechanics, let alone the ability to predict what lies ahead hampers this from being better than it potentially could have been.