Andrew in Steamland:
Bubsy 1 & 2
It had to happen eventually, right? How could I not cover one of the most infamously awful game series of all time? Still, I was initially hesitant to review Bubsy, and not only because the games are bordering on unplayable. If something is the subject of a JonTron video, then it’s a safe bet that it’s already well-known enough that there’s little I can contribute to the conversation. Maybe that sounds hypocritical coming from a guy who reviewed Mighty No. 9; but if that game’s low-hanging fruit, then Bubsy is a root vegetable. I ignored it for a long time… and then it came to Steam.
More accurately, the SNES versions of the first two games (Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind and Fractured Furry Tales), which run inside a modified version of the SNES9x emulator. Allegedly, the SNES9x code was used without permission. I wouldn’t know about the veracity of that, but I can say that it’s a godsend for players, since this means savestates are built into the games. Some might say this breaks the pacing and difficulty curve; I say both of those are already broken enough that any change to make the games easier should be welcomed.
Maybe I’m being presumptuous. Not everyone knows about a failed mascot platformer from the mid-90s. As with a lot of things wrong with the world, the blame can be laid at the feet of a certain Sonic T. Hedgehog. It may be hard to believe now, but in the early 90s, the Sonic series, not yet tarnished by a bizarrely photorealistic princess and her hedgehogging ways, was the face of gaming. Sega’s ability to break Nintendo’s monopolistic control of the console market was almost completely due to the immense prestige of the Sonic series. Sonic had Blast Processing, a high-profile comic series, two concurrently running cartoons, and an in-your-face marketing campaign. A number of lesser studios, dreaming of building a multimedia empire, created their own animal mascots with attitude problems.
Enter Bubsy the Bobcat. He’s fast like Sonic, makes witty quips like Sonic, and moves uncontrollably fast, dying before the player can begin to react, just like Sonic as seen through the eyes of IGN and Arin Hanson. The physics are as slippery as a greased pig on an Alaskan highway in December. The player doesn’t control Bubsy so much as he slides around the screen at mach speed with a death wish. The game doesn’t have any HP system, so any hit will kill Bubsy; making matters worse is that everything is lethal. There’s such an astounding variety of death animations that it feels like that was the first part of the game Accolade came up with, while the rest was an afterthought. One example that stands out is the car enemy that appears in the first level. If the player tries to jump on it (the only way enemies can be killed), it will instead abduct Bubsy, deducting a life from his total and sending him back to the last checkpoint. Don’t confuse it with the other car enemies in the same level, which can be jumped on!
I shouldn’t have to say all this. All it takes to brand Bubsy a failure is the presence of falling damage. And don’t drag Super Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie into this- those were 3D platformers with reasonable movement speed, responsive controls, top-notch stage design, and clear graphical design. Most importantly, Mario and Banjo don’t die in one hit. Compare Bubsy with its uncontrollable protagonist and labyrinthine levels dripping with great globs of sprite bukkake.
The stage layouts are equally muddled, and other than the goal being somewhere to the right, there isn’t much to give them direction. Most levels are riddled with doors that might send Bubsy to bonus areas, or forward in the level, or backward. I assume they’re supposed to be like the pipes in Mario, but those serve a purpose in advancing the player through the level. One early level in Bubsy has a door that sends the player behind the starting position, with no lives or bonus items to justify such a setback. Joke’s on me for trying to engage with the game and its mechanics. The moment-to-moment flow of gameplay is further broken up by log flumes that are inserted into what feels like every level. As if to emphasize how jarring they are, the game interrupts the music for a Price is Right-esque failure jingle every time Bubsy falls into one.
Then there are the bosses, which neatly summarize the game’s flaws. Dying in one hit makes them incredibly punishing, especially when the game’s physics don’t allow the player to reliably jump on them. Platformers tend to have simple collision detection: Mario’s is position-based, allowing the player to squash enemies as long as Mario is above them, while Sonic’s is based on whether Sonic is curled into a ball or not. At first glance, Bubsy seems to follow the Mario approach, but after a while I noticed some discrepancies. Sometimes, for reasons indecipherable to me, Bubsy can defeat enemies by jumping into them sideways. To the extent that it works at all, it works best on large enemies, and all bosses share the same sprite. Once I noticed they’re all essentially the same fight, I started wedging Bubsy into the boss’ sides, killing them while they’re supposed to be invulnerable. Even jumping on them successfully will fling Bubsy across the screen at an unpredictable angle, killing him more often than not, so I feel no shame in exploiting some faulty programming to make things easier.
Before playing this game, I wondered if Bubsy really deserved its reputation. Maybe it wasn’t all that bad, and an otherwise unremarkable series was enshrined in the gaming hall of shame by the execrable Bubsy 3D. But it actually is that bad. I can’t even give it the benefit of the doubt for aging poorly; not when so many of its contemporaries accomplish what it tries to do. Almost any platformer from the 16-bit era puts it to shame, even the painfully flawed, mediocre ones like Chaotix. Bubsy has aged from being frustratingly bad to being unfathomably awful.
Or, to borrow one of the soundbites the lisping bastard utters before each level, “That’s it, I’m out of here, you can’t make me.”
All right, so what if the first game is a disaster? That means they could only go up, right? Bubsy 2 is a more ambitious game than its predecessor. No longer simply a poor man’s Sonic, this game incorporates SHMUP levels and weapon-based combat. As interesting as these new mechanics are, they’re counterbalanced by even worse platforming. Bubsy’s movement feels more sluggish; his jump height and movement speed have been noticeably reduced, negating any advantage from the marginally more precise controls.
Perhaps because of development resources being diverted to new gameplay mechanics, the game is significantly shorter than the first one. I consider this a credit, though, because it means there’s less time for it to wear on me with recycled bosses and reused stage design. It helps that there was an effort to keep things fresh by making the game less linear. Even if I don’t particularly want to play any level, being able to choose one makes it sting less. It’s like being offered a selection of those nasty flavors Jelly Belly makes as a joke.
Those are my initial impressions, anyway. As I played more, I slowly understood that Bubsy 2 is more than the sum of its parts. It’s madness, yes, but there’s a method to it. The interplay between its SHMUP mechanics and action-platformer segments, together with greater potential for exploration, create a game more satisfying than putting any of its individual aspects under a microscope would suggest. Mastering the new weapons makes up for what I initially took to be steps backward for the gameplay. I feel comfortable recommending that players start with the sequel, even if some Bubsy purists insist that the first game is indispensable to the overarching story.
There are still rough spots, of course. I’d greatly prefer tighter controls, non-linearity is sometimes used as an excuse for time-wasting missions that require the player to explore remote corners of levels (which are, if anything, more sprawling and directionless than in the previous game), and the new game+ mode, in which players take the role of Bubsy’s companion 9liveS, feels superfluous. This is the kind of game that will polarize people, and you may be better off playing it for yourself than taking my word for it.
In the end, Bubsy: Nyatomata is an enjoyable game, but not the masterpiece its partisans claim it to be. 7/10