Friday 3 April 2020

Bubsy for the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis

Or to give it the full nomenclature, Bubsy the Bobcat in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind, the dreadful punning should come as something of a warning. As should the heavy dose of 90s hoky. Just check out the blurb: "Don't just watch cartoons, play 'em dude." Really. Obnoxious, baggy t-shirt wearing teens pumped full of irreverent attitude were sure to find this invitation beguiling. But nevertheless, Bubsy was very much of the moment and, indeed, was a player in the great mascot rush that dominated console gaming in the first half of the decade.

Unfortunately, Bubsy has a pretty poor reputation and has found the franchise, until its recent PlayStation 4 and Switch reboot, become a bygone word for bad games. Which isn't really fair. While it is true Bubsy 3D for the PS1 is known for broken game design and general awfulness, the first two games were relatively well-received outings on the MegaDrive and the Super Nintendo. It seems the general opprobrium the 16 bit efforts get now are partly framed by its three dimensional disaster, and herd opinion as filtered through video game YouTube. It's a shame because Claws Encounters isn't, well, that bad. Though not bad doesn't necessarily mean worth playing now.

Gameplay is pretty standard 16 bit platforming fare. A ridiculous plot (this time, the alien "Woolies" have invaded Earth to steal our supply of yarn) that involves the titular character moving from left to right picking up collectibles - in this case, yarn balls - with a number of extra lives and power ups to be collected along the way. Enemies are dispatched by jumping on them Mario/Sonic stylee, and each zone ends with a boss fight. So far, so unoriginal. But there are a few things Accolade tried out with their mascot that are, well, interesting. First were the production standards. Yeah, whatevs the cartoon stuff but Bubsy is quite a pretty game. Not up there with MegaDrive Sonic but appealing enough, especially the first area. The greens and the blues make for an eye-popping and pleasant initial impression. The second are the water slides, which were clearly inspired by those Sonic segments where you could sprint and spin without worrying some beastie is about to cost you a life. There are intra level warps which, if played around enough with, will ferry you off to a bonus area riding the lava tubes for more yarn collating japes. And on the character of Bubsy himself, a lot of work went into the animations he performs. Sadly, most of these animations were oh so hilarious death animations, almost as if the developers knew their creation was horribly irritating and took pleasure in killing him off as entertainingly as possible.

This is where you get to the problems with the game: you'll be seeing these animations a lot, and this comes down to very basic flaws in game design. If your mascot is a Sonic knock off who's all about speed, you need to provide room to stretch the character's abilities. And on first glance, the slides, the long platforms, the plethora of downhill paths and, in world two, a rollercoaster track simply invites sprinting. But you try it and you'll find one of the many one-touch-death enemies breaking your stride. Even worse, get in one of the water slides, where you barely control things, and you'll find baddies situated in them too. And more than one chute will drop you onto a pack of woolies. What can you say, bad enemy placement is a bane. There's also plenty of occasions where precise jumping is required to sort out the enemies, but the emphasis on speed means precision is lacking. Frustrating. Even worse, there are two more innovations that prove annoying. Off the top of a jump Bubsy can glide, and if it's a big jump he can float some way across a level. However, this always ends up being blind (unless you know the lay out well) and typically ends in a cheap death. More annoying is the decision to make falls from a great height fatal. Presumably this was so more death animation hilarity can ensure (this either reduces Bubsy to a puddle, or more commonly a concertina), but it is incredibly tedious. And unnecessary, because lay out wise the levels could have worked without the cheap deaths, and it might have given players a bit more incentive to explore the game (each level is pretty sizeable, after all).

A notorious game that, well, doesn't live up to its rancid reputation. But is it worth playing nowadays? For me there was a touch of the dreaded nostalgics because we'd borrowed it from a mate at the time, and my opinion then seemed more forgiving than it is today. If you're interested in it as a curio, why not. Though be warned, it does wear thin and there are better time sinks out there.

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