I’ll be honest with you: the concept for this article came to me awhile back, when I challenged KI to beat Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the NES. The game is notoriously bad, largely due to the fact that the only reason most people know about it due to the Angry Video Game Nerd’s videos on it. Still, while watching him play it, eventually the game began to almost make sense to me. This led me to speculate: if this game had been released in a different time, at a different price point, would it have been considered as bad as it is? The game’s mechanics, attempting to reach the end of each level as Dr. Jekyll and trying to regain your sanity when the stress (damage) of being Jekyll turns you into the more aggressive Mr. Hyde. For its time, the game was certainly bad, but the concept struck me as sound, much more interesting than many art games we see today.
So what is the point of this article? Simply put, I’m going to be reexamining games that are generally considered to be horrible under an artistic lens. Are these games actually terrible or was the thin veneer of bad gameplay simply hiding a much broader message? After all, most art is considered inexplicable to the mainstream and a majority of games today that are classified as art are simply pretentious, all subverting the traditional form of video games in similar ways. Even more interesting, there are those out there that consider video games to be an art form all its own. From that stance, would even those games generally considered bad be art?
Today’s topic is Bubsy, specifically the first game in the series – Bubsy in: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind. Bubsy is somewhat infamous on the internet, generally considered the worst of the Sonic imitators that flooded the market during the early-to-mid 1990s. There were worse knockoffs: Awesome Possum springs to mind. Bubsy’s claim to infamy, however, was the fact that he had more games than any other terrible knockoff of its time. Worst of all, Bubsy’s last game – Bubsy 3D in: “Furbitten Planet” – is generally considered one of the worst video games of all-time.
The early Bubsy games are generally considered poorly-made knockoffs of Sonic the Hedgehog. When I look at them, however, I think they’re a little too poorly-made in some respects. Perhaps this is just madness brought on by playing Bubsy via the Steam re-release Bubsy Two-Fur, but some of the design choices in the original game just seemed too purposefully misguided to attribute to sheer incompetence. This has led me to consider the possibility that Bubsy wasn’t simply intended to be just another competitor in the imitation “anthropomorphic animal mascot platformer” race to the bottom. Could Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind instead be a shallow stealth parody of Sonic the Hedgehog?
Let’s take a look at Exhibit A: both Sonic and Bubsy run at incredibly fast speeds. In Sonic’s case, it’s pretty obvious. At this point, there is a not at all insignificant faction of the Sonic fandom that consider anything but mindless high-speed exercises in holding right to win to be a bastardization of the series’ concept (It actually makes me wonder if they played the original games in the first place). Nevertheless, high speed action played a significant role in Sonic’s development and in differentiating him from Mario. For Bubsy, however, the fast speed was more of a detriment to the overall concept. Bubsy’s controls were slippery, the camera moved at a much slower rate and the level design was actually more evocative of the Mario games. In the end, running at fast speeds in Bubsy would pretty much kill anyone without a purrfect memory of the stage layout and clawsome reflexes.
That brings me to my next point, Exhibit B. Anyone who’s ever actually played Bubsy will tell you that he typifies the one-hit wonder mechanic in video games. Bubsy is extremely furagile, considering he can be killed by cheese wheels, eggs and falling from great heights (in a platformer, no less!). To make matters worse, the yarn balls (Bubsy’s take on collectables) are entirely useless, to the extent where they don’t even give you extra lives when you collect enough of them (despite what the game’s manual tells you). Think about it though, if you took away Sonic’s rings, he’d also be a one-hit wonder. I can recall a particularly traumatic segment in the first Sonic game I ever owned – Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Game Gear – where I was flung into a boss battle with no rings and a child’s mind, believing that the only way to beat a boss would be to hit it and not, you know, just wait for the boss fight to finish itself while dodging bombs.
Of course, there’s more to this parody theory than mere gameplay mechanics. Even Bubsy’s attitude seems fairly familiar to anyone even remotely familiar with Sonic’s peripheral media, especially the cartoons from the 1990s: every other sentence out of Sonic’s earliest animated incarnations (all provided by Jaleel White, better known as Steve Urkel) was some watered-down kid-friendly take on the “attitude” that was prevalent in the mid ‘90s. Bubsy mainly kept his wisecracks to assorted puns and generally invoked a more Looney Tunes-inspired attitude. Meanwhile, the actual Sonic the Hedgehog, the one in the video games, also embodied the same rude ‘tude that was so prevalent at this point in time. The difference is in the way Sonic presents his attitude – through snarky pantomimes and gestures, non-verbally depicting his displeasure with being forced to stand still. In other words, if Bubsy was meant to emulate Looney Tunes characters, then Sonic was paying homage to cartoons of the silent era, Felix the Cat specifically springs to mind.
My last bit of evidence is tenuous at best, but it’s still interesting in retrospect. Both the original Bubsy and Sonic have similar stage breakdowns. Each themed area (classified as a “zone” in Sonic jargon) has 3 levels (“acts”) with a boss fight at the end of the third level/act. Another interesting similarity is that the final level in both games is generally considered its own area – though Final Zone borrows a lot of its aesthetic from the preceding Scrap Brain Zone and consists of a short corridor and the game’s final showdown with Dr. Robotnik.
Of course, most people would probably say that I’m just looking too deep into connections that really aren’t there. That I’m attempting to salvage a game that is generally considered abominable when in reality, it’s just mediocre at best. Obviously, even if Bubsy were poorly constructed on purpose, that’s really no excuse for such a thing. Another think that must be taken into account is that the post-revival video game market was still fairly young by the time Bubsy first hit video screens. Is it really reasonable to conceive that someone could come up with something as avant-garde as a parody of a recent mega-hit in a day and age where every video game had to sell at a minimum of $50?
Regardless, I feel like Bubsy’s status as a terrible game is generally overstated. Aside from Bubsy 3D (which is definitely an abomination), Bubsy’s games were more mediocre than anything. Spotty controls, bizarre level design and most prominently, an annoying purrotagonist may be strikes against the game, but it’s not necessarily unique to gaming’s most despised bobcat. All the same, looking at maligned games from a different perspective was fun – perhaps there will be a sequel to this article down the line.
What do you think? Is Bubsy actually the smartest video game parody of the 16-bit era or am I off my rocker? Feel free to sound off in the comments.