This is Sonic the Hedgehog.
This is a photocopy of Sonic the Hedgehog.
This is a photocopy of a photocopy of Sonic the Hedgehog.
There seems to be a running narrative today that the Sonic the Hedgehog games aren’t any good. This is objectively false, because a man that denies the joy of running at top speed as a thorny blue hedgehog is not a man at all, but perhaps some manner of three angry ferrets stacked up in a trench coat. Yes, the Sonic the Hedgehog series, going all the way back to the Genesis, had some problems, there’s no doubt about that, but is it fun? Of course it is. Or, if you don’t personally enjoy it, I’m sure you can see how it could be fun to find just the right way to run and bounce along beating badniks and saving bunnies. I’ve never been a big fan of The Godfather, but I can acknowledge how it’s a well-constructed trilogy (or at least a pair). So let’s all agree Sonic the Hedgehog is a legend for a reason.
Of course, that is, more or less, the problem with Sonic the Hedgehog. Like with any legend, there are people on either side of the “is Sonic the Hedgehog good?” divide, and the major stumbling block for everyone involved seems to be… hm… video game studies needs more words… let’s call it “level interpretation”. In short, even in recent weeks, there have been a number of academic, objective looks at Sonic the Hedgehog levels/gameplay, and, unfortunately, no one seems capable of coming to a consensus. Somehow, we can agree that Super Mario Bros. 3 and Mega Man 3 and Final Fantasy 3 (USA) all have stages that are designed thoughtfully, but Sonic the Hedgehog 3? There are those that love those stages, and those that think the average STH level was created by Jackson Pollock randomly smearing pixels across the digital canvas. And this debate rages on, decades after the release of the original Sonic games, because games are important, dammit.
So what hope did anyone have of interpreting and copying Sonic the Hedgehog back in its prime?
Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind, aka Bubsy 1, was designed by Michael Berlyn, a man who previously worked on PC adventure games. Anyone from the era can see the “PC Adventure” aesthetic on display in Bubsy, as the titular feline mugs for the camera and makes tass comments with fur-real voice acting. While console games of the time seemed to focus on gameplay above other indulgences (a tradition that Nintendo seems to still follow with its generally mute Bowsers and Links), the PC was a land of daring narratives and living cartoons, so, while you might not see King Graham leading a physically-demanding adventure, you were pretty much guaranteed he’d be accompanied by a cowardly owl that narrated every damn thing. Oh no, Graham, the PC is so much more expressive than the console games of the day, but Bubsy is here to try to bridge that gap.
But that was only one half of Bubsy’s creation. As the legend (or Wikipedia) goes, when Berlyn encountered Sonic the Hedgehog, he liked the game quite a bit. In a mere week, he played nearly 100 hours of Sonic. That… does things to a man (I speak from experience), and, vowing to make his own dang Sonic game (I also did this… but all I had available was graph paper), Bubsy (Bubsy Bubsy) Bobca(aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa)t was born.
Of course, if gameologists still haven’t cracked the Sonic the Hedgehog code decades later, Berlyn wasn’t going to uncover “what makes this good” in time to cash-in on the fad. Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind isn’t the worst game in the world, or even the worst mascot platformer, but it isn’t all that great, either. You run, you jump, you have a little bit of a glide to better control Bubsy’s descent, and that’s about it. The whole game wears its Sonic influence on its sleeve, and, like Sonic, the game is at its best when you’re just barreling forward and expertly hopping over enemy after enemy. Unfortunately, not all the right lessons were learned in the transition from rodent to feline. For one thing, and one very important thing, Bubsy has a more traditional life meter in the form of, basically, three hits and you’re dead. This, as even Tim the Toolman Taylor learned in the 16-bit era, is the antithesis of a game where you’ve gotta go fast, as no one moves at full speed when they’re one hit away from a lost life. Without Sonic’s easily reclaimed rings, Bubsy is dramatically more fragile, and, ultimately, it detracts from the experience immeasurably. Luckily, the game isn’t that difficult, you just can’t zoom around at quite the speed of sound, and, at that point, you’re playing a weirdly unwieldy Mario clone. Not the worst thing in the world, and usually the kind of thing that gets worked out in the sequel.
Bubsy 2 was released a short year after the original Bubsy. This wasn’t super unusual for the era (I’m moderately certain there was a new Mega Man game in time for every third issue of Nintendo Power), but, presumably to speed things along and cash in on Bubsy-mania (not a thing) Berlyn and the original Bubsy team were completely replaced and/or ignored. A new design team set to work creating Bubsy 2, now faced with the conundrum of iterating on a game that they had only experienced as players. On one hand, that’s maybe not the worst thing in the world, as it’s probable this new team would be less likely to immediately fall into the trap of missing the flaws of a successful game thanks to being too close to the project; on the other hand, well, does creation work like that? It’s only natural that a creator will revisit a previous work, notice its issues faster than a casual consumer, and wish to create a refined, “perfect” version… which will inevitably look like crap in six months. Don’t blame me for this thinking, Lucas shot first. Point is that the new Bubsy team probably had a fifty-fifty chance of making an actually worthwhile sequel, and, spoilers, this toast landed butter side down. Into a sewer. An… unclean sewer.
Bubsy 2 is exactly what you’d expect of a clone of a clone. It improves on none of Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind’s flaws, and merely adds new, completely useless gameplay gimmicks. Bubsy can now shoot a gun with limited ammo (presumably in pursuit of that damn chaos emerald), use a smart bomb to clear the stage of monsters, and drop into a portable hole to avoid damage. There are also vehicle sections that wind up working like shoot ‘em ups. And… that’s about it. A handful of new gameplay features, none of them particularly exciting, and a complete lack of even so much as acknowledging problems from the previous game.
And, let’s be clear here, Bubsy 2 has its own share of problems. First and foremost, the level design is terrible, and, thanks to a glut of doors that go basically nowhere, confusing as all hell. The stages aren’t difficult, mind you, you just often find yourself inches from the goal, but there’s a wall, so you enter a nearby door, and you’re teleported somewhere on the clear other side of the world, and, go left or right, it doesn’t matter, just hope that the next door you find puts you on the other side of that wall, and not, as is a possibility, right back at the beginning of the stage (not that you’d notice you’re at the beginning of the stage until you see a checkpoint you’ve already cleared…). In 1994, this level design was just confounding, but in 2016, every (and I do mean every) level feels like trolling Super Mario Maker levels that play fast and loose with door placement and mocking the player with spike fields blocking goals. Sonic the Hedgehog is never this terrible: at least 90% of his stages are left to right affairs, or, if you’re backtracking, it’s only temporary and generally illusory, like ascending a spiral staircase. In Bubsy 2, you are literally all over the map, and whether it’s because the team was dealing with limited pixel space or simply had no idea what they were doing is immaterial in the face of the fact that the end result is about as fun as unscrewing an electrical socket with your tongue. You might accomplish something, but it’s more likely you’re going to come out of the experience a little fried.
So, you know what? Even with our finest scientists working on it, we still may never find what makes Sonic the Hedgehog tick. I don’t know, you don’t know, and Sonic Team clearly has no idea. But I can tell you what Sonic the Hedgehog would look like if it were awful, and it’s Bubsy 2.
Bubsy 2 is a copy of a copy, and, in the end, it’s just blurry and unrecognizable.
FGC #108 Bubsy 2
- System: Super Nintendo for the review, but there’s also a nearly identical Genesis version. A Gameboy version also apparently exists, but I hear it’s terrible, and I’m not willing to try it, even if it would only make my photocopy of a photocopy metaphor all the stronger. Also, against all odds, this game was apparently released on Steam a few months ago. It’s $3 for both Bubsy games? That’s too much.
- Number of players: 2 player alternating, like a lot of platformers from the era. Two player simultaneous Bubsy would be a cat-astrophe.
- Favorite stage: If I had to choose, I’d say the Egyptian stages, because they seem to contain the most period appropriate enemies. Though if I can use this bullet point to complain about the game some more, I’d point out that you can reenter completed stages, even though there’s absolutely no reason to do that, but you can’t just exit a completed stage, you have to finish the whole thing all over again. Damn everything.
- Favorite gag: The music levels are dreadful and generally boring (I’m not going to say “flat”), but the idea of using sharp symbols (♯) as spikes is inspired. That’s some pointed punnery!
- Refreshing: I guess one other thing that Bubsy has that Sonic doesn’t is “water slide” areas where Bubsy is just ushered along by the current. I don’t know what pisses me off more: that Bubsy somehow made waterslides (waterslides!) not fun, or that Sonic eventually adopted a similar mechanic for its 2-D “rail grinding” sections.
- Is there a mascot platformer worse than Bubsy 2? Oh, certainly. At least one involves a circus acro-bat.
- Just realized: This entry should have been Suikoden related.
- Did you know? There was a pilot produced for a Bubsy animated series, and it even starred Rob Paulsen, aka the voice of Raphael (80’s), Donatello (10’s), and Pinky (narf). Paulsen is the voice of Bubsy in the games, too, but I’d assume that those recording sessions lasted a whole seventeen minutes. Hey hey it’s talking Krusty.
- Would I play again? Perhaps as a cautionary tale for others, but that’s about it. This game is so bad!
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Disney Adventures in the Magic Kingdom for the NES. Oh boy, Donald and Goofy and 999 or so ghosts! Please look forward to it!