When Did the World Stop Loving Bubsy?

Bubsy Title Screen

Bubsy 3D has a reputation for being one of the worst video games of all time. The modern perception of the franchise at large seems to be of regret and dismay, but this wasn’t always true. The original game, which came out on both the Super NES and the Sega Genesis, was actually a fairly beloved game in its time. Beloved enough that a pilot for a TV cartoon series was created (though the show wasn’t picked up for a full season). Yes, in 1993, the old bobcat was at the top of his game.

The first game in the series — despite what the modern gaming crowd would have you believe — was reviewed quite well. For example, GamePro magazine gave the Genesis version of Bubsy high marks and called it “one of the pick’s of this year’s Genesis litter.”

Bubsy Review

(Keep in mind that the scores listed above are out of 5.)

It did two major things that were quite innovative for the time: it introduced a glide mechanic that allowed Bubsy to sail through the sky (Knuckles would “borrow” and improve upon this move in 1994’s Sonic the Hedgehog 3), and it contained an enormous amount of voice acting for a console video game in 1993.

Bubsy 2 came out in 1994 and was reviewed slightly worse than its predecessor, but it certainly wasn’t drawing the sort of ire the franchise gets now. Even in 1995, the general perception seemed to be that the original game was a goodie. Here’s an example that comes from the letters section of Game Players magazine, issue #75, from September of 1995:

Bubsy Does the Math

You can see that while the author of this letter was disappointed by the Jaguar’s Bubsy game (Bubsy in Fractured Furry Tales, which isn’t even acknowledged in the overall numbering scheme of the series), he bought it because he thought the Genesis version (the original game, I assume) was “cool.” In his response, Mike from Game Players seems to be a bit snarky about the Bubsy franchise in general, but he doesn’t really articulate his grievance (I had to read this like three times before I realized the “kitty-kat” he mentions is the Jaguar system and not Bubsy). It’s possible he just doesn’t think Bubsy in Fractured Furry Tales was a legitimate system seller, or maybe he had a thing against cartoon cats; Game Players‘ image was all about “edge” after all.

In another example, GamePro‘s 89th issue contained some preview coverage of the upcoming Bubsy 3D, and they seemed to enjoy the first game while calling the second “lamentable.”

Bubsy 3D Preview

It wasn’t until 1996, with the release of Bubsy 3D, that the real hate began to trickle in. GameSpot’s Bubsy 3D review referred to the character as “the most annoying kitty in all of gamedom.”

Even so, several other reviewers were able to separate Bubsy 3D from its predecessors, explaining the flaws of the latest game in the series while showing an appreciation for the 16-bit-era games. And look at all these pull quotes from the Bubsy 3D ad:

Bubsy 3D Pull Quotes

These quotes were once thought to have been faked, but I’ve chased down the original sources for them to verify they were all legitimate. Some might point out that at least one of the pull quotes comes from preview coverage and not review coverage, but I’d shoot back that this isn’t an unusual practice. As someone who used to write in the industry, I can say with confidence that most pull quotes come from preview coverage and not review coverage, and that people previewing games tend to be much more positive about them than people reviewing them.

All of this said, it doesn’t seem like the industry at large was ready to bury the old bobcat in the dirt quite yet.

The Wikipedia entry for Bubsy 3D¬†claims the game was “heavily panned,” but it pulls a majority of its “Reception” section from Game Rankings’ five aggregated reviews. Of these reviews, only one of them was written close to the time of Bubsy 3D’s launch date (which was Halloween of 1996). GameSpot’s review was published in December of 1996. Absolute PlayStation’s review wasn’t published until a year later (November of 1997), EGM and GamePro scores came out in 2003, and ¬†the Electric Playground review was published in 2004. The Wikipedia entry also lists sources such as a GamesRadar piece (published in 2009), a GameTrailers piece (published in 2006), and a Seanbaby piece (the publication date of which has long been lost to the bowels of the Internet.) All this to say, Wikipedia’s portrayal of Bubsy 3D‘s “Reception” is retroactive and does very little to explain what the general opinion of the game (or franchise) was in 1996.

I spoke with Bubsy’s creator, Michael Berlyn, who worked on the original Bubsy game and Bubsy 3D (though he had nothing to do with Bubsy 2 or the Jaguar-exclusive Bubsy in Fractured Furry Tales). While he told me that Bubsy 3D was his “greatest failure,” he also seemed to remember the reception for the game being fairly mediocre rather than flat-out abysmal:

[F]rankly, it did pretty good. It didn’t do great. I mean, it was no Mario 64, but it did pretty good. There were a lot of good ideas in it. And for a platformer in 3D, no one had really done one before. So I kind of took solace in the fact that, for a stab in the dark, it was pretty good.

He also mentioned that Accolade, the publisher who had the rights to Bubsy in the 90s, was pushing Berlyn to do a fourth game while he was trying to pitch new properties:

Accolade said, “Ummmmm, I don’t think so. We’re more interested in a Bubsy 4.” And I said, “I really think Bubsy’s dead by now. Between what you guys did with Bubsy 2 and What I did with Bubsy 3D, it’s time to move on.” They didn’t agree.

This strongly suggests that even Bubsy 3D had sold enough copies and was received positively enough that the publisher was more interested in another sequel than a brand new IP.

Bubsy

Berlyn also gave me some perspective on the development of Bubsy 3D. Keep in mind that developers in the mid-1990s were struggling to figure out how to develop games in 3D, and several companies were racing to publish the first 3D platformer. While that honor almost certainly goes to a French game called Alpha Waves, released in 1990, the rest of the world failed to notice, and it’s likely that none of the developers of the mid-90s platformer rush had even heard of it. Plus, when you look at Bubsy 3D, Super Mario 64, and Crash Bandicoot (all of which launched in 1996) side by side by side, you can see three radically different approaches to the concept of “3D platformer.”

Flash-forward to 2008, when IGN did a retrospective on the Bubsy franchise. Even then, the writer wasn’t willing to write off the first game as any less than “only a mediocre game,” and he admits that “Bubsy was not without charms” and “Bubsy‘s art direction was quite good.” However, once he gets into Bubsy 3D territory, he claims, “It goes without saying that many publishers and developers struggled with the transition to 3D, but Bubsy 3D is a very special example of this difficult period.”

It’s a very fair assessment of the franchise as a whole, of the flaws of the series, and of the technical difficulties of bringing a 2D franchise into the third dimension.

But in 2012, YouTuber JonTron would release this video, which would get over 5 million hits and shape the modern perception of Bubsy:

Here we see the willingness to completely and utterly decimate the entire franchise, from the original game to the failed Bubsy 3D. Now, JonTron was careful to articulate his grievances with the original game, and he makes some really great points. He’s annoyed that a 2D platformer would include fall damage (which is a fair assessment in 2012, but I’m guessing that the mindset in 1993 was that this would be used to offset Bubsy’s glide mechanic).

He’s also confused by some of the enemies, claiming that Bubsy’s gumball machines are visually too similar to Sonic’s checkpoint markers, and that the cars don’t look threatening enough that players will naturally be inclined to avoid them. However, in 1993, it could be assumed that players would have had access to Bubsy’s instruction booklet, which contained clear warnings about these very hazards.

Bubsy Gumball Machine
Bubsy Cars

It’s important to keep in mind that game manuals used to provide a lot of context for things that weren’t explicitly explained within their games. We’ve moved beyond this by now, and most of us expect all the necessary information to be contained within the game rather than some dusty old manual. However, in 1993, this wouldn’t have been the expectation.

JonTron also mentioned that the enemy hit boxes were far too big, which he illustrates with a screenshot (and this complaint is totally valid).

Now, it’s not weird that JonTron didn’t like the game in 2012. What is weird, however, is that ever since his video was published, just about any media mention of the franchise you can find is extremely vitriolic.

We see this everywhere, from iretrogamer’s video retrospective (which has since been taken down) to Jim Sterling’s discovery of the Bubsy Two-Fur Greenlight campaign (shown below).

Polygon’s coverage of the same Bubsy: Two-Fur campaign is equally filled with disdain. Time and time again, we can see Bubsy getting brutally lambasted in any coverage of the franchise at all.

In the present, it’s perfectly okay to not enjoy a relic from the 1990s like the Bubsy series, especially after the failure of its later entries. But it seems strange to me that the general perception switched so radically based on one popular YouTube video. And sure, the old reviews I dug up are certainly not the easiest pieces of writing to find these days, but you’d think that someone somewhere would remember that they existed. I know there are still a few old-timers like myself working in current games journalism.

All of this, I think, points out how short most of our memories can be. It’s always tempting to look at something old and contextualize it in today’s modern world, and it takes a little bit more effort to understand the context in which a piece of entertainment was created. However, that effort is worth it for anyone who wants to have an informed opinion.

In the case of Bubsy, we’ve forgotten so, so much.

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