Bubsy: The 90s Strike Back
Bubsy’s intrusion on this Fall’s release schedule coincides even more closely with Super Mario Odyssey than his last game, Bubsy 3D, coincided with Super Mario 64. At time of writing there are almost no reviews for Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back, but there is absolutely no reason to assume that the game will be any good. The promotional material looks barely comparable to a Steam-exclusive release and core components of the controls and design seem as clutzy as ever for the ill-fated wisecracker. Even the Bubsy Twitter got into a pretty embarrassing game of corporate smearing with the Sonic and Mega Man Twitters, with some aware and self-deprecating humor aimed, I can only assume, at softening a guaranteed critical failure with a little light banter.
But I’m fascinated by Bubsy Bobcat’s presence on the PS4, and not just for the audacity of reviving a character no one misses as a representation of a game industry that no longer exists. I think Bubsy, just by the fact of his return, can tell us a lot about the modern industry and especially about all the characters that used to be his competition.
The spirit behind his return is not dissimilar to that which energized Sonic Mania earlier this year. But where Sonic Mania banked on elevating a nostalgia project into the realm of a bonified throwback release, the new Bubsy seems intent on making a mockery of that idea. On Twitter, Bubsy self-inspected his own lack of critical appeal (“soaring to the middle of the charts”), which in the modern industry is something that he shares with Sonic. But unlike Sonic, Bubsy embraces his own shortcomings. He’s taking a really low high ground against his competition this time. Bubsy doesn’t Dr. Frankenstein the series’ old assets like Sonic Mania does but it also invents, seemingly with great purpose, nothing that is remotely new for the genre it helped to outmode.
From what I can tell, the major improvements to the game seem to be the ability to walk slow enough to see what’s in front of you before it’s inside you, and the option in the sound menu to turn off Bubsy’s iconic chatter. This is, of course, the ultimate blow for any series: an option to omit your main character’s defining feature. The equivalent in a Sonic game might be an option to play as Mario.
And speaking of Mario, Odyssey is of course blowing everyone away by paying clever homage to Super Mario 64 and, by extent, continuing a lucrative design template’s steady but sluggish evolution. It’s pertinent here since Super Mario 64 became the preemptive stitching needle through Bubsy’s smug upper lip the moment he decided to innovate his bad 2D games by perfectly translating all of their fatal flaws to 3D. The best thing to be said for Bubsy 3D was that there was no creative model for that kind of platformer when it was being developed (some reception at the time was even positive).
So it’s curious to me that the new Bubsy would coincide so closely to Odyssey. If Bubsy was trying to make himself look good he’d have learned his lesson and moved his big return as far away from Mario’s as he could manage. But I don’t think quality was Accolade’s game. I think they were hoping that burying Bubsy under the obvious superiority of Odyssey would be the game’s only chance at a revival, playing to the only strength it’s ever had: its badness.
How many mascots have disappeared forever while YouTubers have kept Bubsy alive by overreacting to his old games? Despite never approaching the quality of his competition, Bubsy is a well-known figure in gaming history, so infamous for his ear-grating badness that the bobcat himself might be proud of his reverse acclaim.
But this isn’t a recognition of Bubsy’s special character design so much as a cipher on the whole idea of a console mascot franchise to begin with. As with any release of a game featuring an established mascot, quality is not so important to Bubsy as recognition and appeal. Super Mario Odyssey, like all of Nintendo’s merchandise, is banking on its home crowd more than on the game. This is why Nintendo so aggressively teases and tailors to that crowd – with the SNES Classic in the same year – rather than create new properties. What Accolade is doing isn’t different at all. They’re just not industry one-percenters so it’s kind of sad to see them scrape together a property no one cares about to cash in on this nostalgia kink. They’re like a panhandler at the stock exchange.
Interestingly, Michael Berlyn, Bubsy’s creator, was inspired to draw the pants-less cinephile by old Fleischer Studios cartoons, the same used as the basis for the visual style of Cuphead. So you see, Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back really does have its pause in every corner of the current industry. It looks like a dully average platformer from any era, a game that will generate nothing but eye-rolling for as long as it’s relevant. But if the mascot himself was more beloved, would this return be as hailed and anticipated as a new Sonic game that everyone knows will be terrible but buys anyway?
The idea that it’s a silly attempt to cash-in on the mentality of this nostalgia economy is a valid one. But calling it worse in spirit than the other mascots is just unfair. Just as he did in the 90s, Bubsy is just following the crowd.