Welcome to this week’s edition of Protagonist Profiles. For the first time in this series, this week’s file is concerning a gaming protagonist that didn’t garner acclaim from critics and fans, a hero that went from “Most hyped character of 1993” to “The most hated gaming mascot of the 90s“. We are of course talking about the monumental failure that was Bubsy the Bobcat, the star of the Bubsy series of games from 1993 to 1996. Yes, not every gaming protagonist is going to change the gaming landscape for the good, as Bubsy showed promise at first, but never even came close to matching the gaming scene of the time, getting progressively worse with each new iteration of the series. How did it come to be? Let’s find out!
As made evident in previous Protagonist Profiles’, gaming mascots helped pave the way for video games to enter the public’s conscience, and the 1990s saw the birth of some of the biggest mascots of the time. From Sonic, to Crash Bandicoot, to Lara Croft, all these heroes made an impact in their own unique way, and brought some great games with them. So when Michael Berlyn, a designer for video game developing company Accolade, stumbled upon a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis, he was inspired to create a game in a similar style, in the hopes that it could impact the market like Sonic did. He played the game for 14 hours a day for a whole week to get inspiration for his own interpretation of the game. And one of the biggest reasons that Sonic the Hedgehog stood out was for it’s appealing main protagonist. The recipe for success in video games at this time wasn’t just good gameplay anymore, but a likable protagonist was now considered incredibly important for your game to be marketable to gamers, introducing a central figure that can be entertaining, relatable, a good role model etc. For this reason, Accolade centered the production of their game around their protagonist. And so Bubsy the Bobcat was born.
Like it’s inspiration Sonic the Hedgehog, Bubsy’s first game (Bubsy in: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind) was built around him, putting more emphasis on a likable protagonist over the gameplay. The game became a platformer due to their increasing popularity at the time, and the developers wanted to stray away from what they were used to making (adventure games). Their creation, Bubsy the Bobcat, was an overly enthusiastic bobcat wearing just a white shirt with a red exclamation mark written on the front. He is shown to be fearless from danger, but incredibly weak, as one hit can kill him. This is unlike most other platformers of the time, as there is usually an ‘armour’ mechanic that can shield the protagonist from any hit (e.g. Mario’s mushrooms, Sonic’s rings, Crash’s Aku Aku mask etc.). This makes the Bubsy series especially difficult, especially as fall damage also existed in the game. Despite the difficulty, Accolade attempted to make the game lighthearted and fun (the games are even named after puns!), giving Bubsy a care-free attitude and even his own voice, which was a first for the 16-bit era of gaming. His catchphrase is the now hilarious-in-hindsight “What could possibly go wrong?”. Evidently, a lot…
Bubsy in: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind received a very aggressive marketing campaign, and hype for the game was very high. They got their aspirational wishes, as many reviewers were anticipating it as the next great platformer to join the ranks of Sonic and Mario. The game was released on the SNES to a lukewarm reception. Reviewers at the time enjoyed the game for what it was, finding Bubsy an enjoyable protagonist but in hindsight, gamers and critics alike point out the game’s hefty flaws, especially when compared to other platformers at the time (the levels played like Sonic, but without the fast paced movement for example). Nevertheless, Accolade were expecting a hit, and a sequel came out a year later. The sequel garnered a slightly more positive response, ironic as the original designer (Berlyn) had nothing to do with it. He claims to have disliked where the new in-house team went with the character and it would’ve been different had he, the original artist, had his vision achieved. ANOTHER game in the series (Bubsy in: Fractured Furry Tails) came out for the Atari Jaguar not even 6 months after Busby II to slightly worse reviews. Put simply, the series just wasn’t reaching the success that previous platformers had achieved, but luckily Accolade had one final chance to shine: the jump to 3D!
1996 saw many of the platforming greats make the exciting jump to the land of the third dimension. The genre had huge early success with the release of Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64 in June, getting overwhelmingly positive reviews and essentially setting the standard for platformers to come. Crash Bandicoot, a new IP for the genre, made a similar splash in September. Therefore, Bubsy could reinvent itself with this new setting and rise above the mediocrity it was currently experiencing. Original designer Michael Berlyn returned to head the project under a new development company (Eidetic), and the team looked to impress with the newest game in the series. Unfortunately, what followed would later be considered one of the worst games of all time.
Yes, Bubsy 3D was released in November and didn’t even make a dent to the gaming landscape. After the release of Super Mario 64, the team wanted to heavily revise their game and make it more complex but publishers (Accolade, former developers), wanted to push the game for a Christmas ’96 release. The game was seen as a cheap rip-off of the far superior platformers of the time, due to the bad controls, ugly graphics and lifeless world. Not even Bubsy the Bobcat got away easy, as reviewers considered him “annoying” (GameTrailers) and “ruined as a result of the jump to 3D, both in appearance and personality” (IGN). Today, the game is looked back on as one of the worst attempts at competing with the competition in gaming history, due to an inexperienced work team (as Berlyn himself admits), a rushed release schedule and an attempt at making the game too tongue-in-cheek for it’s own good.
Usually, this final section of the file is reserved for the praise and legacy the character left on the gaming world. Unfortunately, there’s not much more that can be said about the absolute disaster that was Bubsy the Bobcat. He got a one episode television pilot, but it was cancelled due to his unpopularity. The first two 2D platfomers were re-released on Steam by a new company, who had expressed interest in reviving the character and series, so more Bubsy games aren’t out of the question just yet. But whether anyone wishes to see this doomed protagonist make a comeback remains to be seen.
That’s it for this week’s unconventional edition of Protagonist Profiles, which bids farewell to platforming protagonists for now. Tune in next week where we relocate ourselves to the wild west!