Disaster Report: Bubsy 3D (PS1)

Bubsy 3D is infamous for entering the world of 3D platformers with all the grace of an avalanche, although this seems to be implying that Bubsy was somehow hurt by the transfer into a new dimension. Really, his already heavy burden of awfulness was only increased by crossing into a world that games in general were not ready to travel into. The PS1/N64 era was not a pretty one, and at its beginning, most everyone, even Mario and other people praised for entering it cleanly, looked like low quality bootleg versions of their 2D selves. Blocky polygons stacked on top of each other was the norm then, and at best you could hope for a model that looked like the first wave of Star Wars toys that were basically humanoid plastic painted to look recognizable. Time has made us kinder to this generation, it has made us forget that the camera was suddenly something that needed to be controlled that was often wrangled with about the same control one might have if one tried to corral hippos. It is no coincidence though that while nostalgic throwbacks to 8, 16, and other bits can go over well, a PS1 era graphic style in a modern game is usually a sign of incompetence rather than a tribute to an era that was really full of first steps into an unfamiliar world.

You may think this is some defense of Bubsy 3D, that I’m being an apologist and forgiving it for this terrible transfer into the third dimension. I merely wanted to give you some context that, for a game made in an era where a certain level of patience and understanding is required…

Bubsy 3D is still absolute utter garbage with no excuse for how bad it turned out.

Even if Bubsy 3D had the benefit of coming after the 3D Platformer genre was more solidified, it commits too many sins to have ever been a good game, despite the assurances of people who worked on it. My recent experience 100% the game on the PS1 has not been a pretty one, and as a bad game aficionado, even I was impressed with how bad the game ended up being. Before we begin though, its worth pointing out that the main character’s bad personality and the uninspired polygonal landscapes, the go-to criticism of this game a la Superman 64’s ring levels, are not even what makes this game as terrible as it is. Those criticisms are what a passerby may peg Bubsy 3D as, but once you get your fingers deep into this poor excuse for entertainment, you will feel what truly made Bubsy 3D the maligned monstrosity its known as today.

Before I press into the true analysis, I should note a difference I have spotted between the PS1 physical copy and emulated versions I’ve watched on Youtube. Mainly… Bubsy 3D looks much nicer on an emulator, with brighter colors, less rigid polygons, and greater draw distance. To see the beast this Bobcat truly is, the unemulated version was a must.

GAMEPLAY

Gamers seem pretty willing to forgive a bad story, bad graphics, and other such failings as long as the gameplay is fun and engaging. Rest assured, Bubsy 3D does not deliver on that front. Every detail placed on top of this game’s core structure is simply pushing Bubsy 3D deeper into a mire.

Let us begin with the fact that, for a platformer, the platforming is pretty bad. Bubsy 3D controls like a tank. Now, tank controls were a practical solution to a problem in real life. We had giant guns attached to huge hunks of metal that we wanted to move around. Wheels could not handle the recoil or terrain that we wanted them to move on, so treads were implemented, and since treads can’t exactly have front-wheel drive, the treads can be individually controlled so that turns can be made. Tanks do not turn fluidly, and games like Resident Evil, struggling in their own battle against the fledgling game dimension of depth, used them to accommodate their own gun-carrying devices… also known as characters. Bubsy, however, is in a game where movement is the gameplay. Needing to come to a stop to turn Bubsy is excruciating, especially when there are enemies that open fire with well-aimed attacks. Turning while running does not create a small circle, but a wide berth, one that Bubsy often does not have enough room to execute, and even then he will probably have to come to a stop to let himself adjust to his new angle.

Surprisingly, the camera is kind in Bubsy 3D, in that it’s predictable. You have no control over it and when you jump it becomes a top down view. It respects object boundaries, and although Bubsy himself is difficult to position, your view adjusts consistently. Sure there are many things you won’t see because of it, and the draw distance is poor if we’re using generous terms, but the tolerable camera is probably the only thing that makes this game palatable. If the camera was off on its own adventure, Bubsy 3D might be downright unplayable.

Bubsy’s tank controls are thankfully nonexistent when he jumps, and oftentimes he’s a far easier beast to control when he’s in the air. Bubsy can suddenly move freely and rather quickly on the horizontal plane, although after you jump you can’t really switch into a glide easily. Yes,  the bobcat can glide, for no reason. Most of the time Bubsy’s standard jump is actually the better option, as gliding causes you to fall rather quickly and there are few gaps that are longer than the generic jump. Gliding is best used as a means of skipping stuff or riding propellers, and since it must be pressed first rather than the jump button to execute, it often leads to deadly and painful commitments.

The last real gameplay mechanic is Bubsy’s means of self-defense. Bubsy can jump on most enemies, and it is almost always the best option to damage them, but there are also little items scattered liberally throughout every level called atoms. Bubsy can pick up atoms like coins in Mario or bananas in Donkey Kong Country, and if they total up to enough, he gets small bonuses. Seems simple… except the atoms are also an attack. If Bubsy approaches an atom with all the caution of someone trying to pet a wild deer, he can pick it up and fire it forward in a straight line. However, if you do not hit an enemy or breakable wall with it, it will bounce back and hit Bubsy. And if you hold it too long it hurts Bubsy. And the aiming is done with Bubsy’s slow tank control spinning. So for the most part, its best used never, and can rarely be useful in sniping far off enemies… but sometimes, to get the game’s important collectibles (there are two rockets in every level), Bubsy must fire an atom into an offcolor wall. First of all, the generic landscapes make the offcolor walls difficult to spot, and by the time you do notice them, you’ve probably collected the atoms that you were meant to fire at it. See, since Bubsy can only fire atoms horizontally, only some atoms line up with these walls, and if you mess up and pick up the atom, or fire it not at the specific part of the wall it wants you to hit, you will have to replay the level, since atoms do not respawn.

Some levels are “generous” and give you a powerup where Bubsy holds 10 atoms in reserve that he can fire anytime… provided he doesn’t die. If he dies, he loses the powerup, and so many levels with that powerup actually require it to get into the area a Rocket is hidden in, as no atoms will be placed near the offcolor wall. Like the earlier comparison I made, the atoms are placed much like coins in a Mario game, but their added utility makes these positions annoying, and the 10 atoms power up too rare and fickle to depend on.

So, those are the basics. Bubsy must hop, shoot, and poorly turn around in a world full of platforms, sloped hills that he can glide up if he’s persistent enough and obstinate enough, and enemies who will catch Bubsy unawares. Bubsy can usually avoid being shot at by enemies that are offscreen, but the moment he sees them they fire with deadly accuracy, and the poor controls make it easy to get pegged if you’re not always on guard. The levels Bubsy travels through are strange. They are sparsely designed, consisting of spires and slopes and floating grey rectangles. What’s a platforming game without platforms after all. There are small attempts at making things I assume are trees, and Bubsy adds a weird noxious green goop that is instantly lethal to the floors of some levels. Also, a checkerboard pattern on any surface is an indication that it will teleport you, and its often found in areas where you must do some jumping challenges to get rockets. The composition is not the strangest part though. These 3D stages, save a few early levels, are often wide open areas (to the point a level called Clawstrophobic is probably the least claustrophobic level in the game with its open spaces) but they have a strange linearity to them that isn’t enforced by the level’s actual design. Instead, to progress you must follow floating arrows, as the levels are often bland in appearance and easy to get lost in otherwise, especially with things teleporting you around and upper platforms twisting you around. Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie made their levels hubs for multiple adventures to take place in, and exploring a level unearthed new tasks to do in it. Bubsy 3D’s only goals are to get to the end of the level and find the rockets along the way if you’re masochistic. If not for the arrows guiding you, I can assure you many levels would take twice as long to finish, and even some of the more linear levels often have backtracking after branching off to a dead-end path to flip a switch.

Then there are water levels. Thankfully mostly linear, there are 3 in the whole game, and they control… okay. Problem is, there is an oxygen meter. It’s mostly forgiving, and there are oxygen tanks scattered around the place that respawn if you’re far enough from them. The issue arises that since you can’t jump on enemies underwater… you’re given a charge attack. An imprecise charge attack that burns through oxygen at an alarming rate. If you run out of oxygen in this level, it’s because of failed charges. The underwater levels are poorly designed, with platforms floating about as if it was a regular level that they simply submerged later, but still not structurally sound enough to be played without the water. There are fish globe lanterns on many platforms that have a fish texture placed on each side so poorly that you can see the fish bowl from multiple angles and make it seem like they’re TVs with multiple screens instead. Despite the freedom a water level usually allows, swimming too high or going over areas they don’t want you to go to will cause a ring of white triangles to descend from the heavens and immobilize you and push you back to the level, often in the path of the annoying underwater enemies. Land levels are merciful in that if an enemy isn’t onscreen, it usually can’t shoot at you. Underwater, Dogfish and Starfish will home in and strike you from offscreen, and with no jump, dodging is usually up to luck against these unseen attackers. There are also little seaweed enemies that make bubbles that if you get caught in, will carry you up, up, up to the surface super slowly and then damage you, and trying to run off can often get you caught in a different bubble from a seaweed nearby or caught by the white triangles.

I suppose the last real shift in gameplay comes in the game’s two puzzles. Oh, I don’t mean there are only two puzzles, I mean there are only two breeds of them repeated constantly throughout the course of the game. The more forgiving and tolerable one involves finding a pillar made of the four alien enemies found throughout the game. These aliens are benign and are red, green, blue, and yellow, and depending on how they are stacked, you must hit some switches in an order to match their totem pole.  An uninteresting and unengaging puzzle, but busywork puzzles like this are found in the best of games. The annoying one is a game of Simon with an alien who will stomp on his platform to gradually reveal the color pattern with one new color added each runthrough. Thing is, to reply to his pattern, you must jump between four colored platforms above a drop. The drop is usually safe, but even though its somewhat easy to control yourself while jumping, trying to hop between the four platforms reveals how deviously spaced they are. You may be tempted to backpedal to the edge of a platform, but if you press back on the control stick, sometimes Bubsy does a short hop backwards, and that hop will trigger the platform you’re standing on again. One error and you must restart the game of Simon, and sometimes, seemingly randomly, the first platform the alien hits, even if you match it with the one you hit, counts as wrong and you start again. Slow, boring, and poorly controlled… come to think of it, it’s the perfect puzzle for a game like Bubsy 3D.

Phew! So that’s the bulk of Bubsy’s problems from a technical standpoint. Poor gameplay design in a world that you aren’t really designed to handle, enemies that ignore your limitations and “puzzles” that engage your mind as much as a stoplight would. Before we leave the subject, let’s talk about…

LEVELS, ENEMIES, AND BOSSES

Before we begin, I suppose I should mention that the alien enemies in this game are called Woolies. This is important because nearly every level in this game is a pun or reference with either the Woolies name shoved in there, a cat-related joke, or on one rare occasion, the lightning bolt Zzotz enemy gets its name stretched into the title “Zzotz Nice”. Like Not Nice, I guess, is the joke, supposedly. The levels themselves, surprisingly, are all rather unique, in as much as they have different feels to them despite being rearranged assets. I certainly couldn’t tie names to levels though  as the names never have anything to do with the level unless they are a boss level. One level, called Bright Light Big Woolies, does not seem to make sense as a joke or as a level name. The music isn’t too bad, and much like the original 2D Platformer Bubsy games and Bad Rats, you’ll eventually acquire a Stockholm Syndrome level of affection for some of it. Some of it is peppered with weird sounds that aren’t quite music, like one similar to the Xbox Achievement boop. Enemies make weird sound effects as well, with one seeming to rip its noises straight from the future game Banjo-Kazooie, with a stretch and chomp noise that must come from some same no-license sound file group.

It is a marvel that the game manages to make 24 levels feel both unique and forgettable. If you have no interest in getting the Rockets that are required to get the 100% ending, some can be completed in mere minutes, while most can carry on for half an hour of bumbling and death before you plumb everything the level has to offer. Some levels even offer multiple paths that lead back on themselves, giving you further paths to run down to find nothing of use or note.

The main enemy force are Woolies, who throw rocks at you and can be dispensed with jumps. Later upgraded Woolies shoot well aimed laser beams that pass through solid objects. Bubsy seems to think these ones are literally Cyclops from Marvel as he calls him an X-Man/Ex-Man when he kills them and directly calls that an enemy a mutant as well. The earlier mentioned creatures with Banjo-Kazooie noises are these slime creatures that travel across the ground and can only be killed with atoms, so basically they’re invincible since if you stand still long enough to shoot them, they’ll get you. There are creatures with targets that if you get near will place the target on you and pretty much get a free hit unless you hop around frantically and get lucky. There are hummingbirds that shoot green rings at you and are hard to hit as they flit around erratically. Underwater enemies were earlier mentioned, and Woolies come in land, water, and flying variants. The Zzotz, however, is an electric creature that, if you touch, is an instant kill.

And boy does Bubsy 3D love instant kills. Running off the edge of a platform above open air will cause Bubsy to look down like Wile E. Coyote, wave at the camera, and then die, even if Bubsy had the momentum to run off that platform to the next one. No, you must jump it properly or die. Water in any land level is an instant kill as well, where even if your foot touches the corner of it and you jump to safety, Bubsy will play his drowning death animation. Most water is poorly separated from land with some safe flat blue textured ground between the mainland and water, and the water is really only discernible by some bubbles breaking up the sea of blue. These bubbles, mind you, are on a water texture that does not match the surrounding water color. It’s best to avoid blue ground at all costs really.

There are four bosses in Bubsy 3D, two of which you don’t seem to actually kill as they appear in the ending cutscene just fine. The first is Woolie Bully, who for some reason, despite that name, is a small yellow Woolie with glasses like a nerd and is shown to be a scientist. He hovers above you on a disco floor shooting down glowing shots that, after hitting the ground, create a danger area that you’ll get hurt if you stand in. To get up on the Bully’s dancefloor, you must somehow intuit the random idea that Bubsy can glide over the danger area and receive a boost up into the air so he can jump on the Bully’s head. I only knew to do this thanks to hearing about how this makes no sense in other criticisms of this game. Boss 2 is a Mammoth in a level called Mortal Bobkat, where the idea is to make him charge at you and slip so you can jump on his rump. Thing is, there are electric fences keeping you two too close together, and you often run into them when you are running around as they are hidden offscreen. Once you get a feel for the arena though, then you have to deal with the mammoth. Sometimes bananas are thrown in from offscreen that the Mammoth can slip on, but he seems to slip regardless of there being a banana in his path eventually. When he falls trunk over rump, you need to pound down on his butt before he flips back up, but the window is imprecise, and you can often take damage when you seemed to have a clear shot on his behind.

The final two bosses are found in the final level, and that level is certainly a gauntlet. Invincible turrets line the hallways you must take to the first boss who will constantly open fire on you, so you basically have to jump around and hope to make it through. And like I mentioned earlier, jumping changes the camera to a top-down perspective, so you will have no clue of the way forward while hopping for your life. This level has a particularly egregious case of an offcolor wall hiding a rocket, as there is only one atom in the hallway that has that wall, you have to grab it while avoiding the turrets, and this is the final level. On a new life you get 4 hits before dying, but thanks to checkpoints you can brute force a lot of things with extra lives you stock up on. Making it to that wall and successfully breaking it are a task and a half, but there is a glitch with most slopes where if Bubsy jumps onto it while facing off in a perpendicular direction, he can sometimes jump up it. One early level seems to require it to get a rocket, and the final level is much easier when you can get by a lot of the turret maze with that trick.

Once you brave that gauntlet you reach the easiest boss in the game, and an actual fun one too! There are a bunch of trees scattered around and a giant two headed boss whose stomps make rocks fall from an invisible ceiling. Jump from tree to tree to stomp on the boss, where it will strangely reset you to a different position in the air after doing so. To cheese the boss you can just hold forward to land on it again and again, but even without that cheat the rocks are easy to dodge and the platforming challenge decent. In an otherwise hard level, it’s a breath of fresh air. The path ahead is another maze to hop through, and then one of those totem-pole-switch-order puzzles but with these small yellow Woolies who seem basically impossible to avoid completely. You will be hit, and you must accept that. There is a checkpoint nearby so that you can die while doing it, and then… the final boss. First off, there is a propeller you need to use to glide over to their arena, and since gliding sucks, you sometimes touch the propeller and take a hit before even fighting the boss. Then, the boss is Polly and Esther, two Woolies you can’t jump on who shoot better versions of the beams the Cyclops enemies shot. They teleport around hassling you, and to hurt them you need to hit a switch to make atoms available for a limited time, which you must then grab. Grabbing the atom and aiming it is the hardest part because, as I have previously mentioned, Bubsy doesn’t really turn well. Standing in place to turn will leave you vulnerable to the beams, and running has too wide a berth. Jumping towards the atom leads to picking it up, but if you can grab it, there is mercy invincibility until you fire it. However, since there are two bosses firing at you, oftentimes after shooting one, the other will peg you the instant you are vulnerable again. Thankfully, if you kill one and then die, the one you killed stays dead unless you get a game over. Kill both and the game abruptly cuts to the end cutscene the moment you touch the rocket they drop.

So, we’re pretty far in to tearing apart why Bubsy 3D is a bad game. Bad levels, controls, enemies… you might ask yourself… what else could have possibly gone wrong?

Oh, that’s right.

BUBSY, AND THE GAME’S “HUMOR”

This strange Escape From L.A. reference, a flash in the pan sequel to the actually memorable Escape from New York, has nothing to do with the level, rest assured, but it embodies what most people seem to think is the biggest problem with Bubsy Bobcat and his series of games.

And I… can’t agree. Yes, the humor is terrible, the references often too obscure or just planted wholesale as if that was a joke. Bubsy has an annoying voice and the game slams you with statement after statement from his shrieking maw in the tutorial level, but as you play Bubsy 3D… you need his terrible humor to survive. The gameplay is so bad that when Bubsy has decided to keep his yap shut, you can only focus on how bad the game is. But then Bubsy chimes in with “KEEP YOUR MOTOR RUNNING” in his most annoying voice as you hop in an on-rails rocket segment, and suddenly, you are pulled out of the terrible deed you have invested your time in and get to hate Bubsy and enjoy how bad he is. If not for the terrible attempt at creating a likable mascot, this game would be depressingly bad, but Bubsy’s poor attempts at humor will give you a focus for all the hate building up in you. When he yells out a self-congratulatory “Beauty and Brains, the perfect combination!” after stomping on an enemy, you are able to sit back and say “I hate you Bubsy” instead of thinking on the frustrating path that brought you to that one-liner.

Besides Bubsy’s one-liners, the levels themselves contain no humor. They are places to act upon, with obstacle courses that make Mario levels look like a fleshed out and realistic environment. Only one land level archetype exists besides the generic color swaps, and that’s a poor attempt to splash cityscapes on the polygons that don’t even look like the buildings they are textured as. Before the level, I suppose you can say the title cards are a joke, although none really land and most often they are only funny for looking terrible. When Bubsy dies, there is a cutscene that abruptly jumps in to show various ways he can suffer. If Bubsy stands still for too long the game freezes for a bit and then plays what looks like the game over screen but is actually a poorly implemented idle animation. Incidentally, Bubsy’s attempts at humor seem to lead to a lot of glitches. Pausing during his one-liners can sometimes lead to Bubsy repeating lines over and over, running through the sound test to play even the generic “attacked an enemy” or “picked up extra life” noises. One time the game just froze on the start of one of Bubsy’s deaths before I had ever died, leaving me stranded with this image of Bubsy standing still in a dark abyss with only a spotlight shining on him. I never did play a bonus game thanks to a glitch freezing the game if I tried. From what I’ve seen it doesn’t look funny or fun, just a generic way to get lives after spending way too much effort collecting 150 atoms in the previous level.

Bubsy 3D also has a post-level cutscene where they show a slapstick scene where Bubsy suffers in a way completely unrelated to the level. Bubsy is merciful in one way though: this scene shows a password that you can enter, but the game also has save files. Many, many save files. At least 15 from what I recall, and you aren’t punished for using a password and saving your file to the memory card, a necessity since my game kept freezing before the bonus game. These cutscenes, however, are not merciful, as they tell the same tired and unfunny jokes to you. Usually Bubsy tries to do something Looney Tunes-esque and is hurt for doing so, including the painting-a-door-on-a-wall gag and trying to go through it, only for his enemy to succeed at it while he fails. Most are forgettable, but near the end of the game, the end level cutscenes begin to use two set ups repeatedly. In one, Bubsy is in a futuristic race with a Woolie. They all start the same, but after the race begins, Bubsy encounters something like a brick wall that makes him lose.  There are at least four of these, and Bubsy finally wins one only to fly over the finish line and to the door to the final level. The other joke formula you’ll see over and over doesn’t even make sense. A bunch of Woolies are floating around like they are driving invisible cars, and Bubsy tries to climb into one of the invisible cars that a Woolie is driving. The first time the joke is told, Bubsy just falls through after a second of floating, then gets run over by that same invisible car. The next time he succeeds in climbing in, only for the Woolie to reveal its never-before-seen lightning powers to zap him out and over the horizon. The next one involves Bubsy handing the driver a bomb and blasting him away, driving away with the pilfered invisible car.

Like I said, Bubsy 3D isn’t funny, but the poor jokes are interesting and help distract you from the torturous gameplay.

CONCLUSION

Bubsy 3D is somehow the fourth game in the series, but its no surprise it killed it off. The other Bubsy games were buoyed by passable gameplay and marketing that made Bubsy seem more tolerable than he would prove to be. Children have a level of patience for bad games as they don’t know better and they have a bit of a sunk cost fallacy in that they feel they must enjoy every game they get as they get very few. Bubsy 3D, however, would be a monumental task to enjoy. Playing it normally will prove frustrating as you reach later levels, and trying to get 100% will only lead to frustration starting from the get-go. Bubsy 3D meanders about and requires many leaps in logic to complete, and there is no real reward.

In the beginning of the game, Woolies are meeting up to discuss their enemy Bubsy finding their home planet, which he interrupts by bounding in and delivering a string of unrelated one-liners and catch phrases, including his own spin on the Wrong Turn At Albuquerque line he pilfered from Bugs Bunny (“I knew I should have taken that left turn at Uranus! Was it something I said? WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?!” …all said in one breath). At the end of the game, if you get 100%, Bubsy escapes in a rocket only for “the stored atom capacity he built up in his fur” (which, for some reason, this phrase makes the villain army crack up at least four times, grinding the cutscene to a halt for way too long) to cause his rocket to go backwards in time, taking him to the Dark Ages, to which Bubsy says “woah, how did I end up in Triassic Park?” The remaining Woolies seem to have no obstacle in going to Earth by their own evaluation now to steal Earth’s wool (I think, I could barely believe what I was hearing), and that’s the end of the series.

Even though I said the game’s personality is the only thing keeping it afloat, that is by no means me saying its good. The game or the personality it has. I’ve played many, many bad games. Cory in the House is kind of typical licensed game fare in its problems. E.T. on the Atari can be adapted to with time and patience and knowledge. Bad Rats just requires you to repeat levels with the same solution until it works. Shannon Tweed’s Attack of the Groupies just requires you to pay attention more than you want to.

But Bubsy 3D… It’s special. I don’t know if its the worst game I’ve ever played, but it’s definitely up there. Bubsy himself represents a sort of hubris, the idea that one can create an interesting character by slamming together things that worked for other characters. The game itself shows a stubbornness to try and design a 3D open level like a 2D linear one, and the gameplay shows a lack of motivation and creativity on the part of the game designers. Does Bubsy 3D deserve its infamy? Sure. But much like Superman 64, its important to look beyond the obvious criticisms. Superman 64 sucks because carrying objects and flying as the game requires you to can cause you fall through the floor. It sucks because you can run out of the power you need to beat the game due to poor detection of its use.

And Bubsy 3D? It’s not just a wisecracking bobcat in a bland polygonal terrain. It’s so much more. And oh god do I wish its only problems were the protagonist and environmental design.

Bye bye, Bubsy. You won’t be missed.

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