Noel originally asked me to write a piece about my experiences playing the Bubsy series, but I think its very hard to do so with such an oddly infamous franchise without discussing the character itself.
I'm going to confess right here: I like Bubsy the Bobcat, and I think he gets more shit than he deserves. That's not to say he deserves no ire, just that I think its a little overblown. The game was part of a movement to cash-in on the popularity of Sonic, but since when is jumping on a bandwagon an unforgivable crime? It also doesn't mean good works can't come of it either. You are reading this correctly, this is an article in soft defense of Bubsy the Bobcat and his games. Though not the terrible 3D game. Or Bubsy 2. Or really any Bubsy game after the first one, and even that one has problems. But, I do think the game is more than a Sonic-clone, and does have some good points.
A quick overview of the game itself. Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind is set up like a straight forward platformer - that is, keep moving to the right while dodging enemies and collecting enough power-ups and numbered shirts to earn lives. The story is that aliens have stolen the world's yarn, including Bubsy's considerable collection, and he's out to fight them and get it back. There are 5 worlds - Village, Fairgrounds, Desert, River, and Jungle - as well as one level where you actually go onto the Woolie mothership and fight their conjoined ruler, Poly and Ester. There are 16 levels in total. You have two methods of disposing of enemies: jumping on them, or landing on them while gliding. The game has features originally pioneered by the Sonic games, that is, allowing sprites to move quickly through a level, and moving on curved and angled surfaces with the illusion of momentum. Gliding is an important move in the game, allowing Bubsy to spread his arms wide and slow his descent, allowing him to float over wide areas. Another feature that stands out is that Bubsy has no health bar, and one hit from an enemy or environmental hazard will kill him, in a variety of cartoon-inspired animations.
The Bubsy series is a strange one for me, in that I played it as a kid when it came out, and in fact really did enjoy the first game. I would have been around 10 years old, and basically the perfect age range for 90s mascot platformers. I didn't have many friends who played video games, and those that did, like myself, couldn't buy lots of games as they came out. I didn't subscribe to video game magazines back then, and didn't have access to the internet, so discovering new games came down to two things: what was available to rent at Blockbuster, and the copy on the back of the box.
And that's where the first clue to what I think Bubsy really is comes in. Bubsy isn't really a Sonic clone. The game is certainly designed to sell to the audience that buys Sonic, and certainly built on some of the technical achievements of the Sonic games, but that's not what Bubsy and his games actually were, in my opinion, trying to emulate. A closer fit would be a series that was also very popular at the time, and that is, Tiny Toon Adventures, a cartoon show which featured furry cartoon characters of the slapstick humor tradition, that were aware that they were so. Furries and funny animals were very popular for Saturday Morning cartoons at the time. Some others on television around the time included Animaniacs, Eek! The Cat, and Ren & Stimpy. Even Sonic had an incarnation vaguely inspired by Road Runner cartoons in The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. So I think it's not surprising that was the direction Accolade took for their mascot character. That is exactly what Bubsy and the game is about.
It describes itself on its packaging as an "Interactive cartoon - 'Spend Saturdays playing cartoons, not watching them!' " Also toted are its over 40 animations (I presume a fair number are his many death animations) and digitized voice, as well as "More Sound Effects - 'I plop. I boing. I splat. I need medical attention.' " Considerable effort has gone into making Bubsy seem as life-like and dynamic as possible, and to sell his personality. Many of Bubsy's animations revolve around his cartoonish deaths - cracking in half, splitting down the middle and each half falling with a heavy thump, deflating like a balloon, folding into an accordion and exiting stage (screen) left, melting into goo, and one that you can specifically only get from one enemy - a red convertible traps Bubsy under the hood and drives off with him. It seems that a great deal of effort has been made not just to make Bubsy life-like, and not just a cartoon character, but very specifically the style of cartoon charcter based off the humor of Looney Tunes. Not only that, but Bubsy has the same sort of set-up as characters in Tiny Toons, that is, they are aware they are cartoon characters and the episodes you watch are part of their filmography. He refers to himself often as the star of the game, and refers to what is and isn't in his contract both in the manual (which was written as though Bubsy is teaching you how to play the game) and in some of the voice clips before each new level of the game. Speaking of, every level also starts with an episode title that echoes a movie title or Merrie Melodies intro: "A Bridge Too Fur", "The Good, The Bad, and The Woolies", "A Fistful of Yarn", "No Time To Paws" - it becomes clear, Bubsy is intended to appeal more to fans of Saturday morning cartoons than Sonic. Of which, at this time, would have considerable overlap between audiences, but it is a distinct step in another direction and not just aping Sonic. Also, they hired Rob Paulsen to do the voice, so I'm not sure how much clearer Accolade's intention behind Bubsy could be.
I would argue that, for at least the first couple of levels, it is sort of fun to see all the ways he can die. Again, I do think the game pulls off its concept of an interactive cartoon as faithfully as it could. I do admit it's always sort of counter-intuitive to make death a feature of a video game, but hey, it worked for Dragon's Lair. If you can bring your sense of humor and remember Bubsy is supposed to be like a slapstick cartoon character, it can be amusing to see just how the bobcat will go out this playthrough. The game does have visual appeal and has a very wide variety of enemies: beavers, animated tumbleweeds, sand sharks, giraffes on a train, living trolley cars, fish that fly in air, invincible gumball machines, the list goes on. The woolies too have different costumes in many of the levels and a variety of animations. There is a vested interest in having it be visually appealing and fun to look at, like any good cartoon.
I really like the underlying concept behind Claws Encounters, that is, being a playable cartoon, and I think that concept is executed well enough. However, there are a lot of problems, particularly with navigating, and it is good that the levels aren't mapped out with many dead ends - for the most part, all routes will get you to the goal, but it's very easy to feel lost in this game and wonder where you are going even when moving to the standard right side of the screen. It's also confusing what is a platform and what isn't, and even what are obstacles that can kill you. There are even a few types of trees that will kill you if you just touch them, even if they look like background pieces. In the carnival level, touching roller coaster cars the wrong way will kill you. Carousel animals will kill you there, too, when in any other game, they would merely push you back. The hit detection is very poor, especially on the Woolies. If you stand near them at all, expect to die. The camera is also far too close, and the levels can seem to go on and on, being far bigger than they need to be. And mostly, there is a lot of unfairness and having to learn how to play from dying. I don't mind a brutal game, but this one can come off more cheap than just difficult. It also would have been much better overall if collecting yarn could earn you extra hits.
Now that is one more reason I don't think Bubsy is a Sonic-clone, in that although it's a game where you can move very fast across a screen, it is at its best when not played like a Sonic game. Oh no, Bubsy 1 is way more fun if you think of it as a survival game. Dying comes easily, so do one-ups. Even 2-up items are common in this game, and you do start with nine lives. Bubsy is a lot more fun if you look at it as hoarding lives and playing the game cautiously. The game does sort of support making risk-reward choices, in that there are lots of opportunities where extra life shirts are guarded by enemies you could otherwise avoid if you don't want to risk it. The worlds are huge, and many levels have a lower and higher route to the end. In the Fairgrounds and River levels, taking the higher route can spare you more difficult enemies, and in the latter, a water hazard. It's very easy for two players to have really different playthroughs in this game, making it more interesting.
GAMER HIP-TIP!! (sort of)
There is one more secret I can tell you about playing Bubsy that I don't really see in most reviews' play footage. This is more concerned with staying alive. It's tempting, if you think of the game as a Mario- or Sonic-clone, to run fast and take each obstacle as it comes, but in Bubsy, any time you come to a new open space or transition to a new sub-area of a level, you must glide. It gets easier to figure out as you play when the game does this, and there are almost always enemies placed at these transitions. When you glide, it doesn't really matter what direction, just do it. It's far easier to control the glide and change your trajectory immediately than mid-jump or run, and it's easier to see what the new danger is if you are moving more or less in slow motion. It drastically reduces your size as a target (especially when dealing with those egg projectiles), and you get a second chance to evade coming danger by dropping the glide and falling at normal speed. It also ups your own surface area that can kill enemies because the hit detection is much more generous in this mode. I realize some of this sounds like the principles of Gun Kata, and well, yes, that is exactly what you need to use to win.
Bubsy 1 is designed well enough that it absolutely does what it intended: put its main star in the forefront. The problem is, as much praise as I've given this game, Bubsy is just not that appealing a character. His one-liners aren't that funny, he never really has an emotion except smug (well, maybe brief flashes of pain upon cartoon death), and he doesn't give us a reason to care. He is as fairly one-dimensional and shallow as the Looney Tunes characters he's based on, but they can pull it off because they are, well, Looney Tunes. One of the strengths of Tiny Toon Adventures was that it gave us characters that had their own personality; Buster Bunny wasn't just Bugs Jr., he was his own personality with echoes of his legendary mentor. He was a bit of a slacker, but clever, and most of the characters from the show are a bit deeper than their mentors. They want friends, feel insecure, and get angry over relatable situations while simultaneously being involved in gag plotlines. Also, all the characters in the show shared the same setting: the school Acme Looniversity in the town of Acme Acres. The characters all knew each other and the setup of having a school life made them that much richer and more interesting characters. I don't think Tiny Toons would have been as successful as it was if not for that element, as well as having their older counterparts appear every so often, letting us compare the two and making the Tiny Toons that much more interesting.
Bubsy has nothing like that, and for a what was then a brand new property, it's important to bring in reasons to like him. I was able to briefly describe Buster Bunny, but even as a fan of the game, I can't really tell you much about Bubsy. He's smug? Thinks he's a movie star? His in-story goal is to fight the Woolies to get back the world's yarn. There isn't really any indication he cares about doing either thing. Even reading the included comic, it seems more like he's going after the Woolies "because screw you, too." I think? I'm not really sure. Or maybe his personality is meant to be as a jerk character and that is somehow funny? That is where I can understand people's dislike of the character. There are elements, like the yarn, tacked on to give him the trappings of personality, but nothing is ever done with it. He even gets a niece and nephew, and an armadillo sidekick in the sequel, but nothing is really done with them. It's too bad, as any sort of emotion towards them besides the usual one-liners would at least give some veneer of relatablility. I'm not saying Bubsy has the potential to be a deep character or anything, but he's far shallower than the characters he was meant to emulate.
In his games, and on the internet, unfortunately, Bubsy has no friends.
(illustration by Julie Sydor)
In addition, regarding the sequels:
Bubsy 2 is more surreal and cartoony, which actually takes away from it. The first Bubsy had only the bare bones of a story. There was a mostly common enemy, and the cohesiveness of the stages and emphasis on nature - hills, river, jungle, desert - made it feel more like a journey. Bubsy 2's atmosphere is one of noise and surrealness, like what people who hate cartoons think they are like. The level design is worse and less interesting, and not enough of the flaws of the first game were addressed to make me interested in playing this more than once.
Oh yes, I feel I the need to mention the infamous Bubsy 3D. A college roommate had it, and when I asked about it, said it was "all right" in, as I remember, an oddly shaky voice. I played it five minutes before immediately deciding I didn't need to do this to myself.
There's one additional game, Bubsy in Fractured Furry Tales, but it's not one that I've played.
A huge thank you to Julie Sydor for sharing with us her knowledge of the games. She's a wonderful artist and comic creator, and you can find her work at Snowflame: The Fan Comic and on Tumblr.
In prep for this piece, I did watch a playthough of the entire first game. It only took an hour, despite not being a speed run. I forget how quick most platformers were meant to go by, so you can have a friend over after school and get to the end before they have to head home for dinner. I found the music and backgrounds repetitive, especially grouping multiple stages together as sections, but no moreso than in the average platformer. There wasn't much ryme or reason to the designs, but everything was colorful and well animated. The Woolies didn't do much for me, but I like the other animals that would pop in, like the shades-wearing giraffes you can use as springboard, or the bandit prairie dogs wrapped in bandoleers with pistols in their paws.
Despite being noted as a Sonic knock-off, everything felt much more Super Mario Bros., with its leisurely pace, the tubes and portals that could bring you to bonus sections of levels, and the gliding which was such an iconic addition of Mario 3. The bosses aren't that interesting, though, just the same Wooly flying saucers over and over again, with the only change being in how they attack.
I definitely give points for the use of Rob Paulsen in the game, with a little zinger to go with each level title pun. I didn't find any particularly hilarious, but it was a nice gimmick you didn't often see at the time.
These little shorts are prologues to the first two games and were included in their instruction manuals. I haven't found any for the remaining games, Bubsy in Fractured Furry Tales and Bubsy 3D. If I've overlooked them, let us know, we'll slip them in if we can.
The comics are by Ken Macklin, who designed and animated the Bubsy character. Aside from game design (he also worked on the first two Monkey's Island games), he had a run as a funny animal and furry cartoonist through the 80s and into the early 90s, with stories appearing in Critters, Alien Encounters, Epic Illustrated, and Albedo Anthropomorphics, the most popular strips of which, Dr. Watchstop and The Weasel Patrol, have since been collected.
Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind
In the far reaches of space, Poly and Ester, the two-headed queen of Rayon, look hungrily upon the Earth at our plentiful balls of yarn, especially the horde amassed by a bobcat named Bubsy. Bubsy, for his part, is dreaming of being a superhero who protects innocent woodland creatures against hunters, so he doesn't spot a Rayon flying yarn saucer swooping down from the sky to vacuum up his entire horde. He's sucked up, too, though tossed out the riffraff chute and back to the valley below. He looks to the heavens and declares, "I'll be back."
In the small, rural town of Knee Bend, a car jauntily zips by. Within are Bubsy, his nerve-wracked sidekick, Arnold the Armadillo, and Bubsy's twin niece and nephew, Terri and Terry. They're headed for a weekend of fun at the newly opened theme park, The Incredible Amazatorium.
As they pull in, news reports are hitting the radio about Egypt, airplanes, and all of music not only disappearing, but people are struggling to even remember what concepts of them are. That's because things have gone wrong at the Amaztorium, where Dr. Reality's device, the Wompum, used to simulate historical events and concepts for the amusement of visitors, has instead started acquiring them from reality itself. This is just fine for greedy CEO Oinker P. Hamm, who just wants to kick up the ticket prices to charge people to re-experience everything they've now lost. Reality is aghast at this and threatens to walk off with all his notes and patents, but Oiker just threatens to use the Wompum to swipe them right back.
Our heroes realize they've arrived a day too early when they find the doors still locked, but the Twins are quick to break in, overhear the villain's plans, and make off with all of Bubsy's supplies in their own effort to either thwart Oinker or steal his machinations for themselves. Bubsy and Arnold realize the kids are gone and swoop in to the rescue. Oinker catches this on a monitor and orders his goons to prepare for the coming battle.
These aren't comics with stories in the traditional three act format, they're preludes to their respective games. In that sense, they work reasonably well, giving a more detailed and engaging setup than the typical blurb on the back of a game box or manual. The characters are introduced, the scenario is set up, and we're dropped off on the doorstep of the game's title screen, ready to play (provided we've read the game controls portion first). For what they are, they're reasonably effective, displaying moments of wit and inspiration (I particularly liked the Twin Queens of Rayon: Poly and Ester) and feature unique and attractive artwork. Though the comic for Bubsy 2 sets up a potentially more interesting game scenario, I preferred the lighter and more whimsical tone of the first comic.
Removed from that context, they understandably suffer from their format limitations, but they do exactly what they were designed to do, and I do have to say that the extra effort to beef up the Bubsy experience for the player with the inclusion of these is admirable.
The first comic is very leisurely, just quietly drifting through what little story it has to tell. Honestly, it could have just been a 2-page thing and lost only the dream sequence and a heap of god-awful puns. Seriously, those puns. Every single line has to be a pun, and none of them are clever. It definitely sets up the central conflict - a cat with a dragon-horde of yarn has it all stolen by yarn-obsessed aliens and wants it back - but it doesn't really do much to build any character to the two sides. The Woolies love yarn and terminology tying in any way to thread, but that's it. There's a great line about "there are beings that stretch the very fabric of reality" which could have been interesting to further explore and give a broader cosmic implication to their actions, but no. As for Bubsy, the dream of him protecting woodland creatures from a hunter is my favorite bit of the book, but it again doesn't tell us much about him other than he's the good guy we're supposed to root for.
Ken Macklin's art is nice and expressive, but with everything drawn out in simple, two-panel pages, there's no real life or energy to the layouts. They look like storyboards, though none convey movement very well. The most energetic bit, where Bubsy and his yarn are sucked into the ship and he's yanked away down the "riffraff" tube, could have been exciting, but it comes and goes in just a couple very static stills.
It's very simplistic overall, not so much bad as uninvolving, acting merely as setup for a story that doesn't really have any story whatsoever. It doesn't even make much sense as he's shown to be a friend to animals when he spends just as much time fighting them in the game as he does the Woolies. I get why they wouldn't go this route, but a much more fitting setup to the game is that Bubsy is the yarn-thief and the aliens have come to recover what he's taken, and the other animals of Earth have turned on him to make the aliens go away. That's definitely a Bubsy I could believe in.
The second one is much better, though still not great, and that's mostly because of the gag writing where every single line needs to be a zinger, pun, or non-sequitur, and again, most of them are very poor and listless. With the exception of the Sonic boom bit in the opening. That was amusing.
This one is better because it actually feels like the first act of a story, with a villain stealing not only all of history but the very concepts of history so he can force people to have to pay to relive the past. No, not much is done with it, and Oinker is a pretty typical trope of the evil CEO, but I like Dr. Reality as the flustered scientist who's creation has been hijacked for evil, and it's a much more promising and thought-provoking setup than aliens stealing yarn. That said, this is Bubsy, so I don't expect the actual game to do much with those concepts.
And speaking of Bubsy, I like that the plot is just him, his best bud, and his niece and nephew on a road trip vacation, unaware their destination is where all the shit's about to go down. Again, there's not much to the characterization, but I do like Arnold's fixation on being sued, Terri and Terry feel like they could take off as tag-team leads of their own game, and again, it is an amusing enough setup.
It's bland, yes, but definitely a marked improvement and it's a shame none of the future Bubsy titles followed suit with more prologue comics of their own. And while I do still find the art to be a bit flatly arranged in terms in terms of layouts, Macklin's drawings themselves continue to be nicely done, and he makes the most of having a much richer cast and stage to portray in this one. It's more than enough to have me curious to see what some of his other comic work was like.
The Pilot Special
In his quiet little cartoon world hamlet home, Bubsy the bobcat greets the morning alarm with noise and zaniness, including brushing his teeth with a floor waxer ("What could possibly go wrong!"). He wakes up his roommate/sidekick/couch crasher Arnold, a beleaguered armadillo who finds Bubsy even more terrifying than his recurring nightmares about being potentially run over by semis on a highway. Visiting for their birthday are the Twins, Buby's rambunctious niece and nephew, Terri and Terry, who skateboard through the door then argue over who gets to play with Arnold. When a news report hits the tv about the record number of armadillos killed by semis, Arnold hides into a ball and the twins start tossing him around.
Following is a report about Virgil Reality, a scientist who, along with his airy, lovely assistant Oblivia, has invented a miraculous helmet which can instantly transform its wearer's thoughts into actual matter. He hopes it can be used to end famine and stop war, but first he needs someone
Also viewing the news report is aging socialite Ally Cassandra, who desires to use the helmet to vastly improve her deteriorating lifestyle. She summons her henchmen: Bozzwell the buzzard, who's obsessed with gourmet cooking and is fuming that his latest meal preparation has been interrupted, and Sid the shrew, who's so obsessed with constantly eating that he's making various attempts throughout the scene to consume a fly. She orders them to steal the helmet, commanding their obedience through the use of her nails on a chalkboard.
Bubsy, with Arnold and the Twins in tow, arrives at Reality's workshop, where Oblivia begins the long gag of never remembering his name and Virgil warns him that he needs to be very specific about the thoughts he channels through the helmet or the consequences could be disastrous. Bubsy brushes him off with a "What could possibly go wrong!" and desires to fly. The helmet zaps the lot of them to the sky above the town, where they're suddenly plummeting to their deaths.
Bubsy loves it, so Virgil desperately tries to get the helmet back, resulting in it landing on Virgil and them having a plummeting semi coming down on top of them. Bubsy recovers the helmet, wishing them all back to the ground (sans Arnold, who crashes in later), and starts fiddling with Virgil's suspenders, leading to a long gag of pants that won't stay up. Since Bubsy declares, "Nothing went wrong!" the Twins want a turn at the helmet, but Virgil refuses to let children play with it. They steal it anyway, wandering off and creating a pony, a speedboat, and heaps of birthday cake.
Bozz flies toward the lab with Sid in tow (with Sid hitting everything he can and Bozz not caring one bit), and when they spot the helmet on the Twins, both decide the kids would also make for a great meal, with Sid wanting to scarf them down and Bozz looking up gourmet recipes. When they confront the children and demand the helmet, the Twins begin a long gag of mislabeling Bozz as a turkey, and fight back by creating a roller coaster that snags the villains along for a wild ride.
In the lab, everyone discovers the Twins and the helmet are gone. Throwing open the doors, they discover an entire amusement park has now emerged outside, with the roller coaster leading right to the door. "What could possibly go wrong!" Arnold is run over as the car races by, Virgil ranting about how the entire world could be wiped out if the madness isn't stopped. Bubsy goes into a big speech about how it's time for he and Arnold to be heroes ("What could possibly go wrong!"), but Arnold tucks into a ball as the car races by again.
Bubsy snags along, berating both the children and the villains, and the bored kids revise their roller coaster as a freefall plunging down from the moon. When their uncle says, "STOP THIS INSTANT," they instantly halt the car and share a thumbs up as Bubsy and the villains are hurled to the ground below. Dusting himself off, Bubsy discovers the Twins are now towering giants, and he and Arnold are promptly stepped on. Realizing their error, the kids shrink back down, where they're berated to tears by Bubsy and Arnold.
Bozz tries the new tactic of simply throwing Sid at the children. Sid gets the helmet, but loses it again when Bubsy trades him for it with a corn dog that's been laced with dynamite. Walking away with his "friends", Bubsy ponders, "What could possibly go wrong!" Sid's explosion gives Bozz the jet thrust he needs to snatch away both the helmet and the Twins.
While Ally starts using the helmet to make her wildest dreams come true, beginning with a diamond ring so heavy she can barely lift it, Bozz and Sid head to the kitchen to turn the Twins into a meal. The Twins don't make it easy for them, dunking Bozz into his own soup stock.
"What went wrong!" cries Bubsy as he and the other "heroes" stew over their loss, Virgil ranting about how the Earth is likely doomed as a result. Through electrocuting Arnold, Bubsy is however inspired to persevere and do whatever it takes to track the villains down. Virgil offers a homing device to track the helmet, but Bubsy decides to just look the baddies up in the phone book, crank calling Sid into revealing their address.
Ally is depressed that the helmet is failing to make her feel better, on top of which, it's giving her a nasty case of helmet hair. Bubsy and Co. arrive, demanding the helmet and children back. Ally whips out her blackboard and fells them all with nail screeches, but Oblivia is unaffected and nonchalantly starts flipping the board around, beating Ally with it.
The helmet lands on Sid, who produces an insect-seasoned corn dog. It then goes to the Twins, who zap everyone into singing them Happy Birthday while they stand before a cake. It then lands on Oblivia, who zaps everyone to her wedding with a reluctant Bubsy. It then lands on Bozz, who zaps everyone into his cooking pot, including Ally, who rages at this betrayal. It then lands on Arnold, leading to a semi plowing through the front door. It then lands on Ally, who zaps everyone to the set of her own live tv show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Furry.
It then lands on Bubsy, but by then, the helmet is overheating and going into overload, and Virgil warns everyone the resulting explosion could be catastrophic. But, because he's so
"What could possibly go wrong!"
"What could possibly go wrong?"
Everything, Bubsy. Everything.
I never played any of the Bubsy video games, nor the game series that most certainly inspired it (that being Sonic the Hedgehog), but somewhere in the dark recesses of the cluttered pop culture portion of my brain, with other useless flotsam and jetsam from the 90s like Hootie and the Blowfish, I do have brief snatches of memories related to its hype. The latter being loud and intense enough to have reached my ears, even though I'd all but stopped playing video games a few years prior to its release. But a cartoon pilot? I had no idea, and it's easy to see why. It was a one-and-done, shown on Thanksgiving (?!) and then buried. But this is the information age, and nothing stays buried forever, particularly crap.
Right from the opening guitar strains of its theme song, Bubsy - and Bubsy - is/are grating on the nerves. It's the equivalent of being awakened by someone banging an aluminum trashcan with a rubber mallet at the end of your bed. After sixty seconds of this irritating ear pollution, I already wanted the whole thing to be over with. Bad sign.
Unfortunately, things don't get any better. Bubsy is an intensely irritating "attitude" character, always loud, in your face and constantly breaking the fourth wall to try and tattoo his catchphrase onto your brain: "What could possibly go wrong?" I'm sure the irony of that catchprhase hasn't been lost on anyone unfortunate enough to have watched this over the years. If you think Bubsy's bad - and he is - you should meet his friends. His niece and nephew, who are like two mini Bubsy's - which are too many Bubsy's, if you catch my drift - show up and scream a lot. Then there's his armadillo sidekick, Arnold, who best I can tell is afraid of everything save for bad comedy. When they're all on screen together, there's lots of yelling (have I mentioned there's lots of yelling?) and canned *doink* *boing* *pow* sound f/x. By this point, my fingernails have been digging into the palms of my hands long enough to draw blood.
Things improve ever so marginally when the villains are introduced. The main big bad, Ally Cassandra, is at least less irritating than our hero, which is... something, I guess. But the real star here, strictly by virtue of not yelling or making me wish my ceiling would collapse on top of me so I wouldn't have to finish watching this, is Bozwell the Buzzard, Ally's droll, sycophantic personal chef/henchman. I couldn't help but feel that he must be thinking the same thing I was: "What in the Hell am I doing here?"
Maybe I missed the explanation when I got up to fix a pb&j sandwich, not returning for several minutes and not bothering to pause it or go back, but somehow this Virgil Reality machine doesn't create a fantasy for its wearer, but actually turns their thoughts into reality. This MacGuffin actually has some potential, and for a fleeting moment, I allowed myself to hope that some entertainment could yet be squeezed out of this show, but sadly it just turns into an excuse to unleash more *doink* *boing* *pow*.
Readers, prepare yourselves for a shock. I'm not going to recommend Bubsy to you. I honestly wouldn't be surprised to learn that atheism saw a huge spike around Thanksgiving 1993, as this is the sort of abomination that would cause anyone to lose faith in the existence of a higher power.
I kept count and the phrase "What could possibly go wrong?" appears nine times in this episode. Nine. NINE! I don't know if this catchphrase grew more significant in the Bubsy mythos over time, but in watching the entirety of the first game, it only appears about 1 or 2 times among the litany of weak one-liners and puns he has to say, and never once appears in either of the prologue comics.
Here's the problem with Bubsy... You can have your Bugs Bunnies, the coolest cat in the room, who exudes confidence and charismatic wit, and who can face down anything thrown at him with a laugh. You can have your Daffy Ducks, where the confidence is instead ego, leading him to trip over everything and just constantly making the situation worse for himself. Bubsy tries to be both. He's confident, but blundering. He seems triumphant and heroic, but makes messes of everything. I guess one could argue he's ironic, but it really just makes him inconsistent and a hard character to get any kind of an actual feel for. Honestly, he's not even so much a character as he is a means to an end for these writers, as he tells their jokes, leads us through their plot points, and ends on him saving the day and winking at the audience as he looks forward to the next adventure and "What could possibly go wrong!" They try to brush this off with him describing himself as nuts, but no, it's just shitty writing from scripters who couldn't be bothered.
And the shame of it is, there are some flickers of inventiveness in here. As weakly as we're led into the plot - Bubsy sees Reality and the helmet on TV and just shows up to volunteer instead of, I don't now, them just being friends and frequent collaborators who typically do this sort of thing - but the various ways in which the helmet are used to give life to peoples' dreams and fears is a fun idea on paper, and there is some delightful zaniness in the climax as it constantly changes hands, piling their realized fantasies atop one another. I do also like that Bubsy breaks down, freaking out about the twins disappearance and the ensuing chaos, first with the punchline lament of "What went wrong!", then anger that gradually boils away before he refocuses and lets it go. Both are genuine character moments that I wish could have been built upon. Plus, I liked Bubsy's line to a villain, "Prepare to be humbled!" I can't explain why I laughed at that, but I did.
Other moments I liked were Sid trailing after a dive-bombing Bozzwell only to meet with a plane, bad weather, and a cactus field, all while Bozz remains oblivious. Or the sudden point where Bozz gets the helmet and turns on Ally and the surprisingly dark moments of him fantasizing about eating half the cast, including children! Or when the underestimated Oblivia reveals she's actually quite sharp and resourceful, repeatedly wielding that chalkboard as a weapon.
But these are just moments, flickers of wasted potential. Most of what's here is just flatness. The jokes are awful, but not so awful they become funny again. The zaniness keeps things moving at a fast enough pace to not nod off, but it also doesn't have any actual energy to give it any life. There's a broad cast of colorful characters, all of whom are wildly indistinct. I remember Ally wanted the helmet because she's the greedy badguy, but not the actual reason why. Bozz is fine as a baddie, but Sid and Arnold are virtually the exact same character and we don't need two of them. Arnold is so violently the put-upon trope of an unfortunate sidekick that it's actually painful to watch at times as Bubsy goes all Elmira Fudd on him. Oblivia and Bubsy just met, have zero chemistry, and yet she's already fantasizing about marrying him because why? Dr. Reality is just kinda there for technobabble rants beyond the setup. And the twins. There could have been some fun to be had from the twins, making them a Penny and Brain duo to Bubsy's Inspector Gadget. No, they're both Bart Simpson. Wild, defiant kids causing trouble, laughing off the consequences, and debating over which foe they can make "blow chunks" first.
This was produced by the same group - studio, director, producers, pretty much everybody - who also did Denver the Last Dinosaur, Widget the World Watcher, and Mr. Bogus. I do remember watching the first two when I was a kid, but didn't stick with them for long because I remember them having that same sense of a clueless adult trying hook kids with something hip and zany without having any real grasp on what kids actually found hip or zany. This carries beyond the cartoon to the entire franchise as Bubsy and his world is completely lacking in a hook to make it distinct and interesting. It's a whole jumble of random ideas and characters thrown on the foundational coattails of wanting to emulate someone else's success - in this case, Sonic and the early 90s second renaissance of Looney Tunes through Tiny Toons and their ilk - then roofing it with shovelfuls of awful, lazy jokes attempting to hide just how thin and fragile the structure is. Remember, I'm the guy who's so pro-remakes I made a podcast about them for four years, so I'm fully supportive of derivative ideas, which includes leaping on current trends. But you still have to actually do something with that trend, you have to actually have something you want to say and put effort into building something people actually want to invest their time in experiencing. Bubsy doesn't have that. It's just stuff half-assed in a flail to sell some units. What I saw of the games wasn't very appealing to me. The comic was fine, but was just a prologue to those games. And this pilot is awful. I'm honestly surprised Bubsy stuck around as long as he did instead of falling aside as 16-bit died.
The worst thing is that it doesn't feel entirely dispassionate. There is a lot of genuine art and creativity being thrown around, it just doesn't feel like it has anything to glue it down and hold it together. And the further it spirals out from that initial game, the more it seems to fall apart. I guess, if there is one way in which Bubsy can be considered to have value, it's in being about as a perfect an example as you can find of what could possibly go wrong.
A few extra thoughts:
- The pun of Virgil Reality honestly didn't click with me until I saw it go by in Tony's piece. Uuuuggggghhh.
- Why does the helmet not have a goofy name? When a goofy helmet is the key MacGuffin in your goofy story, why wouldn't it have a goofy name?
- What was with the early 90s kids/teen shows with their random cutaways to stock footage as goofy non sequiturs?
- After writing my review portions for this site, I go back and watch each episode a second time to put together the synopsis. Doing so here has by far been the most difficult experience I've had in the entire history of this blog.