There has perhaps never been a catchphrase so deliciously ironic as Bubsy Bobcat’s. When the
wisecracking feline first waltzed onto gamers’ screens in 1993, developer Accolade made no secret
of the fact he was engineered to be direct competition to the likes of Sonic and Mario, and by virtue
of this he came with all the excruciating characteristics that make the majority of 90s mascot
platformers completely laughable in retrospect – stiff controls with little to no regard for actual
physics, mindless repetitive music, and a snarky ‘too-cool-for-school’ protagonist who seemed to
have been designed with one eye on the inevitable cartoon tie-in (which, in Bubsy’s case, did indeed
come to pass. It’s awful.) You know the stuff. Your Gexes, your Aeros, your Ty-the- Tasmanian-Tigers.
Exactly the kind of material that Sonic somehow rode to fame, leaving all his imitators in the dust.
The jammy little blue sod got lucky.
It must have struck a chord with someone, though, because the Bubster soon found himself with a
few sequels under his belt, most of which were met with a general shrug of indifference from the
gaming community. They weren’t terrible but weren’t spectacular either, and their middling sales
reflected this. It seemed that were the series to continue in that direction, it’d come to be
remembered as a passing novelty. A charming little engine-that- sort-of- could story. The tale of one
bobcat who thought he could take on the juggernauts that were Nintendo and SEGA, and instead
only managed to make a tiny dent in their shins.
Indeed, Bubsy’s career could have – and should have – ended there. But no. Oh, no, no, no, said
Accolade. 3D gaming was looming on the horizon, and if Mario, Sonic and Link could rush to adapt,
then so too could Bubsy, they cried. And it is here that I quote his aforementioned all-too- prophetic
one-liner: ‘what could possibly go wrong?’
The answer, it turned out, was everything. And then some. Released for the PS1 in 1997, Bubsy 3D
epitomised the absolute worst of 3D game design, especially in a post-Super Mario 64 world.
Amongst its most egregious offenses were tank controls (!!!) stage geometry that appeared
unfinished and Bubsy’s apparent inability to shut his mouth for more than 5 seconds at a time. It
was, by all accounts, a disaster, and the effect was immediate. Overnight the franchise became a
laughing stock, and a laughing stock it has remained for over two decades now. What remained of
Accolade was dissolved, and Bubsy Bobcat was, quite rightly, presumed dead. Cold. In the ground.
How wrong we all were. “Cat”astrophically wrong, if you will (hey, if the game can do it, so can I. Back
off). Flash forward to 2017, and here I am, typing out a review for a new Bubsy game. Putting aside
my nagging suspicion that this title’s existence is still some gigantic cosmic prank, it appears that
Black Forest Games, developers of the popular Giana Sisters titles, somehow found themselves in
possession of the Bubsy IP, and, against all sanity and better judgment, decided to revive it. Well
hey, what better time than Halloween to dig up and reanimate a corpse?
The result is something entirely unexpected; something that will have to make myself (and I suspect
many others) do as Bubsy himself did when he posed that perennial question of what could possibly
go wrong, and eat our words. It’s… it’s good.
Assuming that little bombshell hasn’t made you swear off internet reviews for life, bear with me
here. I’m not crazy. Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back is, against all odds, a charming, tight platformer
that confidently extends a middle finger – or middle claw, I guess – at its heritage and defies its
pedigree, delivering an enjoyable, if brief, romp through a lush world oozing with character. Still with
me? OK. Let’s take this in stages.
First off, the plot. In short: there isn’t one. In long: BTWSB isn’t going to be winning any Pulitzer
Prizes for its narrative, but in a brief series of stills we learn that the Woolies, eternal adversaries of
Bubsy, have made off with a golden yarn ball his grandpa made from the fleece of a golden sheep.
Naturally, yarn ball deprivation is about the most heinous crime one could inflict on a feline, so off
the bobcat goes to reclaim his prize. That’s your lot. It’s simple, serviceable, and most importantly
dispenses with the needless complexity that Bubsy 3D tried to shoehorn in; something about a rift in
space? Or a teleporter? Powered by wool? I don’t know, and frankly don’t care.
Moving swiftly along, the game itself plays great. The developers’ experience with the Giana Sisters
titles is felt in spades here – these people get 2D platformers. In a vast improvement from the
originals, Bubsy no longer accelerates to 50 million miles an hour if you hold right, instead opting for
a more casual running speed that never goes above a power-walk, and this alone makes him feel
good to control. His movement is tight, his jumps are responsive, and double tapping jump to have
him glide is a joy, especially when you nail an arc into a line of well-positioned yarn balls. About the
only complaint one could muster here relates to Bubsy’s new ‘pounce attack’, which allegedly homes
into enemies (in a suspiciously similar fashion to Sonic, because hey, if you’re gonna steal, might as
well go all the way) but in reality misses with irritating frequency. It’s not a deal-breaker because you
can just as easily bop Woolies on the head rather than pounce at them, but I suspect many a
speedrun or no-hit run will be kiboshed by the attack’s inaccuracy. Could do better.
The stage design is far more up to snuff than one would expect, too. Though the game is nowhere
near long enough for it to build up any real complexity – more on that later – each stage is packed to
the brim throughout with enticing caves to explore, alternate routes to follow, gimmicks to muck
about with (there’s a bit with a canyon filled with springs that I had a blast just bouncing around in
for a while) and an impressive number of collectibles to gather. Strewn about are literally hundreds
of yarn balls and 5 keys per level, which in turn unlock a ‘Woolie Vault’ containing, yup, more yarn.
Furthermore, skilled play is rewarded, as one 100% criteria is to beat every stage without dying,
ensuring that, at the end of the day, completionists are going to be kept very, very busy. And will
likely have visions of dancing yarn balls haunt their dreams for months on end.
Where the game truly shines, however, is in its presentation. Visually, this is an immensely attractive
title, with lurid colours and warm lighting breathing life into what could easily have been a generic
half-baked world. The scrolling parallax backgrounds are pretty and appear to be partially hand-
drawn, creating a striking visual contrast with Bubsy’s 3D (whup, got to be careful, almost said the
name of that other game) model and the more fleshed-out foreground. Little touches like water pits
flowing in from rivers and bee enemies being drawn to the giant flowers that adorn one stage’s
background – giving you the chance to take them out no trouble – show signs of some real creativity
on the developer’s part, and it’s something I’m excited to see more of if they’re serious about this
whole Bubsy thing. Still not sure they are, but… moving on.
In terms of sound design, the music is delightful. It never quite reaches the heights of Mario’s
orchestral majesty or Sonic’s irresistible techno beats, but there are still some very catchy tunes
here, to the point I caught myself tapping my foot a few times during my playthrough, and I eagerly
anticipate any potential soundtrack release they might put out (or, more likely, YouTube rippers
might put out; get on it, BrawlBRSTM). Likewise, from a SFX standpoint the palette is varied, with
yarn balls satisfyingly popping as you collect them, the pounce attack whooshing about with reckless
abandon, and a range of natural sounds like flowing water and wind blowing through the canyons
that make Bubsy’s world feel alive.
Which brings us, at last, to the voice acting. Yes, Bubsy speaks, and that alone may be enough to
make most prospective buyers lock their wallets up tighter than Fort Knox, but he’s nowhere near as
ear-splitting as he once was. To their credit, Black Forest seem to have recognised a character like
Bubsy is only tolerable in doses – in exceedingly small doses – and so his quipping has been dialled
back substantially. Sure, he still posits his eternal existentialism ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ on
the loading screens between stages, and on startup he croons ‘guess who’s back?’ in the kind of
maddening, self-aggrandizing tone that would cause even the most pious of monks to kick puppies
and eat people, but during actual gameplay he shows remarkable restraint.
As he navigates the stages – which are, of course, all given punny names; ‘Star Claws: The Fur
Awakens’ and ‘Reservoir Cats’ are just the tip of the iceberg – he’ll toss out the occasional wisecrack
or bit of commentary relating to whatever action he’s performing (‘pilot’s license? What for?’ he
chuckles as he glides) and when left inactive he’ll regale stuff to you about things like, for instance,
his movie career in Iceland where he’s apparently ‘a pretty big deal.’ Quite a few of these oneliners
are rather funny, and the pool of them is fairly large so you don’t often get repeats – although by the
50 th rendition of ‘bobcat in your face!’, the line that accompanies the pounce attack, I was starting to
crack a little. Baby steps, Bubsy. You’ll get there.
Despite all this good stuff, however, there is one major crippling flaw with The Woolies Strike Back:
its length. There are a grand total of 10 regular stages in the game, spread across 3 worlds with a
boss fight at the end of each, and each level will run you about 10 minutes on a regular casual run.
This adds up to less than 2 hours of story content, which for 40 bucks is a bit stingy. As mentioned,
completionists or those with severe OCD will get far more bang for their buck as the replay value is
sizable, what with the collectibles and bonus objectives, but for those who just want the core
experience, you’ve seen crummy B-movies that are longer than this full-price videogame, and that’s
a pretty huge downside to what’s otherwise a splendid package. It ultimately comes down to either
waiting for a price drop or taking the plunge now but being aware you’ll have finished the entire
thing by teatime. Whether that’s worth forty of your hard-earned smackeroos is up to you.
As far as what’s there is concerned, though, Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back has accomplished
something most thought impossible: it’s made Bubsy Bobcat – Bubsy the freakin’ Bobcat – good.
Black Forest have done a commendable job sprucing up a largely outdated character and format for
2017, papering over many of the series’ cracks with gorgeous graphics and more than competent
level design. Add in the bopping music and the fantastic controls, and you’ve got one of the biggest
surprises of the year – a year which has turned out to be the year of the platformer. Everyone’s
back; Mario, Sonic, Crash, Ratchet, Clank… and now the Bubster. Time will tell whether he decides
his spot at the table, but for now:
What could possibly go wrong? Not a lot.