During the mascot boom of the early nineties, video game developers went to great lengths to create a franchise face they could cash in on for subsequent years. Accolade left its mark on the boom by releasing Bubsy the Bobcat into the world in 1993. Bubsy was the star of Bubsy: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind, released on both the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. This wise-cracking bobcat even had a slogan that embodied his reckless confidence. Calico Creations got a deal to make a Bubsy cartoon, and a pilot of the episode “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” aired on Thanksgiving 1993.1 Bubsy’s star rose and rose.
Unfortunately, Bubsy’s campaign faltered after heaps and heaps of hype. Although Claws Encounters was well-received by fans, Bubsy II failed to improve in the areas critics demanded in a classic. The television show never made it to production,2 and as the franchise began to lose momentum, this promising bobcat began to look more like a Sonic knock-off than a promising mascot. Indeed, ever since the 1996 release of Bubsy 3D on Playstation, Bubsy has been taken to the toolshed by countless critics for being a trying-too-hard also-ran. But two decades after the birth of this bobcat, should Claws Encounters be looked down upon for bearing such weighty baggage? Let’s instead take an even look at the merits and faults of Bubsy’s introduction to the gaming world.
The first impression we get after popping in the cartridge is that this cat is about having one helluva time. Bubsy rips onto the scene in the title screen and doesn’t stop hopping—in fact keeping him idle at any moment during the game will receive an impatient foot-tapping in return. I mean, this is one pun-loving puss. The dual-headed boss is called Polly and Esther, for crying out loud. Each chapter (or level) name is a silly play on words, as are the music tracks. The game title is an adage to Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi thriller, and the association loosely carries over as Bubsy’s “close encounter” is with a species called Woolies who steal the world’s supply of yarn, and with it Bubsy’s precious hoard of yarnballs. If Bubsy is made angry at this injustice–or if he feels anything other than mania throughout his journey–he’s doesn’t show it. Even his 12 death animations are opportunities for jokes.
Bubsy’s ‘tude was a common theme in the mascots of the mid-90s, so that was nothing new. But when it came to gameplay, Claws Encounters makes pretty obvious borrowings from Sonic. Here are the ones I picked up on:
- picking up speed quickly and bopping enemies on the head
- finishing each level by spinning something that shows his face
- calling each level “chapters” (instead of acts)
- concluding areas by facing bosses in dipping flying objects
- shifting Bubsy’s momentum during bonus levels to obtain goodies
The issue with borrowing from a classic is that when a game doesn’t reach the heights of its aspiration, the differences in quality become all the more glaring. Bubsy was good, but not good enough to be an instant classic. The corners cut in creativity proved devastating.
When it comes to level design, Claws Encounters adds to the typical horizontal platforming element by expanding levels many times vertically. Bubsy can go from west to east, north to south with no constraints save the generous 10:00 time limit. Cruise through the chapter if you dare, or take your time; it’s your choice. This was a clever way of slaking Bubsy’s need for adventure well before 3D systems hit the market. The graphics is good, and the levels are colorful even as the landscape theme is used several times in a zone. A few hidden short-cuts are to be found in the game, but not much in the way of easter eggs. Bubsy must generally find his way to the large yarnball at the end of the level, taking as long or short as he wants.
Bubsy’s passion to rock actually contributes to the difficulty of the game in my opinion, as several aspects make wariness key. Holding Y, Bubsy picks up speed and can jump (B) high or float for long periods of time by pressing Y again. Because of momentum, landing a float is tough to get the hang of, but immensely important to the gameplay. Unless Bubsy gets a rare invincibility power-up, the only way to defeat enemies is by bopping them pretty directly on the head. You will die a LOT on your first go-round, because from bosses to minions, Bubsy dies with one measly touch. To compensate for the game’s difficulty, Bubsy the ‘cat’ is given nine lives (har-har). I’d much rather be given a weapon in exchange for less lives, but Accolade decided to save that for the sequel. If you’re like me, you’ll be using the trigger buttons, as well as ‘up’ and ‘down’ quite often to see the path before you take a plunge.
Music adds a lot of personality to the levels. The first zone is played to the tune of Hill Stream Blues, while zone two switches gears to the carnival tune “Fair is Foul.” The wild wild west levels begin with the train section playing “Cattanooga Iron Horse,” and then into the canyon with “Wool Wool West.” Bubsy goes back to the freshness of the green outdoors for a few levels accompanied by the banjo-pickin’ “Bobcat Blues,” whose nostalgic Americana has got to be to be my favorite. Then we’re high in the rainforest sky with some “Woolering Heights,” which for some reason has a Sonic ring to it. Lastly, we listen to “Mission: Impervious” while tracking down the final boss in outer space. The boss music for each zone typically resembles the music of its levels, but picks up the pace and rises in pitch as Bubsy beats them down.
Another aspect of atmosphere are the many, many enemies who litter each level. Many are Woolie-themed, meaning they have squat arms and large red noses. It’s cute how they will wear a safari hat in the rainforest, or a glass helmet in the space zone. There are lots and lots of insects, as well as level-themed zoo animals that will either help or hurt you, depending on how you approach them. As a whole I could take or leave the Woolies–they’re meant more for silliness than for instilling fear. The enemies in Claws Encounters go along with Bubsy’s zany theme.
As a whole, Claws Encounters is certainly good enough give a try, if any other reason than being a solid platformer challenge. Sure, there are likenesses to the classic Hedgehog. But didn’t Sony borrow from their own Crash Bandicoot when they made Jak and Dexter, as Nintendo’s Donkey Kong 64 resembled Mario 64? Not every game is going to be completely original, and although the sin by Accolade was trying to create a mascot based on things already done before, I think that two decades later, a little forgiveness can be had.
One thing that can be said about Bubsy is that his approach to his games reintroduces what our approach used to be with video games. Trying out a new game, did we jump in thirsting for adventure? Did we absorb the fantasy? Hell yeah, we did! You might dig Claws Encounters enough to try out Bubsy 2 on SNES, or dust off the ole Atari Jaguar and play Bubsy in: Furry Tails. But allow me to make one plea. Please, oh, please, don’t try Bubsy 3D!!!
 Watch the episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmNdbdSCuC4
 For an incredibly in-depth analysis of Bubsy’s pilot: http://cartoon-watching.blogspot.com/2012/03/bubsy-animated-series-pilot.html
Four out of Five Stars
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