In the nineties the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo was heated, and other companies wanted in on the Mascot Rat race to sell their products. The 3DO had gex, Amiga had Zool, and Accolade created Bubsy.
Bubsy, just the name makes gamers moan in pain. Today he a meme, and I still find his games interesting from the perspective of level design. You may be asking, what can you learn from a bad game? Honestly a lot, when discussing level design, enemy placement, game mechanics. Just to be clear this isn’t a review or retrospective of the game and franchise, but a discussion on game design in the eyes of an amateur.
Level design is the foundation of a game.
I’ll be using Bubsy: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind as it’s the game I know the best. We will be looking at the first two areas, as many of the issues will repeat. The first three levels are a town in the hills with many unfair traps. While unfair to fall into these traps we come across our first lesson: how to correctly trap a player. Filling the areas with one-hit kills and impossible-to-get-out-of scenarios will annoy the player. Bubsy has a mixed bag of wanting the player to explore and getting the level over with. If you have some areas reward and others punish the player, it shows you do not have a clear path for your levels. It creates a false difficulty that has hurt many games in the past and still does in this day and age.
Tough but fair.
Continuing with the sewer pipes, they themselves can kill you if you jump/run into them as they fall and raise. You are only safe when they are flat on the ground. They do serve a second purpose and that’s to shoot you up high into the sky. It can give branching paths which it sometimes does, but it can put you up so high you die from fall damage. It should reward the player with more points or a way to move through the stage faster. While I’m for the crush damage, hitting it from the side should just cause you to move back. Make obstacles fair but challenging.
The high roads in the first two levels are water slides. They can lead to death by enemy placement, or leading you to a water trap. The slides can allow you to move through the stage more quickly for the average player and abused in speed running. They also can sometimes lead to one-ups and more yarn which is more common. This mechanic doesn’t make a comeback until area 4 showing they are somewhat underused.
Creative is fun but…
On chapter four, our second area; the environment changes to a theme park. The slides are replaced with broken roller-coasters tracks of various colors. Honestly I find this stage to be the most fun, creative, and all around interesting. The thing is, the coasters can kill you; by either falling off a ledge the edge or you walking into them. The annoying part about the coaster killing you with its height is that you could glide to safety even if it is in its free-fall animation, but the game doesn’t let you, unless it’s last minute, meaning it just ends up killing. Another complaint is the area’s final section. It is a maze. The problem with the maze is that you have to guess where you go. The final level also suffers from the same issue which can suck the fun you can get from the level.
Many of the level design issues are followed thoughout the game. The only changes are in and the stage after the theme park, being broken into two sections, tree and desert.
What good is a level without enemies?
Next we’ll discuss enemy design and placement. The main enemy we fight are the woolies, aliens with tentacle feelers on there head that sneeze at you. They come in a few forms from standing and walking, to throwing eggs and cheese wheels. Not very exciting right? Another enemy that’s kind of uncommon are the mini flying saucers and the boss variants. The rest of the enemies are all area specific from cars and gumballs to ice creams and hot dogs.
In your game it’s OK to have simple enemies as simple can be best like goombas from the Mario games. It becomes confusing when an enemy like the ice cream doesn’t hurt you but the hot dog kills you. Another example is in the first area, they’re two car variants; one with a roof and a convertible. The convertible is an instant kill while the other is kill able. When having enemies they need to have a rule applied to make it fair to the player. The players first instinct is to jump on both types. If the convertible enemy had animation for its hood, it could be a tell to be careful. Another issue are enemies’ types and rules change so much.
The placement of enemies is also a problem at times. A few times I found myself trapped and could only get pass by dying or getting lucky. At the top of slopes in the first area I found myself running face first into gumballs of death. The Gumball machine are some of the enemies that can not be defeated.
Know what your character can do, not others.
Sonic as we all know moves fast but has some slow levels like labyrinth zone. Mario’s games are also very basic and deal with precise jumping. Bubsy tries to be both without knowing the planning that made both work to begin with. Bubsy wants to be fast like Sonic, and wants to have precise jumping like Mario but he runs into too many issues. The number one issue is he is is too frail. One hit and he’s dead, while Mario and sonic have something of an HP system in forms of power ups and rings for sonic respectively. Bubsy is also floaty and slippery making precise jumps difficult. The camera is also way too close. If it was set back so you can see more of him and the level, players might not die as much.
Looking toward the future.
Some of the issues did get fixed in Bubsy 2, but many of the problems still persist. Bubsy has tools like a Nerf-esque gun and calms down on the enemy variants. The most recent game as of the time of the publication, “Woolies Strike Back,” fixes the issue with Bubsy’s speed and even give him a health point system with the shirts. Though each of the game fixes something it changes like in the Woolies Strike Back being way too safe and losing the creative locations the other games offered. I do love the Bubsy games since I first played them at the age of 4 and even bought the Steam 2-fer which contains the first two games. Those interested in the game can get it here. I do hope Paws on Fire fixes the issues and improve, and not just ride the meme train.