Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back Review: What Could Have Possibly Gone Wrong?
Life is strange, isn't it? It seems like only yesterday we were all gaping in absolute, dumbfounded shock at the announcement of a new Bubsy game in the form of Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back, and now the actual game is right here in reality for all of us to boo off stage and chuck tomatoes at.
Most veteran gamers likely know the gist of Bubsy's history by now. The first game is largely remembered as a failed attempt to make a mascot platformer meant to rival the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog, with pretty average results and some mechanics that were at odds with each other. The sequels were essentially more of the same, with the exception of Bubsy 3D, an early 3D platformer famously awful for its limited controls, self-congratulatory comedy, awful camera, and overall cheap-feeling quality.
Not many people wanted a new Bubsy game, and I think even fewer expected one, but here it is anyway. The question is: has developer Black Forest Games learned anything from the years of criticism and infamous reputation left behind by developer Accolade? Have they made a truly good game out of Bubsy?
The answer is no. No, they really haven't learned that much.
The visuals, at least, aren't half bad.
Let's Start With the Positives
I think it's fair that when critiquing any game -- no matter how much you may hate it or think it doesn't need to exist -- to point out what it did well before you rip into it. I'd like to start off by saying that there are actually a few small things about The Woolies Strike Back that I liked and didn't just tolerate or flat out despise.
For starters, in the options menu, you have the option of adjusting Bubsy's level of verbosity, meaning how often he'll make one of his characteristic one-liners. You can go from a minimum setting of "Silent Bobcat" all the way up to the maximum setting, which is just called "Bubsy." This addresses the most common complaint people had about Bubsy games in the past, how Bubsy constantly spouted inane quips and references. This option shows a certain degree of self-awareness and learning from the series' past failures.
The graphics can actually look kind of nice (at times), some of the music is chipper and fun (if not all that memorable), and to be completely honest, my first impressions weren't that bad. For the first two levels, I was actually having fun, taking in the decent scenery and collecting lots of colorful yarn with its satisfying little pop noises.
Very early on, I found myself having a little fun here and there.
The controls also aren't too bad. Bubsy can still jump and glide, as well as pounce, and aside from an annoyingly fiddly sense of movement when trying to move just slightly, the controls are fine. The glide provides a slight upward boost in midair, which can help you correct a jump, and you can even jump in midair when walking straight off of a ledge. These movement options open up some small opportunities in terms of platforming.
It wasn't much, but at the start, I could at least say the game was, at worst, below-average. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for me to notice the cracks in the game's structure, and it didn't take long after that for me to really see how frankly lazy and awful the whole thing was.
What Went Wrong
This game has some of the most basic and boring design for a platformer I've seen in quite a while. The level design is downright insipid.
The biggest offense in the level design -- and possibly the game's entire design -- is the pointlessness of the collectibles. The main collectibles come in the form of balls of yarn, hundreds of which are scattered across each stage, which seem only to be relevant in increasing your score at the end of each level.
There are also five keys in most levels, all of which you need in order to unlock the level's Wooly Vault, which always houses a large amount of yarn. Lastly, there are T-shirts, which either give you an extra hit point or grant you an extra life if you grab one while already powered up.
But here's the big issue -- about 90% of the collectibles are pointless, and by extension, 90% of each level. Like I said before, the yarn only adds to your score, which is unconnected to anything else in the gameplay, meaning there isn't any reason to explore the levels. Every diversion from the main path is in service to pointless collecting, even when it's a shirt to get health or lives, because some of the shirts are on the main path anyway.
The level design can just be plain confusing sometimes.
While there are rare bits here and there where the platforming feels decently structured, they really are few and far between. The placement of everything from checkpoints to collectibles to walls and platforms feels borderline random. The level design doesn't have its own special Bubsy "feel" or anything; it just seems like they did the minimum that they had to in order to keep the game from feeling like an annoying walk down a long corridor.
Everything in every level is at its best amateurish, and at its worst, useless or awful. Enemies have bizarre placements, the background shadows pop in at random times, the enemy and environment variety is laughably low, and the hitboxes are just cheap. Bubsy sometimes has trouble landing on a basic enemy due to his slender size, and all hazards and some basic objects have inaccurate and illogically large hitboxes and poor collision detection.
The cherry on top is that the few boss fights in the game are all terrible. First off, all three of them are against the same UFO but with different attacks, which is more than just a little disappointing. Second, the difficulty curve for these fights is totally screwed up. The first fight is extremely easy -- possibly easier than an encounter with a normal enemy due to the enormous, obvious weak point -- the second one is harder than the final one, and the final one is underwhelming as a finale. And they all just take too long.
The first boss fight. The other two are a lot like this but with way more obnoxious screen-filling attacks.
Lack of Purrsonality
In regards to Bubsy's one-liners -- as well as the writing in general -- they aren't that great. The jokes in this game range from either not that funny to not making any sense at all. To illustrate my point, I will quote Bubsy when he sings, "MC Bubster, the Pouncemaster, in the game, yeah!" Now I will quote my brother, who in response to this quip, said, "That sounds like the kind of joke you make on accident and then wish you could take back."
There is a story, but it feels like nothing, even moreso than a lot of other retro or retro-inspired platformers. Bubsy's longtime enemies the Woolies (the enemies from the first Bubsy game) have come back to steal all of Earth's yarn, as well as Bubsy's prized possesion, the Golden Fleece, which is important or special for reasons we are never told. The Woolies aren't a threatening or cool enemy force, and their goal isn't even clear. Plus, Bubsy is so smug and nonchalant that it doesn't ever feel like there's any stakes or a real reason to care.
Maybe the story and writing could be forgiven for being so underwhelming if the game wasn't also so short. My playthrough of the game was just under two hours total, which to my understanding is longer than most people's, and that was only because I was stopping to collect things early on before I realized they were pointless. I've seen and heard about some people beating the game in just under ONE hour blind.
Look What the Out-of-Work Bobcat Dragged In
This game is less than two hours long and costs $30. Even if this game were great, that price would still be too much considering how short is. Another recent indie platformer, A Hat in Time, is also $30, but that game is much longer, better designed, and more charming and original. To quote my brother again: "This game would be a ripoff at 99 cents."
I just can't wrap my head around this. What was the point of bringing back a character like Bubsy -- a character that most people didn't miss or really care about -- just to make such a basic and painfully mediocre game? Why invest time and money into a game that ultimately ends up feeling like a slightly longer HD version of the original SNES game?
I cannot recommend Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back to anyone, ironically or otherwise, and I don't think there is any reason to buy it, even if it were to get some sort of massive discount. There are hundreds of much better games, many of which cost less than half this game's price and have design that actually improved and changed with the times. The best thing I can say about it is that it's short enough that I was able to finish it and still get a refund on Steam.
Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back is available now on Steam and PS4 (but you really shouldn't buy it). You can watch a trailer for the game below: