Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind is a difficult game to play. The cartridge itself reeks of a protagonist too-cool-for-Videogameland– its boxart a pastiche of a movie poster, an overly enthusiastic bobcat (“Bubsy”) popping out of a blue vortex. Here is a character who knows what he wants. Unlike his estranged kin, Mario and Sonic, Bubsy goes straight for the jugular– he eschews colorful mushrooms and fate-tempting finger-wagging, grabbing childhood attention spans with a wink and a grin. (Literally.) He panders to the audience more than Duke Nukem, and he makes sure that it knows. After all, at least some kids played his game– and that’s more than even some modern companies can say.
The secret is that Bubsy’s games aren’t for children at all.
Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind isn’t a platformer. It’s not even an adventure game. Claws Encounters is a puzzle game. While Mario sought to rescue a princess and Sonic the Hedgehog vowed to stop Dr. Robotnik from mechanizing all his friends, Bubsy glided around looking for his lost balls of yarn. Even Donkey Kong, in Donkey Kong Country, only wanted his darn bananas back from the Kremlings– which makes actual sense considering Kong would starve without them. Bubsy, presumably, could live just as well without the yarn. “Why do you even need these things?” players have yowled over the years, as their Bubsies continued to die by simply hitting the ground a tad faster than usual. Why, indeed?
In this game: Bubsy gives Plato a run for his money.
Even from the beginning we know that Bubsy detests the status quo. At the title card of each stage, Bubsy spouts a one-liner and disappears off into the level, where his expression is usually maniacal and his animations are wrought with all the subtlety of one of Bowser’s castles. But these expressions and these gestures are anything but superficial. Under all that movement is a character who understands the irony of platforming games– while your characters run willy-nilly toward that flag or giant golden ring, they flee and abandon everything behind them. They’re running toward just as much as they’re running away. There’s a reason you couldn’t go backward in the original Super Mario. Bros: after all, there’s no returning to what’s already happened.
In Claws Encounters, you can run left and right, but your sense of backwards and forwards is limited. You think you’re supposed to go right, because that’s what Mario does and what every other platforming game after Mario has done– but rush forth too enthusiastically and you’ll find yourself careening over a hill to your death. Walk right hesitantly and a Woolie blows a raspberry at you nonchalantly, causing another death. Mash buttons, jumping around like the maniac Bubsy seems to be, and start a chain reaction of events that could end with your finishing the level, but more likely than not will end with your death. Stand still and the timer clicks down, while Bubsy gives you a Look. It’s a Look you’ll be hard-pressed to find in any other video game character– one that tells you that I Know What You’re Up To, that I Know You’re Afraid, that There Is No Hope. You don’t know what to do, or what to expect. Is going right the right thing to do? None of this game (is it still a game?) is remotely straightforward. You wonder when you’ll have some Claws Encounters, because that’s what the title says the game is about. You wonder if you already have.
Upon reaching the final level, Bubsy chirps, “You’re still playing this thing?” Your cheeks flush.
You play some more, spending too much time on the first level because it seems all but impossible to beat. There’s got to be a trick to this, you tell yourself, because otherwise there is no way you’re getting to chapter sixteen. You glance up after contemplating a break and Bubsy’s giving you the Look again. There Is No Hope. You grit your teeth and try again. And again. And again. And you just can’t win. Ah well. At least the level’s decent-looking. It’s one of those forest first levels– but it’s not futuristic like Green Hill Zone and not cottony like Green Greens. Instead, the place looks fairly realistic– even structures like pipes and water funnels abound, indicating the presence of sentient, anthropomorphic creatures (read: Bubsy). Claws Encounters, in fact, mocks the real world. When he’s not seeing straight through your soul, Bubsy’s putting on an act that would make Spielberg proud– his wide-eyed grin never stopping as he wanders through water and jumps over garbage cans, a perfect parody of modern decadence. He reacts to everything, a hyperreal cartoon character years before The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and falls just short of Roger Rabbit in his penchant for bowdlerizing popular culture. (As if “Claws Encounters of the Third Kind” wasn’t enough.) Seeing him so active makes you wonder if you should be, too. If Bubsy thinks his real world is pretty– well, why shouldn’t you with yours?
In Bubsy’s world, not appreciating the world around you has dire consequences.
But then again, Bubsy’s outnumbered. Mario, Sonic, and Mega Man– even foes that were once friends, like Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid– all thrive on adding numbers to their games. Bigger and bigger numbers, hiding behind names like Galaxy or Mercenaries or Portable Ops— an excess, however justified, that Bubsy mocks in his own excesses. Eventually, he tried to fight fire with fire, releasing Bubsy II and Bubsy 3D, mockeries upon mockeries that led to his downfall. Now, Bubsy is nowhere.
You wonder if you’re the only person who understands him, after playing his games. You wonder if you’re the only one who realizes that by being ridiculous and by being too-difficult, Bubsy exhorts gamers to take pride in their own lives– to push and shove to the front of the line, changing their worlds because Bubsy cannot change his. Where his worth is measured in balls of yarn, which in turn are measured in points, the worth of real people can be measured differently. The best part is that none of this seems even remotely difficult compared to Bubsy’s games– another clever part in Bubsy’s master plan. In Claws Encounters we hear a lone bobcat, forced to pretend to be happy in a world of unwanted excess, forced to call himself marketable not because he is, but because his yarn balls deem him to be. We hear him and thank him for his lessons, only wishing that more would take the time to listen– instead of dismissing Claws Encounters because it looks idiotic. (Another good lesson.)
But perhaps that’s still possible. After all, if anyone could go from being nowhere into being now here, it’d be Bubsy the Bobcat.