Remembering Michael Berlyn
The video game world has lost yet another legend
People use the word “legend” a lot these days. While in the days of old, it described epic tales of adventure, these days people use it to describe either people or works that have left a tremendous impact on the public. People deem legends to be those who break boundaries, revolutionize the norm, and so on.
It's remarkable that it's no longer necessary to be great to be legendary because even the awful can be iconic. When it comes to video games, it's likely that for every highly acclaimed game, there is also one that isn't so great. For every “Batman Arkham Asylum” there’s a “Superman 64”. For every “Resident Evil 4” there’s a “Devil May Cry 2”. For every Mario… there’s a Bubsy.
If you're a big platformer enthusiast like me, odds are you've heard about this bobcat before. Either you actually tried the games for yourself and suffered in deep anguish, or you’ve heard about them through a YouTuber or a journalist looking back at just how terrible that series was, not to mention all the memes it spawned.
Bubsy the Bobcat debuted to a mixed reception in 1993 in a 2D side-scroller for the SNES and Genesis. Strong sales prompted Bubsy to come back with two side-scrollers and one 3D game, which basically killed the franchise… until 21 years later when two additional games were made, none of which left a great impact on anyone. As this brief summary shows, Bubsy is not a franchise that won any actual admiration from anyone and is often seen as a bad sign of the times. It’s one of those franchises people would just brush off as “a terrible Sonic the Hedgehog rip-off”, jokingly impersonate the title character, and then go on with their lives with no regard for the people behind the game… which brings us back to our subject.
Michael Berlyn, the man who created Bubsy, passed away on March 31st, 2023, having fought cancer for over five years. I'm sure the news took aback everyone who was familiar with Mr. Berlyn, myself included. This is the person who crafted one of the most despised characters in gaming history. After becoming accustomed to people mocking his creation and criticizing it incessantly, reading about his passing came as a complete shock.
After hearing the news, I became interested in Berlyn’s perspective on the franchise. It is a well-known fact that many people involved with Bubsy tend to dislike the experience. Rob Paulsen, one of the most highly regarded voice talents in the world, has revealed that Bubsy is one of two characters he loathed voicing the most over the course of his work (the second being Coconut Fred, for those who are curious). I was curious to hear Berlyn’s own thoughts on the matter, and to my surprise, I found his perspective to be quite unexpected.
The Origin of Bubsy the Bobcat
Michael Berlyn, an employee of Accolade in the 90s, came up with the concept of Bubsy, a mascot platformer similar to Sonic. His superiors initially rejected the idea but Mr. Berlyn persisted and spent more than 10 hours a day playing Sonic to understand what made it such a successful game. He wrote a detailed document on why SEGA’s hedgehog worked and presented it to the company. Impressed with the report and pitch, they approved him to begin developing Bubsy.
I’m always impressed when the little guy at the company gets his chance to push through the odds and the constant dismissals one would get from the bosses. Michael Berlyn’s story is no different. He put in a lot of effort to turn his dream of developing a side-scroller into a reality, and even if you don't like Bubsy, it's truly admirable and inspiring!
Now if only the game itself was anything to write home about…
The first Bubsy game is the only one I’ve played throughout my life. Younger Harel might tell you he sucked at the game, but the older me knows better. Bubsy 1 is a mess. Not an unplayable mess, mind you, but a mess regardless. The Sonic inspiration is strong since the bobcat can run really fast… but the sprite size of both Bubsy and the enemies is so big that it’s impossible to see those coming and properly react on time. Getting hit is too much of a recurring event and unlike the hedgehog who inspired him, Bubsy dies in one hit.
There are no power-ups, no extra hit points, no way to see what’s coming, no way you could react, and on top of it all… no way you could have fun (though it pains me to say it). Mr. Berlyn showed his ambition and hard work in this game through the expressive animations on Bubsy, the colorful and unique environments, and even the infamous one-liners that were absolutely ahead of their time back then. Voice acting wasn’t a common thing in video games back in 1993, so to have a character talk back to you and crack jokes as you were playing was revolutionary.
Perhaps the idea behind Bubsy's constant quips was to motivate players to keep playing after losing a life - a little joke to help lighten the mood before trying again. However, the charm quickly turns into annoyance when you die repeatedly and have to hear Bubsy's one-liners over and over again. This is likely one of the reasons why Bubsy gained a negative reputation. While a character with a witty sense of humor can be endearing, when the jokes are repeated too often, it becomes obnoxious. Unfortunately for Bubsy, his creator's ambition in this regard only served to exacerbate the problem.
Despite its issues, Bubsy was a sales success and Accolade was quick to pounce on the opportunity to milk its new cash cow. They put two sequels in development and even produced a pilot for a new animated show starring Bubsy, sponsored by Taco Bell, of all franchises. What could go wrong? Well… a lot, as it turns out. And no, there was no way I’d publish a Bubsy-related article without referencing that line.
When Michael Berlyn Left
One of the first things that went wrong with the Bubsy franchise was that Michael Berlyn stepped away from it. Although he was likely pleased with the game's success, he was eager to move on to his own company, Eidetic, after Bubsy was released. However, Accolade wanted to expand the franchise without Berlyn's involvement, but both critics and fans of the original game poorly received the sequels that resulted. Additionally, an animated pilot was produced, but it was so irritating that it wasn't even picked up for a full series.
Mr. Berlyn himself was amongst the critics of the sequels and the pilot. In interviews, he expressed that even people within Accolade cringed at the pilot for the cartoon. He also quickly disowned Bubsy 2, claiming it was made by people who didn't understand his original vision and that it had killed the franchise. While I'm not a fan of the original game, I can only imagine how disheartening it would be to see people try to continue something I fought to create and then completely mess it up behind my back.
Although some may argue that Mr. Berlyn's criticism of Accolade's sequels and the Jaguar game was simply due to bitterness over the company's decision to continue the franchise without him, I believe there may be a deeper reason. One particularly striking anecdote about the later Bubsy games is that the development teams actually despised the character. They only took on the projects for the money and showed their disdain by hanging plush dolls of the character from the ceiling and stabbing them with pens. This suggests that Mr. Berlyn's disownment of Bubsy 2 and claims that the sequels failed to capture his original vision may have been more about frustration with the lack of respect and understanding for the character he had created.
When I first heard those stories about the developers hating Bubsy, I found them amusing. It was almost as if the character was "so bad that even his creators couldn't stand him." However, I soon realized that Michael Berlyn, the actual creator of Bubsy, was completely unaware of this.
He only found out about the plush dolls being tortured when he visited the Accolade offices to see the progress on Bubsy 2. Regardless of whether his dislike for the sequels was genuine or based on reviewers' opinions, how would you feel if you discovered that the people who worked on a project based around a character you created actually despised it? How would you feel if something you put your heart and soul into was taken over by people who hated it this much? I don't blame Berlyn for feeling bitter about any of this.
Michael Berlyn Returns
Sales for both Bubsy 2 and the Jaguar game were poor, and with the pilot not being picked up, the future of both Bubsy and Accolade was in jeopardy. In a last-ditch effort, they approached Mr. Berlyn to come back and work on the next Bubsy game. He agreed to develop the game with his studio under the condition that it would be a 3D platformer. However, as many familiar with the history of Bubsy and platformers might expect, this decision had disastrous consequences. Bubsy 3D turned out to be one of the worst games ever made. The game ended up killing the franchise for a while, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Although it's easy to joke around about the game now and how unfinished it is, I'd like to give you a look at what's happening off-camera. Michael Berlyn was starting from scratch when he came up with the idea of making Bubsy in 3D. There were no 3D platformers around then, as Bubsy 3D was being developed at the same time as genre-first classics like Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot. With only eight people, compared to the 10-20 person teams of the titles mentioned before, Mr. Berlyn had to use his intuition to make decisions while developing the game and figuring things out as he went. I may not be giving the game any credit, but this guy? He sure gets my credit.
When Mr. Berlyn unveiled a beta of Bubsy 3D at the Consumer Electronics Show, the same event where Nintendo presented Super Mario 64, he immediately knew Bubsy couldn't keep up. I can imagine the feeling of disappointment when you put your heart and soul into a project, thinking that it will be groundbreaking and amazing, only to discover that your competition has beaten you to the punch before either game has even been released.
The bad news continued to come as Mr. Berlyn asked for more time from Accolade to polish the game and bring it to the level of Mario. Accolade refused, and the world now knows the results.
You don’t need me to tell you that Bubsy 3D was a failure on every level imaginable. A quick Google search will give you everything you need to know. What did Michael Berlyn think of it, however? Well, he of course believed his team did the best they could under the circumstances, but he was fully aware of the game’s problems and called it “his biggest failure”. Many people believe the failure caused him to quit the video game industry, but that’s not entirely true and it’s the point where our sad tale takes another turn.
Berlyn's Departure, Eidetic's Rise, and Bubsy's Comeback
Given that Eidetic had previously developed for PlayStation and had its own engine from Bubsy, Sony struck a deal with them to develop the Syphon Filter franchise. The studio found success with Syphon Filter and went on to develop the Uncharted games for the PlayStation Vita and the PS4 game Days Gone, eventually being purchased by Sony and renamed Bend Studios. Days Gone.
Unfortunately, Mr. Berlyn did not get to witness any of this. He worked on Syphon Filter for a bit but chose not to be credited because he couldn’t support the acts of violence presented in the game. He left the studio, dissatisfied with where the business was heading. The story of Eidetic may have had an overall happy ending, but I can’t help but feel bad for Mr. Berlyn, as he clearly wanted to create something people would love and enjoy… but the circumstances just weren’t right. Berlyn returned to the world of video games in the world of casual games for iOS devices, but nothing worthwhile came out during that time.
In 2017, after years of silence, a new Bubsy game emerged, surprising and shocking everyone. Despite the game being considered the best in the series, it still struggled to compete with other titles, and it received criticism for its basic gameplay and underwhelming length. A subsequent game was released in 2019, which was also poorly received. As of now, there are no new Bubsy games planned. Michael Berlyn has had no involvement with these recent releases, and despite searching extensively, no statement from him regarding them has been found. It seems that his opinions on these games will remain unknown, for better or worse.
Despite my negative view of the first game and the criticism aimed at the character he created, I can’t help but feel bad for Michael Berlyn. Despite his most notable creation being the subject of ridicule in the gaming industry, he persevered through many obstacles and worked tirelessly to bring his ideas to fruition. Though the end products may not have been successful, it’s worth acknowledging and celebrating the ambition and determination of the man who never gave up on his values and fought against all odds, even when the outcome was never looked upon favorably.
At the start of the article, I defined legends not by their goodness or lack of it, but by their impact and marks they’ve left behind. Most people would agree that Bubsy's legacy is not based on its quality or positive effect, but instead on its lack of substance and infamy. We should consider his creator a legend because of their tenacity and hard work. He may not be as well-known as those who have created very successful franchises, but as a person separated from his work, I think we should remember him for more than just the bobcat he created.
Rest in Peace, Michael Berlyn.
Your works may have been flawed, but I’ll forever respect your story and ambition.
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