Bubba'n'Stix A500: A Fanatic Praise. (Or Review)
I’ve been a fan of Bubba’n’Stix since 1994 when I bought it for my Amiga 500. The game was well received critically and today, it’s not that hard to find more recent reviews written by retrogamers who praise it too. But there also are people who trash it.
The problem I have is that, praised or criticized I really think that people underrate the game. (edit: actually, I carried on looking after having written this article, and there really are a lot of people who truly like the game).
Bubba’n’Stix is an excellent game that is hard to praise properly. There are games that just ask for the designation of “masterpiece.” And I wouldn’t hesitate one second to say that Bubba’n’Stix seriously kicks a few masterpieces ass, but that’s not the word I would spontaneously use to describe it. I wouldn’t feel like putting it in a top 10 best amiga games either. Not because it’s not, but because it doesn’t feel fair to me nor relevant to compare it to other games.
And so, the “big” words I found that suit it best for the moment are “perfect” and “ageless.” Even in 1994 I already knew that Bubba’n’Stix was a game that would never grow old because it was too perfectly made.
Its sole flaw is that you have to choose between music and sounds. But with WinUAE (Amiga emulator), you can actually put the musics in windows media while the game plays the sounds.
Many people who like the game, praise it for being smarter than other platformers. But I don’t like that argument that much because first, most puzzles aren’t that hard and second, back in 1994 I didn’t play Bubba’n’Stix to feel smart or superior, I played it because I enjoyed it tremendously. It didn’t make me feel smarter than the people who played Sonic, I loved Sonic too, but it felt weak and hollow compared to Bubba’n’Stix.
When I use the word “perfect” I don’t mean it in an emphatic hollow way. I mean that there is nothing in this game that needs improvement because it is entirely coherent. I remember that Amiga Concept had criticized the underwater part of the game because Bubba really took too much time to respond to solicitations. That’s just false. Yes, Bubba is harder to control underwater and that’s perfect.
Overall, Bubba isn’t as nimble or reactive as Sonic, Mario, James Pond or Mr.Nutz and at the time, it could be easily considered as a flaw. The reason why it’s not, is that Sonic is a dumb superhero. He’s a hedgehog that runs superfast so that audiences could believe the Megadrive was a superfast console. He kills robotic enemies that transform into little cute animals and confronts giant machines piloted by Dr.Robotnick the evil villain.
Bubba’n’Stix isn’t about a bad-ass superhero bringing a tyrant to his downfall and saving the universe, it’s about survival. Bubba is a random guy who finds himself in a very threatening situation and who tries to go back home. That’s why while Sonic is virtually invincible (you can be hit an infinite number of time as long as you catch a ring after each hit), Bubba’n’Stix’ gameplay feels very unforgiving. You cannot jump around and hope your reflexes are going to save you from losing a hitpoint. Very often you get this very specific frustrating feeling of not having approached an enemy the way you should have, you were too impatient, not prudent enough and you lost a precious hitpoint to a stupid bouncing blue fruit. The gameplay puts you in Bubba’s shoes perfectly, you feel threatened, you feel like you should be very careful where you step. Even more so when Bubba cannot defend himself when he's not carrying Stix, that which happens quite often.
And still, the enemies are not out to get your skin. They’re animals annoyed by the presence of an intruder. There’s no malevolent plan to rule the world behind them. Also, they really are not used an awful number of times. They do not feel like copy pasted obstacles. The blue fruits always fall from the branch of a tree while the bushes are met in open spaces. Everything is done in order to make the universe of the game coherent.
These bouncing balls of green mud only appear on the left side of the lowest floor of the sinking spaceship.
And that’s what’s so important about the puzzles. It’s not the fact that the game asks you to use your brain, a lot of them are very easy, a few of them have no logic, but the fact that these puzzles make the world of Bubba’n’Stix more tangible. The number of unique interactions between Bubba and his environment and their density in a given level, make the game feel like it’s telling you a story.
Sonic the Hedgehog is rarely more than a random nonsensical layout of different video-game levels of which you will remember very little beyond the theme and the few places where you can lose a life.
Ah, that good old feeling of intense boredom that grabs you by the collar after 15min of Sonic blindly rushing through levels after levels of rushing through levels.
Bubba’n’Stix can be told as a story because there are so many non-obvious unique actions to perform in order to progress. So, if Sonic’s selling point was speed, Bubba’s would be the “density of meaningful actions” or “the quality of the gameplay storytelling.”
Very recently, games like Unravel or Never Alone offered the same kind of experience. However, these focused a lot more on puzzles and it made them less diversified and a bit dull. You don’t need to be skillful in order to remain alive in these games, because as soon as you fail to solve a puzzle you die and restart two feet away from where you were. Bubba’n’Stix mixes the pleasure of having to reflect upon what you’re supposed to do, while still having a very arcadish approach that forces you to remain focused on the character’s movement.
Also, in Unravel and Never Alone, there’s a strong dichotomy between the moment you reflect and the moment you perform the necessary actions, this in order to make the games easier to classify or qualify as puzzle-games-for-people-who-like-to-use-their-brains-as-opposed-to-Doom-2016-players. You could nearly drop the gamepad for a few minutes between each attempt.
(To be clear, I loved Doom 2016, I loved Never Alone, I loved Unravel. These simply aren't as good as Bubba and Stix).
In Bubba’n’Stix once you’ve decided to bring that milk bottle to an alien, you still have to do it and it’s a challenge and it’s very likely that you’ll have to solve a few other tricky situations before you manage to do it. But while you’re doing it, you have Bubba’s goal in mind. Bubba becomes a character not just an Avatar of the player. There truly is a point'n'click aspect to the game and it wouldn't have been shocking in the least to actually have a point'n'click level in Bubba'n'Stix. Bubba's presence in space is as much "arcadish threatened progression in a level" as "point'n'clickish compulsory travel from a puzzle to another." This mix is extremely rare in videogames and it's sad because it's brilliant.
In Sonic, your goal is always to reach the exit of the level at its far right. It can be extremely fun and entertaining, it will not give depth to the story or the character.
When reaching the end of Bubba’n’Stix, his escape will feel like a real conclusion to the story. You’re not going to shed a tear, but you will feel that all of Bubba’s efforts have been rewarded and that he’s accomplished something. He managed to go across the forest, escape the spaceship cemetery, restart the balloon factory, survive the lost underwater city and escape the airport. It’s not an Oscar winning screenplay, but every single action that Bubba performs in the game feels like a part of this story.
In the balloon factory for example, Bubba has to activate seven switches. In a different platform game these seven switches would have been protected by virtually the same monsters, the same obstacles and the route to them would have been just slightly different. Here, none of these switches are placed in a similar area and the path to reach them is paved with new enemies, traps and puzzles with a new logic each time. The game avoids any redundancy, all the more so when this passage is non-linear.
The third switch is accessible by crawling in a cramped tunnel while avoiding to be crushed by presses that have a very specific rhythm. This type of trap could have appeared ten times or even twenty times in the game. It appears once and because of this unicity, it’s very easy to remember this part. It becomes “The switch with the presses.” And in the same fashion, there’s the “switch that gets Stix in a balloon,” and then “the switch protected by the hammering little guys” “the switch with the lava fall,” “the switch of the foundry.”
So really, the density of unique details, the uniqueness of everything that happens in the game, makes the player experience it as a story. It makes everything feel more important and more substantial. As weird as it might sound, it reminds me of the first half-life, that had virtually no dialogue but told a compelling story through the gameplay.
Now, all of this could be true and still leave us with a bad game. That “gameplay storytelling” is something that can make a good game awesome but not a bad game good.
Obviously, if I’m writing this article it’s because Bubba’n’Stix is great. One of the reasons for that, is that its puzzles are awesome and awesomely designed.
I’ll take the opening puzzle of Level 2 as an example.
Bubba has just been recaptured by Waldo and we find him imprisoned in the cell of a crashed spaceship. Three obvious elements are going to attract the player’s attention: a hole where to put Stix, a barrel and a fan. Most probably, players are going to stick Stix in the hole because it proved useful in the first level. Nothing will happen. Then maybe, they’re going to jump on the barrel and try to hit the fan. Sooner or later they’re going to discover that they can tilt the barrel.
In that kind of game, whenever one discovers a new interaction, it means that they are getting closer to the solution and so, it’s always accompanied by a feeling of gratification. Here, what’s funny is that the barrel is going to push Bubba against a wall and crush him, making him lose one hitpoint. So, by trying to find the solution to the puzzle, players worsen the situation. Bubba now has to remain in movement. Players will most probably have him randomly jump around hoping not to get crushed by the barrel again, sometimes successfully, sometimes losing other hitpoints.
Because of the tension, it’ll take them a bit more time to notice that the tilting of the barrel revealed a new element: something that looks like a trapdoor. Because it didn’t work the first time, it’ll take the players a little more time before they decide to stick Stix into the wall again. Plus, the action is tricky because the barrel is still rolling around and it’s easy to get hurt while doing it. The trapdoor is open. Is it large enough to let Bubba escape though ? The player presses a button in order to call Stix back before leaving the room. Unfortunately, this triggers the closing of the trapdoor. Stix has to remain inside the wall. A few seconds later, Bubba finally leaves his cell, he probably lost a life in the process.
Truly, this puzzle is easy. What makes it great, isn’t that it’s smart or proves that the player is smart. What makes it great is that it is smartly designed and extremely fun and gratifying.
At the end of the day, all that’s happening is that Bubba pushed an obstacle that hid the exit and triggered the opening of the door by switching on a button. It’s not quite as easy as using an interrupter in order to switch on the light, but really it’s not that far.
So, really, it’s the design of the puzzle that makes it great and this for many reasons:
-Players won’t get the solution immediately even though everybody will solve this.
-The elements are disposed in a way that players will get a (small) sense of progression and discovery.
-Bubba will lose hitpoints the first time players solve this and it’s very likely that they’ll lose one life. The threat it represents prevents the puzzle from being a mere dull formality.
-The very precise timing required increases this feeling of having to do exactly what is needed and makes it all the more gratifying once you’ve managed to do it.*
-The puzzle concludes on something funny: Bubba is sucked up inside a pipe that which the player might not have expected and is a nice fun touch.
*Point 4 might sound like a flaw. In many games, the need for a practically perfect execution can be very frustrating and feel like a serious problem and a lazy attempt at increasing the durability. But not in Bubba’n’Stix because once you’ve understood what you’re supposed to do, in most cases, it becomes easy. This is extremely good design because it is intensely gratifying. I can finish the game without losing one life if I just decide to be cautious.
Just after the opening puzzle of Level 2, comes another one which contains similar variables. Bubba will have to bring new elements into play, activate mechanisms and use Stix in a way that is subtly made non-obvious while still being under the threat of losing hitpoints, even if this time, the environment is a lot less dangerous. The conclusion is still funny and the whole thing isn’t difficult in the least.
Level 4 revolves around flooding rooms or emptying them. Just like in Hydro City in Sonic Mania, except that here it's actually interesting and fun.
Now, a problem could actually arise from this structure, that is making the game a long succession of puzzles that all end up feeling similar and a bit dull. I absolutely loved Lara Croft Go, I finished it four times, but the game suffered from this strong reduction to the exclusive solving of puzzles after puzzles after puzzles. Bubba’n’Stix avoids this pitfall by managing space differently (the puzzles are part of a coherent environement and Bubba has to travel from one to the other) and also by offering something that is quite original at the time I believe and that which wasn’t exactly noticed by reviewers: a few of its levels are non-linear.
Again, I cannot but praise the choices the developers made in that, they didn’t make all the levels non-linear, just two of them. This fact, among many others, encapsulates very well the perfect balance of Bubba’n’Stix. Level one is a traditional “run right” level. Level 2 and 3 are about switching a certain number of lever/pedals, on or off in any order, with the nice variation of giving level 3 a linear introductory part and filling Level 2 with objects to use and the possibility to be recaptured and lose them. Level 4 is your Lara Croft Go level, by that I mean a long succession of very defined puzzles. And finally, Level 5 offers a branching, is more vertical than horizontal and is about reaching the top left part of the level.
All the pedals have to be pressed but this in the order of the players' choice and it truly allows to tackle the level in a few different ways.
Again, the design of all the levels makes them very idiosyncratic and unique. And the puzzles are incredibly diversified from the beginning to the end and everything remains timed and designed perfectly. It doesn’t feel like the developers had a lot of good ideas of puzzles but more like they could transform anything into a puzzle because they spontaneously knew what makes a good one at the core.
In level 3, the foundry, there’s a moment at which you have to go down a path guarded by three enemies in order to reach a lever. In any platform game this would be an "intellectual formality," sliding down, killing the opponent or jumping above it, going down, jumping above the opponent or killing him etc… reaching the lever, activating it and climbing back.
Here, numerous variables prevent this to be that simple. That’s an important thing to understand: Bubba’n’Stix is considered to be a hard game, but the truth is that it’s more of a polarisation of difficulty. If you play it like you’d play Sonic, you’ll find it horribly hard. But if you take the time to understand how you’re supposed to tackle every obstacle, it becomes quite manageable. I’ll come back to this later on.
So, Level 3, the Switch guarded by little guys. What transforms this part into a puzzle more than an arcade run/jump/kill, is several things:
- Bubba wants to go down but if he jumps, he’ll climb up to the upper floor. And so the player has to focus on not jumping when he actually is threatened and will want to jump.
- The floors being very near each other, Bubba can be threatened by both the enemies on his floor and the one above.
- The enemies cannot be killed, only “shut down” for five seconds.
- The floor where the switch lies is very low and Bubba will need to use Stix in order to ascend back that which prevents him from shutting down the enemies pre-emptively.
All of this is the stuff of nightmares if you just want to run through everything. But it’s actually extremely satisfying once you’ve accepted to give a thought to what you’re doing. Once you’ve accepted that you’re not just a brainless animal that only use his reflexes.
And here we are, “Sonic players are dumb, Bubba’n’Stix players are smart.” If I’m toying with that idea, it’s because I really want to point at the fact that no, it’s not about being directed towards intelligent people, it’s about being fun. Solving Bubba’n’Stix’ puzzles doesn’t make you smart, it simply asks you to reflect a bit and because the game is not “snobbish” or for snobs, Bubba has hitpoints that allow you to rush through if really you don’t understand what you’re supposed to do. Unlike in Unravel, Never Alone or Lara Croft Go, nobody forces you to solve and understand everything in Bubba’n’Stix.
If you run through the last puzzle I have described at length, you’ll most probably lose two hitpoints out of six before you reach the lever and two more climbing back. If you die after having switched the lever, you don’t even need to come back.
This is actually very generous from the developers because it is detrimental, not to the gameplay, but to the way the game is perceived. Because many players will think they’re in front of a failed platform game that is atrociously hard and has a poor handling when they actually are in front of great puzzle/platform game that is kind enough to allow them not to understand everything.
Before doing Bubba’n’Stix, Simon Phipps had worked on Rick Dangerous 1&2. In this game it’s one hit and you’re dead and although I love Rick Dangerous II, I still prefer the margin of error that Bubba’n’Stix gives the player and the tension that creates the loss of hitpoints to the constant die and retry.
It’s just a pleasure to progress in the game, and actually, just like with Rick Dangerous, one counter-intuitive feature that is accessible through cheat codes is actually quite relevant: the possibility to choose your starting level.
This really is the kind of game that should allow this by default because it really improves the experience. Level 2 being hard, it’s quite nice to be able to play level 3 or 4. It’s just like making the whole game non-linear, if you’re stuck somewhere, you can still play a different level.
There are obvious other aspects of the game that should be tackled in a review.
The sounds are incredibly great. They’re fun, they’re catchy, they’re unexpected and it’s a joy to hear them. You’ve got the stupid bouncing blue fruit that seems to hurt itself each time it touches the ground; the noise of Zitt and Zott arguing and of a bump growing on a head, the sound of a walking tree, the shouts of Bubba, the cries of elation of the stupid alien bonuses when you pick them up, the woody noise of Stick hitting something, the ridiculous sound of Waldo’s boat deflating, of these ridiculous monsters who spit darts with suction pads. Seriously, the A500 sounds of Bubba’n’Stix are phenomenal.
Martin Iveson’s musics are a bit short compared with the seize of the levels. It’ll take about 15min to pass a level when you know them by heart, hours when you don't, the musics are about two minutes long and you cannot stop them if you’ve chosen them over the sound. It really is weird that the developers didn’t find a way to alternate music and sound because it makes the musics pointless. But in themselves, they are great and funny and original and inspired and suit their level wonderfully. Also, the theme track perfectly encapsulates the quirkiness of the game.
The graphics aren’t perfect. Backgrounds could be more detailed while still remaining legible. However they’re ageless. They’re a very good example of a style that perfectly suited the technological possibilities. When playing Duke3d in 1996, we all knew we wished the monsters were less pixelated. When playing Quake the same year, we all wished the weapons were more beautiful and the monsters had more polygons. Turrican II is considered one of the best games of the Amiga but its artstyle is at times generic and at others random. The limits of the graphics of a game like Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge or Stunt Car Racer were always obvious. Bubba’n’Stix’ graphics doesn’t ask for any improvement.
Also, the final boss is one of the best final bosses I’ve seen in my life.
Now, for a more abstract praising of Bubba’n’Stix, I’ll tackle its philosophy.
Earlier in this essay, I was talking about the fact that Bubba isn’t a bad-ass superhero. To be more precise I’ll say that Bubba isn’t an invincible, unstoppable inherently good messiah figure injected in a stupid manichean plot against an evil villain and who will restore balance by destroying everything on its path. The recipe for your average fascist consumer: teaching kids that they’re necessarily the good guys whatever they do and that any antagonism is evil and should be destroyed without hesitation.
Bubba is a zoo delivery guy. Waldo is a zoo delivery guy. Same jobs. Both take orders from a higher authority.
Isn’t it strange that the last image of the game should be this:
We don’t know if Bubba is going to abandon his job. After all he’s been through, it would be a bit weird to resume his career where he left it.
And so, to me, there’s a nice meaning there. Bubba’s adventure is a metaphor for his reflections. He is bringing animals to the zoo and for the first time, he’s feeling bad about it. He is becoming conscious of the violence there is in doing this, in taming nature, in ordering, castrating it.
I suppose that jokes about Stix were legion in reviews at the time when the game was released. Amiga Concept didn’t produce the most subtle one: ”Bubba’n’Stix will teach you how important it is in life to have a big Stix.” Yeah.
Still, on a metaphorical level, Stix remains a phallic object and it is relevant to wonder whether it could mean something about Bubba’s sexuality for example, even more so, when the final boss of the game is a mechanical Stix and Waldo is Bubba’s alien doppelganger with an armour.
Our sex drive is at the core of our individuality. René Girard said that what makes an individual is the ability, or the freedom, to choose their objects of desire. Waldo is clearly a flunky and Bubba, by having a job that forces him to do things that he strongly disagrees with is becoming one. Submission is, obviously, a threat to individuality and it is understandable that Bubba’s sex drive should have a role in the subtext of the story. He is discovering something deep down inside of him that strongly disagrees with this commercialisation of nature, his own link with nature, his animality, his sex drive.
And so, Bubba’s adventure becomes a questioning. Civilization or nature. Technology or wilderness.
It’s quite easy to see how level 1 and 5 perfectly correspond to the two extremes of this issue. The forest is Bubba’s vision of nature at its most dangerous, where even fruits and bushes are out for your blood; while the airport is civilization and technology gone crazy, with screens everywhere, robots, lasers, conveyor belts and electric shocks. Complete absence of safety VS Complete control.
Level 2 and 3 too are nice mirrors. Level 2, the spaceship cemetery swamp contains degraded versions of nature and civilization. The swamp, stagnant water, is nature in a dead end and/or primordial state. As for the spaceships, they are defined by the game as the technological tools to imprison nature. They’re flying cells. So, the spaceship cemetery/swamp is the result of this alienated interaction between culture and nature, culture depriving nature of its will to live, of its sex drive. And I don't know if it was done on purpose... I'm sure it wasn't but... I said that the swamp was nature in its primordial state. Bubba is going to spend his time in CELLS in this level. What is a cell ? A cell is the basic structural, biological unit of all known living organisms. It's so on topic, I don't know what to say.
Level 4, on the contrary, shows us civilization and nature working harmoniously. The water is clear and beautiful, as well as this ancient underwater alien temple. What’s the meaning of this ? I don’t know because this temple is still a giant death trap and the water is part of this trap, entirely controlled by levers and pedals.
And finally, Level 3 is quite interesting in that it represents a second birth for Bubba. Throughout the game you’ll be penetrating holes with Stix and it’s only logical that there should be a birth at some point. These balloons are ovaries, uterus. Restarting the machinery of the factory is restarting the machinery of life (If we accept the thematic).
The enthusiastic cry that these little orange bastards make when they jump is quite funny to recall once you've killed them.
And so, for example, the whole adventure could be Bubba wondering “what if life was entirely technical, what if wildlife was pointless” and concluding with the airport level that is quite dystopian. What would be the world if sentient beings decided to engineer life artificially ?
Linking this Orwellian perception of society with the idea of depriving individuals of their natural way to reproduce is actually quite relevant in 2019.
And of course, there's the survivalist aspect. As I said earlier, Bubba isn't an invincible messiah and my god it is refreshing. He'll come across enemies that do not necessarily want to harm him or kill him. Many of them are just too dumb to understand what's going on and simply defend themselves. He will come across enemies that are stronger than him. His goal will mainly be to pass them, not destroy them, not convert them to his cause. That's ten times smarter than most video games. Life is not about vanquishing or being the good guy. The way morality is subtly subverted is such a rare feature in a video game. Bubba gives Stix to Zitt so that he can hit Zott. That's shocking, but is it any of his business, is it important ? The general absurdity of the game isn't as non-sensical as it seems. The trees with teeth and eyes is a life lesson: even what looks harmless can harm you... and when you expect it the least.
I know that all these reflection sound far-fetched but my point is that Bubba'n'Stix' universe is generally ruled by the idea that appearances are deceiving, that the world is a dangerous place and that you'll have to think before you act because anything can harm you and you'll never be the strongest anyway. It's a better metaphor for life than most games and it's on topic as Bubba is actually reflecting upon these matters; what's the difference between wild-life and life in captivity.
Bubba’n’Stix is a masterpiece and I’ve never come across another game that was balanced the way it is. It is absent from most top 10 – 30 – 50 best amiga games, mostly because it was released at the end of the machine lifespan and thus wasn’t important from a historical point of view and still, it is better than most of the games that can be found in these lists... and better than most games in general.
I want a sequel. I want new levels or paths DLCs. I want more.