It’s spring again, and you know what that means!
Rain… Lots and lots of rain.
At least where I live, that is. Not that I mind: I like watching rain fall, and rain brings with it flowers. And with flowers come bees.
My history with Buck Bumble is much like that of my experience with Bomberman Hero: I rented way back in the 90’s and it always stuck with me. Unlike Bomberman Hero, however, I never even got close to beating it. Heck, having played it again recently, I’m not sure I ever even got past the tutorial.
Buck Bumble is a third-person shooter published by Ubisoft and developed by the now defunct Argonaut Games. Hold up, Argonaut Games? Yes, the company that helped develop the Super Nintendo’s Super FX Chip and the first Star Fox game. Strange, I heard that after Nintendo turned down their proposal for a 3D Yoshi game—which would eventually become Croc: Legend of the Gobbos—they had a grudge against the Big N and only released their games on every other system. Well, if that rumor is true, it apparently only applied to the Croc games, because they not only made Buck Bumble for the N64, but went on to develop several other games that were released for Nintendo platforms: Bionicle Matoran Adventure for the G.B.A., I-Ninja for the GameCube, and… Catwoman: The Game… Hm…
Wait, where was I? Ah right, Buck Bumble! As with Bomberman Hero, I stumbled across Bumble in a used game store—possibly the exact same one—for a mere ten bucks. Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the opportunity to see if this game was worth remembering.
The story of Buck Bumble takes place in the far-flung future of 2010, somewhere in England. A chemical spill that’s been allowed to fester for years has resulted in the local insects mutating into intelligent creatures capable of augmenting themselves with cybernetics. Among the mutants is a hostile, expansionist faction known as the Herd (personally, I would’ve gone with the Hive, but whatever). Now it’s up to Buck Bumble, the presumably sole field agent of the resistance, to put a stop to the Hive Herd!
So in other words, standard fair for a late-90’s, kids’ game. That said, I do appreciate how the story is presented in game. While there aren’t any fancy cutscenes or voice acting, this game has a very similar sense of progression to another game I’ve talked about in the past, Battalion Wars. There’s a really nice sense of continuity between missions, with many missions and their objectives being in response to the events of the stages before them. Like Battalion Wars, this lends the missions in Buck Bumble a sense of scope, where every mission is just one part of a larger conflict.
Presentation and Aesthetics
Something becomes apparent pretty quickly when looking at this game’s visual presentation: this game was made on a small budget. Graphically, everything just looks kind of drab: most levels are primarily yellow and brown, with many textures being nigh omnipresent. To make matters worse, most items, enemies, and objects are also yellow. Furthermore, in true N64 fashion, what splashes of color there are either look faded or dim and dull.
This is only exacerbated by the game’s poor draw distance. I know the game’s set in England, but seeing the world just a few feet in front of the player be swallowed by fog makes the game’s expansive environments feel like bleak, colorless voids.
Even with the game’s zealous culling, it still doesn’t run at that great of a frame rate. On average, I’d say it runs somewhere around twenty-five-ish frames per second. Normally I’m not the sort of guy to even notice such things, but with how difficult the aiming can be (more on that later) and how fast Buck moves, I found that it affected how well I could keep track of what was happening on screen. There were even a couple of instances where watching the game started to make me feel a bit dizzy.
It isn’t all bad though, there is plenty of set dressing to establish and reinforce a sense of scale, and for the most part it works. If you’re paying attention, most areas do look distinct, they just doesn’t feel distinct. That is until you reach the final stages—specifically the Hive Herd lairs—where all the corridors look the same. I accidentally backtracked to the start of those stages on more than one occasion.
One last thing I want to mention about the graphics is something I noticed about the animation. Many of the game’s animations are oddly choppy, with no interpolation between poses. It’s not a major issue or anything, it’s just so rare to see animations in a 3D game that have visible snaps between key poses. Not every character’s animation look this way either, making it especially weird that the main character does.
If there’s one thing you know about this game, however, it’s the music, or more specifically the game’s theme song. Yeah, there’s no denying how bumping that track is. It’s quite possibly the best part of the game. Oddly, despite the popularity of the theme song, the rest of the game’s music doesn’t get any recognition. Most of the music in Buck Bumble consists of simple house beats and rhythms that absolutely screams late 90’s. Much like the environment art, however, the music does get a bit repetitive, and tracks all started to blend together in my subconscious by the end of the game. That said, the fairly chill nature of house music means that the music was fairly easy to tune out, so the music’s monotony wasn’t anywhere near as apparent as the level art.
If there’s one thing you know about this game, it’s the game’s theme song.
The gameplay of Buck Bumble is a hybrid of shooters like DOOM and a dog-fighting game such as Star Fox. Like old shooters of the 90’s, Buck has to scour each level for weapons and ammo. There are several weapons to choose from, each best-suited to different circumstances. Also much like some old-school shooter, the player’s inventory and health are persistent between levels. Whatever the player has at the end of the stage is what thon’ll start with at the beginning of the next. This adds a nice layer of strategy to weapon use, as each shot could potentially mean less ammo for that weapon in the next mission.
The controls and general approach to combat are much more akin to Star Fox, however. Levels are very open, allowing the player to fly freely. While Buck is capable of coming to and staying at a complete stop, unlike the majority of the vehicles in Star Fox, he can still only move in one direction, forward. This makes the gameplay feel a lot like Star Fox, especially when dog fighting Hive Herd operatives.
The game is divided into nineteen missions, each of which is played in a set sequence, so no hidden missions or branching pathways. I must admit, there’s actually a really nice variety of objectives throughout the game: protecting bases, disposing of bombs, defeating enemies, etc. The variety also strikes a really nice balance where there’s just enough missions that have something out of the ordinary to keep the player on thon’s toes, but not so many that levels start to feel gimmicky.
There’s a really nice variety of objectives throughout the game
So how well does this all work together? Let’s start with the controls, and let’s just say Buck didn’t get the name “Bumble” because he’s a bee. I’ll start with a positive: Buck moves fast and steers fairly well in large open areas. That said, I always found myself face planting and skidding along the ground whenever I had to be precise—at least when I was flying at full speed. The controls really favor larger, broad movements, as trying to be precise results in Buck jerking all around. It feels like there’s a dead zone on the joystick, but exiting the dead zone sets the stick to raw input instead of at the lowest value.
This also makes precise aiming a pain. Due to the aforementioned sensitivity issue, there’s no way to just barely move Buck’s reticle. Compounding with that is the fact that Buck’s vertical aiming is dependent on how much the player tilts the joystick up or down, so—for example—the player has to hold the stick halfway up to aim halfway between dead ahead and Buck’s maximum pitch. I mean, it makes sense for flying, but with how precise the game expects players to be with their shots, it’s not optimal for shooting. Oh, and to add insult to injury, the player’s aiming reticle isn’t part of the U.I., it actually exists in physical space, meaning if something gets between the camera and the reticle, you can’t see where you’re aiming.
Between the finicky controls, draw distance issues, the fact that enemies are surprisingly aggressive, and the low frame rate making it hard to line up shots, I ultimately opted to avoid fighting enemies when feasible—quite unusual for me—and instead make a beeline to my next objective. In short, this is a game where you fight to live, not live to fight.
Another issue I ran into on numerous occasions was how hard it can be to control Buck’s altitude. Buck can very slowly increase altitude by holding A and B together, but there’s no way to slowly descend, at least none that I could find. I think the devs intended players to just not hold the accelerator button (A) or the hover button (B) to descend, but instead of dropping, Buck actually slowly moves forward while descending. It’s a minor annoyance, but one that had me constantly having to loop around to grab items hovering just above hazards.
Alright, let’s move on to difficulty now. Overall, I think the game’s difficulty ramp is pretty well-paced. It does seem to be surprisingly generous with health pickups right up until the last quarter of the game, where it suddenly gets fairly miserly—not cruel, mind you, it just feels like the game skipped a step in that regard.
With that said, that doesn’t mean the game is always fair. In this game, deaths can usually categorized in one of three ways:
- Your own lack of skill: You made a mistake, or several little mistakes that added up over time, and now you’re dead.
- Illogical, but consistent: Quirks of the game that you don’t see coming, and often don’t work that way in other games, but are avoidable once you’re aware of them.
- Because fob you, that’s why: The game just wanted you dead.
The first category is fairly self explanatory, and is just a part of the natural order of things. Unfortunately, I’d also say it only accounted for—if I’m being generous—75% of my deaths. Number two is when the game behaved in ways I wouldn’t naturally expect, but did so in a consistent fashion. Probably the best example of this was how enemies’ hurt boxes didn’t disappear immediately after they died, meaning that if you brushed up against a corpse, you could easily get stun locked just long enough to lose over half of your health bar. These are annoying, but I eventually learned to avoid them.
Finally, there’s when the game just decides to kill you. This one was surprisingly common in my play through. This is mostly the fault of the one mechanic: flinching. Whenever Buck gets hit, the player momentarily loses control of him and Buck’s head jerks to one side. In motion, this is just a minor annoyance, but when standing still—which is helpful for lining up shots—it can easily lead to the player getting stun locked to death. When I say “lose control of Buck” I don’t mean the player just momentarily loses control of Buck’s aim, I mean Buck stops listening to all input, so if the player is getting pummeled because thon stood still to line up a shot, then thon can’t move at all until Buck recovers from flinching. Did I mention the enemies in this game are really aggressive and have surprisingly good aim for video game minions? There were several times where I just wound up getting juggled because an enemy sniped me from off screen and then dog-piled me.
This leads to another minor complaint, being that damage feels really inconsistent in this game. There were times where I could take four or five shots to the face and there’d barely be a dent in my health bar, but other times one or two glancing blows would knock out a third of my life. I never could get a sense of how much damage I would take from each hit.
Damage feels really inconsistent in this game.
Finally, let’s talk about pointless stuff! Why does this game have lives as a mechanic? There are no checkpoints; every time the player dies, thon goes back to the start of the level. Losing all of thon’s lives just kicks the player back to the title screen, forcing the player to reload thon’s save file to go right back to where thon would’ve restarted anyway. All it does is waste time.
This is a first for That Was a Thing, but… Buck Bumble isn’t that great of a game. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just really average. That said, I’m disappointed it never received a sequel. See, I have a bit of a bad habit of judging games not just for what they are, but what they could be, and I think with some work Buck Bumble could’ve pretty good. A lot of the game’s shortcomings ultimately stem from it being developed on the N64: the frame rate, muddy graphics, limited controls, poor draw distance, etc. If it—or a hypothetical sequel—had been developed for the GameCube, it probably would’ve been a much better game.
It’s theme of militaristic animals and gameplay reminded me of Star Fox, which given its developer, makes a lot of sense. I have to wonder if that was intentional on the part of Argonaut. Again, maybe if Argonaut (or Ubisoft, I don’t know who actually owns the rights) had made a sequel, that would’ve spurred Nintendo to give the Star Fox series more attention to compete.
While it’s sad to say, this isn’t a game that aged particularly well. I’d pass on this one unless you’re like me and want to run through it for nostalgia reasons.