A timely-ish ode to my first videogame.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
20 years ago, this past October 15th, I received my first-ever videogame console for my fifth birthday, a Sony PlayStation, and began a so-far lifelong and somewhat contentious relationship with a hobby that has nonetheless been a cornerstone of my life. The countless late nights, the openness to unfamiliar genre experiences, the genesis for my love of grown-up films and TV shows and music, even the initial embers of my desire to write about stuff for a living can be traced back to that fateful day tearing open that mysterious boxy present. I got two games with the console. The second was Porsche Challenge which I was very bad at and therefore, in my five-year-old mind, decided it was bad and so didn’t play it very much after that initial try. The first, though, was one I recently rebought as an adult and which turned 20 in Europe for the console just a few short months ago, Bugs Bunny: Lost in Time.
Canadian development studio Behaviour Interactive’s – soon to be renamed as Artificial Mind & Movement Inc. and a reliable purveyor of licensed games of varying quality for the following two console generations – second released game was a 3D platformer for the PS1 and PC, very heavily in the vein of one Super Mario 64. And, yes, I already know exactly what direction you’re expecting this Throwback to take. After all, whilst platformers were still all the rage during the fifth generation of gaming consoles, the jump to early 3D was… awkward, let’s say. Many developers attempting to sprint without figuring out how to even crawl first, leading to sloppy controls and horrendous cameras that made basic navigation an exercise in frustration, let alone precision platforming, causing even the heaviest of hitters at the time to age poorly in retrospect. All those “was Crash Bandicoot 1 really this hard?” takes when the N-Sane Trilogy dropped a few years back providing a firm shock to the system of gamer’s memories everywhere, and that game was only 2.5D rather than full 3D! (And to definitively answer that question as somebody who still has their original PS1 copy and boots it up from time to time: it was even harder, believe me.)
And whilst I’m actually pleased to report that the game holds up far better than I had feared, Lost in Time still has many a creaky joint typical of platformers from that period. Controls can often be unreliable with position-locking kick attacks sometimes double-firing despite only one input and Bugs not pointing in the direction you initially set him in, and “use” actions that register as often as they just-plain don’t. Jumping is floaty and can be hard to gauge, although this is mitigated by the automatic jump which occurs when stepping over an edge and the game keeping leaps-of-faith to a minimum. Much more of a problem: the collision detection is wonky as all get out, it can be a near 50/50 chance on whether a jump attack on an enemy will land as intended or cause Bugs to slide harmlessly off the side and get thumped for his troubles (a problem exacerbated in the vehicle levels), and there are almost no invincibility frames when Bugs does get hit so enemies with boomerang attacks (like the crabs which litter The Pirate Years) can often unfairly stun-lock him to death
Bizarrely atypically, though, the camera is by and large totally reliable – and that’s especially noteworthy because terrible cameras would prove to be the death knell for many platformers on both the fifth and sixth console generations – which is representative of where the developers clearly invested most of their time into. Lost in Time is very evidently meant to be Baby’s First Mario 64, something that teaches younger and more novice players the general basics of the genre in an accessible manner that prepares them for more strenuous and grown-up takes on those mechanics and progression systems.
The gameplay, therefore, is solidly made and generally lacking in real challenge for veterans of this sort of thing but it’s also just difficult enough to make collecting the clocks and golden carrots scattered about each of its 21 levels satisfying for all. It’s also just long enough to feel massive for children unaccustomed to grindy collect-a-thons without succumbing to said grind or being bestable in an afternoon. And there’s enough variety in the levels – aesthetically, mechanically, length-wise – to instil a surprising “one more level” hold on the player. One moment, you’re in a regular two-part platforming excursion through the Stone Age. The next, you’re chasing Rocky and Mugsy through rain-slicked 1930s Chicago streets in gradually shrinking forms of vehicular transport. The next, you’re having to outrun a rock-slide in the Medieval Period on-foot whilst Witch Hazel blasts her spells at you. The next, you’re recreating the “Captain Hareblower” short in a boss fight against Yosemite Sam.
That, more than anything, gets at how Lost in Time has managed to age as well as it has: charm. Charm coming out of the wazoo. The folks at Behaviour clearly knew and loved their Looney Tunes because Lost in Time does a better job than any non-Sheep, Dog ‘n’ Wolf (Sheep Raider for our US readers) Looney Tunes game in translating that anarchic energy and spirit into the realm of videogames, plus callbacks and re-stagings galore. The plot, which kicks off when Bugs naturally takes a wrong turn at Albuquerque and accidentally activates a time machine in a barn that leaves him displaced from the present, utilises the set-up of “Knight-Mare Hare” in order to provide the most minimal of frameworks required to justify each area’s self-contained recreation of classic Looney Tunes iconography. Some do in fact allow for playable recreations of entire shorts, such as the “Bully for Bugs” aping bonus level “La Corrida” or the race against Marvin the Martian to claim Planet X as memorably featured in “Duck Dodgers in the 241/2th Century” (although sadly without the hilarious planet-destroying fight which came afterwards).
Visually, the game does a decent-enough job in porting over the strikingly coloured yet simplified expressionist style of the 1950s-era shorts to the limitations of the original PlayStation, playing into the console’s blockiness and trouble rendering simultaneous colour palettes to create something recognisably Looney. (The spiritual sequel Bugs & Taz: Time Busters, released a year later, would refine the ideas into something even better looking with smoother animations and more rounded designs.) The audio has then-Tunes regulars Billy West, Joe Alaskey and Jess Harnell offering quality impressions of characters originally given life by the departed Mel Blanc, whilst Yosemite Sam and Witch Hazel are actually voiced by Blanc and June Foray respectively via archival audio complete with scratchy recording tracks which really sell the comforting warmth of watching an old short. Levels even come with their own title cards on the load screens, often repurposed from the shorts which inspired the levels in the first place.
All that detail, that distinctly Looney detail, combined with above-average gameplay is what makes Lost in Time a surprisingly enduring joy to experience. Even if it’s a bit janky in the handling, even if it becomes very obvious that the developers ran out of time and ideas in the latter stages of the game, even if it doesn’t do anything particularly unique in the gameplay, it bursts with love and attention from almost every pore. For the first time, after decades of prior attempts (almost all of which stank), here was a Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes game that felt like a Bugs Bunny or a Looney Tunes short. That managed to find a way to synthesise its source material with the every-game overlay of a 3D collect-a-thon platformer without the latter diluting the former. I genuinely don’t think I am ever going to get tired of alerting Witch Hazel, who always lets out a “ooh, fiddlesticks!” before lugging up her broom overhead like a mallet, and luring her over a random airborne anvil hazard to satisfyingly watch it flatten her head after that iconic slide-whistle drop sound effect from the cartoons I was already obsessed with as a kid.
Maybe Lost in Time was responsible for me sticking with my PlayStation instead of using it a few times and consigning it to the cupboard like so many other toys over the years. Maybe if I had gotten another garbage game as part of my present instead of it, I would never have ended up draining my parents’ back accounts for a good 14 years afterwards and today arguably have way too many game cases for way too many consoles laying about my bedroom. Maybe I’m just being hyperbolic. Whatever the case, Bugs Bunny: Lost in Time holds a special place in my heart and though time may be wearing down its joints in the playing, it’s yet to dull the irresistible charm so essential to its identity.
Callum Petch says move your feet and feel united!