Beneath the bland mascot lurks a decent arcade game.
I spent the first few minutes with Paws on Fire in a sort of Bubsy Fugue. I would reach the end of a level, watch the score counter spin past the million mark and see the various collectable parts of a medallion slot into place, and realise I had no real memory of where I'd been or what I'd done. If you're not a Bubsy super fan, the bobcat can have a sort of enervating impact. He never seems to get the best gigs or the finest treatment. His platformers struggle to stick in the memory.
Then I noticed the ground-pound move. Hardly a massive breakthrough in platform games, but here it had the effect of jolting me out of my sleepwalking. It ended the Bubsy Fugue. Does it transform Paws on Fire into a classic? Not quite. But it's central to the game's best sort of fun.
Back a bit. Paws on Fire reimagines Bubsy as a runner game: the camera moves constantly and Bubsy and his pals are drawn irresistibly through each 2D platforming gauntlet to the final goal posts. Those pals of his! Alongside Bubsy, you get to play as Virgil and Woolie, and, if you unlock the challenge mode for each level, Arnold becomes a distinct possibility too. I can't really tell you what any of these animals are, such is the vagary of the Bubsy art style, but Bubsy gets a pouncing dash-attack move as well as a jump and attendant slow glide back to earth. Virgil gets a double-jump and can also duck down to slide under objects. Woolie gets a UFO that allows them to turn each level into a side-scrolling shooter, complete with weapon power-ups, and Arnold spins things in a completely new direction, running into the screen along a circular tunnel, collecting stuff and avoiding obstacles as he races up and down the walls.
Woolie's levels are fine, and Arnold's, thanks to overly twitchy controls, are actually a bit rubbish. Crucially, though, Bubsy and Virgil both benefit from the ground-pound business. You can press down at any moment to cancel out of a jump and hit the ground hard. This is useful for squishing baddies and hitting jump-pads that give you extra height. But what it's secretly for is turning each level into something that almost amounts to a rhythm game, as you perfect cancelling a jump to thread your way through levels of increasing complexity, chaining TNT boxes together with balloons and then ducking a saw blade, say - taking to the sky and then hitting the ground, just in time to avoid a nasty demise and keep the energy flowing.
This makes Paws on Fire a pleasantly technical runner, if still rather a bare bones one. Level obstacles repeat fairly quickly, as do enemy types. Few stages have much in the way of a theme or sense of place, outside of the bland scrolling backdrops. Collectables and bonuses are nothing you haven't seen before. And yet there is an undeniable energy in the way that the whole thing is pieced together, the sense of a decent team battling against a tight budget, still finding time to throw in all those bonus levels, a few boss fights, an in-game currency store where you can buy cosmetic upgrades and send Woolie into battle, say, in a hamburger rather than a UFO. Also the punning level titles have moments of glory. "We Fought a Zoo." I hope whoever came up with that got to take the rest of the day off.
What's happened, I guess, is that Bubsy's landed a great developer: Choice Provisions, a team that has already made a number of excellent runner games, as well as the underground masterpiece Whoa Dave. Paws on Fire can't compete with its previous classics, but there is a glimmer of life to it that is extremely welcome all the same.