Mike Berlyn, the designer, programmer and writer best-known for the creation of Bubsy the Bobcat, has died at the age of 73. Berlyn had a long career in the games industry, starting with 1981's Oo-Topos, before going on to work at storied studios including Infocom and Accolade, as well as co-founding Blank, Berlin & Co (also known as Eidetic, and which would become Bend Studio). Berlyn's other pursuits included writing novels, founding a book publisher, and starting a jazz band called Hot Mustard.
While Berlyn worked on many notable games over his time, and his credits list runs into the dozens, it was the creation of Bubsy the Bobcat that broke through during that mid-'90s period when the industry wanted mascots. Game Developer spoke with Berlyn in 2005 about the trajectory of his career, where he said "I kind of got tired of adventure this and adventure that. I saw this game called Sonic the Hedgehog and said to myself, 'Oh, I can really get into this, I can really see something.' So I played Sonic for nearly 14 hours a day for a week. I was just overwhelmed by it. And out of that came Bubsy."
The first Bubsy in 1993 was marketed well and received favourable reviews, but Berlyn had nothing to do with the sequel. Having co-founded Eidetic by this point, Berlin returned to work on the ill-fated 3D entry in the series at Accolade.
"They had put out Bubsy 2," said Berlyn in 2005, "and just about killed the franchise. So we came on-board and did Bubsy 3D." Unfortunately Bubsy 3D would launch at roughly the same time as the pioneering Super Mario 64. "I took one look at Mario," recalled Berlyn, "and said, 'Oh, crap.'"
Berlyn also co-founded Brainwave Creations in the mid-1980s, and among other games made Tass Times in Tone Town alongside Rebecca Heineman (formerly of Interplay) and (his wife) Muffy McClung Berlyn. "I found out that Mike Berlyn passed away today," said Heineman on Twitter. "We worked together on Tass Times in Tonetown. I will miss him dearly."
Shattered to hear that game designer, programmer and writer Mike Berlyn has passed away. Suspended, Cutthroats, Infidel (Infocom) as well as games like Bubsy, and Busy 3D. Oo-topos, Tass Times in Tonetown, and many more games. RIP. pic.twitter.com/vAIJlQPe4DMarch 29, 2023
Blank, Berlyn & Co., which Berlyn co-founded with software engineer Marc Blank, would go on to be re-named Bend Studio, and make Syphon Filter (the studio's most recent game being Days Gone, which came to Steam in 2021). But Berlyn left the industry entirely during the production of Syphon Filter, not liking which way the wind was blowing, and pursued other interests: Though he would later work on more casual games in the 2000s.
"RIP Michael Berlyn," said 3D Realms' George Broussard. "Mike's early 80s work on Infocom adventure games was amazing and inspiring to me as a young would-be game developer. He worked on quite a few games after Infocom and helped pioneer PC gaming. Take a moment to read about the man."
"Sad to hear that Mike Berlyn passed away today," said John Garvin, who worked on the Syphon Filter series among many others. "He was a video game pioneer and co-founded what would become Bend Studio. He was always a kick in the pants, funny, thoughtful, intelligent, and a great human being. Rest in peace Mike."
Bubsy is perhaps a little unfairly maligned these days, which is down to the industry over-saturating itself on mascots as much as how the series would subsequently be mishandled by its owners, but that original game had personality.
A permanent memory for me was watching this game as a small boy and, much to my astonishment, seeing the bobcat, bored of standing at the spot, stare straight out of the television: Then, with a winning pseudo-3D effect, lean towards the screen and resoundingly tap it several times to get the player's attention. It remains a moment of singular charm, one of those times a game really surprises you, and a little prompt: Hey you, don't forget what's behind this display.
Mike Berlyn is survived by his wife and collaborator Muffy McClung Berlyn. Their papers are held in the National Museum of Play.