Bub-O Escape Is Like Nothing Else, in the Best Way
Buy this Game Boy gem while you still can
By Jared Petty
Limits can birth beautiful things. Sonnets and haiku are bound by unbendable structures, paintings by the edge of the canvas, theatrical productions by budgets, the reach of the human voice, and the stamina of the cast, sporting drama by downs, innings, or the borders of the field. A classical bitmap could only contain so many pixels and colors; a classical game holds only so much memory and so many sprites per line. Tools, too, can limit us. Popular painter Bob Ross captivated audiences by constructing so many of his effortless landscapes with only a core palette of a few staple colors, a modest handful of brushes, and a palette knife, plus his trademark wet canvas.
Why am I doing all this esoteric navel-gazing? Because right now, there’s a creation at Limited Run Games for sale that perfectly encapsulates what special kind of art can be created when limits are embraced rather than resented, I keep thinking about it, and I don’t want you to miss it.
Meet Gabe Swarr, animator by day, game developer by night. Not just any animator, mind you, but showrunner on Animaniacs, a program I unashamedly adore. Humble and effortlessly effusive, I took an instant liking to Gabe on our Zoom call. But as much as I wanted to pump him for inside info on the lives of Wacko, Yacko, and Dot, we weren’t there to talk cartoons. We were there to discuss Bub-O Escape, a new Game Boy Color creation.
“First of all, I've always loved games, since I was a little kid, and I always wanted to make games, but I chose animation as my profession, you know.” he begins. ” And so during the pandemic was the first time where I was like, ‘Oh, I can maybe make a game and, because I have a little more time, I can learn how to, like make a game.’ So I found GB Studio because I was always intimidated by the programming side of everything. And I made a game and released that the next year. That [game] was based on my webcomic that I did years ago called Life In The Analog Age. And then I started a second game in GB Studio... and I didn't like it. And I pivoted and turned, and that turned into Bub-O Escape which Limited Run is publishing. So that's, that's what, uh, that's how the game came about.”
For those not in the know, GB Studio is an extremely simple software development tool for Game Boy. It’s extraordinarily intuitive, capable of creating full commercial games, and yet by nature of its accessibility, also very limited in what it’s designed to do and in the tools it hands you, being most obviously poised toward RPG, adventure, and platformer development. Swarr decided to go in another direction: shooter, a design that GB Studio certainly supports but with stern limitations. The limits were part of the appeal for Gabe: he wasn’t yet an especially experienced game programmer, so he was relying on the tools, but his artistic vision also embraced strict minimalism, like visual storytelling and character status’ seeded in his animation roots.
"What's one thing that I haven't seen people do on GB Studio?" asked Swarr, “and it was that. It was like a top-down shooter almost. There was a game I played a while ago called Guzzler. It was on the SG-1000. It's a port of an arcade game. And basically, what you do is, you walk around on platforms, and you suck up water, and then you shoot the water out of yourself, at people, right? And it's cool because the character is an outline. And then, when you walk through the water, he actually fills up. And I was like, ‘Oh, that's another cool way to strip off more things. You know what I mean? Like, I don't need a UI. I don't need to show that I have ammunition or something.’ You know what I mean? Like, that's another cool way of doing it. And I thought that was just a cool mechanic that hasn't been explored. So, that kind of came in at the same time. Or, I remember that game when I was thinking of Bub-O. And I was like, ‘Hey, I'm gonna try that. Let's try a super, simple, stripped-down like, Pac-Man type of arcade single-screen puzzle game, but it's like, you're shooting stuff, you know. And that's basically where it came about, you know, and, and even in the whole game, there's no instructions. You only use the D-pad. I mean, you don't even use the buttons in the game. I just kept stripping it down, you know?”
This, friends, was speaking my fan language: the creed of many classic-area game developers, where storytelling and mechanics were born at the intersection of scant technical resources and bold artistic visions. Yar’s Revenge, Donkey Kong, and even the vaster Super Mario Bros. were born out of quests to stretch limits that could not be physically broken. In his quest to make a good game, he ultimately found success by leaning into the limitations of his tools. “It was like, so hard to like, make a game using GB Studio. I'm like, ‘Okay, what I'm going to do is I'm going to make a game that uses all the strength of GB Studio and make that game, you know what I mean?’ So that's why I think it went really fast. And it was just kind of designed from the bottom up to, like, really rely on the strength of GB Studio.”
He pulled it off, fashioning his creation for a quarter-century-old platform in the Game Boy Color, and evoking the spirit of the even-older OG Game Boy with a 1-bit palette. In the process, he learned a lot about what those old creators were up against, and learned to appreciate the classics even more. “I've played so many games, and it's when I started like making these, it was like, ‘Oh, okay, now I know why, like, Mario goes down pipes. Okay, now I know why they did this.’ And I like, it makes me appreciate games even more, you know, like, ‘Oh, now I know how they did that trick!" Or, "Oh my gosh, how the heck did they pull that off?!’”
Gabe made it a point to get his hands on the very specific physical hardware that inspired his creation. “When I was a kid, I never had a Game Boy. I would go over to my friend's house, and he had a Game Boy, and that was the first time I played it, you know? And then when I started working in animation, I made some money so I called up my friend. I was like, ‘Do you still use your Gameboy?’ He was like, ‘No?’ And I was like, ‘Well, can I buy it?’ So I just bought the actual first Gameboy that, you know, that I ever played, and I still own it, you know, and it's cool.”
Bub-O Escape is now up for pre-order at Limited Run Games, and Swarr is hardly done. He’s also made a Bub-O game for Playdate, and now he’s moved on designing to the next adventure.
Y’all, please buy this. This is the kind of game the world needs more of: something crafted in the twilight between dreams and realities that carries the authenticity of both.
Limited Run Games:
is a subsidiary of “Freemode”, an operative group comprised of gaming and entertainment companies owned by Embracer. Limited Run Games is the industry leader in the production and distribution of premium physical video games. Limited Run seeks to celebrate the legacy of gaming through its award-winning collector’s editions. Founded in 2015, they have published over 1,000 physical games, exclusive merch, and collectables. Limited Run is the gold standard in bringing digital games to physical form and now re-releasing retro titles on modern platforms via their proprietary Carbon Engine. Visit limitedrungames.com for the latest offerings and to learn more about Carbon Engine development. Follow the brand on your social media platform of choice for all LRG-related updates:@limitedrungames.