Mike Bridavsky and Lil' Bub pose with the arcade game Hello Earth at Logan Arcade.
It was a long time coming when Logan Arcade owner Jim Zespy followed music producer Steve Albini onstage to introduce the arcade cabinet he'd constructed for a video game starring his friend's famous cat.
"I've known Mike for a long time. I never thought I'd be running an arcade and he'd have a world-famous cat," Zespy said to a crowd of several hundred fans who'd crowded into his arcade bar in Logan Square last Friday night for the game's premiere party.
That's Mike as in Mike Bridavsky, the owner of sound studio Russian Recording, in Bloomington, Indiana, who's famous for being the "dude" behind Internet star Lil' Bub, a rescue cat he adopted in 2011. Often just called "Bub" for short, she was born with dwarfism and other genetic disorders that led to her compact size and unusual but adorable appearance: oversize, saucer-shaped eyes and a pink tongue that continuously protrudes because of her toothlessness and underdeveloped jaw.
Pictures of Lil' Bub went viral on social media shortly after Bridavsky posted them in 2011, and the feline has enjoyed nine lives of fame ever since. In the past seven years, Bub's celebrity has grown to encompass social media (1.8 million followers on Instagram, 824,000 on Twitter), numerous television appearances, a webseries, a book, and a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. And now a video game called Lil' Bub's Hello Earth. ("She's the Bo Jackson of cats," says Bridavsky.)
Steve Albini cuts the ribbon unveiling Hello Earth, as Logan Arcade's Jim Zespy watches
The video game was the idea of Bridavsky—who has an abiding love for the eight-bit games of the Nintendo era he played as a kid. Two years ago, he thought, Why not make a retro-style Lil' Bub video game with my friends?
"It's obviously not a thing I'm going to get a lot of money or fame from," says Bridavsky, while his celebrity cat perches on his tattoo-covered forearm. "It's a very niche market, obviously, to do an eight-bit game about a cat from outer space. But I kind of felt like that her becoming famous has opened up all these opportunities to do cool fun stuff that I've always wanted to do, and so here we are."
Technically there's no market at all for Lil' Bub's Hello Earth. It's a free game for mobile phones, PCs, and Macs that was fully funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $148,000 in July 2016. Almost $100,000 of that money went to Lil' Bub merchandise and other rewards promised to the game's 2,200 financial backers, including Hello Earth-themed fridge magnets, pins, pillows, T-shirts, high-end yoga pants, and VIP tickets to the Logan Arcade meet and greet.
"We only had like $50,000 to actually make that game after giving out all the Kickstarter stuff," says Bridavsky.
The tight budget and small staff—there's a single programmer ("he's a genius programmer kid in France"), artist, and composer (Matt Tobey, who makes music under the name Matty Pop Chart)—means Bridavsky and crew of four are still hard at work on the game two years later—a year after its expected launch date.
"I discovered the hard way that usually even a small team for making a game is usually ten to 15 people. There's literally four of us doing it on the side and we are all doing it for the love of doing it," says Bridavsky. "So this is still very much a work in progress."
What's exists so far feels like an early side-scrolling shooter mixed with a Super Mario Brothers title—albeit with a pixelated cat that shoots laser beams out of its eyes instead of a shape-shifting Italian plumber. The backstory roughly shadows the whimsical one Bridavsky long ago concocted for his cat—that Lil' Bub crash-landed on earth from space in order to help needy animals and people with depression. This time the needy animal that needs to be rescued is Spooky, another one of Bridavsky's pets. Players go globetrotting with Lil' Bub in exotic locations ranging from the Krubera Caves in Georgia to a volcano in Ecuador to find Spooky and—in an E.T.-like twist—to locate eight missing parts to its space pod to get back home.
"You get a yogurt cannon on your spaceship that fires different flavors at enemies," says Bridavsky of his virtual cat's arsenal. "Vanilla yogurt freezes, blueberry yogurt explodes. There's a boss you fight that's a rat with a boom box that shoots soundwaves at you. It's all very 80s and very weird."
Likewise, Tobey's soundtrack for the game has a chiptune sound that evokes the simple-but-catchy eight-bit Nintendo games that were technically limited to four sounds playing simultaneously. They plan to add bonus chiptune covers of hits by popular 80s band (Journey, Genesis, etc) that can only be played when Lil' Bub finds hidden cassette tapes.
Those who didn't pay to crowdfund the game can only play the early beta version of Hello Earth at Logan Arcade. The bar's back room currently houses the Little Earth's only physical copy—the sleek arcade cabinet built from scratch over the last month by Zespy and other arcade employees.
"This is the first game we've ever built, and it's been a long project, but it's fucking cool," says Zespy.
Lil' Bub fans traveled from as far as Arizona to attend the premiere party for the arcade game on Friday. There, people paid $100 (donated to Harmony House for Cats) to pet the famous cat while she was lounging in a space-pod set at Logan Arcade—all while being livestreamed on the Internet.
Zespy says he still thinks of Lil' Bub as simply "Mike's cat," but he's amazed at the overwhelming response she draws. "She really does bring a joy and wonder out of people," he says. "You know, some people get into certain celebrities or athletes—but eventually they almost all let you down. That's not going to happen with Bub—she's always just a cute little cat."
What's next for Lil' Bub after video games? Virtual reality? A bitcoinlike cryptocurrency? A run for political office?
Bridavsky can't say for sure, but he's open to the possibilities.
"I always felt that all of this will keep going as long as I'm interested in doing it, says Bridavsky. "Because she's so magnificent, people care about what she does. Once they stop, I am fine with that and will go to do something else."