I’m usually well informed when it comes to new games hitting the marketplace. That’s why I was surprised to learn that The Bug Butcher was released back in January, and I only discovered it last week while browsing through images on Instagram. It was the colourful hand-crafted animation that instantly drew me in. I downloaded a copy, and after 5-6 hours with the game, I can definitely say that The Bug Butcher is one the best side-scrolling shoot em ups I’ve played in years.
Developed by Awfully Nice Studios (out of Austria, as close as you can get to Australia … heh – Ed), The Bug Butcher is an amalgamation of retro arcade action and modern rogue-like gameplay. As an intergalactic exterminator, you venture to a research facility in space, overrun by thousands of bugs of all shapes and sizes. You must shoot them down in waves, and clear each arena before the timer reaches zero. Rinse and repeat. It’s the wide variety of enemy types, and the fast-paced addictive challenge, that makes the game so engaging and keeps it from becoming repetitive.
The Bug Butcher is difficult. Early on I was concerned that the game offered almost no challenge at all. I told myself that I would play a few more levels before upping the difficulty to hard. Before long, I realised that was unnecessary, as I found myself dying over and over and I wasn’t even half way through the campaign. It would take me multiple attempts to learn a successful strategy for surviving the carnage. Never did the game feel unfair, nor did my deaths feel cheap. It was simply the challenge of dealing with dozens of enemies on the screen at one time. At times, The Bug Butcher felt like an arcade game that you are not supposed to finish, but persistence and the benefit of unlimited credits, makes that endgame all the more possible.
The bugs in space grow quite a bit larger than they do here on Earth. The bugs are about the size of a small car when they emerge from the walls, and when you shoot them, they burst into smaller bugs in a Babushka like effect. Each enemy type behaves differently. The various bugs float, bounce, jump, cling to walls, excrete lightning and smother you like the facehugger from Alien. Learning their patterns was key to survival.
Every great side-scroller has an elevator level. From Streets of Rage to Castle Crashers, a level set on an elevator is something that pops up more often than not. I’m unsure if it’s a nod to the older genre games, or just a coincidence. The Bug Butcher is no exception. In fact, the game has 5 levels set on elevators, which also function as boss battles. These levels pit you against larger, tougher enemies. They are the most interesting, as there is very little diversity between the remainder of the 25 levels.
The enemies randomly drop power-ups that shake up the core gameplay. The power-ups fall into two categories: Weapons and abilities. Weapons are simple enough. They include rockets, lasers and lightning guns. The abilities include increased damage, freezing the screen and homing rockets. Given that you can only fire directly upwards, the homing missiles are super handy! Blasting the bugs to pieces litters the floor with coins. Between levels, you can spend the coins to permanently upgrade weapons and abilities, as well as increasing max health and movement speed.
Apart from the campaign, there is also a panic mode, where you face off against endless waves of enemies. It operates in the same manner as the campaign, although enemies drop time extensions too. It’s also possible to pause the game and purchase upgrades with the coins you nab. This upgrade system is not permanent, and is featured separately to the campaign. Panic mode can also be played in co-op with a friend, sharing the one keyboard.
The Bug Butcher is a fun, addictive shooter. It is a relatively short game with minimal content, although it’s challenging enough to keep you playing for hours. The target scores offer a fair amount of replay value if that’s the sort of thing you’re in to. Discovering The Bug Butcher in the way that I did gave me the same feeling that I get when I discover a great classic album or a cult film. First it makes me doubt myself for not realising it existed sooner, and then leaves me more appreciative of the art.
Michael Vane is a freelance writer who dislikes video games that feature giant spiders. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrVane