I’m not sure why gaming in the 90s embraced the idea of ‘mascot with attitude’ so hard, but if anyone was wondering why they didn’t use more insects in this formula, I have great news. Bug! (stylized with an exclamation point) is an interesting project that succeeded when it shouldn’t have, while still not quite reaching enough success to make it as an official SEGA mascot. It’s easy to see why so many thought Bug! was amazing for its time, but I’m not sure it still holds up.
Bug! was developed by Realtime Associates in 1995 for the SEGA Saturn. It was released a few months after the console, and its platform is probably the reason many of my friends had never heard of it. The game was almost a much bigger deal, originally beginning its life as a Sonic title, and according to Ken Horowitz, author of the book Playing at the Next Level, this fact remained unknown to most, even some of the staff who worked on it (Horowitz, pg. 262). There is even a callback to this with the hedgehog showing up in a bonus level.
The game would come to star Bug (it doesn’t appear they could give him a proper name), a smug insect who comes with quips and one-liners, because he’s an actor. The back of the box actually trashes his abilities and doesn’t make me confident heading into this adventure — he’s like Gex without the secret agent swagger. Now that I’ve said that, I’m quite sure he’s just Bubsy with a slightly less annoying voice. The conflict here is that a giant spider named Queen Cadavra — who the game box refers to as ‘bitchy’, perhaps burying another of its main characters — has kidnapped his pals in a classic video game move, but don’t worry, it’s all just a movie. That’s the motif.
Bug! is a platformer with charm. The developers showed that off by bringing its 2D characters into 3D environments. This is one of the titles often mentioned in talks of the first true 3D platformers, but it isn’t in actuality. Horowitz’s book points out that, “The only thing actually done in 3D was the animated sequences between stages, which were done by another company, Asbury Entertainment.” David Warhol, founder of Realtime Associates said he, “was not a fan of the story-driven platform/action game, feeling that the gameplay itself, if engaging enough, would be sufficient motivation to keep playing, with few, if any, story references.” (Horwitz, pg. 265) Bug! was still very impressive for the time, but the way they chose to build the game caused some issues.
While the controls themselves performed well-enough, the 2D characters interacting on a 3D plane caused Bug to get hung up while trying to turn or move up and down. To make matters worse, players will be jumping on enemies and eventually gain projectile attacks, but the hit detection can make this annoying at times, while movements and acceleration can be awkward, lacking precision. The camera is not helpful either. I cussed at it often, wishing it would zoom out or allow me to pan over at times, but the lack of these features meant that Bug (the character) was taking many hits that could have been avoided.
The levels are too big, strange with their multiple paths and maze-like on purpose. They hold obstacles that whittle away at Bug’s life, referred to as Bug Juice. A leftover element of when the game was still transitioning from being a Sonic title, Warhol wanted to use sugar cubes as a measurement of health. The player would gather many, but they would deplete over time or be lost when damaged, but as long as the player had one, they could still take an additional hit, much like the golden rings the hedgehog uses.
The difficulty ramps up soon and deaths feel genuinely punishing, forcing the player to run back through enemies and environmental hazards with few checkpoints to help. There also doesn’t seem to be a save feature, unless I’m missing something, so I made use of the level select code. The first time I went through all of my continues, I was horrified to see this insect shaking his butt at me on the Game Over screen. It just isn’t proper to mock the player so.
Bosses in the game feel unique or at least different enough, but they can take forever. There are also some bonus stages, like the ones the daddy long leg pimp hands out or the rides on a dragonfly trying to hit all of the rings. Sonic even makes a guest appearance in one, furthering that connection to the blue blur.
There are some great animations to see and excellent colors for the visuals, but those come with some lousy pop-ins, so a little give and take. It’s a similar case for the music, which had some energetic tunes that faded from my mind quickly. Horowitz’s interviews revealed that Bug! didn’t push the Saturn, opting to disable the second processor in the system upon starting, which had given other developers trouble (Horwitz, pg. 264).
Perhaps that was one of the reasons SEGA wasn’t expecting much out of the game. Bug! was given a large advertising budget to help push the new Saturn system more than the game itself. Some extra buzz came from famed director Steven Spielberg praising the game after seeing it at the 1995 CES event, and according to Playing at the Next Level he was showing it to his kids (Horwitz, pg. 265). Horowitz noted that part of the strategy was to offer Bug! at the low cost of $32.99, which may have helped it sell so many copies (Horwitz, pg. 266).
The game was a commercial success and accepted critically, but it didn’t appear to push the console as much as the company would have liked. But that was enough to get a sequel, Bug Too!, which is said to be superior to the first. The developers were also looking into getting Bug his own cartoon. (source: GamePro Magazine #88 pg. 23) We were on the cusp of potentially seeing a lot more from this franchise.
As recently as 2008, there were attempts from Warhol to get a new game going, but talks fell through. Horowitz said that another problem that has cropped up is that Realtime Associates no longer has access to the original source code or custom tool chain used to create the game, and they don’t seem too sure that SEGA has these either (Horwitz, pg. 266). This is most likely why the game has never been properly re-released.
Although I want the game to be available for more people to try out, for preservation purposes, I think we’re okay, especially with the original copies beginning to slowly climb up there in price. I see it as some of the love for Bug! being based on nostalgia, as it lost much of its fun the more I played it. In my research on the game I came across several others who claimed it just wasn’t like they remembered it either, which could be chalked up to a few different elements and newer entries just being much smoother. I can’t blame this entirely on the mascot with attitude—that didn’t help—but more being a game that tried hard, developed by a group who cared, in an extremely transitional period. It just missed something that made it truly fun. I’ll give the second one a shot, but the first should perhaps remain squashed.
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