To start with, Battle Bugs is fun!
Battle Bugs is a small-unit real-time cartoon-like tactical wargame. You control a small army of bugs. Single-player, there are 50 missions which become pregressively more difficult. You can advance to the next battle after either winning the current one or losing it three times. You can replay any battle you've already fought. (Double-player support is rather weak; you both sit at the same keyboard giving orders alternately. I have only played single- player so I'll not mention multiplayer again.)
Straightforward. Requires 577k DOS memory for 640x480 graphics, 587k for 800x600 (if you have a VESA-compatible card), and 256k extended memory for digitized sound effects. No surprises.
Copy-protection requires entering some symbols from different manual pages each time you run the game. (As in X-COM.) This doesn't bother me.
You quickly work your way through a few introductory screens (cleverly painted) to set up your first campaign. The game then drops you into a mission briefing, where an admiral bug gives a slide show depicting your objective: to kill an enemy ant. Another click and you're looking at the battle screen.
The game is in pixel-precise super VGA. The graphics are cartoonish and slick. The battlegrounds contain boxes of cereal that tower over your insect soldiers, rivers of glowing poisonous refrigerator mold, puddles of water that only certain bugs can swim across, and food items which serve as military objectives. The food looks appropriately (in)appetizing, being all junk food. The game has a consistent wry sense of humor that is evident in every bit of art; roach motels have a "Vacancy" sign out front, the briefing slides list noxious ingredients for each food item. I grin frequently and even occasion-ally laugh out loud playing this game.
Different missions give you differently-sized and populated armies. There are 22 different kinds of bugs with more than enough diversity to have real tactical implications. Each bug is rated by its attack strength (from 1 to 17 for the rhino beetle), defense strength (from 1 to 7), walking speed, jumping/flying/swimming speed (if the bug can move other than by walking), life force (bug be dead when it be gone), and energy (gotta have it to jump or fly). Certain bugs have other special abilities as well.
Some bugs are limited to walking. Ants can walk quickly and can throw munitions (bombs, firecrackers, Limburger cheese) a long distance. Pillbugs are the only other bomb-throwing bug, and they curl up into an invulnerable pill when bombed themselves. Good defenders, too. Cockroaches also have hard shells, and are invulnerable to poison. Spiders can attack multiple enemies. Stinkbugs with enough energy can pull their pants down (yes) and unleash a big fart which acts like a cheese bomb, dazing and stunning any bugs within range. And so on.
Other bugs can jump. Fleas aren't much for attacking, but they're pretty hardy, and they can make short hops--though be careful of how much energy they've got; when it runs out, they'll stop jumping. Grasshoppers can leap quite a large distance (though big jumps tire 'em out) and are good attackers, but have almost no defense. There are also jumping spiders.
Many bugs can fly. Bees have long range and a rather powerful sting, and are great bombers. (Flyers can drop ordnance with pleasing results-- though watch out for anti-flying-bug rockets! I almost said "anti-aircraft"-- oops :-) Mosquitos are fast but flimsy on defense. Wasps are VERY powerful fighters and not bad fliers. Moths can transport one other bug (except for rhino beetles or other moths)--the C-47's of the insect kingdom.
Some bugs can swim. Water bugs can swim FAST but they're not much good at fighting. Water beetles, on the other hand, are almost as powerful as wasps. One water bug can transport another bug on its back, but I forget which one.
What gives all of this so much appeal is the painstakingly-done art for each bug. Wasps are debonair commandos, flying into battle wearing velvet tuxedos. Bees have WWI-style flying helmets on. Grasshoppers have little green berets. Ants have plain old infantry hardhats. Spiders chomp cigars. Water bugs have big flippers on their feet that really slow them down on land.
Moreover, each bug walks or moves differently, attacks differently, gets stunned differently, and dies differently. Ants really put elbow grease into it when they hurl bombs. Spiders trail puffs of cigar smoke when they walk, and literally turn into a blur of legs when attacking. Grasshoppers bounce up and down and then leap into the air with a "twang!" sound. Bees that get knocked out of the sky by rockets will stagger around in a circle. Rhino beetles, on the other hand, just scratch their head bemusedly when a bomb goes off in their lap. Jumping spiders become crazed tangles of agitated legs when exposed to a stinkbug blast. Pillbugs explode into collapsing sections when killed; lightning bugs frizzle in an electrical spark; praying mantises die and go to heaven, halo and all. I haven't even seen all the bug types yet.
All of this both adds lots of visual interest to the game and gives your little bug soldiers more personality. You really root for the mosquito that's zooming in on its bombing run, or for the pillbug with the thankless task of slowing the rhino beetle's advance. It's cute, and funny, but it's also WAR!
Already wargamers can probably imagine lots of the battle possibili-ties implicit in the above descriptions. So how do you control these little blighters?
The upper 3/4 of the battle screen is an isometric view of the battlefield, with some grid lines to keep you oriented. The lower chunk of screen has a "TV set" which acts as a multipage menu giving you game options (save/reload), general information about the currently selected bug's species, and quick command help. There is also a "bug viewer" which displays the current bug's statistics (energy and life level), whether it's your bug or an enemy.
Giving orders is trivial. Click on a bug, and the battlefield action stops and the bug salutes you with an insect-sized "Hup!" A small iconic menu pops up with command icons: order the bug to move to a given destination, order the bug to attack another bug, tell the bug to either take off or land (if appropriate), tell the bug to bomb a specific location or enemy bug (if it has any ordnance), give the bug a specific path to follow, set the bug's defensive radius (outside which it'll ignore other bugs), tell the bug to attack a specific bug or just any bug in range, and I think that's it. You get the idea: a couple clicks and you're done. Movement orders will display a trail of arrows showing the route the bug'll take.
You can pause the game anytime, and while the clock is running everything happens at once. Typically my battles begin with a few minutes or oder- giving followed by about ten seconds of frenzied action as every bug in the world starts jumping around at once. No matter, I can always pause again.
Just draw a box around a bunch of bugs to give them all orders. And that's about all there is to the interface. It's adequate for all the tactical orders you might want to give, and except for some occasional inconvenience selecting bugs out of a mob (though the Alt key lets you rotate through them), it's as natural and rapid as I could wish for. If ONLY they had hotkeys for the command options... but the menu pops up on top of the current bug so conveniently I barely miss them (unlike X-COM where I __ wish__ they were there). There are hotkeys for saving, reloading, and pausing, among other things, but not for the basic orders.
Possibly the most tactically critical element of the combat system is this: almost all bugs can fight only one other bug at a time. So whichever bug contacts an enemy bug first will be the bug that battles that unit to the death. And bugs cannot disengage from battle (except for the robber fly which can steal enemy bombs from enemy bugs).
This makes it essential to get your well-armored bugs in the enemy's face, and then bring up reinforcements rapidly once the feelers start flying. You can usually send a few grasshoppers leaping into the fray in time to wipe out the outnumbered enemy bug, and then pull them back again before the next wave. This presents a sort of "combined-arms" tactical aspect.
Battling bugs wear each other down gradually. This means there's not a huge amount of randomness to combat resolution; put a wasp up against a praying mantis and the mantis will win, though just barely, every time. But this is actually good; it makes planning easier. Battles sometimes turn into tense races to position your bugs precisely so as to _barely_ overcome the enemy.
Standard small-unit tactics prevail: superior concentrations of force are essential. Ordnance often will swing the balance of a battle; if you unload your firecrackers on the enemy mob quickly enough, you'll wear them all down sufficiently to give you an edge. Since there are no real targeted ranged weapons (except for the occasional skyrocket), you don't worry about "covering your back" in the same way you would in, say, Syndicate or X- COM. The battles are about choosing your time and place of hand-to-hand engagement, punctuated with explosions by land and air, and modified by the very different mobility attributes of each bug.
Some battles you don't need to fight to win. Some battle goals are to control a certain number of food pieces; when one of your bugs is alone within a certain radius of a food item, a little flag of your color begins raising on the item, and when the flag is at top mast the item's yours. If an enemy bug comes along later, your flag will drop and theirs will raise. If both of you are in range, both flags will freeze until one side wins (locally). So you can sometimes outmaneuver the slow-moving enemy until you control all the vital objectives--even if only for a moment; you may still win.
What do you get when you win? A medal from the Queen Bug, of course! But the victory display, while enjoyable, isn't where the fun is at. Of course, we knew that already.
This isn't a "campaign" game in the way that X-COM is. Your units, though personable, don't persist from battle to battle. And there is no element of "research"--except for the gradual introduction of new bug types as you progress into the game. There's also no resource management, as in Dune II or X-COM.
But that's OK. Battle Bugs is a tactical wargame, period. And if what you want is to ram the enemy's forelegs down its thorax, you'll get plenty of satisfaction here.
The graphics are as slick as Syndicate, and lots funnier, and the head- scratching tactical puzzles outdo anything in Syndicate. The real-time combat is more white-knuckled even than X-COM combat, at times. The unit diversity is greater than in Dune II, and the different movement types add a lot of tactical flexibility. This game is very very good at what it does.
If you liked Syndicate, and/or SimAnt, and/or X-COM, and/or Dune II, I think the odds are good you'll like Battle Bugs. It's a definite sleeper, with some serious hit potential; crisp, well-done, and challenging. And it even has a great sense of humor!
Three-and-a-half stars. Joe Rob says check it out. And let me know what you think--or even post; this game deserves to be discussed a lot more.
This review is Copyright (C) 1994 by Rob Jellinghaus for Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.