Reviewing The Bug Butcher at the climax of Awesome Games Done Quick seemed more than just a coincidence. For seven days, speedruns dictated the audience’s free time, corrupting our sleep schedules. But above all, one play style overrode my gaming subconscious: going fast. I never fancied myself a speedrunner, though The Bug Butcher stokes competitive spirits with its lively 2D-shooter action and countdown timers that signal probable death. Forget your insect phobias, people, and suit up for finger-aching leaderboard battles!
Or not. Your choice.
Either way, the fun starts with arcade mode. The plot shuttles players to the planet Zoit, to a research facility under lockdown due to carnivorous insects. Without suitable means to defend themselves, the remaining scientists employ Harry, exterminator extraordinaire, to cleanse the infestation. While spiders, beetles, and other creepy crawlies attempt to munch the titular bug butcher, Harry wields military-grade repellent: his machine gun, Ol’ Reliable. Your orders: to decontaminate the station, room by room, exploiting additional weapons and abilities before the building unleashes deadly toxins. No pressure.
If those details are incorrect, please excuse The Bug Butcher Steam page. No matter the tech support tricks, I did not finish the introduction; the controls broke before I took the reins. Harry strode out of his spacecraft, gave a hearty yawn, and stood motionless, his eyes permanently fixed on the sky. I would blame my Mad Catz gamepad, except my keyboard and official Xbox controllers all had the same effect ‒ that is to say: no effect. After loading the next chapter, The Bug Butcher only recognized my keyboard.
Stranger still, all the menus contained Xbox controller prompts. The Y button returns you to the home screen, the X button begins the next mission, and so on. Of course, the inputs ‒ probably placeholders ‒ proved worthless to my pre-release copy. On the bright side, I could remap the bindings on my keyboard without hassle. Harry only walks left and right, dashes, shoots, and activates power-ups. The fewer gimmicks, the better, too. The Bug Butcher finds a comfortable rhythm in its anarchy.
For example, The Bug Butcher prevents Harry from aiming left and right. Metal Slug or Contra this is not. Harry’s weapon only points to the ceiling, so you must sprint underneath foes to effectively target them, to risk a bulbous body slam. Several deaths later and that fear should pass, however, since Ol’ Reliable juggles bugs that bounce around on their bellies. Her bullets slow their descent and alter trajectories, daring you to be bold and modify your mindset. Like Bloodborne, The Bug Butcher pushes players to be proactive, not reactive. Caution will get you killed.
You have your work cut out for you, basically, as the bugs pester Harry with slime and fire, and generate smaller insects when killed, dividing into ostensibly endless fodder. Remember my speedrun anecdote, too? The base’s anti-insect measures will melt your face if one cockroach outlasts the countdown sequence. The good news is that The Bug Butcher limits levels to three minutes on average ‒ boot up the game, beat a stage, back to work. The bad news: The Bug Butcher’s 30 missions. My first playthrough barely broke an hour, and buyers that don’t care to three-star every level may feel robbed by the price.
As I grow old, time becomes a greater commodity ‒ thus, The Bug Butcher proved perfectly thrilling; the optimal game between games. It is an exercise in multitasking, wherein players calculate patterns of springy creepy crawlies, evade environmental traps, and maintain combo meters. I was baptized in the game’s mayhem, and brief as it is, The Bug Butcher distinguishes itself. Developer Awfully Nice Studios took the high road to deliver something unique. They shunned twin-stick shooter controls ‒ trite in their prevalence ‒ and reward you for doing a job well and doing it quickly.
Those rewards include leaderboard ranks and gold to improve your special weapons. Rockets provide widespread firepower, whereas the laser concentrates damage into a thin beam. The shocker channels electricity between enemies in close proximity, yet fires painfully slow. As the hostile headcount rises, you also need more kick, something to punch a hole through enemy exoskeletons. A fully upgraded gatling gun showers the boss-like creatures in plasma, and even better, any enhancements (larger clips, more damage, etc.) carry over to harder difficulties.
Also beneficial: you can improve Harry’s run speed, increase the time that passes before your combo resets, and boost how long certain power-ups last. The Bug Butcher provides random power-ups as you murder enough insects, but each ability ‒ more than Harry’s trusty firearm ‒ saved my skin. One perk bestows temporary invincibility, another unleashes a homing missile swarm, and my favorite power-up freezes every enemy on screen for a few seconds, padding score multipliers.
Combos mean more in The Bug Butcher’s panic mode, a time attack and wave-based survival hybrid where upgrades reset if you perish. You could war it out with the rest of the world for leaderboard supremacy, or enlist family and friends for some cutthroat split-screen chaos. By default, both players share the keyboard, which lost its appeal somewhere in the early ‘90s. No one enjoys jockeying for elbow room against their relatives.
I would rather admire The Bug Butcher’s impressive sound and visual aesthetics from afar than receive an “accidental” jab to the ribs. I spend more time than I should, even in battle, admiring how skillfully drawn to life each insect is anyway. They just look cute with stubby legs and puny faces, like gumballs or water balloons with teeth, and I smiled at the goofy sound effects their bodies make. I can picture the Awfully Nice team grinding their palms into raw beef or putty to produce the ideal squish, like a wet fart that escaped by mistake.
Say I’m immature, yet no side-scrolling shooter (in that you move the character/camera left and right) entertained me this much in recent memory. Turtle Sandbox’s Cannon Brawl maybe, but among the 238 games in my Steam library, The Bug Butcher deserves its place on everyone’s favorites list. Too few titles squash the fear of insects, and even less look half as decent as this indie gem. Too bad for the bugs. In the motivational words of Casper Van Dien, “I say kill ‘em all.”
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided.
The rough-around-the-edges menus and price might pose problems for some people, but The Bug Butcher breaks convention. The cute and vivid insects put phobias to bed, and because anti-hero Harry only fires his weapons vertically, the gameplay reinvents side-scrolling shooter mindsets.