The only thing this groovy space jam is missing is Michael Jordan.
The Bug Butcher recently departed Steam’s Early Access program and made its release debut on January 19th. The game is an arcade shooter that puts the player in control of the eponymous space exterminator. As the butcher, the player is tasked with cleaning out an alien-infested space facility. Each level constrains the hero in a room about two screens wide. The player side steps left and right while raining bullets up at aliens who assault the room through ventilation shafts on all sides.
Mechanically, the game plays like a modern day Galaga. Aliens come in waves and players must clear them all in order to progress to the next level. As the player progresses further through the campaign, minor mechanical variations will appear in the level. Some levels feature barriers that make maintaining your combo difficult, while others contain force fields that must be managed by stepping on buttons. The alien lifeforms themselves become even more varied. Some bounce, some spew larvae from the depths of their gullet, and most split into a pair of smaller aliens once defeated. Each alien is easily identified by its color and shape, allowing the player to quickly identify them in the heat of battle.
The game’s levels are easy enough to complete, but the game’s real challenge lies in achieving high scores. The Bug Butcher supports global and friend’s list leaderboards to conquer. Players can maximize their score on each level by maintaining combo. Each kill nets you a combo count, but taking damage or failing to successively kill an enemy quickly enough causes your combo to drop back to zero. Maintaining your combo also increases the speed at which power-ups appear. These range from freezing all on-screen enemies to firing a salvo of heat-seeking missiles. They are all very powerful and visceral.
Weapons will occasionally drop as well, allowing you to temporarily wield more power than your standard machine gun offers. Collecting gold that drops from each enemy also allows you to upgrade your hero permanently with extra firepower or perks. These become quite valuable as you progress further through the campaign, as aliens in the latter levels pack a ton of health.
Aside from the main campaign, The Bug Butcher also offers an endless wave mode called Panic. In it, upgrades can be purchased at any time with the gold you’ve acquired that run, but they do not persist across multiple Panic playthroughs. This game mode supports local multiplayer so that you can go on a puss-sack popping romp with a friend.
The controls are responsive, which is very important in an arcade experience like The Bug Butcher. Bug parts and bullets fill the screen at all times, but the game never feels unfair. The arriving waves of aliens are clearly demarcated on screen and the dash allows you to duck out of the tightest situations. That said, I haven’t found a way to rebind the controls on my gamepad, so I constantly find myself pressing the wrong buttons (I mean seriously, since when is right trigger not used to fire your gun?). Luckily, there aren’t too many controls to worry about, so I can only manage to get myself into so much trouble. Much of The Bug Butcher’s beauty is in its simplicity. The formula is not entirely new, but developers at Awfully Nice have included just enough depth and style to keep the player interested.
Speaking of style, The Bug Butcher features a vibrant, hand-drawn art style that brings the game to life. Whether its the cheeky scientist that escorts you through the facility, or the grotesquely cute alien monsters themselves, there’s never a lack of charisma and personality. The hand-drawn approach and quirky charm reminded me of one of my all-time favorites, Capybara’s Critter Crunch. The music is equally fitting. The rad techno beats thump along with the action and have a suitably spacey beep-bop quality.
I can say very few bad things about Bug Butcher. As mentioned earlier, this game lacks the ability to rebind gamepad buttons. Also, the game’s menus are difficult to navigate without a point-and-click of a mouse. Aside from controller support, the game’s UI was also a point of frustration. Many important UI elements are positioned at the bottom of the screen, including current power-up and combo meter. However most of the action occurs in the upper portion of the screen. I would have preferred that these UI elements were towards the top of the screen rather than the bottom.
All in all, The Bug Butcher provides a responsive gameplay experience with a gorgeous yet zany presentation. The game offers humor, challenge, and replayability. It is a very fun, very competent arcade shooter, and you’d be hard-pressed to find one quite like it.