“True ninjas are always outnumbered, because they are individuals.”
How much do new ways to play matter?
You decide for yourself how much any subject matters, but in the context of gaming, innovation is a key player. Without it, we’d still be stuck moving white blocks around on a black screen trying to knock a smaller bouncing block past our opponent. Whether the innovation is successful in its execution or not, that’s a consideration separate from the evaluation of the importance of innovation itself.
Within gaming alone, innovation has done much. It’s given the world the ability to play with people who live on the other side of the world from you. It’s allowed us to play games digitally without the need to buy a cartridge or a CD. It’s allowed us to share screenshots and video clips of ourselves playing our games. It’s reached into the dreams of the future with the promise of virtual reality and even augmented reality. How long until innovation bridges the gap between real and virtual?
Behold! The Future!
My son, God bless him, is growing up in an entirely digital age. Whereas I had an analog childhood and a digital adulthood, my youthful years spent with VHS and cassette tapes, he’ll never know those things as more than historical relics or novelties. He already knows at two-years-old how to navigate the touchscreen of my mobile phone, better even than his grandparents.
I had to crack up when I was introducing him to video games on our flat screen and he went up to the TV and tapped his finger on it. He thought it was a giant touchscreen!
Innovation, like it or not, is important and a significant part of what gaming is. While aiming for innovation may be a noble cause, there comes thereafter the matter of evaluating whether the specific mode of innovation was successful. Measuring that success is a matter of debate, but a few guiding principles ought to suffice.
Does the innovation improve or impede the function of the game (Does it break or glitch the game, making it unplayable? Surely that’s an objectively bad thing if a product you’ve purchased is unusable!); does the innovation convey the intentions of the developers in such a way that even emergent gameplay remains statistically enjoyable; does the innovation represent too significant a financial cost to be lucrative to a business or accessible to any measurable audience; does the innovation function reliably or haphazardly? Many reading this have probably played jittery motion controls that made even typing out simple words on a digital keyboard disastrous.
Innovation is the key that unlocks the door to the future but if it’s implemented clumsily, shortsightedly, or flat-out incorrectly, then it’s simply the wrong key. Innovative ideas have their own survival of the fittest, decided in large part by consumers in the market. If an idea is or is perceived as doo doo, it won’t sell and it can’t become influential. And that’s why your favorite PS4 controller is not a wand.
Ideas die and if they suck, then they should. Unless you want less technological convenience and products that don’t work?
So there’s this indie game called Shadow Bug. It’s from the Finnish developers at Muro Studios. In it, you play as an insect with ninjutsu trying to save your forest home. It’s exactly like Fern Gully, except you can take out that blonde dude and all the fairies too, and replace them with a bug that has some sick moves and has to face down a billion industrial monsters encroaching upon his woods.
On the Switch, there are two ways to play Shadow Bug’s 36 levels. With detached Joy-Cons or with the console itself as a touchscreen. The former control scheme has you moving the shadow bug left and right across platforms with the left Joy-Con while the right Joy-Con becomes a motion control device, allowing you to drag a cursor over the screen to highlight enemies and attack. The second mode, which I much preferred but more on that later, treats the Switch as a tablet and makes Shadow Bug feel more like an app game in your hands.
Shadow bug cannot jump so you have to tap on an enemy to gain some air, hurdle over obstacles after leaping, swords flying, and then falling to safety. We’ve been trained by Super Mario and his progeny to think of platformers in terms of jumping from platform to platform, but the fact that attacking in Shadow Bug defines your movement, even permits you to pass through walls, means there is going to be some cognitive dissonance awaiting you.
This is at first a deceptively simple concept, at least that’s how it seemed to me. My first moments with the game found me underestimating it as a walk in the park. Sheesh was I wrong. Shadow Bug smoothly transitions into a brutal, ultra-tough platformer that demands you refine some real ninja skills or you get the heck out. Simple taps to attack enemies turn into chains of attacks that you’ll have to time down to halves of seconds in order to navigate past laser fields, spikes, projectiles, acid pools, and traps of all sorts.
That’s the innovation and it comes in a genre that’s in need of it. Platformers have been around for many decades now and they could use a bit of a facelift. Even the indie scene, which is supposed to be about pushing the envelope, has its own ruts it occasionally stumbles into. So how successful is the innovative platforming of Shadow Bug with its movement tied to attacking and its motion/touchscreen controls? Next comes evaluating that.
The 8-bit Review
I really liked the dark beauty of Shadow Bug. Our minute hero is a tiny black dot with white, cartoonish eyes. He moves across a series of levels where the enemies and the platforms and obstacles around him are all black as well. It’s a world of shadows set against backgrounds painted with vivid colors, first the gentle woodland and then the factories and the heart of the industrial enemy. What first appeared as a game with almost kiddish graphics turned into a visceral and complex technological nightmare-land. The final stages in the bowels of industry were astounding with all their moving pistons and engines, lasers and cogs.
Beyond just the stark appeal of the game’s graphics, the developers clearly employed a lot of creativity, as well.
Unlike the visuals, I wasn’t too impressed by the sound design. Most of its effects were repetitive and most of its music was predictable and therefore forgettable in light of everything I’ve heard like it. Considering this game has as its central character a ninja, it’s not too surprising that the soundtrack draws from stereotypically Japanese instrumentation.
I want to say that this soundtrack might have been more successful, or at least more distinctive, had it leaned more heavily on its Eastern influences and presented them more purely, more acoustically, but I can’t say for sure. All I know is the tactile beauty of the instruments it emulated were lost beneath the dullness of artificial droning. Maybe that sounds too harsh? All I mean to suggest is there was a possible avenue for a better choice of sound design, but what’s present isn’t terrible so much as it’s just average. Too bad the creativity of the visuals didn’t bleed into the music.
I’ve already mentioned how I preferred playing Shadow Bug with the touchscreen over the detached Joy-Cons with their motion controls. Every time I attempted the motion controls, I immediately felt unsafe. They weren’t too reliable and they didn’t offer me any confidence for the split second movements that Shadow Bug demanded of me. Having to point the controller at the console also didn’t work out for my personal TV set up where my Switch sits a few feet to the left. Take that with a grain of salt. You may have a better experience with motion controls, perhaps in just table-top mode even, than I did.
That stranded me with the touchscreen mode of play. This was actually a decent novelty in short bursts, especially since I hadn’t played any game with any significant touchscreen mode on the Switch before. It allowed me to feel like I could overcome any challenge (which I eventually did) and execute every maneuver that I needed to, given enough practice.
However, there are a lot of details in Shadow Bug, many enemies and many traps to avoid. Hovering my hand over the screen to move shadow bug and tap on foes to attack blocked my view much more than once. I had a few frustrating deaths because of it, though respawning points are fortunately close. I do have large Polynesian hands so this may not be as significant of a problem for others as it was for me. However, even though I learned to tap along the bottom of the screen to move left and right, only tapping above if I needed to target an enemy, this occasionally still led to me accidentally attacking baddies at the bottom of the screen, messing up my position and getting me killed anyway. Jumping a big distance unexpectedly made it impossible to not die whenever it happened, unless I got lucky.
The innovative movement is a cool idea and all but I wished that there was some happy middle ground mode where I could just control shadow bug with dual joysticks.
Given what I’ve just stated, it seemed to me that Shadow Bug’s biggest flaw was its control systems. Neither one was particularly gratifying to me because they actually prevented me from interacting with the game in an easier way that was clear and evident to my mind. This made Shadow Bug harder than it might have been intended because, surprise, blocking half the screen and then running into a wall of spikes I couldn’t see through my own hand was aggravating.
Something I didn’t realize until almost the end of the game is how much Muro Studios built Shadow Bug for speedrunners. The player can earn three commendations in each stage, represented by one to three shuriken. These are given for completing the stage, completing it within a specific time frame, and collecting enough points. I could consistently get the points needed for my award but I barely received any commendation for my speed. It was tough to predict what lay ahead in Shadow Bug but I’ve already seen videos of people promoting their best times blazing through the game.
To me, that doesn’t mean too much but at least the game contains awards for collecting everything and mastering it.
Shadow Bug’s levels are short but they are not easy, especially the later ones. What you’ll find are some really substantial challenges in smartly designed stages that punish laziness but reward quick movement. The levels take the nucleus of the game’s central idea and force you to use it in unique ways, turning enemies into platforms. You have to think on your feet a lot and make split-second decisions constantly.
This is clearest with the boss fights. I wasn’t expecting Shadow Bug, a game that resembles a simple mobile app, to have such meaty bosses. With the pictured bad guy below, you have to attack the enemies floating in a circle around it in order to escape its lasers and bullets, and you can’t just fall because the floor is lasers. This one killed me maybe a dozen times? It wasn’t even the final boss, either.
I gravitated toward Shadow Bug the moment I saw it because something about it looked different to me. Yeah, brutal indie platformers are something of a dime a dozen these days, but what I found in Shadow Bug was a series of intelligent levels that made you rethink common platforming. That might not be enough alone to put it on the map but it’s one of the game’s brightest features, to my mind.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
Shadow Bug is about fighting back against a monstrous industrial revolution but ironically the game itself is a part of that potentially villainous machine. It’s meant to sell, to stand out from the crowd with its own unique ideas and gameplay. It’s meant to wield its innovative concept to pass into as many hands as possible, because it’s a product and we can’t have products without the machine. The machine in the game is a destroyer and that’s been true in real life as well, not just for woods but even for its own ideas. Whatever fails to catch on, whatever proves too expensive or too inconvenient will go the way of Toys R Us if you let it. It’s better that way, despite the nostalgia, because Amazon and super stores are better than Toys R Us just like Netflix and Hulu are better than Blockbuster Videos. That, and you can’t pay the bills with nostalgia.
Only time will tell if Shadow Bug can best not only the villainous machine in its own story but also overcome the market and prove a success with players in the real world. As for me, I enjoyed it. Even the most frustrating moments where I died constantly, perishing and respawning in the span of a few seconds, were occasions where my heart was pounding and my adrenaline was coursing. This is why I play brutal platformers, for the challenge, for the rush, and this one is above average. I didn’t know Shadow Bug would be so tough but I’m glad that it was and I hope it catches on.
This review was based on a copy provided by the developer. Thanks! I sincerely wish that the analysis we’ve provided can serve as a guide for even better games to come!
Aggregated Score: 6.5
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to games writing. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a community of authors with paid contributors, a fairer and happier alternative to mainstream games writing! See our Patreon page for more info!