by Jack Brinck
Let’s get something out here straight off the bat: When you were a kid, there’s a good chance that you, at some point, enjoyed squashing bugs. Maybe you were just curious about what bug insides looked like, maybe you liked to picture the school bullies as those bugs, or maybe it was a fun little power trip for you. Does this hint at some deep reservoir of psychosis that lies within you? I don’t know. I’m not your psychologist. I’m just the guy reviewing Pop Bugs, an android game from Henchmen Interactive. Why am I bringing this up? Well, because it’s the central conceit of Pop Bugs’ sadistically entertaining game play.
Pop Bugs is a puzzle game where each level tasks you with completing a series of increasingly difficult challenges in order to progress. To pass these challenges you’ll be skewering various bugs with pins and using their effects to take out other bugs in combos. For example: Fireflies explode when you pop them, and can destroy other bugs within their damage radius. They can also cause other Fireflies to explode, opening up opportunities to chain explosions. Alternatively, bees shoot a deadly stinger across the map that pops any bug it comes in contact with. Each level limits the number of pins you have to pop bugs. Some levels ask you to attain a specific score, while others simply want you to eliminate a series of meticulously placed bugs. Depending on how efficiently you complete each level you’re rewarded with stars, which can be used to purchase upgrades for each bug’s ability.
There’s a pleasantly surprising amount of strategy and complexity to this game. Even in the early stages you’ll find yourself planning out each phase of your insect massacre to maximize your score and efficiency. Sometimes you’ll swear that the game hasn’t given you enough pins to clear a wave of enemies, but when you finally figure out the right solution it’s incredibly rewarding. More than once I experienced a palpable thrill when I beat a level on my very last pin. The penalty for failure is simply restarting a level, so you’re encouraged to experiment rapidly, which pairs nicely with this mobile kind of a game. This isn’t to say that the game is flawless, though. At times the screen is so dense with bugs you can’t help but hit the wrong one, which could mess up a combo you’ve been setting up. However, minor frustrations such as that are few and far between
On top of beating each level, Pop Bugs features a ‘Swarm Mode’ where you spend stars earned in the normal levels to buy one-time use bugs. Once you buy enough bugs to form a formidable ‘team’ you take it in to a Swarm Mode level
to compete for a high score. You have to choose when to use each of the bugs on your team. While not as fun as completing normal levels, the mode is an entertaining distraction that tests your bug-popping skills in a slightly different way.
The world in which Pop Bugs takes place is bright and brimming with personality. The levels are divided into different terrain types centered on water, such as a lush riverbed, and a sandy beach. The amount of detail in each scene is something to behold. Rushing water, swaying trees, and pillars of sunlight coming in through the sides of the forest all go a long way to make this a charming game to look at. In a kind of odd design choice each of the types of bugs you’ll be popping have a distinct and loveable personality. The developers go out of their way to make you sympathize with the bugs, going so far as to introduce you to them before they’re used in battle. You might wince a little the first time you have to squash some of these cute little critters, but fear not! The whole game gives off a kind of Looney Tunes-esque vibe, so no matter how many times you squash the innocent little firefly Bernie, you can feel safe knowing he’ll be back. There’s a self-aware silliness about the entire experience that made me smile while playing. When you experience a disco ball dropping accompanied by a bug wearing sunglasses sporting a huge grin on it’s face at the start of a bonus level, perhaps you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Pop Bugs strikes a great balance between being challenging, being accessible, and being fun. If you’re looking for a humorous puzzle game, this is for you.