Review by Bloomer
"'I tried to be a butterfly, I tried so hard! But I'm just a LADYBUG! There, I've said it.'"
For centuries, man dreamt of flight.
And LO, he did subjugate gigantic insects to his will.
LO, he did straddle these gigantic insects and verily they bore him aloft, like great bearing things.
When I submitted the above in high school as my essay on the history of flight, I endured icepick attacks from the history staff. Nevertheless, I knew deep down that I was right, and the arrival of Bug Riders on the Playstation years later finally verified all that I'd suspected. In our Dungeons and Dragons-esque medieval past, valorous warriors solved all of their differences not by waging wacky crusades and slamming iron maidens in each other's faces, but by racing around on the back of enormous airborne insect steeds!
I admire GT Interactive for taking such a bizarre and original idea and trying to make it work for so many different groups of people at once: Racing revheads, flight and fantasy freaks, multiplayer maulers, deathmatch dudes and dudettes, and insect indomitables. But in the end, it's only really the 'fantasy' and 'insect' camps who come out looking vaguely respectable, and the whole undertaking is middling and troublesome at best. Which is a shame, because if you want to see enormous insects having at you, skank, Bug Riders is pretty much your only option.
I am the Locust! Koo Koo Ka-Choo!
Bug Riders' main control concept is definitely a novel one, and was inspired by the not-in-any-way-silly world of horsie racing. Your steed is a live entity with its own wiles and mores. Just as jockeys cunningly crop their horses (I.E. smack them) to spur them to further action, that's what you must do to your bug to make it accelerate. Thumping the Square button makes your rider vigorously whack the insect to the accompaniment of juicy-come-fatuous SPANKing sounds! SPANK, SPANK, SPANK... A meter measures both your velocity and the bug's anxiety level. Green is nice'n'safe, yellow indicates optimal speed and performance, and red is the dangerous world of over-cropping and panic attacks. Smash that thorax too much and you will hear the buzz or drizzle of insect vexation as your companion takes exception to you and decelerates like a bee going down on a pitcher plant. To achieve a steady cruising speed you have to find the right cropping rhythm for your mount. You have to know when to be sweet and when to pound your praying mantis.
The resounding WHACKS prevented me from keeping a straight face during my early efforts to conquer the slipstreams. But ultimately, this control system proved to be a very cool and untried (for me) gaming discipline, and it's definitely the cleverest part of Bug Riders.
I have always loved insects. Except for ladybugs, which DISGUST me as they are a seething hotbed of STDs! To me, insects are the most fascinating and mysterious lifeforms on this planet at the microscopic level, and when the microscopic is blown up for all to see, it's a beautiful thing. There is a truly impressive range of twenty-one mounts on display here, from Assassin Bugs to Cicadas, from the Death's Head Moth to the Mosquito, from the the Ladybug (EWWWWW!) to the Mayfly... there's a bug for everyone! Graphically, developers N-Space poured great love into their creations. In a car racing game you're generally happy for your vehicle to occupy maybe a third of the screen width at best. The vividly rendered insects in Bug Riders, with their magnificent thrumming wings and questing legs, can be as wide as the whole screen, yet they're still delicate enough that you can see through them to judge the scenery.
I regret to inform that this is the end of the good news. The big surprise is that Bug Riders just isn't fun to play. The courses, racing elements and combat design are all oblique. The scenery itself is quite varied and lush to look at - beaches, jungles, petrified forests and deserts - but functionally it's very poor. The game's claim to greatness (so the back of the box tells me) is aerial freedom. And although I might find myself flying along, say, a beach with an open sky beckoning to me, many of the course turns are impossible to spot because in the open air they're literally invisible, which sorely hurts my belief in the game's world. Even glowing markers used occasionally as witches' hats don't do much to alleviate the confusion. Given that your insect will drag itself around the invisible corners when needed anyway (you can't buzz off the course) you get the despondent sensation of a game which can play itself due to the lack of skilful involvement it inflicts upon you.
The weapons you collect by flying through coloured rings are only really useful or enjoyable when they don't have to be manually aimed. Projectiles such as the 'Arrows of Death' move too slackly after being launched to have much hope of connecting with a ducking and weaving insect in a 270 degree aerial situation. I've managed to play entire 'extermination' games (I.E. deathmatches) where both my friend and I completed the whole circuit without scoring a single frag on each other or on any of the CPU-controlled Bug Riders either. Frustrating.
One thing I thought would be cool is the fact that this game lets you select which way you want the display to be split for two-player games: vertically or horizontally. Alas, neither option is any good. The insects' bigness - that jewel of the single-player mode - means you can barely see anything when you're dealing with two players in reduced screen areas. When you combine this with the heavily slugged framerate, your hopes for multiplayer enjoyment might as well be fodder for wasp larvae.
There are novel touches all over Bug Riders. The pulsing orb shields which look truly natty. The drone of insects on the soundtrack, which is both an eerie and wry take on the typical drone of car engines in racing games. The very neat racing 'tree' which allows flailing beginners to stay in the campaign (where in other racing games they'd have been knocked out), progressing slowly through all of the qualifying rounds, while experts can move straight into semi-finals if they play well. But for all its innovations, Bug Riders is just lacking in every one of the key areas of racing/combat games needed to excite a player. The courses are barely discernible and half-play themselves by necessity. Weapons are so poorly implemented you can hardly be bothered to fight, hence there is little to no involvement with competitors. And as a multiplayer game it's not up to the challenge technically, even if you did like what the gameplay has to offer, and I don't.
Gameplay: Cockroach (Pesky, slothful, unwelcome)
Controls: Caterpillar (Funky and admirable, but also a bit goofy)
Graphics: Butterfly (Beautiful)
Sonics: Ant (Strong but workman-like)
Music: Bee (Nice drone, soon forgotten)
Replayability: Fly (I get sick of flies real fast)
Multiplayer: Ladybug (BLEH!)
X-Factor: Praying Mantis (Weird and original)
FINAL EVALUATION: European Wasp (Wicked to look at, but stings you badly, can ruin your picnic and is best avoided)
The unfortunate truth is that once you fold back the pretty wings, Bug Riders is revealed as a mediocre and occasionally incompetent racer in all departments. Insect lovers like myself can always fire the disc up briefly for the novelty of experiencing big and well-rendered scorpion flies or assassin bugs thrumming on their Playstations... but that's about it. It's a real ladybug when bold ideas like this one don't come off.
-- Bug Riders -- 5/10 --
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 09/24/01, Updated 09/24/01
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