Shadow Bug Review
Ninja in Training
Before playing Shadow Bug, it never really dawned on me that the Switch’s touch screen is perfect for porting mobile games. A lot of apps made for the iPad rely solely on touch controls and other consoles don’t have a clear way of reproducing that control scheme. The Switch, though, is perfectly apt for such an input method.
Shadow Bug is a game made primarily for mobile platforms. It does have a PC port, but mouse controls can quite effectively emulate touch input. On the Switch, you have not only touch input, but motion based controls that can replicate a mouse, giving you the best of both worlds. These methods are both use well in Shadow Bug, but the game has a couple of damning flaws that prevent it from truly shining.
Starting off, there isn’t much of a driving force for the game. Shadow Bug might have a narrative somewhere, but it isn’t presented in-game. Even on Switch, the title boots up like it was directly ported from an iPad and has you jump straight into a tutorial. You’ll come to grips with your control method of choice and be off to the races.
The central gimmick is that this isn’t a traditional platformer. The titular Shadow Bug is a ninja, of sorts, so he moves by attacking. This is where the touch based controls come in, since you’ll tap on your enemies to move your character about the arena. You can traverse left and right in the environments (either by touching the screen or using the joystick), but jumping and attacking are relegated solely to tapping on enemies.
This sets up some unique puzzles that make pretty clever use of your character’s limited move set. It reminds me a lot of how Bionic Commando did away with jumping in an era where 2D platformers had started to feel the same. Shadow Bug creates a strong first impression, but then falters with some truly terrible boss encounters.
The first seven levels could be considered an extended tutorial, since the most out-there concept you’ll encounter is clicking through walls. Even the first boss fight is mostly an extended corridor crawl through a grouping of enemies before a short final encounter. The trick is just to figure out where you’ll be clicking, how your momentum from that movement will propel you, and timing out your movements to avoid colliding with other foes.
It is a little standard, but it works thanks to a generous checkpoint system. That checkpoint system completely disappears in boss fights, though. This mirrors the absolute worst parts of Super Meat Boy, where you’ll make small errors outside of your control that then cost you a lot of time. It isn’t fun to make miniscule amounts of progress and have it reset because you couldn’t react fast enough to a new attack pattern.
Every boss in Shadow Bug is like this, too. The very final fight requires knowledge of each tell that the boss gives, but you won’t know these going in for the first (or 20th) time. It doesn’t help that the limitations of the control scheme can’t be overcome with skill. Sometimes you’ll press on the right side of the screen to move your character, but he’ll latch onto a foe and sling himself 100 ft in the opposite direction. Using the joy-con’s pointer function can mitigate this (since you’ll have discreet movement), but then the pointer is far slower than actually tapping the screen.
With boss fights requiring split-second reaction time, the only way to overcome them is to bash your head against the wall a bunch of times until you memorize every little pattern. That still isn’t enough since any small errors (of which there will be plenty) can result in death. With some checkpoints, maybe the boss fights would be too easy, but they would be fair. Shadow Bug doesn’t play fair during these moments.
The standard levels, though, are actually pretty solid. The difficulty curve ramps up nicely and later sections require a better understanding of the mechanics present. Some of my favorite moments are during the “Sewer” segment where you’ll need to time your attacks to the cadence of jumping fish to nab keys and then dodge falling goo as you progressively collect more keys. It sets up an easy to recognize pattern that then requires precision to execute.
The visual design, while striking, can sometimes obscure these moments. You can push some blocks in Shadow Bug, but the first time this happens, it is almost impossible to discern the box from the background. Everything is rendered as a shadow, so I thought the box was part of the background and completely overlooked it. The design differences are a little too subtle at times and it can lead to confusion about where to progress.
That aside, once you do stick to your guns and make it over the wildly unbalanced boss fights, Shadow Bug isn’t a very long game. There are 36 levels of which each one is roughly three minutes long. Sometimes you can best them in 30 seconds while others will take six minutes, but the average length for a first playthrough will put you at a little over an hour. Shadow Bug is meant to have a speedrunning angle, but the amount of content makes it go by in the blink of an eye.
There isn’t anything else to come back to either, save from a collectible orb in each level or going for a three star rating for completion. Nabbing these collectibles will help with speeding up your time, but I can’t say I have any real desire to return to these levels. If I could completely skip the boss fights, I wouldn’t have that big of a problem with Shadow Bug.
It feels pretty similar to indie darling Super Meat Boy and 1001 Spikes, but doesn’t offer anything those games don’t already do better. The game is also double the price on Switch than it is on the app and Google Play stores, which makes it hard to recommend on Nintendo’s console. Still, the game has a unique control scheme that some people are bound to be impressed by. I just wish the whole experience was as creative as its input options.