GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus
Bug! (1995, Realtime Associates)
I bought a Sega Saturn in the summer of 1995, despite my best intentions never to do so. Like many gamers at that time, I was highly frustrated with Sega for their many bizarre and terrible hardware decisions in short succession, including Sega CD, Game Gear, CD-X, Nomad, Pico, Activator, Menacer, and worst of all, 32X. The crowning achievement, of course, was the Sega Saturn, which had been subjected to an endless stream of bad press and ugly rumors for the past year. We already knew the stories that would define the system: massively complex hardware design, a last-minute rush to pack in more processors to compete with Sony's Playstation, grumblings from software developers, and with the "surprise" May 1995 launch, the risible sentiments of crucial retailers, none of whom were happy. The knives and the shovels were out in force as everybody was smelling blood in the water.
At first, I viewed Saturn with wary eyes. After spying some demo stations at Toys 'R' Us and Funcoland, I slowly began to come around. Two software titles really jumped out at me. The first was Panzer Dragoon, a supremely visualized world of Moebius-inspired dragons, monsters and machines, offered as the next evolution of Space Harrier. The cinematic opening sequence was enough to win me over. The second game, and this really surprised me, was a 3D mascot platformer called Bug. After spending a couple weeks playing both titles, I made a rash decision: I packed up my entire videogame collection, including NES, Genesis and Super NES, along with a massive box of games and accessories, took everything to Funcoland, and traded everything in for a new Sega Saturn. I received $200 in store credit, which at the time was a big deal, but today would require at least one more zero at the end. I came home with Saturn, a demo disc, Virtua Fighter, Panzer Dragoon and Bug in tow. I was very, very happy. Eventually, I picked up Pebble Beach, Worldwide Soccer and Daytona, and loved them all.
I don't know if the appeal of those early Saturn games would appeal to players today. This is one of those times where "you just had to be there," when this stuff was the bleeding edge, blazing new trails for the future of videogames, whose possibilities seemed infinite. Much of the experience just fades with time, and this is doubly so with Bug. When this game was brand new, it represented the first great step forward for the medium. It was daring and new and full of possibility. Then Super Mario 64 dropped like a fifty-megaton hydrogen bomb, reducing everything else to ash. Such is life. The dinosaurs say hi.
Bug wasn't Saturn's first attempt to bring the 2D platformers into the third dimension; that honor fell upon Clockwork Knight, which used 3D polygons with 2D gameplay. But its visuals were just a glorified con job, as the entire game moved strictly left-to-right. It didn't even try any new ideas where it counted, and after the initial thrill wore off, you felt cheated. Sony Playstation launch games like Jumping Flash were far more dazzling and innovative, reinforcing the notion that Sega was caught behind the times, trying to relive the 16-bit era that was suddenly becoming very obsolete.
Where Clockwork Knight fails the promise of "next generation," Bug delivers the goods. It boldly moves into that third dimension, into and around and up and down and back again. The traditional platform level design is pushed in every direction possible, while still being, essentially, a platformer. Realtime Associates, the software development team, was trying to preserve the old paradigm while incorporating the new technology. And I think they did a very, very good job. Your character, the latest in an endless lineup of 1990s cartoon mascots, follows linear paths left-to-right, then into the screen, then up and around, looping over itself, then expanding the pathways into larger areas. He must dodge or attack giant bugs of all shapes and sizes and techniques. Some of them simply waddle forward. Some of them hop around or fly. A few of them really try to impress us by leaping into and out of the screen. There's a part where you walk down a pathway as hordes of crickets hop at you from the background, and it was quite a thrill in 1995. I have to admit, it still looks pretty impressive today.
The level designs are closest to Western game design theory, which in those days meant large, non-linear stages that play out like enormous mazes. Japanese stage designs were far more linear and focused, emphasizing the quick, immediate experience. The Western style proved more easily adaptable to the third dimension, as we see in this game. However, this does result in a general sameness and repetition, as each stage just bleeds into one another. It all begins to look the same, and if you've been playing for a long while, you begin to feel comfortably numb. This is Bug's biggest failing, and it's probably going to remain its biggest stumbling block, particularly when there is no way to save progress until you complete the entire game.
The graphics are a mixture of 3D polygons for the stage layouts and 2D pre-rendered CG sprites for the characters and objects. This followed on the heels of Donkey Kong Country, which dazzled everyone and seemed to kill off traditional sprite graphics for good. On Saturn, the vastly improved color palette results in highly detailed, lushly colored characters. They are also very impressively animated, and you can tell that the designers had a blast creating this impressive cast. As the star of the show (quite literally here), Bug gets all the best animations and quite a few snarky one-liners.
There's a lot of humor in Bug, with the voices and funny cracks like "Buuuug Juuuuice" that always makes me chuckle. The whole game world is actually a staged movie, where each world is a separate thematic sequence. A director cracks a slate board and shouts, "Action!" At other times, when you uncover an invincibility power-up, the director yells, "Cut! Bring in the stunt bug!" In comes Bug decked in blue. This game-as-movie theme was common in the late 16-bit era, and has always been an obsession with Western software developers, who have long ago decided that respect can only be found by pretending to be Hollywood movie directors.
One final thing I should say about Bug: it's extremely challenging, a lot tougher than I ever expected. I think I only got as far as the third world back in '95. Again, not being able to save my progress and just begin where I left off really burned me out. Today, I would just recommend using the level select code to skip ahead, which is how I was able to snap all these cool screenshots. But it you want a really meaty videogame, one that requires lots of time and patience and practice, well, you'll be in heaven.
Super Mario 64 wasn't interested in the old 2D action games. Nintendo just completely demolished the old paradigm and reinvented themselves as something entirely new. For many years, it worked, and the very idea of a 2D platformer was all but extinct. Many years later, Nintendo tried to bring the two worlds together, 2D and 3D, with Super Mario 3D Land and 3D World. It's very fascinating to see how Nintendo tried to pull that off. I wonder if they used Bug for inspiration? Shigeru Miyamoto must have been sneaking away some ideas, at least a few.