Shadow Bug is a puzzle platformer made for iPad and mobile phones, not for home consoles. It comes as a surprise, then, that Muro Studios would port the game to what is essentially a home console. Except, we all know that the Switch isn’t exactly a home console. If you take it out of the comfortable dock, then take off the Joy-Con on each side, you have what is basically a tablet, and that’s why Shadow Bug was brought to the system. The unfortunate truth, however, is that the Switch simply does not do the same things that a traditional tablet or smartphone can do, and thus is a somewhat uncomfortable home for Shadow Bug.
This is not to say that Shadow Bug’s brilliance can’t still shine through on Switch. While it might be the worst platform to play it on, the snappy level design, split-second response times, and clever puzzles make Shadow Bug an easy game to recommend. Just not for Switch.
As a game primarily designed for smartphones, Shadow Bug takes minimalist storytelling to NES levels of context, but without any instruction manual included. What can be deduced from your surroundings is that a giant factory is spreading gunk throughout the forest of the titular Shadow Bug, corrupting the inhabitants into monsters. It is up to Shadow Bug and his flea companion to infiltrate the factory and take it down, bringing peace back to their forest.
Even this, however, has been extrapolated, and the game might as well be about anything else, as no lines of dialogue appear. As a casual phone game, this makes perfect sense. As a game on Switch, it’s the slightest bit jarring to be thrown into the action without a single line of text for context, but Shadow Bug simply isn't the type of game that needs a story to be engaging.
Whether you win or lose, each run through a level in Shadow Bug will likely take under two minutes. However, the later levels require such a level of familiarity through repetition, that it’s possible to die over 20 times before finally beating a level. This is a tried-and-true format that is perfect for games on smartphones, but can become somewhat exhausting for long playthroughs. Due to the nature of Shadow Bug, you will likely be dying a lot, but while this is easier to deal with in short bursts, it is significantly harder to swallow when you repeatedly die to the same boss 50 times in a row.
As any platformer should, each level will introduce you to a new mechanic and extrapolate on it in more interesting and complex ways for the duration of the level, with those mechanics being implemented into future levels as well. These mechanics vary from anything from new enemies that require you to take them down in a certain way to puzzles that require you to plan ahead and use your surroundings.
In Shadow Bug, you either quickly conquer or are swiftly defeated. Most enemies in the game, except bosses, are felled with a single swipe, but that rule applies to you as well. Any stray bullet, enemy, or hazard can mean the end for this little bug. While Shadow Bug builds up to become something deviously challenging by the end, it seldom becomes too frustrating thanks to the game’s semi-frequent checkpoint system. In boss fights, however, this system is vexingly thrown out. In the final two fights in particular, I spent about as long on the boss fight as I did on all of the previous levels in that world. This completely deflates the sense of progression in the game, and can often feel like running your head into a brick wall. The entire game took me about seven hours to beat. Two of those final hours were spent on the final boss.
How you control the little insect depends on the mode you’re playing. In handheld mode, it controls much like it does in most of the other versions. You tap the left side of the screen to move left, and the right side to move right. Alternatively, you can use the left analog stick for directions, but this is a counterintuitively clumsy control scheme. In any configuration in handheld mode, you attack by tapping enemies, but the later levels require you to pretty much have both thumbs at the ready, making things awkward if you’re resting one of those thumbs on the analog stick. Furthermore, it’s quite the stretch from your hands to the screen if you have the Joy-Con connected, so playing with them removed and holding the Switch like a tablet works best. The grooves for the Joy-Con dug into my hands a bit, especially for longer play sessions, but not so much that I ever had to stop because of it.
The control scheme for TV and tabletop mode has been seen before from other games that were originally on mobile or Wii, but the lack of a sensor bar means that the pointer, in the form of your cute flea companion, directed at the screen gets decalibrated rather quickly. Fortunately, a single tap of a button recalibrates the pointer to the center of the screen, but in segments like boss fights when you’re not given time to breathe, it becomes near-impossible to use. The gyro controls are almost like a hard mode even if you can somehow keep the pointer calibrated just because of the extra time it takes to aim and point, as opposed to a simple tap. Because of this, gyro aiming is perfectly acceptable, if not preferable, at the beginning two or so worlds where everything is largely a walk in the park, but past then it becomes an unnecessary hindrance.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO
True to the game’s title, most of the game is presented in silhouettes. Anything that you can walk on or otherwise interact with is presented in the same tinge of shadow, although some key objects have a different color to highlight it as important in some way. This works for the most part, but there’s one area late in the game where the contrast between objects isn’t quite as clear, leaving me retreading ground over and over again for 20 minutes until I accidentally bumped into what I needed to.
Even though all of the design choices were made to be clearly seen on a small phone screen, blowing them up on a big TV surprisingly isn’t jarring at all. The dark edges of the enemies and structures make the environments wonderfully grotesque, while at the same time managing to have them look just a little bit cute.
This dark, minimalist art style contrasts brilliantly with the bright and gorgeously detailed background art. While a fair few do admittedly contain standard bricks or pipes, the more notable backgrounds feature art far more beautiful than any mobile game has any right to have. The way the bark on the trees twist into the canopies of leaves is particularly lovely, and the slow transition from warm, bright colors in the earlier worlds to the colder, harsher colors in the later ones creates a great sense of entering into progressively more oppressive environments. Even though there’s not much of a story to be found, do not mistake this for a lack of tone.
Shadow Bug’s music is surprisingly intense for such a casual game, although this becomes somewhat more thematically appropriate as the game’s location and difficulty ramps up. While there are variations on the same Eastern-inspired music, they only differ slightly. It’s as hard to criticize Shadow Bug’s music as it is to praise. If you play on mute or with your own music, you’re not missing anything, but it won’t drive you crazy if you do choose to listen to it.
Shadow Bug performs well for the most part, as should be expected with such a non-taxing game for the Switch. That being said, there was one slight error where a puzzle involving a Wallmaster-like hand would lose its arm halfway when it reached a certain point. This had no effect on the gameplay, but it was an odd occurrence nonetheless. More seriously, there was one instance of falling out of bounds, requiring me to restart the entire level, which lost me around 15 minutes of progress. With such a short playtime, it’s harder to gauge how likely these “bugs” will occur with others, but it is worth mentioning.
Shadow Bug is a case of a good game on the wrong platform. While it is what I imagine would be a fantastic mobile game, the design choices and controls were aimed for a different market in mind. It either has awkward gyro controls or the uncomfortable grip of the naked Switch unit.
Shadow Bug is easy to recommend to anyone who wants some bite-sized challenges to keep them busy for a few minutes while waiting for the bus. But by the time you take your Switch out of the case, unhinge the Joy-Con and put them somewhere safe, start up the game, and optionally put headphones into the game or music from somewhere else, your bus might have already arrived. Alternatively, you could buy the same game on your phone, which you can probably get in and out of your pocket within five seconds.
If you don’t own a good phone or tablet, the Switch version functions just fine as a super cheap game, especially in handheld mode. But if you can play it on just about anything else, I’d recommend that much more.
|+ Clever and deviously difficult bite-sized challenges||– Boss fights are far too unforgiving and repetitive|
|+ Breathtaking background art||– Switch is a poor platform for this type of game|
|– One instance of falling out-of-bounds|