Reviews | Arcade

Insector X

By Alex Kierkegaard / June 28, 2006

There exists a useful long-term test of an arcade game's quality. If you keep seeing an old title around, many years after its release, you can be pretty sure it's a classic, or at the very least a damn fine game.

That's because in an arcade setting bad or mediocre games get phased out pretty quickly. Companies that make them don't last long, because there is no space in a busy game center for titles that don't make money, and crap ones almost always don't. Players can quickly decide on a game's quality by watching the attract mode, or other people playing, or by simply dropping a coin and trying it out for themselves.

Suffice it to say that in over two years of living in Japan I've not seen Insector X anywhere, and I am pretty sure I never will.

Consider that it was released in 1989, at a time when numerous developers were churning out one excellent horizontal shooter after another. At that time I was eleven years old and playing ports of those games at home on the Amiga and the NES, but I can easily imagine Japanese arcade-goers giving Insector X one dubious glance, before sitting down at one of the cabs next to it to play Dragon Breed or Gradius III.

And yet, the light-colored cartoonish look has always been a plus in a genre full of serious space- and military-themed titles, and must have enticed quite a few players to give it a go. Backgrounds and enemies are distinctly drawn; cute enough to be different, but without the exaggerated comedic aspects that would qualify the game as a cute 'em up. They are matched by simple and responsive controls, and an unhurried, almost leisurely pace.

The main character is an insect-sized warrior named Yanmer, created by humans to take on the threat of the cyborg insects, which are invulnerable to ordinary weapons. According to the game's promotional flyer Yanmer "features wings that are more efficient than a jet engine and he wears a suit with special power". He also wears a propeller-equipped hat and carries some sort of machine gun. This whole conflict was started by a tribe of midgets, who in their quest to conquer the world have turned insects into cyborgs and unleashed a vast army of them on humanity.

A wacky plot like that would have made a good start for a wonderfully quirky shooter, full of silly enemies and bosses and unpredictable level designs. The team responsible at Taito ended up doing a cursory job instead. Insector X is perfectly playable, and gets most of the basics right, but it is awfully plain. It also offers little in the way of challenge, especially for those who have earned their wings on Konami's and Irem's extremely hard shooters.

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There are no particularly tough spots in this game; no set-pieces carefully designed to make you die a quick death. We might sometimes bemoan the rote memorization that's needed to beat a typical horizontal shooter, but at least that way those games can be packed full of memorable challenges. Here, even the bosses have easily discernible patterns; second-rate reflexes and a little patience is all that's required to overcome them. Though the oversized cyborg bugs that await at the end of every stage have a devious quality about them (I believe it's the face that does it), you forget them as soon as you beat them.

This lack of intricate set-pieces and strong boss battles makes Insector X a chore to play, and I noticed that most of my deaths resulted from inattention caused by boredom. A stray bullet would wander next to me while I was mowing everything down, fully powered up, and I'd have to start over from the last checkpoint. More often than not I'd simply quit. I am surprised at how long I can go alive in this game, while engaged in conversation with a friend across the room, or thinking about which bars I am going to hit later on in the evening. Such a huge difference with other horis of that era, when daydreaming while playing was just impossible.

You hear many complain about how difficult those old arcade classics were, but few people realize those games had to be difficult, otherwise no one would have played them. I doubt many people played Insector X, though I have no hard facts to back up this claim.

The most noteworthy aspect of the game is the way your secondary weapon works. Certain insects carry insecticide cans (a strange thing for an insect to be carrying, but whatever), which you can pick up after you destroy them. Blue cans give you a frontal air attack, while brown cans an air-to-ground weapon. The cans cycle colors every few seconds, so you can time the change and pick up the type you prefer. There are ten different special attacks altogether, five ground and five air-to-air, depending on the number of insecticide cans you are carrying. The number of cans is cumulative across both colors, so if you have, say, three brown cans and suddenly pick up a blue one, your secondary weapon will switch to the fourth-level air-to-air attack.

This is an original system, and it's nice to see that all of the special attacks are unique and satisfying to use. There's an insecticide bomb which is thrown on the ground, emitting smoke which kills your enemies. There's a very powerful air attack consisting of a wave of six missiles. The quality of these weapons is definitely the game's high point. However, you get unlimited ammo, so you can keep jamming on both the main and secondary shot buttons as much as you want. Once you get to used to the idea of unlimited secondary attacks (it takes a while), the whole thing becomes even easier than normal.

There's nothing more to the game. You pick up speed-up items and power-ups for your main shot, as usual. A minor complaint is that there are no speed-down items, so you'll need to make a conscious effort to stop collecting the speed-ups, otherwise you'll become too fast for proper control.

The only draw of Insector X for some might be its relaxed pace and simple system. Even then, it's not really worth investing too much time into it, because there's nothing interesting to see or do later on. There are hardly any new enemies to encounter, and the whole things tastes of a mediocrity best left to the past.