Battle Bugs came out at a strange time. Well, now that this game would ever have been considered regular. Bearing a number of similarities with the rising so-called Real Time Strategy genre, it didn't quite fit in even at first glance. And the more you played it, the more apparent it became how this game went its own ways and followed fundamentally different paradigms. Exploring paths which even since then have rarely been explored again. While on the other hand, the footprint it did leave on the later genre shows in many small details nevertheless.
First things first. It's war! The heroic armies of US are in locked in deadly competition against the wretched evildoers of THEM. Careless observers may think only the helmet colour distinguishes US from THEM, but really, this takes place within the eternal struggle of good versus evil. Being insects, the competition is all about space in the garden and food resources. Which all rightfully belong to US! An ironic take on violent conflict in the middle of the ultra-militaristic 1990s. Bam!
Going further against the zeitgeist, Epyx saved themselves (and the player) all those high effort cutscenes, 3D rendered or with live actors etc. Not even an intro along those lines. Oh, there is speech. Squeaking, artificial animal language. Highlighting further how needless all this fluff which was slowly becoming the norm in larger productions actually was.
Instead, the focus is exclusively on gameplay. Each main campaign level, bearing no logical links or plot progress, is a small work of art. Few "military" units have to be used in the most effective ways, finding which becomes increasingly complex over time. Having the right idea and giving exact orders is key – just sending soldiers towards the closest opponent virtually never leads to success.
The winning tactics are determined by a number of factors, each very readable and intuitively understandable by itself, but potentially tricky in combination. Starting with the unit abilities, like attack and defense ratings, flying ability or immunity to specific environments, then leading over to special weapons (smell bombs, firecrackers…) and finally physical environment. Consider how to use the available resources best under the external constraints and you win. Too abstract? Enemy ants are very close to that slice of pizza you want to conquer. But there is a small puddle of water there. Your bug could use this surface to quickly interject and distract the ants while your main force catches up.
While this example may still be fairly simple, things become trickier as the level id counts upwards. Sure, you could use the convenient controls to just put all your soldiers into a group and send them to attack all together. But in fact, it makes a big difference who attacks first as you'll learn soon enough. Sure, you could just rely on the well working pathfinding routine to get somewhere, but sometimes, it may be necessary to optimize each step.
This sort of optimization is enabled by breaking the pure real time paradigm. Players can freely pause the flow of action and issue commands under no time pressure (similar to what Space Hulk did earlier). There is as much time as needed for considerations, re-planning, adaptations or even just looking around to get a fresh overview, further strengthening the strategic aspect of the game. Then, unpause and watch all your plans spoiled by the enemy artificial intelligence… or, at some point, unfold exactly as you intended, leading to a huge sense of accomplishment.
Speaking of artificial intelligence, while the main challenge always comes from the level design and initial unit distribution (which sometimes lightly favours the enemy, but not much), computer controlled armies are quite capable in their basic tactical behaviour. While mostly relying on offense, they do so in targetted ways, trying to single out easy targets on the player's side and conquering resources whereever opportunity strikes.
Battle Bugs' complexity doesn't stem from artificial increase of elements and game mechanics, but it emerges through clever level design and said combination of a perfectly balanced set of fundamentally basic rules. This mechanical gameplay, in spite of outward appearance, places it well within the puzzle genre, far from usual wargame material whose form it takes.
The reliance on single "correct" solutions of the levels, of course limits replayability greatly. On top, although a two-player mode exists, it doesn't work nearly as smoothly as single player, because significant interface elements such as the freeze time don't make sense in such a setup.
Make no mistake nevertheless. Battle Bugs can keep you entertained for a long time. It's hard for all the right reasons and never gets in the way with interface annoyances or unfair random elements. It is challenging, but if one challenge may be too much, it will simply let you play on to the next level anyway. It's not there to frustrate, but to entertain. Such an obvious idea, isn't it?