Please note that these impressions are based upon playing an alpha version of the game code. Changes are certain to be made prior to the final game release.
If a developer is going to make a puzzle game that uses a well-established mechanic – such as matching three objects of the same colour – it's important to put a new spin on things, and thankfully that's what Sudden Games has done with Astro Bugz Revenge. In this case the basic match-three mechanic from games such as Puzzle Bobble has been combined with the alien-invasion shooting style of Space Invaders, providing potential to stand out in the crowded WiiWare puzzling field.
Three play modes are included: Classic, Versus and Revenge. The first mode is currently available in the iPhone Apps store as Astro Bugz and looks more or less like a Space Invaders-style game: you control a ship on the bottom of the screen with the Nunchuk and fire colourful shots at the "bugz" with . You're given a visual reminder of the colour of your next shot in the form of a tinted cone which projects from the top of your ship; this also serves to give you an idea of where your shot will end up. If your shot hits a grouping of two or more linked bugz of the same colour they explode into a shower of stars you can pick up for bonus points; otherwise it becomes a bug itself. Unlike Puzzle Bobble you cannot clear bugs by eliminating groups attached to them: all must be cleared to complete the level.
Assisting you are power-ups which include bombs that go off when you clear the bugz associated with them; there are several others that get dropped for collection with various effects, such as a fireball that will cut through the bug armada, or freezing the formation in place for a few seconds. Between levels you're presented with some stats and bonus points are awarded, though no score or leaderboards were visible in this early version of the game. If you manage an accuracy rate of 80% or better you get a bonus round where the Remote pointer is used to move a reticule for popping bugz to get some extra points.
Bug formations change from level to level: on some they're in a standard Space Invaders array and slowly drift down the screen, but more often they'll be in a large rotating mass which gets lower almost imperceptibly. At first the bugz look innocent enough: round with nicely pulsing colours, big eyes and smiling faces, and when shot they make cute little chirping sounds that create the impression they enjoy being blasted to smithereens. However, if any of them reach the ground where you are, the smiles open into sharp teeth and the whole mob swarms you, hissing menacingly as they destroy your ship! There isn't a set number of lives, so death just causes the level to restart. If you keep on dying the game notes this and will gradually increase the number of power-ups that appear to help you on your way. After levels are completed they're unlocked for future replay, though this is tied to the difficulty chosen when you create a save profile. If you decide later that you'd like to play with a higher difficulty that means having your progress reset, something we hope will change before the final release.
Versus mode pits you against a human or AI player with horizontally scrolling walls of bugs at the top and bottom of the screen and ships in the middle facing opposite directions. Your goal is to blast through your opponent's bug wall before they can do the same, with the player who gets five points first being declared the winner. It's extremely simple and down to a combination of reflexes and luck of the draw on colours, with the only strategic factor being the ability to block your opponent's shots by moving in front of them.
Revenge puts the player in the role of a big bug at the top of the screen firing bugs at colourful geometric shapes at the bottom: essentially the Classic game played upside down. The difficulty is quite a bit higher, and not just because of the unusual orientation, though unlike Classic mode you can continue to guide your shots after firing to assist in your task and it's a nice variant on the basic game. It's been noted by the developer that some tweaking needs to be done to the difficulty to get some more balance in the level of challenge in the three game modes: as things stand Normal difficulty in Revenge Mode and Extreme difficulty in Classic provided a satisfying level of challenge though we didn't find the AI in Versus mode all that clever.
Classic and Revenge modes can be played with two players side-by-side working together to eliminate the bug/rock menace. Though the muted ship colours (dull red or yellow) won't pose a problem for veteran gamers, we found the fact that players will be focusing more on the cone colour caused some confusion regarding which ship was whose for less experienced players.
There are 50 game levels on offer in Classic and Revenge modes that take place on a few different planets peppered with the occasional fight against some kind of boss. As noted the bugs (and rocks) look nice and move about smoothly though the ships are a bit rough and don't match the surroundings (this has been noted as something that will be changed before the final release). Another thing we hope will be addressed is the 4:3 presentation as widescreen televisions are quickly becoming the norm in North America and is already the case in Europe. The music loop is an infectious ethereal electronic track that creates an unsettling feeling to the game, but quickly burns its way into your subconscious in a not-unpleasant manner.
It seems Sudden Games has a quality puzzle game on its hands here, though there are certainly improvements that could be made. That said, we're already anticipating its release on the Wii Shop in the near future.