PUBLISHER: Hot-B (JP), Sage’s Creation (US)
DEVELOPER: Taito (port by Hot-B)
RELEASE DATE: 09/07/90 – (JP), 10/90 – (US)
Save for oddities like Bee 52, Mr. Mosquito, and A Bug’s Life, gaming hasn’t seen many titles starring insects. Whether this lack of insect representation in gaming is good or bad probably depends on your affinity for the creepy crawlies. Regardless of one’s position on bugs in games, shoot-em-up Insector X deserves an induction into the highly exclusive “Insect Games” club. You play as a tiny insect-like creature. Most of the enemies, including the bosses, are insects. And the levels succeed at making you feel small in comparison to the world around you.
You play as Kait, the last surviving member of the Insector race, and your mission is to destroy the Belzers, an evil tribe who have created half-machine/half-insect forces to carry out their evil bidding. With Kait’s wings guiding your way, you’ll mow down any beetle or spider that looks like it’s equipped with a laser.
Kait has two types of weapons, a normal shot and a special shot. The normal shot starts off as a singular laser blast, but can be upgraded up to seven times. The more upgrades you collect, the wider and stronger your blast becomes. Three special shots can also be equipped: a red anti-air weapon, a blue anti-ground weapon, and a Crash weapon that, once used, will hurt everything on screen. Both red and blue special shots can be upgraded up to four times, and with each upgrade, will unleash a different attack.
The anti-ground weapons aren’t worthless, but there are some areas where they’re unusable due to the lack of ground. Because of this, I always stuck with anti-air weapons for the special shot. Because the special shot is linked to the ‘C’ button, and the normal shot linked to the ‘B’ button, you can unload two attacks at once on unsuspecting insect hordes. If your fingers are willing to cooperate, of course.
The insect enemies make Insector X a memorable and vicious experience. The Wellfly – a small insect that travels in large groups – flies quickly towards you, drops a projectile, then leaves. The Yonakuni-Thunder shoots laser streams at you, and once destroyed, leaves a projectile that, if touched, will destroy you. Others like the Black Cutter or the Hammer Saw take several hits to kill and are basically sub-bosses that fire pattern-based attacks. Throw all these buggers together in one murderous swarm and you will die, time and time again.
Because the mechano-insects spare no expense in trying to kill you, Insector X starts off challenging and, by the fifth and final level, becomes insane. Even if your arsenal could level the entire insect kingdom, the little jerks know how to exploit your movements. Stray projectiles home in on where you’re moving towards, rather than where you are in the moment. There are certain sections in each level that are so filled with enemy projectiles that it’s impossible for you to move anywhere. And as with most shoot-em-ups, once you die, your weapon upgrades disappear, leaving you with your initial piddly blast.
At least your death(s) will take place amidst beautiful environments. The backgrounds are detailed and haunting. Take the City Area (actual name of the level) that begins with you flying in front of an all-encompassing clock or the Plateau Area where you fly amidst the blades of grass. One disturbing section in the Belzer Empire has you flying over what appears to be hundreds of bee corpses, presumably insects that died during previous battles. All of these areas and others remind you that, despite your weapons of war, protagonist Kait is but a speck upon the earth.
The Genesis version of Insector X is different from both the original Taito arcade and the Famicom port. Whereas the Genesis version opted for a darker, more apocalyptic feel, the arcade and the Famicom port have colorful, cartoony graphics and a lighthearted atmosphere. SegaRetro theorizes that HOT-B bought the rights to Insector X from Taito and gave the game “a complete aesthetic overhaul, with a more serious player character and enemy force, and a completely replaced soundtrack” (Insector X). This theory makes sense, but outside of SegaRetro’s Insector X writeup, I couldn’t find any evidence to support it.
The way to stand out in a limited genre like the shoot-em-up – without trying too hard – is to stick to the genre’s basic fundamentals, but provide unusual window dressing. To that end, Insector X succeeds. The rare madcap insect theme and the gorgeous pseudo-futuristic world are the attractions here. Without these reasons for being, the generic action and levels that often feel like repetitive death marches would damn Insector X into the shoot-em-up boneyard, forever and ever, buzz buzz.