Dodgeball crossed with hot potato, played by a ladybug.
The size and price of games on Nintendo's DSiWare service suggest that fun can come in small packages, and Bugs 'n' Balls certainly strives to fit the bill. The game has a limited scope, but still strives to offer a challenging new sport hybrid, and a visual style and character design that could make a Japanese schoolgirl go "kawaii!"
Developer CoderChild imagines that the insect world revolves around a sport that incorporates elements of both dodgeball and hot potato. Each round starts with the player on their side of the field, opposite their opponent, with five balls on the ground for each of them. The balls are then picked up and rolled straight across the raised midground to the other side, and whoever has the least balls on their side (or gets all of the balls to their opponent's side) after 60 seconds wins. The balls can only be rolled straight, but they do take on angular directions if they happen to collide with each other mid-flight. If a player is hit by one, they're stunned for a couple of critical moments, yielding an important opening for their opponent. Players can even be stunned by your own ball if it's reflected back at them, so exploiting, and avoiding, this mechanic becomes crucial in the higher difficulty levels.
This unique gameplay is simple to grasp, but unfortunately lacks additional layers of complexity or physics that would give Bugs 'N' Balls significant staying power. However, there's just enough there to support the game's tournaments and single matches. Gameplay is also extended by two difficulty modes and a handful of mini-games with variations on the core game. Each of the four playable bug athletes has unique strengths, but the in-game bar chart that describes these characteristics is unlabeled and only explained deep in the game's software instruction manual.
Another factor in the game's appeal is its presentation. Like Nintendo's own Pikmin, the game takes place from a bug's-eye view. Consequently, the arenas aren't manicured sports courts but rather leaves and mushrooms, balls are seeds and dandelion puffs, and the crowd is gently swaying stems and flowers. As for the athletes, the cast consists of a caterpillar, ladybug, bumble bee, and (bearded?) centipede. All of these characters are designed with a cute, cheerful anime-like style that could fool one into believing the game came straight out of a Tokyo mascot studio (it didn't; the developers are Spanish). Layered on top of all this is a simple but relaxing score, with appropriate ambient nature sounds during matches, and saccharine-sweet pronunciations of each character's name (Nifi! Fubu! Toto! Pepe!) as well as the "thwee-too-waan" countdown that starts each round.
While for some the cuteness factor might make up for a number of blemishes, there are some missteps in Bugs 'N' Balls that should still be acknowledged. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine how close a character needs to be to a ball in order to pick it up, an occasional problem in the heat of battle. The menus can also be a little confusing to navigate when using the directional pad and buttons instead of the touchscreen, due to a sometimes ambiguous indication of what you currently have selected. And though the harder difficulty mode can be a challenge for beginners, Bugs 'N' Balls doesn't offer more content for expert players, nor does it offer multiplayer.
Still, Bugs 'N' Balls offers a unique pick-up-and-play sport and a vibrant, winning presentation. It delivers strongly on what it sets out to do, and it's genuinely appealing to pick up and play casually or in short bursts. It may lack a little in scope, but this just proves that good clean fun can indeed come in small, DSiWare-sized packages.