Bugsnax is quite simply the cutest game I have played this year. Or possibly ever. If you’ve seen one of the titular bugsnax — animate food with big googly eyes — you probably already have something of an idea. But Bugsnax is less about the snax themselves and more about the snackers, sort of bipedal dogs (maybe?) called Grumpuses (Grumpi?) who have formed a community on the island. And they’re just the most endearing characters.
You play as a journalist who has come to investigate the bugsnax after receiving an invitation from adventurer Elizabert Megafig. Upon arriving, the town mayor Filbo tells you that not only has Elizabert gone missing, the community has broken up after a fight and an earthquake. Filbo asks you to gather everyone back together, and you do. Nominally, it’s because you have to interview them for the story, but really, I think it’s because Filbo asked so nicely and looks so lost without them.
Getting everyone back together means fulfilling their requests, and their requests are almost always about bugsnax. Each snak is its own puzzle, and there are about a hundred of the things. First, you have to know where and when they appear. Some of them are nocturnal, or don’t like the rain, for example. Then you have to trap them, which might be as simple as hiding so they don’t get spooked while walking in a circle right into your cage. But later snax require an understanding of the entire ecosystem, and how they might interact with one another if you can lure them into doing so.
By the end of the game you have a whole collection of tools at your disposal. You might go from tripping up one snak to launching your trap into the air to catch another. At one point I defrosted a frozen bugsnak by running into it after another one had set me on fire, which I’m not sure was the intended solution, but it worked. You even get your own adorable and useful little snak who will roll around in a hamster ball where you tell them to go, and at one point I thought I had lost them and I nearly quit right then and there in disgrace and mourning. (Luckily, you can actually recall any of the tools no matter what happens to them.)
Once or twice the puzzles were counterintuitive, but mostly they fit with the laid-back but interconnected island. It’s sort of like Outer Wilds, which is one of my favorite games, but simpler, more colorful, and less existentially threatening. These are not insults, just a realization that if I was a kiddo who had gotten this game on Christmas morning it would be my GOTY.
It’s once you have a few people back in town that the community really starts to shine. Like the snax themselves, the characters have a web of relationships. It’s easy to see the faultlines where things went wrong – most of them are deeply stubborn in opposed ways, like the rancher who refuses to let people eat his pet snax, and the sauce farmer who thinks he’s being ridiculous and may or may not be breaking in to commit theft-murder at night. The sauce farmer is in turn estranged from his wife, the archaeologist, and the rancher is in a complicated relationship with the singer, and so on.
By far the best pair are the jock, Chandlo, and his partner, the inventor Snorpy. Unlike most of the characters, Chandlo is immediately happy to return to the settlement when you find him out in the hills, but only if Snorpy wants to go. So you go to try to help Snorpy with what he wants, but he won’t speak to you until you’ve helped Chandlo. All of the character relationships also develop as the game goes on, and I won’t spoil it, but theirs is incredibly sweet. (Bugsnax is also extremely casual about including LGBTQ+ characters; as well as Chandlo and Snorpy, Elizabert has a girlfriend, Eggabell, out looking for her, and there’s a nonbinary character. None of these ever really come up as something different to be remarked on. Also, Eggabell’s name is just an absolutely endless vehicle for puns, and the game fully delivers.)
There’s more of the ending that I don’t want to spoil, but it’s both narratively and mechanically satisfying. It successfully wraps up many questions you might have had about the island, both the in-game mysteries (like Elizabert’s disappearance) and otherwise, bigger picture (like, “what’s the deal with eating these adorable bugs anyway?”) Mechanically, it remixes a lot of the puzzles in its final sections, which makes for a neat little capstone.
Bugsnax might be GOTY in the making for a nine year old, but for an adult it’s still deeply endearing. In around six hours (though longer if you do a lot of sidequests or try to catch every bugsnak) it doesn’t overstay its welcome, so it remains a little burst of simple fun and cheeriness to visit a town full of misfits and catch a couple of big-eyed, delicious bugsnax.