I’ve never been quite sure about the Hexbug toys by Innovation First International. The vibrating little bug-like robots are interesting to watch, race and generally confuse the house-cat, but they have always been something of a geek pop culture phenomenon. Their initial price point has certainly suggested this, though they’ve lowered in price since. Recently, I was sent a care package from Innovation First International including a couple new play-sets and bugs. So while I’m still a bit sketchy on watching tiny vibrating bugs bounce around in a plastic play-set, they are undeniably entertaining to watch and the elementary school set certainly enjoys their existence.
Hexbugs come in many different styles and sizes. The most popular is the Nano, which my 8 year-old has a shoebox full of already. There are ants, crabs, scarabs and even fish; but none of them compare to the Hexbug Nano V2. These little buggers have an antennae on their topside, which not only assists with their current trait of being able to flip themselves over, but enables them to climb up through the habitat play-sets. Of course, don’t expect it to climb up anything else, as the play-sets are designed specifically for the Nano V2. I’m not suggesting I placed it on the wall and demanded it climb, I’m just saying that the climbing trait is for the purpose of the habitats.
Speaking about the habitats, I was sent the Black Hole set, the Helix 180 and the Watch Tower set. Spending a few minutes with the 8 year-old to construct the sets as indicated on the box, she quickly decided to take the LEGO route as all three habitats were de-constructed and mixed together. The pictures above are a result of that. You can see the cat was also quite rapt by the Hexbugs. The habitats, while completely interchangeable, were still a bit limited in how they could connect to one another. It seemed to me that a few tunnels that curved horizontally instead of just vertically would benefit the habitats. While we both got some satisfaction in racing Hexbugs from one end of a specifically designed racetrack (that took me like two hours while watching Monday Night Football), I did start to notice some flaws in the habitats.
It’s notable to remember that everything the Hexbugs do is completely random. They don’t have a set direction, their vibrations set them off in whatever course friction and physics decide. That being said, the habitats are not always complimentary to this behavior. They tend to get stuck in the tunnels quite often if they meet a friend going in the opposite direction. Not much can be done here except to remove the tunnel and dig them out. That is not a flaw of the habitat though, as sometimes they do pass each other. The major flaw of the habitat exposes itself when a Hexbug is moving vertically. If not exactly at a ninety degree angle perpendicular to the table, the Hexbugs get stuck. The tunnels and the plastic connectors are cheap and flimsy. They tend to buckle just enough at the connection point to create a place for the vertically moving Nano V2 to get stuck. The more I used and rebuilt the habitats, the more I felt that the plastic pieces — especially the connectors — were weakened by use. We’re not talking years and hundreds of rebuilds here, we’re talking two weeks and maybe five.
That all can be excused in a sense, when you do realize that you are watching vibrating bugs bounce around, no different than what the cat is doing. Except every once in a while the cat slaps one out of the habitat, while you are dislodging a Nano V2 from a vertical 180 tunnel (where they often got stuck if not at that perfect perpendicular angle). After time, I also noticed that the Nano V2 bugs would just get stuck on their sides, against a corner or plastic peg in the habitat base and just rattle there until human interaction. Perhaps this is part of the playtime, but it seems that as much as the habitats were designed for the Nano V2 bugs to roam free, they have just as much to hinder them. Perhaps this keeps you engaged, perhaps Hexbug needs to manufacture plastic pieces that create more of a sturdy habitat while still being interchangeable.
Regardless of the flaws of plastic play-sets (of which every play-set throughout history has) the Hexbug Nano V2 toys are quite entertaining. The 8 year-old has taken to building her own sets and I’m glad to report as volatile and outspoken as she is, she has not expressed visible frustration in the above mentioned flaws. Rather, she views them as a challenge to build the most secure and sturdy habitat as possible, which does leave many pieces in the basket. Frankly, I don’t care. If she is happy playing with the Nano V2 bugs in a cardboard box or in just the bases of the habitats connected, then all is well. For a litmus test, I tried to get the teens involved, and while they were engaged for a moment, they really weren’t too rapt by the whole habitat business and wanted to put the Nano V2 bugs in weird places, like the freezer and mailboxes. So I’d definitely say that the Hexbug Nano habitats and complimentary bugs are aimed at the elementary school to adult crowd, with a large gap between 12 and parenthood. The sets are fun, even with the structural flaws. Nothing is perfect, but I would like to see play-sets that compliment the strong engineering of the Hexbugs themselves.
Says the 8 year-old — which is really the only review a product like this needs — (typed verbatim), “I like the Hexbugs because they could flip upside down and do cool tricks. I like the habitat because you could take it apart and rebuild it and keep doing doing rebuilding until you could find what you wanted to do and make it cool. There were some problems with the habitat. Because the habitat kept falling and breaking, when you kept building it higher. There were some problems with the Hexbugs too. Sometimes they wouldn’t flip upside down or go through the tunnels. Also they got stuck with other Hexbugs in the tunnels. I would give the Hexbugs Nano V2 habitats an eight out of ten because there were some problems but I liked playing with the bugs and making the cat go crazy. And I really liked racing Hexbugs against my dad in the super awesome Hexbug race track he built with the habitats.”