Here kitty, kitty...
Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails wants you to win. It's rooting for you. But the victory definitely will not come easy. Dakko Dakko's latest release hit the Wii U eShop Wednesday and to give you an idea of how difficult the game is, I had planned on having this review ready by Wednesday as well, having received the code the weekend prior.
The game was so damn tough, by the time Wednesday rolled around, I felt I hadn't progressed far enough where I could competently review the game. I have no shame in saying this game killed me a lot. A lot. Enough times to give Dark Souls and Dark Souls II a run for their money. I certainly did not expect that from a game about saving cats on the Wii U eShop.
The premise of the game is deceptively simple. The titular Scram Kitty has been abducted and transported to a giant space laboratory, along with other cats from around the galaxy. Players take control of the other half of the title, the Buddy on Rails, as they head to the space lab which has been overrun by experimental lab mice. Buddy takes his spin board, utilized to hug the railed walls of the space lab at high speeds. (Get it? Because it's a rail shooter? GET IT?)
Right off the bat, the deceptively-simple nature of Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails begins to peel away. As players learn in the four short tutorial levels titled “The Approach,” Buddy's spin board can twist and jump in multiple directions, though he can only fire his guns in one: directly in front of him. Players will have to constantly re-direct and re-maneuver Buddy in order to get his guns pointed in the right direction, which can be a daunting task when chased by hordes of warped rodents.
Aside from The Approach stages, each stage offers four cats to rescue. The Lazy Cat hangs out by the end of the stage, essentially just waiting to be saved. I would call this the “easiest” cat, but even that would be a misnomer in some levels. “Least difficult” probably would be more truthful. Scaredy Cats will panic when Buddy tries to rescue it, sending him on a speedrun challenge all over the level trying to keep up. Black Cats won't cross your path until Buddy finds and defeats the level's Mouse Commander, a much-tougher mini-boss type enemy that won't stop until Buddy is a goner and Lucky Cats follow the scent of money—100 gold coins scattered throughout the level, to be exact, adding an ounce of platforming pain to the myriad of torture in the space lab.
Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails offers players a variety of ways to die, with getting shot up only being the tip of the iceberg. Flames, lasers, decaying walls, missed jumps—one wrong move and players become little more than smoldering parts, but the game wants you to win. As the game progresses, more items and weapons will become available to Buddy, allowing for more destruction, more power, and most importantly, more range and more directions. While these weapons are generally only found within the levels they are needed, finding one provides players with an almost euphoric rush combined with relief, as if every one should be bathed in a holy light accompanied by a hallelujah chorus.
For additional help, Scram Kitty occasionally hacks your screen, bringing adorable quips and helpful tips to Buddy, even going so far as to move the camera to point at exactly what he's talking about. Of course, nothing is really ever as easy as it seems in this game: Scram Kitty only shows up on whatever screen isn't being used to play the game, be it the TV or the Wii U Gamepad screen, and can show up at any time. Many times I found myself in the middle of a dogfight (no pun intended) and noticed Scram Kitty trying to attract my attention, only to see him blip off the screen as soon as I could get myself to a safe spot.
A side effect of that, and the game in general, is that the title almost becomes a spectator sport for those not playing. Attempting the same jump ten times in a row genuinely provides a sense of victory when players finally accomplish it, and turns Scram Kitty into something not only fun to play, but fun for others to watch, providing tips, suggestions, and keeping an eye out for Scram Kitty to needy players. I won't lie—clearing some levels required a victory dance afterward not only from myself but the whole room.
Most importantly, though you do die a lot, it never feels cheap. The level design may be tough but never bad. “Bullet hell”-type levels demand a lot of dexterity but it can be done. And Dakko Dakko couldn't have made the controls simpler: move with your left stick, fire with one button, jump with another, and do a Fire Jump by hitting jump twice. Ultimately it boils down to the player: if you're good, you'll live and if you're not, you'll die. But you'll get better and maybe next time you'll live. For retro game fans who have played Spelunker, Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails plays a lot like that but with unlimited lives, better controls, and less cruelty.
Do not be fooled by its adorable felines, bright, beautiful cartoon-inspired sci-fi artwork, or its quirky, upbeat soundtrack—Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails will test every gaming skill players have. It will demand a lot, but give a lot of fun and satisfaction back in return.
Code provided by publisher. Exclusive to the Wii U eShop.