Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails: review

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We briefly thought about making an ‘on-rails shooter’ joke, before realising another fifty reviews will do that for us. Instead, we’ll say that this is an action-puzzler-platformer-shooter-cat-’em-up. Though it’s really not needed, we’ll elaborate slightly.

There’s a story – probably – about a persecuted cat maybe, and a race of alien mice that have mastered space travel and lasers. Or something. Who cares? The point is, your enemies here are mice (and turrets), and you shoot them. You shoot things a lot, but Scram Kitty isn’t a shoot ’em up. You can jump, and you’ll jump a lot, but this isn’t a platformer. There are a hundred shiny things to collect in each stage but no, really, this isn’t a platformer. Remember the very best 8 bit and 16 bit games of your youth, that were unique and rock hard, but almost impossible to stop playing? It’s very much like one of those.

Your mission is to rescue cats, like a sort of cyborg Michaela Strachan (Google it) who hates mice as a side-effect of her cybernetic enhancements. Each stage (after the first few) has four cats. One is a reward simply for reaching the exit, one can be had for collecting all 100 “shiny pennies”, one can be rescued by finding & defeating the ‘Mouse Commander’ (an ultra-tough enemy who pursues you for about ten seconds at a time), and the last is the ‘Scaredy Cat’. Touch it and a timer starts, reset each time you catch Scaredy again, until he/she is finally sent safely to the exit. Sounds easy, right? Ooooh, no.

Scram Kitty gets very hard very quickly, which will be a shock to the system for anybody used to a diet of quicksaves and checkpoints. You can take several hits before dying, and it’s even possible to replenish health – but when you do die, the entire stage resets. Make no mistake, you will die – a lot. More so on some stages than others; stages that make you swear, scream, and declare “this is impossible!” while refusing to give up out of 50% stubbornness and 50% addiction. You soon come across the stage that contains Scram Kitty him/her/itself, and the 70 cats required to unlock it mocks you in your despair.

If this looks too easy for you, don’t worry – Challenge mode introduces a time limit that stretches across the whole game!

One of the core elements of the genius design is, in true Dakko Dakko fashion, deceptively simple: you can only shoot straight ahead. As you are attached to a rail at all times when not jumping, and completely unable to rotate, your aim is dictated entirely by your position in the environment. Enemies approaching from the side? Quick, leap to the opposite wall, move along, and take them out! Turret shooting at you? Whizz along the rail until you’re behind it, and attack! Oh no, Mouse Commander approaching from an angle! Hmm, the rail turns a corner there…

Even the rails themselves will end up working against you with slippery sections, harmful sections, one-way sections that force your movement, and even magnetic sections that prevent you from jumping all eventually introduced. The second half of Scram Kitty’s design that forges its identity, however, is the Fire Jump. Activated by double tapping the jump button, it initially seems to be a fancily-named double jump – but that’s not it at all. The more you play, the more you realise just how nuanced and important the Fire Jump is. It can be used for both defence and attack (sometimes), and combined with the fact that gravity will quickly pull you back to the nearest rail – not to mention that you can control how high the jump takes you – it can be used to round seemingly impossible hazard-laden corners. Mastery of the Fire Jump is essential to success, and that’s going to take experimentation and practise.

The Wii U’s dual-screen system is happily acknowledged here but, to be honest, is something of a missed opportunity (though it’s used for a nice touch in the ending). One screen has a slightly closer view than the other, and you can switch screens between the TV and Gamepad at any time – but considering the fact that one has a huge Scram Kitty pop up now and again with advice on a ticker tape at the bottom of the screen, one or both of which will inevitably obscure something trying to kill you, it’s useless to anybody playing in a room by themselves. The only other moan we really have is that we somehow got caught on the corner of a hazardous rail a few times with no escape, but this never stopped us jumping straight back into the stage again.

One of the weapons gives you frickin’ laser beams.

Like so many other great games, the risk/reward balance here is carefully judged (hint: don’t go after the Scaredy Cat until you’ve cleared the stage of all killable enemies). Sometimes you’ll come upon the exit surprisingly quickly or, worse, find it after a while but without rescuing any cats. Do you jump in, breathing a sigh of relief, grateful for adding one more cat to your tally? Or do you plough on, determined to grab at least one more, praying that you don’t meet with a swift death before making it safely back?

Exquisitely designed and ferociously addictive, Scram Kitty is already quite clearly one of the best games of 2014. As good as their previous games are, this is Dakko Dakko’s masterpiece in the true sense of the word; a truly great work that proves them masters of their art.

critical score 9Critical Hit

 

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. He doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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