Anytime you see a title that references something being “on rails”, it’s easy to assume that it’s going to be a rail shooter in the same vein as a Panzer Dragoon or Sin & Punishment. While Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails most definitely involves shooting and being on rails (and kitties), it’s nowhere close to falling within that genre, instead focusing more on platforming and gathering felines. In fact, it carves an identity all its own, offering more of a unique experience typical of indie titles. I just wish the concept spoke to me a bit more than it did.
As the hero of the story, you are tasked with rescuing your pet cat from a space station that has been overrun with mutated mice. Unfortunately, these mice don’t succumb to poison and traps like their tiny brethren, as they appear to be about the same size as the hero and some of them are even packing heat of their own. While carrying on the role of an exterminator, you have to be mindful of other cats that need rescuing, since some areas are gated off to you until you meet a quota.
The game is easy to learn, but an incredibly awkward experience in trying to master. There are two main modes: Adventure (the game’s story mode) and Challenge. The term story is a bit of a misnomer, since the only narrative is gathered from the game’s digital manual, but it does have somewhat of a linear progression. You start out with just one stage and you unlock more depending on how many cats you’ve managed to rescue. Your character rides a contraption that skates along a track along the outside walls. This gizmo can be made to jump with A or B, as well as engulf itself in flames for an easy attack, and X & Y will fire your guns. The L button is reserved for alternate weapons when you obtain them. And since you get two screens, both provide different views of the action and can be alternated at will. You’ll always have one that displays your character’s current activity, while another that Scram Kitty occupies to provide tips and point out where certain things are in relation to you. It certainly makes things a bit easier, though you can do without it if you’d rather just play with the TV off.
Everything sounds pretty basic on the surface, but it isn’t until you start experimenting with Scram Kitty‘s two defining characteristics that you truly learn what you’re in for. The main gimmick, as it were, is the constantly shifting center of gravity. While your vehicle will take you up and down walls and on ceilings and such, some of the later stages will have numerous obstacles that will have to be leaped over. Having to clear spikes or damaging sections of rails provides its own sorts of challenges when it has to be done upside-down or on a wall. This, combined with its second characteristic, the ability to only shoot straight, and you begin to see how this game may be a bit problematic for some people. Especially when being overwhelmed by huge numbers of mice simultaneously.
In addition to shooting mice and leaping over dangers, you have to be wary of collecting cats along the way. They come in four distinct varieties: Lazy Cats being the easiest to obtain (they hang out near the exit, so they’re basically freebies). There are Scaredy Cats that run away when interacted with, so you have to make a mad dash to touch wherever they spawn like the red coins in the more recent Mario games. Then you have Black Cats that stay hidden until you kill the big boss mouse in a stage, which itself will not appear until you destroy all of the little mice. Finally, there’s a Lucky Cat that spawns when you collect 100 pennies in a stage, which basically means you have to collect all of the coins to collect all of the cats in order to progress.
And therein lies one of my biggest gripes with the game. There is no simply playing each stage just to see how well you do or how many cats you can find. Each one is gated behind a collection prerequisite, meaning you are required to find a certain number of cats in order to play certain stages. Some probably won’t mind this aspect of the game, but I just cannot stand arbitrary collect-a-thons. And since your progress in a stage is reset by one death, getting those Lucky Cats is a hair-pulling endeavor.
As for the Challenge mode, it tasks you with going back through some of the Adventure stages and seeing how many cats you can obtain before time runs out. If you’ve mastered the campaign, it provides a way to showcase your skills at getting through everything quickly and even has obtainable items that extend the clock slightly. Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be any multiplayer or leaderboard capability.
While the game does go for a retro vibe in terms of its gameplay, the actual presentation is decidedly more modern. The action is viewed from an overhead perspective and although the character sprites themselves are relatively small, the various parallax layers that exist below you are fairly impressive to look at. The audio consists primarily of mouse death squeals and cat meows, though there are some background tunes that are fairly serviceable.
Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails isn’t a bad game, just one with a design philosophy that I don’t think will garner universal appeal. The lack of utility in the shooting waters down that aspect of the experience and the forced kitten collection seems like a cheap way to extend the gameplay clock. You also have to be comfortable with platforming in alternate forms of gravity, which may be a deal breaker for some. If these particular gripes don’t bother you, it’ll be a $9.99 well spent.
Short Attention Span Summary
The Wii U has been a haven for indie developers as of late, and Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails joins the club as an eShop exclusive. It’s definitely a unique concept, combining platforming and shooting that takes place on an alternating plane of gravity. Be wary that the game forces you into collecting the majority of cats in order to unlock new stages, meaning that you might hit a wall if there are some you can’t locate. If you can handle its quirks, this may be the most fun you’ll have hunting for cats in space.