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Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails (Wii U) artwork

Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails (Wii U) review

"It never becomes a loveable fur-ball, but perseverance gradually reveals the intricacies and rhythms of Scram Kitty, transforming it into a tactical, thrilling, and ferocious challenge. "

Getting the hang of Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails is not unlike trying to befriend a neighbourhood stray. It takes a lot of time, you’re going to get scratched along the way, and you might question whether or not it’s worth the bother. Dakko Dakko’s bullet hell/platformer moggie is almost prohibitively difficult, so much so that many players are likely to prematurely lay down their gamepads. But while it never becomes a loveable fur-ball, perseverance gradually reveals the intricacies and rhythms of Scram Kitty, transforming it into a tactical, thrilling, and ferocious challenge.

The most significant barrier to entry is adjusting to the unusual way in which protagonist Buddy moves. His mission is to rescue the titular kitty and his furry friends from an interstellar laboratory overrun by inexplicably well-armed mice. He traverses the levels inside a Spinboard, a vehicle that can only travel along magnetic rails. You move him by tracing the shape of the rail with the analogue stick or d-pad, meaning quick adjustments are frequently required in order to avoid grinding to a halt under a barrage of missiles. Your speed is reduced while you’re firing your weapon, and you can only fire in the direction you’re facing. Enemies tend to arrive in swarms, and efficient, strategic movement is essential to emerging from battle unscathed.

Buddy has a few other tricks up his sleeve. He can jump away from the rails and stick to any other rail he touches, or else the magnetism pulls him back to where he started. There’s also a dash jump which flings Buddy away from the rail in a bundle of flame that deals damage and, depending on your Boost level, gives him a greatly exaggerated jump height. This allows him to clear large obstacles, like one-way rails or spike pits, or slingshot himself around the levels to thin out crowds and escape danger.

The aim of each stage is to rescue a party of four cats. One awaits you at the exit and is usually fairly simple to reach. To collect the others, you’ll need to fulfil specific criteria. Black cats only appear once you’ve defeated the Mouse Commander, a powerful enemy who absorbs a huge amount of damage before he surrenders his captive. Another cat flails to a new location every time you touch it, requiring you to chase it down before a timer expires. Lucky cats show their faces when you collect all 100 golden pennies scattered around a level. Assembling the entire crew is always a stiff challenge, frequently requiring pinpoint accurate jumps, rapid movement between rails, and proficient crowd control.

Early on it seems nearly impossible. Moving around a level feels as fiddly as sitting at the controls of a real space shuttle. A handful of tutorial stages don’t quite enable the player to quite grasp all of the mechanics required, and once they’re over the challenge ratchets up steeply. You’re likely to find yourself missing jumps, swinging wildly out of control between rails, and dying profusely for at least your first hour or two. A helping paw comes from Scram Kitty himself, who monitors your progress on the second screen (you can switch the main screen between TV and gamepad any time at the press of a button) like it’s a rolling news channel and offers tips and advice to get you on your way.

Slowly, Scram Kitty begins to land on its feet. Your inept clumsiness gradually becomes grace and precision, with seemingly impassable circuits opening up before you as you begin to master Buddy’s abilities. What felt painful before soon makes you feel superhuman as you yo-yo around levels blasting malicious mice in midair by the hundred. It really is worth the wait. Crest that initial sheer rise of the difficulty curve and the game rewards you amply, keeping pace with your growing ability to ensure you never grow complacent. Return to previous levels abandoned in disgrace and you’ll find yourself proving in seconds flat that it is possible to herd cats.

It’s a varied game, too, and not just in the colourful, characterful sprite art. Some stages are pure bullet hell, forcing you to fight through sheer chaos without a moment to take a breath. Others offer exhilarating, fast-paced platforming, or intricate puzzles that beg a more ponderous approach. The different kitty capture criteria mean learning a level layout is always worthwhile. There’s a satisfying range of enemies, too, from simple kamikaze mice to missile-toting drones and enormous rodents in mech-suits. The range of weaponry at Buddy’s disposal isn’t vast, but later on it pays to grow adept at switching between your options on the fly to dispose of whatever is trying to kill you at any given time.

There are times when it doesn’t quite work. The sheer number of enemies that can pop out at you in tight spaces sometimes feels unfair, a cheap way to increase the challenge (especially when manoeuvring to target them can be so delicate). The mix of genres sometimes means that slower sections interrupt the intensity and flow of a level just as you’re getting into full swing, as well.

Still, these are relatively minor complaints that do little to tarnish a truly unique experience. Although its pedigree is plain to see, Scram Kitty is a beautifully crafted oddity, plucking the best from a range of genres to create an experience unlike anything else out there. The price of this is those frustrating first few hours, but push through and you’ll be rewarded with one of the best Wii U titles yet.


space_dust's avatar
Freelance review by David Owen (May 19, 2014)

David Owen is a freelance writer who also contributes to VG247, Eurogamer, IGN, and others. He likes Gitaroo Man more than is healthy.

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