The WiiU is becoming the place to go if you want cats. It has Super Mario 3D World and the excellent cat costumes, Pokemon Rumble U and its plastic cat Pokemon, and now Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails. Coming from Dakko Dakko (makers of similarly excellently-named games like Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims and The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character), Scram Kitty is a game about space cats, space rats, and one man caught in between.
The story doesn't really give you that much to go on. Scram Kitty is more of a puzzle platformer, in which you, as the Buddy on Rails, must rescue several cats from different areas in a space station. Scram Kitty, meanwhile, provides a running newsreel-type commentary and hint system on the other screen.
Which is weird. And also not the first game I reviewed this year that does a 'running commentary on the not-gameplay screen' which is on its way to becoming a trend that I'm not a fan of. At least in Scram Kitty it's built so that if you're not using the second screen, it really doesn't make a difference. Most of what's being said is just reminding you how to do your objectives, or other comments on things you've been up to. It's a little jarring to start out, though, because if you think you're supposed to be looking at the TV screen, all of a sudden Scram Kitty pops up and starts talking about whatever and blocks your view and the camera pans away from you, and you might not notice that oh, I'm supposed to be paying attention to the GamePad.
Despite the name, Buddy on Rails isn't actually "on rails" in the traditional House of the Dead/Time Crisis style. Instead, he can only move on the walls of each level, and only certain surfaces. The controls for this are rather unique, because where it could easily work as a two-joystick shooter, with one stick controlling your direction of fire, the other direction of motion, it doesn't. Firing is always done straight ahead, so like perpendicular from the surface you're on, and if you have to fight an enemy, it's a careful balancing game around dodging projectiles and positioning yourself to actually hit them. Since there's so much rotating up and around walls and stuff, too, when you switch directions, you have to also switch your joystick's direction, so if you're going up a wall you have to hold up. It's a small thing to point out, but having played games like Sonic in the past that, for some reason, just have you holding the same direction (usually right) and having the game take care if it for you, it's a smart choice to make controlling the character just that much easier.
In each level, there are 4 kitties to save. Lazy cats are always at the stage's exits and are the only ones you're guaranteed to collect-- just by exiting the level, you have them. Black cats need you to seek out and kill a Mouse Commander, one of the super smart mice that have overrun the Council of Great Scientists in their space laboratory. The commanders can be difficult, especially since they'll teleport away when you're fighting them, and like I said above, lining up shots can be a little tricky, but some practice will get you to a place where you can just run through them. Scaredy cats run away from you and you have to recatch them multiple times before they run over to the exit, lucky cats only appear when you collect all 100 pieces of gold in a level.
What I think is best about these kitties is that they're a great test for all aspects of the game, and you have to perfectly master the mechanics to collect all 4 in each level. So while lazy cat is the easiest to get by virtue of being at the exit already, it's still important to know all of the weapons and be good enough at solving puzzles to even make it there. For example, before I realized that lasers could shoot through other lasers, I wasn't able to beat a level, but once I got that, everything fell into place.
Another mechanic I hadn't mentioned yet is by far the most important: the burning jump you're capable of doing. Starting out, it's a bizarre mechanic, a sort of double jump resulting from slamming into the ground and launching back up, a fireball of flaming vengeance that destroys things in your way, but also launches you higher up into the air at a higher speed. The more health you have, the further you can get launched, which is a great reward system if you avoid taking damage. It also locks you into rotation around the spot that you hit, so as you move around, you rotate around the spot.
Mastering this mechanic, the speed, momentum, and power, is the most important part of getting the other 3 cats. Of these, the lucky cat, is probably easiest because the gold is static, and works more as a platforming challenge, and landing between difficult positions and indestructible spike things. The black cat is a little more difficult, because you'll have to balance positioning and enemy grouping to make sure that all shots hit, and all burning jumps can hit as many rats as possible.
But the scaredy cat... scaredy cat is where the challenge all comes through. Getting between the cat's positions requires you to control your position, dodge enemies, be able to quickly understand how to speed from point A to point B and then, without hesitating, go to the next point before time runs out. Scaredy cat is always the most difficult to get, but also the most rewarding, because it has the feeling to it that you've mastered the level. You have everything figured out, and you're able to clear this giant puzzle area with seemingly minimal effort.
If I have one problem, it's that the levels can be a little too leisurely. In the regular mode, you have as much time as you want to explore and cautiously poke around a level, which can sort of drag, but it's certainly best for getting used to the controls. If you want a real challenge, there's the appropriately named Challenge mode, which does introduce a time limit, though it does take place in the exact same levels. It's a little less interesting that there weren't really specific challenge levels, but it does give you a good chance to practice and really try out your mastery over everything in the game.
It may have come out of nowhere, but Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails is great, a surprisingly fun and unique game. The presentation may be a little no frills, but the game is a good mix of platforming, shooting, and puzzle solving, fast paced and challenging. It's smartly designed, and while I wish there were more modes, what's there is definitely worth experiencing.