From the very beginning, the Nintendo Wii U has been very open about having indie games on the platform. It hasn't crowed about it like Sony has, and it doesn't have as many titles as the PC, but Nintendo does have some of the more intriguing ones, like Little Inferno, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams and Unepic. Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails is another title that should interest Wii U players since it's a rare non-Nintendo exclusive for the system. It also shares a common trait with another downloadable title by the name of Cloudberry Kingdom: It's devilishly hard.
The story is reminiscent of many games released during the NES era. A horde of space-traveling cats has been captured by an evil armada of space mice. One of these cats, Scratch, has an owner named Buddy, who has a ship that's great for blowing up stuff. As Buddy, you must go through the space mice's hideout and save every cat you can while trying to rescue your pet Scratch. The only way you know about this story is through other sources, since the game doesn't set it up for you. The story isn't paramount to enjoying the game, but it's surprising to see a modern game skip the exposition and go straight to the action.
Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails might look like a shooter from the screenshots, but it's more of a platformer with shooter elements due to the presence of enemies and environmental hazards. Your craft is stuck to the rails of each level, so although you can move in any direction, you're restricted by the pathway of the rail. You can jump from the rail, but gravity is going to kick in and make sure you return to the railing. You can shoot with unlimited ammo, but you can only shoot forward. Your craft can double-jump to become a moving fireball for a short while to break roadblocks, but for the most part, you'll rely on the rails to direct your fire.
To make things trickier, the environment is full of hazards. Enemy spawners are a constant, as are switches that need to be activated to unlock areas, but the most prevalent hazard is the different types of rails. Some force you to move in only one direction, and you can't leap from them. Others are dangerous to touch and inflict a health penalty if you get near them. With everything against you, it's nice to know that you have an unlimited number of lives per level, and it can take a maximum of six hits from a full meter before you explode. You can also access more weapons later on, like a spread laser and flamethrower, but those are temporary additions to your arsenal.
With the exception of the first few stages, each one has four cats to rescue, each with different requirements. There's always one cat you can rescue just by finding the exit, making him the easiest of the litter. Gathering 100 pennies in a level uncovers another cat, while finding and beating the officer feline in the stage reveals another kitty. Finally, there's one cat that you have to chase through the level to rescue, a task made more cumbersome by the fact that each location where the cat stops has a timer, and failing to touch the cat in time results in having to restart the sequence. The game is a bit lenient in the sense that not all four cats have to be rescued at once for them to count, but it makes sure that each rescue is a hard-fought one.
The sense of difficulty comes from a few elements. The first is a lack of proper instruction. There's no tutorial whatsoever. Like the games of yesteryear, you have to figure it out as if you never read an instruction manual prior to playing. You only need to pay attention to a few buttons to be able to manipulate everything. It's easy to figure out how to double-jump for the fireball move and to hold down the jump button to control jump height.
Experimentation is the only way you'll discover things like the fact that staying airborne for a good amount of time results in something similar to falling down a pit, minus any loss in life. You'll also discover that you can do things like a slingshot-style move where you can use the gravitational pull around curves to fling yourself to a faraway rail, covering lots of distance in the process. The sense of discovery and lack of hand-holding may throw off many players who are used to being taught every move in the game, but it also makes the title more exciting for those who love to experiment.
The other element that makes things difficult is the level design. Levels are littered with spikes and lots of enemies that become difficult to hit due to the rail layout. There are lots of blind jumps and specialized rails that make it difficult to reach the exit — even if you can see it. Levels are large enough to give you plenty to explore, but they start to feel too large when it's time to chase down a cat. All of this is present in the very early stages of the game, making for a difficult first few levels before traps are introduced.
Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails is designed so levels are fairly open, so there are a few available at any time and the player won't be stuck on one particularly tough stage. The requirements to open each gate are so high that those hoping to blaze through levels to unlock a majority of the content won't have the chance. It forces you to aim for more than just the exit cat, so you need to get used to the idea of replaying levels early and often.
The final aspect that increases the title's difficulty level is the life mechanic. As mentioned earlier, you have an infinite amount of lives, but you start with half of your life bar. Each level gives you enough health pick-ups to fill it up. Upon death, no matter what progress you've made in the stage, you'll restart from the beginning of the level with all of your progress wiped. Die before you obtain the last penny, for example, and you have to start collecting them all over again. Defeat becomes a very deflating experience.
Despite all of this, the game makes it easy to appreciate the difficulty. The controls are tight and responsive. The tricky level design means you feel accomplished once you make that leap of faith without getting hurt. There isn't a situation where you feel like the collision system has failed you in hitting enemies. There is a high learning curve when trying to master things like the manipulation of gravity in the slingshot move, but getting that down means pulling off spectacular moves to traverse the level and escape tough situations. There's nothing that makes failure feel like the game's fault, and determined players will constantly want to go just one more time, hoping to see things finally work out in their favor.
There is one quirk that isn't so easy to dismiss, and that's the screen setup. At first, it seems to have the GamePad screen mirror the TV. After a while, you'll notice that the GamePad screen focuses on your ship while the TV screen often uses a wider angle to give you an idea of how to traverse a tricky area. That advantage becomes moot once you pursue the cat that darts from place to place, since the camera focuses on his location while ignoring yours. At other times, the TV shows a large version of Scratch provide obvious information or display a few tips — while obscuring your vision of the ship and enemies. It seems to have been set up so the player focuses on the GamePad screen while everyone else pays attention to the TV. It doesn't work that well, especially when you're playing solo since there are times when the TV view is more useful but you're too busy with the smaller screen to notice. You can switch things out with the press of the Select button, but it feels like the nature of two screens would've been better served on the 3DS, where switching focus between screens isn't that detrimental to gameplay.
Graphically, the game is pretty clean and reminiscent of the late 16-bit era of gaming but with less pixelation. Part of that can be attributed to the abundant use of solid colors for anything in the foreground while darker colors are the primary ones in the background, making it very clear what the player should be focusing on. The designs are rather simple, though there is enough differentiation for the player to know which enemy type he's facing, and none of the effects are distracting. Backgrounds have some depth to them and show off some nice tricks based on perspective, but they mostly blend in.
From a sound perspective, there isn't much beyond the meows of the cats and squeaks of the mice as they die. The effects are standard, and the same goes for the music, which is some pretty low-key electronica. An interesting thing to note is that like a few other Wii U games, the soundtracks for the TV and the GamePad differ a bit to create a richer soundtrack. The effect is only used in the level selection menu, and even then, the melody sounds like it's played out of sync, making for a strange-sounding section even if you aren't in this menu for long periods of time.
Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails is one of the more difficult games on the Wii U system so far. The level designs are devious, and the many restrictions on your spacecraft only increase the challenge. The difficulty curve is rather steep early on, especially given some of the requirements for rescuing cats and the high barriers of entry for each level. Despite this, the basic mechanics are quirky enough to get your attention, and the simplicity is enough to pull you in and tempt you with one more go. Those who frustrate easily should avoid this title unless they really want to risk damaging their GamePads, but for those who love a good challenge, this title is worth checking out.
More articles about Scram Kitty And His Buddy On Rails