Dakko Dakko’s third game doesn’t take long to bare its claws. Scram Kitty is a ferociously difficult game, not because it has a complex control scheme, or because its enemies are particularly challenging; rather, because acclimatising to the unusual locomotion of Buddy, its protagonist, will take some time, and mastery of it several hours more.
Your mission is to rescue the eponymous cat and his feline friends from a space lab overrun by rats. Buddy rides a craft called a spinboard, gliding across magnetic rails via the d-pad or analogue stick. Movement is brisk and responsive, and it needs to be – with enemies spawning in numbers and your weapon only able to fire out in a straight line from the direction in which you’re currently facing, you’ll need to be practised in the art of the tactical withdrawal.
You can also jump away from the rails. Buddy will automatically stick to any rail he connects with in flight, but otherwise he’ll be magnetically drawn back to the one from which he took off. And then there’s the fire jump, a double-tap turning you into a ball of flame that can damage certain obstacles and enemies. It’s riskier, because it’s harder to control, but it’s essential when facing larger hazards or for crowd control. At times, higher jumps will allow you to slingshot around the other side of platforms: it’s only required infrequently, but comes into its own in the game’s challenge mode, which tasks you with rescuing as many kitties as you can against the clock.
The jump mechanic reportedly took around a year to refine, and it shows. Scram Kitty sets you some particularly exacting platforming challenges, but the uncommon degree of precision you’re afforded means you’re always capable of beating them. It might not feel that way at first, however: after four tutorial levels introduce these unusual systems, the challenge steepens significantly. Reaching the exit of these intricate stages – where a single cat awaits – isn’t too difficult, but rescuing all four without dying will take multiple replays. As well as the lazy cats awaiting you at the portal, there are black cats that won’t emerge until you’ve beaten the Mouse Commander, an enemy that takes several dozen rounds before falling; lucky cats that only appear once you’ve collected 100 orange pellets scattered throughout the labs, and scaredy cats that move to new locations when you touch them, your job being to find all four hiding places before a timer runs out.
All the while your focus is shifting, between managing your health meter (topped up by defeating certain enemies), dodging hails of bullets from gun emplacements and floating space rats, avoiding spiked pits and solving light environmental puzzles on your way to locating the exit. You might even be tempted to look up from the GamePad to the TV screen, where the eponymous cat offers hints, guiding you towards secrets elsewhere in the level and warning you of nearby enemies. It functions best as an unusual kind of co-operative mode, allowing others to watch your progress and relay Scram Kitty’s messages to you. Then again, as failure comes frequently, players may prefer to turn off the TV for fear of humiliation in front of friends and family.
It’s a lot to take in, particularly in the opening hours, and the less patient could be forgiven for wondering whether it’s worth the trouble. It’s telling that, while there’s plenty of satisfaction to be had at completing a stage, the overriding sensation is one of relief. You’ll return, however, because you’ll know that each and every death is always your own fault. Some enemies might soak up a few too many bullets before falling, while the swarms of rats that spawn suddenly can occasionally seem unfair, but you’re never without the tools to extricate yourself from danger. The challenge escalates in perfect synchrony with your skills, such that at times it feels like you’re making little progress. Then you return to an earlier stage and whizz through it in under a minute.
Repeat visits allow you to greater appreciate the quality and variety of the stage design – and to admire Gary Lucken’s terrific sprite art. You’ll tackle a thoughtful, expansive, puzzle-led stage at a measured pace, before finding yourself in a cramped, chaotic, enemy-filled environment that plays more like a bullet-hell shooter. At different times you’ll be reminded of Pac-Man, Bionic Commando and Bangai-O, while negotiating spinning enemies through narrow passages is surely a nod to Nintendo curio Kuru Kuru Kururin. Yet as game-literate as Scram Kitty is, it has a rhythm and flow that’s quite unlike anything else. Come to terms with its idiosyncrasies and you’ll find a unique and wonderfully characterful action game; it’s well worth suffering those early scratches for the moments where it really begins to purr.