Long gone are the days when I felt like I was the very first person to discover something hidden in a game. Man, it felt fantastic to be playing a Metroid or Zelda and just accidentally stumble into a secret by sheer exploration, and as a result, feel really good about myself in the process, like my curiosity paid off, or that I was really smart to hit that specific block and get into a room that possibility no one might have found before. That was before the age of the Internet, when you really had to try all possible avenues when you got stuck in a game, since, well, outside being lucky enough to have a gaming magazine with a guide at your side, you had no one but yourself to rely on in order to keep going.
There was also no retro gaming movement. What is considered old today was the norm those days, and to me, some of the first experiences I had playing a videogame. They were fresh, and to many regards, like most who spent their early years without being tainted by the ooze that drips from online chat rooms and community boards, I hold that period in time fondly, in pure darn nostalgia. It’s understandable that many developers seek to recapture that joy by putting out modern games that emulate the feel from that particular time, and for the past few years, no type of retro has been more “in” than the “one-which-shall-not-be-named”, based on the structure of Metroid and the post-SNES Castlevanias, namely Symphony of the Night. That is, grid-based exploration with touches of combat that relies on having you obtain new items in order to progress further.
The gist of this type of game is having you explore at your whim and get stuck when reaching, say, a room with a wall that’s just a little bit higher than what your character can jump, so you have to rethread and find a specific pickup that allows you continue progressing. It’s admittedly a delicious way to build a game for sure, so it’s no surprise that it’s become so prevalent. The thing is that there’s rarely one that goes being merely emulating that design to a T by bringing fresh ideas in, and when some random game does, it’s done so in faulty and annoying way that’s no fun to play. There are countless examples of indie titles that have done a great job at feeling like one of the classic Metroid or Castlevania, and I had a great time playing them for sure, but when I got my hands on Gato Roboto, a new one of these from a up ‘til now obscure Oregon-based developer called doinksoft, whose website solely displays the studio’s logo and nothing else, something hit me.
Maybe it’s because the protagonist isn’t even a human being, but a pet cat by the name of Kiki, who after having her owner’s ship crash on a planet during a mission, now has to don her master’s robot suit and find a way to get out of that jam. Having only recently adopted a couple of furballs of my own, my opinion on felines has greatly improved. But I doubt that this new way of thinking towards them was the sole reason I so heavily got into Gato Roboto. It’s simply a game that does what it aims for: being faithful to its obvious inspiration. And to that regard, it greatly succeeds. I even managed to get stuck early on, just like usual, only find out that the thing that I needed happened to be at the other side of the map. That continued to happen until I eventually ran into a terribly bad-mannered computer who provided some direction on where to go and what to do, before allowing me to make my way towards the ultimate goal. Make no mistake, I kept getting lost along the way and having to jump back and forth until I figured out the correct order of things to do, and just like my time playing Metroid without a guide, I had a blast doing so.
Thing is, that’s the main drive of so many of the games that are in that genre I refuse to name, and to many people jumping into Gato Roboto, that would be enough to warrant a purchase and a download, but thankfully there’s more to it. For instance, instead of having a morph ball that would allow Kiki to traverse small spaces and still make normal progress after doing so, in Roboto, you’re forced to leave the safety of her suit, exposing her one-hit lifebar not only when squeezing through these tight openings, but when swimming through water. Yeah, that part sorta broke the illusion for me for the first couple of seconds, given how my own kitties had the notion of having water sprayed on them, let alone diving into it, but hey, it’s a videogame, and even that is written off in an adorable way by having Kiki’s owner cheer her into doing it. It’s a unique twist to how Metroid would treat it — and for as far as I made it into the game up ‘til now — there’s no powering her weak form in any way, making those excursions feel tense and especially thrilling. She can also jump into a submarine at spots, but it has the same limitations as the suit.
It helps that the script for this game is so darn cute and light-hearted. Kiki’s master is always radioing her and I can’t help but laugh at his reactions to what’s limited to meows and rare growls when she replies. It’s just so ridiculous and silly that I feel no ill will towards Gato Roboto even when it repeats the same dialogue bits if I’m forced to retry a certain section after dying. And like the brilliant Downwell — if you haven’t played it and are into retro games, do yourself a favor and forgo that can of Coke, it’s only a couple of bucks on just about every storefront out there, including the Switch eShop, *cough* — it lets you switch the color pallete of the initial black and white graphics, dripping new ones as you recover tapes hidden throughout the map. These cassettes are also used as a gateway to powering up your main buster gun by visiting an NPC you’ll run into during your adventure, so it’s a win-win, even if you decide to keep the graphics they way they are.
Speaking of which, I simply cannot understate the charm that’s behind the CRT-ish sprite work to this game. Also similar to Downwell, it’s pretty darn simple, but at the same time carries so much personality. Enemies bop around cutely, and having a stark contrast between bright characters in dark backgrounds helps make Gato Roboto extremely playable even on portable mode, but especially crisp if you go docked. If you have an LED display, though, you might have to keep an eye out for burn-in, as some screen elements stick around for the entirety of the game. Luckily, hours in, it still hasn’t become a serious issue for my set, but it’s worth paying attention to.
And it’s not just a stark presentation for the hell of it either, since doinksoft manages to do some modern tricks that I had yet to see done to a game with this visual style up to now, adding a shimmer effect to the screen during certain parts of Gato Roboto, like when I got to explore a very hot part of the map, which worked extremely well to convey that it’s just too hot for Kiki to go outside of her own.
It’s touches like those that make Gato Roboto feel so good to play. It’s not necessarily much of a revolution when it comes to this type of indie game, and it does so with every single pixel of gameplay so nicely. And if you did, shame on you for nitpicking my review. We’re talking about a game where you play as a cat piloting a mech suit, for crying out loud, I’m more than allowed to go a little bit off the curb here, right?
In an extremely crowded market like the indie game scene, it’s little touches like that that help make a title stand out, and considering that it’s being backed by Devolver, Gato Roboto couldn’t be in a better position to really make a dent out there. The Switch in particular has had a stream of strong indies for a while now, but among the many (undeniably good, but still) re-releases, Gato Roboto stands as one of its best pick up and play downloads that’s out day and day with other platforms. So do yourself a favor and give this a go. Kiki approves!