Rockin' Kats is a posterchild example of a game in which the developers came up with an unusual play mechanic, but had no real place to go with it. The gimmick in this case is that Willy, the hero cat character, has one of those old-style cartoon guns that fires a boxing glove instead of bullets. The glove can be used to defeat enemies, propel yourself off floors and walls, and to latch onto certain background objects. Although it's reminiscent of Capcom's Bionic Commando, Willy cannot pull himself straight up with the glove. Instead, he spins rapidly around the object in a 360 degree motion. Letting go will send him flying and timing is crucial in order to send him in the right direction with the right distance. It's hard to master, but with the exception of a difficult (by this game's standards) hidden bonus stage, the game doesn't really require you to.
Willy may have bizarre taste in weaponry, but everything else about Rockin' Kats feels completely uninspired. You can choose to play the first four stages in any order by selecting channels on a TV set. It makes little difference what order you take since the levels are all so insipidly easy that most gamers will complete them in about an hour, with only the occasional obstacle that requires an unorthodox use of the glove to prevent you from finishing them even sooner. The fifth level picks up the challenge and pace somewhat, but reveals its bankruptcy of ideas by rehashing almost every boss and mini-boss fight in the entire game.
The stages of Rockin' Kats are lacking in design, momentum, and danger. Although bottomless pits do exist, they are the exception and not the rule. There is one point in which you have to use the glove to continuously launch yourself up the side of a building. Falling does not cause death here and nor is the stage timed. You can essentially fumble your way through it until you reach the top. It was at this point that I got the same feeling of playing a "baby game" that Rescue Rangers 2 gave me. Other challenge-numbing innovations include planes and flying platforms that you ride through a stage, but cannot fall off of. There is even a shop that lets you buy items to make life easier for Willy. I thought the final boss was actually quite tough until I bought one of the weapons from the shop and beat him right away with it.
If you wait long enough past the game's ending sequence, you will be given access to a bonus round composed of five super-tough sections and a rematch with the final boss. This time, you have limited lives and no shop, but you still have unlimited continues. I have no idea why this stage was hidden in this manner as I never would've known it existed had I not forgotten to turn off my NES when I had gone out to dinner. It's either a hint at the boxing glove's untapped potential, or a display of its limitations. I am leaning towards the latter because of the awkwardness of the feats you must perform here. Example: Room #2 is a spike-lined floor that you bounce yourself across, but it's nearly impossible to keep from getting hit by the enemies in your path. Ultimately, the stage feels like an apology for the rest of the game being so easy, but it's still not something for which gamers should clench their fists in anticipation.
The graphics of Rockin' Kats are drawn in a cartoonish style, similar to that of Capcom's Disney games, but nothing about them strikes me as being particularly more successful at recreating that look on the NES as other ventures, such as, for example, Super Mario Bros. 2. SMB2 also had large, colorful characters and bosses whose eyes would bug out when you hit them. Nothing in Rockin' Kats is animated as well as the Albatoss enemies from that game. The backgrounds in Rockin' Kats are bland, boring, often dominated by grey, and lacking in details, except for the word "ATLUS", which is peppered across so many objects that you could make a drinking game out of it. (Hey, look, it's even the name of the town in Western World!) The characters are strangely devoid of personality and lovable qualities. Despite using a TV set to select stages, as though they are different movies on different channels, they all have the same plot - the girl cat is kidnapped and Willy has to rescue her. The dialogue exchanged between them at the end of every stage is identical, so I don't know why it was even put in. Did Atlus think that "I'm coming as fast as I can!" line was funny? Even so, is it funny enough to warrant repeated usage of it?
Likewise, the music is regrettably underwhelming. With a title like "Rockin' Kats", I expected some "rockin'" music, perhaps in the vein of the Mega Man series or Journey to Silius (or, in keeping with the "retro" theme, something like Snake Rattle n Roll or River City Ransom's soundtracks would be acceptable.) Instead, we get some rather lame bloopy songs and circus music. I firmly believe that using circus music, no matter how cartoony or humorous your game is supposed to be, is one of the biggest mistakes that can be made in choosing a score. People do not bounce along happily to circus music; they are annoyed by it.
Rockin Kats' reminds me of another quirky NES platformer, Kabuki Quantum Fighter. Both games sounded fun and interesting on paper. Both games have an unusual hero with a weird method of attack. Both games turned out to be disappointingly short and easy with the biggest challenges stemming from the awkward play control. Nintendo Power once described Rockin' Kats as an "unsung hero of the NES", meaning it was overlooked. It seemed obvious to me within moments of playing it why it would not be a big hit, especially after the advent of games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Castlevania 3 that redefined standards for quality action platformers. Finishing the game only served to confirm that reality.
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