The year was 2000. With a head full of acid and a pocketful of Nokia 5110, Trevor rode the bus in a thick caramel daze. He dislodged the phone from his cargo pants, saw a message from Gav and thumbed down to Games > Snake. Swaying gently as the bus creaked its way through the suburbs, Trevor dropped into a deep flow-state of riding the serpent, snagging the rat and dodging the tail. A tide of zen washed over him, to the point he realised he’d missed his stop. Gav’s apartment was half a mile back, but that didn’t matter. As Trevor lolloped back along the footpath, his phone buzzed. It was Gav. His message read: ‘Trez. Got a Dreamcast. Mad gear, this. Ever heard of ChuChu Rocket?! Serious mad mad gear.’
I dare not trawl through the console release reviews of Pasta Games‘ Pix the Cat, through fear of discovering my homegrown elevator pitch isn’t quite as unique as it sounded in my head. But if you want the short and skinny of Pix, it’d be that. Snake meets ChuChu Rocket! with all the sensibilities of playful, unforced arcade psychedelia.
The eponymous feline, perhaps on a bender unlike our Trev, finds himself sucked into a deepening strata of neon constructs and leading a raft of freshly hatched ducklings to escape zones. Players steer Pix around each zone via simple digital inputs – you’re either heading left, right, up or down – and skim over scattered eggs to build up a column of zealous, drone-like ducks. The Snake throwback is obvious; at accelerated speed, manoeuvering around the environment with an expanding Anitadaen conga line in tow has its inherent risks. It sounds simple enough, but when shooting for score and heaping on the combos, things get rather hairy.
You see, it’s not just a case of dodging your own tail, but aiming to scoop up all the eggs before racing over designated escape tiles. Do that, and a lavish point bonus will be awarded for your dexterity. Otherwise, dumping a few ducks into the bosom of freedom before their brethren have been collected castrates your score and denies one the prestige of a perfect run. Thankfully, environments aren’t procedurally-generated, so there’s ample opportunity to work that muscle memory and return on informed instinct. The deeper Pix goes, the more hazardous it gets; levels tout increasingly claustrophobic geometry, populated by modern riffs on Pac-Man baddies.
And it’s that concept – the layered nature of levels – that makes Pix more than simply a comic arcade homage. Using some very impressive scaling techniques, levels take place within each other, phasing deeper within the previous zone. Often, combo prudence might call for you and your paddle of mallards to retreat up to a previous level – think of them as decks on a ship – and return to the lower environment via another access point. When a player finally runs out of time, Pix is sucked back to the surface to receive a score. This accelerated reverse warping helps illustrate player progression, and certainly impels players to jump straight back down the hole. It’s a friendlier version of Hotline Miami’s traipse back through the post-mission carnage, bearing witness to a player’s handiwork.
Special mention needs to be paid to Pix’s fine local multiplayer, which supports up to four players. Echoing former heavyweights like Bomberman and Combat on Atari VCS, Arena mode controls in much the same way as the single player component with the ability to shoot. Simple, four-directional movement with duck eggs being traded for weapon ammunition. Basic ordnance to stun and halt, with specialised firepower like missiles available as rare pickups. Collected ammunition still trails behind the player, and forms a target for an opponent to sheer through and destroy a large portion of the tally. Add mines to the mix, as well as multi-leveled arenas, and you’ve got a surprisingly addictive multiplayer experience. As mentioned on Twitter, I spent the better part of an evening indulging in the arena with my wife, a woman who left games behind many years prior. She took to it like a machine; boisterously flinging projectiles and scything through my ammo chain. At the end of the night, she stood triumphant over the carcass of her husband. I happily conceded, knowing Pasta Games has deployed good design to enthrall a woman so vehemently games-averse.
As solid as the mechanics are in Pix the Cat, the audio-visual carapace sells the game entirely. A funky and eclectic soundtrack matches the glowing, phasing, spectrum-shifting visual motif, in much the same way you’d see in a Minter game. Certainly, this trades out the Tempest vectors for a cartoon look not that dissimilar to Sonic Team’s cat, rat and rocket Dreamcast puzzler, but they do share an explosive vibrancy as combos peak. However, Pix is restrained and said visual exuberance never hinders control or the ability to discern what’s on the field. The game pops in the way Pac-Man Championship Edition DX pops, and even if its influences are worn on its sleeve, Pix never cloys on the palate nor insults the ear.
If industry taskmaster Metacritic offers any indication, the console crowd did love them some Pix when it hit PS4 and Vita. I don’t see that changing much with the game now loosed upon the PC. If there’s any drawback or caveat, it would be the lack of online multiplayer. Consoles rarely stray from living rooms and are a far easier sell when gathering troops for a same-room session. The PC is a different matter, and while we do have an increasing number of titles featuring local co-op, Pix would have shone via extending the fun across the internet. Players will have to suffice with ghosts and leaderboards, which isn’t a bad trade-off.
Like most games borne of the grand arcade masters, Pix the Cat is an easy recommendation. It is a well-rounded affair that features tight controls to head off the frenetic pace, with minute but important movement mechanics like split-second timing turns to boost speed. If names like Forget-Me-Not or any of the other games mentioned in this diatribe appeal, then I’d give two thumbs up to the press of a purchase icon.
The year is 2015. Trevor had put the kids to bed and, with his Missus content watching a rerun of Sherlock on the box, retreated to his office. An email from Gav sat suspended on the lock screen of his phone, scrolling the subject line: ‘Stace’s b’day. OK for the 10th?’. Trevor reclined in the glow of his laptop, minimising the spreadsheets and logging out of the remote office IRC. Another email alert popped up. It was Gav again. He thumbed into his inbox and opened it.
‘Trez, this’ll take you back. Check yer Steam. Ever heard of Pix the Cat? Serious mad mad gear.