Before today, the closest I'd come to a magical cat adventure was the time I accidentally took too many extra-strength antihistamines to counter my feline allergies, and that was mostly an adventure in feeling really sleepy. Now I can say I've had another, though, because I've played through Wintechno's 1993 arcade romp Magical Cat Adventure. Funnily enough, this one left me feeling a little drowsy, too.
Wintechno, then. Ever heard of them? No, me neither. To the best of my knowledge this was the only game they ever released, and because there are no credits in the game I can't even try to figure out if they were an offshoot of another developer or something. As far as I can tell, Wintechno popped into existence, created this generic arcade platformer about a bipedal cat and then completely vanished. Nobody noticed any of this at the time, but let's see how it fares after twenty years of obscurity, eh?
For some reason - perhaps to sate the relentless desire of the western gamer for nothing but raw action - Magical Cat Adventure's story was removed from the attract mode of the overseas version. The plot is only in the Japanese version, so I was worried I wouldn't have any idea what was going on, but as the views of the peaceful kingdom were replaced by the silhouette of a fiery, bat-winged creature with a Christmas ornament for a head it all became clear.
Kingdom in trouble, flaming monster, only one man can save us. One cat, I mean.
I know he looks a hell of a lot like a fox, but trust me, he's a cat. That much I can tell you. What I can't tell you is his name, his powers, his goals (beside the obviously kingdom-saving one) or why this particular cat is the chosen one who must embark on a quest to save the land of Meowdonia or whatever it's called. All of that knowledge has been deemed surplus to requirements, at least in the overseas versions, and so you're placed in control a character with all the depth and character of a carrier bag filled with rocks. Well, it's better than him having a radical and x-treme 90's attitude, I suppose.
I hope you've got your Platform Game Bingo Book at the ready, because Magical Cat Adventure is going to tick almost every square on there
What we have here is a side-scrolling platformer, a merry quest that sees our hero, who I'm going to call Cat from now on for convenience, running and jumping his way through several themed worlds, collecting coins and defeating bosses in a way that is very reminiscent of that videogame, oh, you know the one, that's right, every 16-bit platformer ever made. Yeah, it's kinda like that.
Of course, the first stage is forest-themed. Magical Cat Adventure doesn't mess with the classics / deviate one iota from the firmly established platformer tropes, delete according to the level of your cynicism.
Most of the first stage is given over to running from left to right, and Cat can pick up a decent head of speed, although not enough quite speed for going fast to become the primary gameplay mechanic. That said, when I started playing this game I thought something that I'm sure almost everyone who's played it thought, and that's golly gee this game sure does remind me of Sonic the Hedgehog.
The springy bumpers aren't doing much to diminish those comparisons.
This at least makes Magical Cat Adventure's gameplay easier to describe than usual. It plays like a version of Sonic the Hedgehog, a version where Sonic moves more slowly and all the elements of the stage design that take advantage of his speed, the loop-the-loops and ramps, are replaced by the blander trappings of the genre, like tree-branch platforms and, erm, not much else.
It's well put together, at least. Cat moves around okay - perhaps not quite with the agility you'd expect from a cat, but I suppose you will lose some of that skill when you go from four legs to two. His jumping from a standing start feels a little stiff, but it's consistently stiff and can therefore be planned for and mitigated.
Speaking of jumping, don't try taking out the enemies in the tried-and-true platformer way of leaping into the air and allowing the graceful wings of gravity to slam you into your foes. That doesn't work. Instead, you have another button to use a projectile attack. Cat starts off by throwing knives at the enemies. Pretty hardcore, although perhaps a little over-the-top given that the enemies in the first stage consist of standard-issue fantasy fare like mushrooms with eyes and patrolling bees.
At least I can wholeheartedly praise the backgrounds, which are beautiful throughout the entire game. Magical Cat Adventure may start in the obligatory forest world, but by heck it's one pleasingly lush, detailed forest world.
The top-quality backgrounds do rather make Cat's utter lack of a personality seem odd, though. He's animated well enough, but his reactions are all very obvious and you get the impression that a shovel with a face drawn on it would supply the same amount of charm, plus Magical Shovel Adventure would have been a great videogame title. The only time Cat shows any emotion I could really engage with is during his jumping animation.
Sure, that emotion seems to be the sudden realisation that his life has taken a truly unfortunate turn and he's wondering how it all came to this, but it's better than nothing. Poor guy, maybe a boss battle will cheer him up.
It's definitely cheering me up, because boss number one is completely adorable and also strangely familiar. Now where have I seen him before...
Oh, of course. Doctor Doom and the Flatwoods Monster got drunk together at an intergalactic astro-bar and decided it would be totally awesome to fuse their genetic codes. Ashamed and hung-over, Victor von Doom banishes his ill-begotten son to a distant planet where he can spend his life harassing cats. And how does this boss harass cats?
By summoning a shower of baby chicks from a distant ethereal plane, naturally. You may scoff, but Cat is really bad at being a cat and the baby birds hurt him should he touch them. They are surprisingly difficult to avoid, too, but Magical Cat Adventure has one standard strategy that can be applied to all boss fights - if you come in with full health, ignore the boss' attacks and concentrate on throwing as many knives into them as possible. Most of the time you'll win, and once Flatwoods von Doom is dead you can move on to stage two.
Cave of Illusion, starring Mickey Mouse.
No, of course not, it's just a generic cave level with crumbling platforms and swinging pendulums. That screenshot shows I wasn't paying enough attention, because while those treasure chests do contain power-ups, they hurt you if you walk into them. Makes sense to me, I once dropped my mum's jewellery box on my foot when I was a kid and it stung like a bastard. It certainly makes more sense than taking damage from a fluffy baby bird.
Wintechno may have been committed to filling Magical Cat Adventure with all the clichéd platforming stages that were already tired well before this game was released, but fair play to them for trying to get as many of them out of the way in as short a space of time as possible. Stage two starts in a basic cave-y-catacomb-y area, before switching briefly to a fire theme, the main element of which are these pillars of lava that lift up the platforms. I thought you might be able to run straight across them, like Mario can when faced with a one-block gap. Turns out you can't. Sorry, Cat.
Just as quickly as the lava zone arrived, it's replaced by an ice cave. I know it doesn't look that icy and no, the platforms aren't especially slippery, but there are penguins roaming about so that has to count for something. If there are penguins here, I feel safe in designating this the "ice stage."
Then it's time for the boss battle, a stupefyingly dull fight against a skeletal cat. Pretty sure cats don't have bones in their ears, though. You'll notice that Cat can't even bring himself to pay attention, and that's because this battle is the same old tired encounter you've played a million times before in games both better and worse than this one. Bonecat walks forward, fires a few energy bolts, turns around and walks back, repeats forever and ever and ever. Or until you defeat him. He's got a shield, but just jump up and fire over it and you'll win.
So, somewhere off the coast of Somalia, then?
From a stage that felt almost schizophrenic in its constant thematic changes to one that's probably the dullest of the lot - the Sea of Pirates is made up of a chain of connected pirate ships that you can mostly just run along as quickly as possible. For a game that already felt like a shallow Sonic clone this stage is the most Sonic-y of them all, where barrelling through as fast as you can is the optimal approach as long as you remember to jump off the planks that act as springboards between the ships. To be fair, this stage - and most of the stages in Magical Cat Adventure - does at least offer a choice of routes, even if it is only as simple as choosing between running along the decks or opting for the more difficult yet more rewarding (in terms of power-ups if not in fun) path traversed by jumping from sail to sail.
I suppose I should also mention the game's power-up system, because this is where I had to start paying attention to it. Aside from the usual coins and health refills, Cat can also collect different weapons. Pick up a new weapon and it replaces the one you had, and you're stuck with it until you can find another one.
They're mostly variations on the same theme - the knives travel forward, there are magic blasts that either move like the knives or home in a little, there are are lobbed grenades that aren't great because of the difficulty in aiming them and there's a strange orb that you throw to the ground, which cause two arcing dragon heads to leap up from the floor. This sounds fun, but they're even worse than the grenades and you'll never hit anything with them despite them being big magic flaming dragon heads.
The best weapon by far is pictured above - Cat gains the ability to summon a ghostly image of his own face by shouting really loud. Not only does this have a predicable path (straight forwards) and seemingly the same power as all the other weapons, the projectiles are also bloody massive, making hitting things a doddle even if you're running forward at full pelt. I assumed there must be a drawback to it, because otherwise it'd be clearly superior to every other weapon, but I could find no flaws with it and thus my considered advice is that once you pick up the ability to astrally project a demonic version of your face into the bad guys, I suggest you do your best to keep hold of it.
There's not much else to say about the pirate stage, so let's get to the boss. It's a pirate cat! Persian Blue-beard, if you like. Wait, Bluebeard wasn't a pirate. There goes my carefully-constructed pun.
The pirate cat fights much like the previous boss, just with a bit more flipping around the place and cutlasses instead of energy bolts. Disappointing, but then again he is just a cat dressed like a pirate and I can shout my own face at him, so he's kind of outmatched here.
When you beat him, one of his crewmen picks him up and carries him to safety. Isn't that sweet? Unless he's about to dump his captain in a boat and set him adrift in a ruthless feline mutiny.
Okay then, stage four - the Castle of Ghosts. It is indeed a castle filled with ghosts. Cat doesn't react to this at all, because he has no emotions, no feelings, nothing inside himself but the uncontrollable urge to move to the right and not fall into a chasm. Look, he's staring right at a ghost - a ghost who's ectoplasmic hands are (literally) balled into fists, just itching to smack Cat in the mouth - and all he can summon is a faint smile. Actually, now that I really look at it that's more of a smirk. Maybe Cat does have a flicker of personality in there somewhere, and he's looking forward to scaring the crap out of this ghost using his powers of spectral-face-summoning. That'll show him.
So, this stage is obviously right up my street. Ghosts, spooky castles, suits of armour that hack at you as you run past - it's like an episode of Scooby-Doo set in Castlevania. Once again, the backgrounds are fantastic, but they do seem to be having the unfortunate effect of making me think that Magical Cat Adventure is better than it really is. This is a very average game. It's bland, it's derivative, it has no new ideas of its own. Sure it's competent, with solid controls, a decent difficulty curve and no major aggravating factors, but if I wanted competent I'd watch the football of West Bromwich Albion or eat a pizza from the takeaway down the road (they're always too stingy with the sauce but otherwise fine).
Then an adorable dragon-dog appears and Magical Cat Adventure's charm once again papers over the cracks. Have I really become so susceptible to above-average graphics? Was my stance that gameplay matters above all else just a hollow lie? No, of course it wasn't. I just really like pixel haunted houses.
At least the platforming part of the game has advanced from "almost entirely ignorable" to something you have to pay attention to, with bigger gaps and smaller safe places to stand on. That floating brick isn't making it easy to concentrate. You know which floating brick I mean.
Yeah, that one. Not sure what's going on with this guy, attempted nightmare implantation aside. Let's move swiftly on to the boss, shall we?
It's a vampire cat, meaning I can probably just about get away with calling this stage Cat-slevania. He's a very dapper cat, too, but not constrained by the usual vampire outfit of formal wear and a honking great medallion - he's wearing a suit, but it's a more casual look, while the monocle hints at his noble upbringing. It's just the dickie bow letting the ensemble down, really. You'd think someone so focussed on necks would pay more attention to what they put around their own.
Oh, right, yeah, the fight. He launches bats at you, sometimes he turns into a swarm of bats, it's all very basic if slightly frustrating due to how difficult it is to avoid the bats when he reforms. Sometimes it seems completely unavoidable, although that might just be down to my inability to lure him into a decent position. Still, I managed to beat him up so it can't have been that bad.
The final stage is the Celestial Battle, "celestial" in this case meaning lots of clouds and the occasional flying jellyfish. Yes, this is the very abode of the gods themselves!
Oh, and there are a few of these pumpkinheads floating around the level, enemies that the developers clearly meant to put in the last stage but they either forgot and so deposited them here or they couldn't fit them into the castle. I'm not complaining, they've got pumpkins for heads.
There's some disgustingly graphic nudity on display, too. At least that Tin Man is happy, as you would be after pulling the duty of guarding Booby Boulevard.
So Magical Cat Adventure shuffles along to its inevitable conclusion, beyond the clouds and through another castle, and I'm left with the realisation that I shouldn't have have been comparing this game to Sonic the Hedgehog after all - I should have been comparing it to Bubsy. They're both about cats, they both want to be Sonic, they both have forgettable gameplay lurking under a veneer of decent graphics. Magical Cat Adventure is the Bubsy game you'd get it you drained all the "wacky" character traits from Bubsy. I never thought I'd say this, but I think they went too far, and this Cat is so dull that Magical Shovel Adventure is looking more and more appealing all the time.
Here's the final boss. I think it's a dog, which would make sense given that I'm a cat. He's got big wings and he likes to summon spiralling balls of electricity to hit you with, but to show he's a sporting kind of guy he's left you some floating platforms knocking about the place. You can use them to stand at eye-level with him and launch Cat's magic face into his face until Bat-Dog gives up and pisses off back wherever it is that bat-dogs are born. It's not a complex fight, and all you really need to do is press jump every now and then to jump over his electricity attack, giving the whole battle the feel of a particularly brutal skipping-rope competition.
Hooray, Magical Cat Adventure is over and this is your reward - a shot of what is either a bird or a poorly-constructed hang-glider floating off into the sunset. I'm thrilled, you're thrilled, everybody's thrilled, now let's all go home and immediately forget about everything that happened here today. Well, maybe not that creepy flying brick. I don't think I'll be forgetting that thing any time soon.
My feelings about Magical Cat Adventure have all been summed up already, but here's one final recap: nice to look at, duller than the highlights show from the International Paint-Drying Championships. Who's the current Hollywood actress / actor who best fits that description? I need to know so I can compare Magical Cat Adventure to them. Answers on a postcard, please.