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At a time when so many of our conversations about new games too quickly descend into dick-waving competitions about what games can display with the most Ks and hit the most stable FPSes, it's a blessed relief to play something that's simply a Very Pure Video Game. No need for visual showiness with three-dozen sliders for the optimum aesthetic, a suite of multiplayer options or season-pass packages: just something you can pick up and fall in love with from its first five minutes, and want to immediately tell all your pals about.
That's Gato Roboto (out now for PC and Switch) for me - easily one of my games of the year so far, and another hit for its publisher Devolver Digital, a company that has an unnervingly superb success rate for putting out the most interesting indie games around. Their recent track record is impressive indeed - Ape Out, Observation and Katana ZERO are all 2019 releases that could easily compete for Best Of The Best places come the year-end 'awards' season (and Pikuniku was pretty fantastic, too).
Made by Oregon-based Doinksoft, Gato Roboto is Super Metroid given a beyond-cute makeover and rendered in Game Boy-like monochrome. You play as a cat, Kiki, who has to save the arse of its owner, Gary, when said human crashlands his ship at a research facility that's been broadcasting a distress signal. ("Probably nothing," assumes Gary's boss - oh how wrong he is.) ICYMI there: you play as a cat. Running, leaping, scrambling up vertical surfaces with your claws, meowing responses to the commands of your supposed superior, who's still stuck in his wreck. And for those right at the back: you play as a cat.
And this would be brilliant enough: a retro-styled (very) Metroid-like adventure as a skittish kitty, getting to the bottom of some science gone mad, bringing the facility back online and rescuing its human from certain death. But what makes Gato Roboto better - like, possible game of the year contender better (which is no doubt an exaggeration, but I am really loving this, right now) - is the array of contraptions and upgrades that Kiki can find, and make use of against an array of enemies dead-set on making her (her? I think Kiki is a her?) an ex-kitty.
First off, there's the mech suit she can clamber into - which is, Samus Aran style, improved with new gear the deeper she ventures into the facility. A basic blaster becomes complemented by missiles (no limit on their use, but subject to a cooldown). What is a pretty lackluster jump gains a boost through a wild spinning attack, which can also cross substantial distances. Each new upgrade opens a new part of the map - again, this is very Super Metroid like - and wherever the mech can't go, Kiki can either pad along on her paws (one-hit kills are active then, though) or, in flooded areas, pilot a lovely little submarine. Albeit still with GUNS, of course.
Every so often she'll encounter a boss - learn the patterns, exploit the gaps, and take them down. Sometimes a room will be locked off until all the enemies in it are defeated. A constant thorn in her side is a mouse, who is the most armed-to-the-teeth baddie here (topping a cast including killer frogs, cute-but-deadly drones, angsty octopi, weird turtle things, fire-spitting robots, exploding fish and wiggly worms), and pops up to offer the most significant challenges in the game. Looking at Steam's reviews, these difficulty spikes have thrown a few players - but hang in there, don't worry about dying a few times (save points are generous), and patterns do emerge.
There are a few collectibles scattered around - cartridges that can change the look of the game slightly, and rooms that serve only to provide story context in the form of 'audio' logs (there's no actual speech in the game, just old-school nonsensical sounds as characters are speaking). There are friendly characters to meet, too, who'll help Kiki out - if she does something for them. But these are about the only bells and whistles on Gato Roboto, which is otherwise as streamlined and as refined a 'metroidvania' as you'll play in 2019. And it doesn't need to look or sound any better than it does - its gameplay does all of the heavy lifting, and is what keeps you coming back, even after that mouse has done you in six times on the spin.
Gato Roboto's rewarding rhythms of action and exploration, discovery and the thrill of defeating a tough boss, should make it a game that everyone who's ever loved games of its ilk should rush to. But because of its visuals, and its kitty-cat quirkiness, some won't give it the time of day. "What is this, a Spectrum game?" "LOL, I played better games on my Commodore 64." And so on, and so forth: you can see the comments coming a mile away.
More fool them, frankly. Gato Roboto is an absolute marvel in meownochrome, another indie gem in the crown that Devolver's crafted for itself, and has me hoping that we see more from Kiki and Gary, and Doinksoft, in the future.