Meow Meow Happy Fight Review
You’d be forgiven for mistaking Meow Meow Happy Fight for another of the App Store’s generic twin-stick shooters. There’s something about the device that seems perfectly wed to the genre, and it isn’t the lack of sticks or tiny screen. But the point is moot. Meow Meow Happy Fight isn’t really a twin-stick shooter, its control scheme excepted. The game’s look aside, it really has more in common with a shooter like Quake than a shooter like Geometry Wars. This makes it a pretty fresh, if flawed, experience.
As the story goes, a big happy cat from the future travels back in time to make things happier. It’s a somewhat heavy-handed if harmless parody of Japanese kawaii culture. As an excuse for comic-book character design, cartoonish violence, and cats, it’s as good a premise as any.
Big Pixel is a master of style. The chirping neon blocks in the Piyo Blocks series capture retro-Japanese nostalgia to a tee, and Meow Meow Happy Fight develops that fetish into a cosmopolitan and edgy shootout across Japan. A charming cast of characters—from Shibuya punks to laser-powered zombies to a giant cat ball—duke it out in locations like urban Ginza and rural Asakusa. While not exactly new, you haven’t seen anything quite like this combination of Japanese archetypes and objects on the App Store. The game is packed with visual stimuli, but this is made manageable by simple and pure shooter gameplay. Here is the game’s biggest advantage, but also where it shows its weaknesses.
In Meow Meow Happy Fight, for once, the levels aren’t arenas where you fight off waves and waves of enemies to build your high score until they inevitably whittle down your set of lives. You have infinite lives, and so do your enemies. Each level is populated with a fixed handful of the game’s characters. When you kill an opponent, a point is added to your score and the enemy respawns elsewhere on the map; and vice-versa when you are killed. The goal is to have the most kills when the timer runs to zero. It’s classic PC deathmatch.
Each of the game’s dozen levels is thus a rush to rack up the most kills. While the top-down window can feel dense (if not cluttered) with stylized art and low on information, the interface does a good job of indicating enemies and power-ups that lay outside the screen. It can be hard to differentiate enemies and power-ups, but the point is to get to the action.
Meow Meow Happy Fight feels chaotic once you’re in the fray, and not necessarily for the best. Even with auto-aim enabled, the touch controls feel a bit slow, and enemies always seem to move faster than your bullets. Gameplay often involves shooting wildly, getting shot, and hoping for the best. Eventually you do learn to circle-strafe (a classic technique in which you maneuver around an opponent while firing at him) and bolt for new power-ups, but the game still feels like a matter of luck more than a test of skill.
It isn’t too hard to advance from level 1 to level 12, though, because the game is clearly—perhaps intentionally—unbalanced. As you rack up kills, you earn Happy Points that let you unlock new characters. The more expensive characters simply have better stats than others, and guarantee success. In the same way, you’ll come to rely on power-ups like Freeze (which grants you a few instant one-shot kills) and Invincibility to hold your first-place standing. While not exactly unfair, since your opponents also have access to the stronger characters and insta-death items, this makes gameplay feel somewhat rote. Your strategy in each level will be the same, and things will play out one of two ways.
After you pass level 12, though, you unlock Happy Mode. This feature should have been unlocked from the beginning, because it’s dynamic and tense where the main game tends to feel like a grind. Here you compete to rack up a certain number of the collectibles that players drop when they are killed. These include things like a bento box, cheeseburger, or Piyo Block. The more collectibles one character is holding, the more it drops. This makes Happy Mode a topsy-turvy, much less predictable game than the normal mode.
Meow Meow Happy Fight is full of charm. Even the stats screen tries to brighten your day, tallying all the different—and there are many—items that you’ve collected to date. But, like the characters themselves, these are window dressing on a somewhat flat shooter with an unexpected set of rules. For all its cuteness and cats, it’s hard to love the game that sits beneath.