The cat’s rocket-infused meow
Having always been a true dog person at heart, I was surprised to find myself actually warming up to cats in more recent years. But if someone had told me how diligent and heroic that some cats can be when something they love is put on the line, then I might have been on board with those fierce little felines from the very beginning! One part matching game, and one part strategy via upgrades, Combat Cats may be a little too simple for some, but its retro-infused greatness and progressive challenge are still certain enough to give you all that they’ve got for the short time it lasts.
A mysterious “Catnipper” has stolen the world’s supply of catnip, and to make matters worse, a legion of evil fish creatures have picked this exact moment to unleash their revenge, as your desperate cats take to the skies to retrieve the hot commodity that was taken from them. The story of the game is lighthearted and fun, and the means of single-screen storytelling is a wonderfully nostalgic callback to old NES adventures of yesteryear. The equally retro-inspired chiptune soundtrack is just as strong, and will get stuck in your head long after your cats slip into a catnip-induced catnap at the end of their journey.
The gameplay of Combat Cats is fairly straightforward. At the start of every level, you’ll be presented with a large grid of different pixelated square icons: each one a different color and representative of a specific attack that your cat fighter will be able to pull off. Orange constitutes a flame attack, blue is a freeze ray, green is a cloud of poison, and purple is a flurry of rockets. You make moves by simply tapping on any single tile that you wish on the screen, which instantly replaces it with a separated placeholder tile that is always raring to go. Matching four or more like-tiles will execute that respective attack and move you one step closer towards reaching your goal.
You’ll also have to deal with water droplets that will obscure select tiles at random, as well as bonus nukes that can clear out the surrounding areas of tiles for one particularly devastating attack. Playing the game is simple and fun, although sometimes the clearing animations were a bit too slow for my taste, and I’d have to wait an extra second or two for my last move to register before quickly moving on to the next one. The actual “battles” themselves will play out in a tiny section at the top of the screen, although you’ll often be so busy finding that next strategic match as fast as you can, that it’s entirely possible you won’t get to enjoy this nice little touch at all during your regular playthrough.
The graphics in these battles are also slightly more refined than the fuzziness that makes up the game board, and it does wonders to give Combat Cats a great sense of personality. You even have a health bar, and if you take too long to complete a level, the screen will start blinking red: which indicates that your cat is in serious danger of being shot out of the sky. This is where the repair tiles come in, as symbolized by a gray icon with a hammer and wrench image, which replenishes your health every time you match a cluster. You’ll need to make decisions on which tiles you’ll want to match next, whether offensive or restorative, but of course, the best course of action will not always be the easiest one to make given the current makeup of the game board at any one time.
The overall progression of the game, however, is a bit hit or miss at times, and the star requirements for unlocking each one are actually pretty strict. For instance, you may move through the game at a leisurely pace for the first few levels, but by the time you hit level 4 or 5, you’ll almost certainly have to backtrack and earn a 3-star rating or two to move forward. Stars are earned primarily for how quickly you finish each level, and your speed will be influenced directly by how powerful your range of attacks get.
Luckily, you’ll be offered plenty of currency throughout the regular gameplay to sufficiently upgrade your ship in a nice, gradual pattern, and everything in the shop is more than affordable with what you’re able to earn on your own. The two primary currencies include the more common coins (used for upgrading the damage points of your basic attacks), and the more elusive catnip (used for buying special advantages for each weapon or skill, like additional rockets, a faster poisoning speed, or a bigger overflow of flame damage). You can also use the catnip to buy a number of fun and optional aircraft vehicles, like a cardboard spaceship piloted by Cranky Pants the cat, or a pink-frosted cupcake that looks borrowed from the fantastical world of Nyan Cat.
While this certainly presents a nice bit of challenge in going back and perfecting your skills as your cat becomes more and more powerful, the severe lack of levels in the main storyline make the overall progression feel a little stinted as a whole. Furthermore, the difficulty spike between level 14 and the ultimate battle with the Catnipper borderlines on obscene, and you’ll likely have to grind already completed levels for hours to max out every skill so you can even make a dent in the devious Catnipper’s hull. Besting this boss will unlock a special Survival mode, although the incentives for playing this one into cat-coated oblivion aren’t all that high, as you’ll probably have everything fully upgraded by the time you finally unlock it.
But Combat Cats isn’t about where you end up: it’s about the journey you take to get there. And in that respect, the game is a fun, fast-paced, and lovingly retro experience, and it’s sure to provide a few hours of strategic matchmaking enjoyment for both cat lovers and dog lovers alike. And the next time you see your cat eyeing the fishbowl with that devious look on his face, just remember what once was at stake in the great pixelated catnip wars.