The first joke is that Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails is an on-rails shooter that is, for once, literally on rails. As in Cardiff studio Dakko Dakko's debut, The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character, your wheeled character must hug the border of the environment, an unbroken rail along which he can scoot with crab-like velocity. You trace your path along the scenery, back against the wall at all times, as you fire inwards - sometimes leaping before landing back on the rail in a shower of sparks.
There's a hump of acclimatisation to get over. At first, it feels frustrating to be tethered to the circumference when you want to fly unhindered through the air. But soon enough you begin to lap the game's levels with the grace and ease of a hurdler completing circuits of a track. In time, you leap obstacles with pixel-perfect timing and begin to use inertia to fling yourself around the scenery and flit between rails while firing a hail of scorching bullets at your foes.
The second joke is that you play as a blue-rinse soldier who must rescue 70 traumatised space cats from an army of weaponised rodents. The game is broken into 29 stages, each one accessed from a map screen that's laid out like the blueprints of a spaceship. Cats await rescue in each stage. The tabby sits by the exit door; to rescue him, you must simply make it to the end of the stage. The others must be lured out. The black cat appears only when you defeat an especially powerful mouse enemy who's invisible until you roll into his area. The flirty cat with the long eyelashes and azure eyes must be chased around the stage until she finally settles in one spot and can be herded towards the exit. The white cat will only come out to play when you've collected every single one of the coins that litter the environment.
You can rescue the cats en masse or, more safely, one by one, by replaying the stage until you've collected the set. You set your own agenda: nobody tells you what to do in what order, a pleasing and unusual freedom in these days of mollycoddling design. Once you've collected all of the cats on a particular stage, it's stamped with a cat icon on the map screen. Trying to fill the map with these stamps has a sticker-book appeal: gaps niggle, providing the impetus to keep playing until you've collected the set. Doorways to new stages unlock when your kitty collection passes certain thresholds, an elegant way to stagger your progress while offering just enough different areas to flit between, so you don't become stuck on or bored with any one stage.
The final joke - more of a 'gotcha', perhaps - is that, while Scram Kitty's theme is childlike, its challenge is anything but. An enormously testing game bristles beneath Gary Lucken's signature bold and cutesy art, one that draws influence from the twitch greats of Treasure's oeuvre.
You can see it in the Gunstar Heroes-style switchable weapons, each of which not only has its own set of advantages and drawbacks, but also relates to certain switches and enemies which can only be activated or destroyed by its bullets or beam. It's there in the Bangai-O-shaped level layouts, maze-like patterns which you coax your way through, each of them constructed around an idea. It's there in the marriage of your health and strength; your character has six notches on his health bar and the more of these that are filled, the farther he can jump - a typically Treasure-esque design. It's there in the risk/reward choice of whether to collect multiple cats on a single run or to cut your losses and bank what you have, in order to return during a subsequent playthrough to catch the remainder.
It's also there in the understated aesthetic. There are no direct tutorials and there's so little text in the game that you have to invent your own vocabulary in order to talk about what's going on. (To me, the mechanical, clapping enemy is the 'pincer' and the kitty that can only be drawn out by collecting all of a level's coins is 'fat cat'. You'll come up with your own names.) The only instructions you receive are from one particularly harangued-looking cat, Scram Kitty himself, who pops up on either the television or the Control Pad's screen (you can select which) to offer the odd bit of guidance or the lightest whisper of a story. Aside from this small adornment, nothing sits between you and the game's stark, unflinching challenge.
A wonderfully idiosyncratic creation that, despite its smorgasbord of influences, feels like nothing else
This is most plainly stated in Challenge Mode, which is where, once you've collected the full set of 70 cats and beaten the final stage in the main campaign, the trial truly begins. Here, you race to see how many cats you can rescue before the timer runs down across a series of stages plucked from across the game. Every time you collect a coin, you add a second to the clock, but each time you take a hit from an enemy, you lose a second. There are no restarts for a stage: if you miss a cat while passing through, there's no opportunity to return to pick them up. As such, it's not worth tackling these stages until you're entirely familiar with the optimum routes in any given location. There are, sadly, no online leaderboards to encourage competition here, at the very heart of the competitive game.
Scram Kitty and His Buddy On Rails is a wonderfully idiosyncratic creation that, despite its smorgasbord of influences, feels like nothing else. It's also a game that ignores current design fashions: there is no overarching list of achievements, there are no sideshow systems or alternative stages to upset its rhythms, no adornments to distract from the core task. For some, the lack of variety combined with the stiff challenge will be too much. (Even for competent players, this is a game that requires such a degree of concentration that it's best played in short bursts.) For others, the steepness of the initial learning curve will throw them from the rails before they get anywhere. But for those who master its controls, there is glorious opportunity for showboating play; it's a game built with admirable craft and singular focus, and it richly rewards your investment.
8 / 10