Pix the Cat, from French studio Pastagames, is like a cross between Snake and Pac-Man Championship Edition. Played out on a single screen, you control a cat that moves along grid lines collecting eggs, which hatch into a train of ducklings who follow you around. As the train grows longer the environment becomes more claustrophobic and you have to be careful to avoid boxing yourself in or risk losing your combo.
The goal is to set a high score, which involves depositing the ducklings on target circles, and the longer you go between deposits - ideally you want to chain an entire screen of them before going near a circle - the better your combo. This is tricky because your speed increases as your combo grows, leaving you with less time to think about which direction you're going to turn next.
Its origins may be borrowed, but Pix the Cat styles itself as the hip reinvention of a stuffy arcade original - apparently the developers even built an arcade cabinet version - and it's a trick that really works for it, because the whole thing oozes with cool. The retro chic visuals pulsate as you play, the cats and ducklings and little skull enemies suggest some sort of nerdy street art counterculture you want to be included in, and there are lots of neat ideas that create the effect of blending in seamlessly with a hoary old classic, like a speed boost when you time your turns to perfection - and in particular the way you move between puzzle screens.
The latter is reminiscent of indie title Jumpman: you can always see the next puzzle screen in miniature somewhere around the edges of the current one. This gives you a clue about where the exit will appear, but it also allows you to size up your next task out of the corner of your eye, giving you a better chance of moving on with confidence, rather than stumbling blindly into the next activity and immediately making a fatal mistake.
As you improve, you become more efficient and better at taking advantage of Fever mode, which activates when your combo is maxed out and allows you to chew up enemies rather than having to avoid them. It's not long before you're setting much higher scores, prompting various unlocks, including different announcer voices and a more relaxed puzzle mode called Laboratory, where you have to try to clear a screen in as few moves as possible.
All very good, then, and since it's free as part of PlayStation Plus this month, Pix the Cat has already been played by thousands of people and won itself a cult following. Everyone seems to be having a great time with it. Everyone, that is, except me.
I'm sorry. I didn't want to not like it. In fact, I thought I was going to get on famously with Pix the Cat when I began playing it, but as I kept starting over in search of a higher score, my interest waned. I put this down to a couple of things. First, I just don't like the basic Snake set-up of going for as long as possible before tripping over yourself. It's satisfying at first, darting around collecting things while dodging your tail, but when I start running out of space I find it irritating rather than exhilarating, and it turns out even more so when there's a carefully constructed high score riding on my actions.
Pix the Cat also falls short of the thing I loved most about Pac-Man Championship Edition. In Namco's game, as you race through mazes at increasing speed, calculating your next few turns as the milliseconds available to make them steadily disappear, you're quickly submerged in a flow state I never experience with Pix the Cat. Perhaps it's because Pac-Man tolerates more minor errors than Pix, allowing you to veer and swerve to safety even if you're straining a little beyond the edge of your capabilities. Either way, Pac-Man CE always feels like a wonderfully engineered game - it even has a hit-pause when you consume a ghost, allowing you to surface for air - and while the superficial comparison between the two games gives Pix the Cat initial charm, the deeper one does it no favours.
And yet, just as I was getting ready to stride Grinch-like into Pix the Cat's festive jamboree, I unlocked something called Nostalgia mode, and Pix the Cat sort of redeemed itself.
To me, Nostalgia mode feels like Pix the Cat at its best. Unlike the main mode it's played out on a single screen with no combo considerations, but unlike the forgettable Laboratory mode there's still a time concern. The thing that really makes it work, though, is the puzzle design, which is wonderfully inventive. Decked out like an old-days black-and-white cartoon, with lively piano accompaniment, Pix the Cat's Mickey Mouse-style ancestor still has to collect eggs to create a train of ducklings, but now there are all sorts of gimmicks.
In the level "Minesweeper", you have to cut the one workable path through a sea of explosive mines to collect every duckling. In "Picture in Picture", there are four smaller puzzle screens set within the main one, each with their own controllable cat, and your control inputs affect everyone even though the obstacles vary. In "City Blocks", you face a screen cut up into single lanes that allow you to snake between a latticework of blocks, and as your train of ducklings grows and grows, the challenge is to keep travelling from one side of the city to the other without meeting your tail from the previous crossing. Each puzzle gives you something new to think about, testing your lateral thinking just as often as your reactions, and there are plenty of them.
So where does that leave us? Well, as long as you're reading this in October 2014, Pix the Cat should still be free on PlayStation Plus, so you can decide for yourself whether I'm mad to only like part of it. If you chance on these words a little later, though, I would suggest Pix the Cat is full of good ideas but for the most part flatters to deceive. Punch through to Nostalgia mode, though, and you may discover that this game, which adopts the finery of a retro remake without actually being one, does a much better job when it returns to its fictional roots.
7 / 10