Metroidvanias are an inherently clever genre, and the cleverness can sometimes sap a little of the energy. I've played plenty of Metroidvanias that were very easy to admire but a bit of a drag to play. It can be slightly enervating, being blinded by all that brilliance. I can appreciate how ingenious it is that a certain area works differently depending on whether it's on fire or filled with toxic gas, but it can take something truly special to shake me out of quiet reverence for someone's design smarts.
Gato Roboto does two things that immediately shook the formula up for me. And tellingly, neither of them has much to do with nuts and bolts design. The first thing is you play through the game as a cat, crashlanded on an alien planet and trying to save his human owner who's trapped back at the spaceship. The cat soon has a mech-suit - I can attest to the fact that cats are like this - and the game has a lot of fun switching between sections where you're suited and tooled up and deadly and bulky, and sections where you jump out of the suit and scamper up walls and through pipes and underwater, but have to avoid direct confrontation.
Yes, I appreciate in this way the cat has quite a lot to do with nuts and bolts design, but none of that matters, I think, quite as much as this: it's unexpected and delightful to play as a cat in a game, particularly one who's animated with such character and economy.
This brings me to the second thing that marked Gato Roboto out for me. The world is wonderfully realised. Gato Roboto opts for big pixels and a monochrome art palette. Its tunnels and underground facilities are picked out in thick blocks of black and white, and this black and white is astonishingly atmospheric. The ductwork can look like Psycho Fox one moment and 2000AD the next, and I never stopped marvelling at the cludgy, pistony loveliness of the robots that were trying to kill me, sprouting drill bits, firing rockets from their metal mouths, or hanging overhead with funny little propellers and dropping deadly frogs. My favourite moments were always the quiet ones, though: a secret room with a bit of story going on and remnants of someone long departed. A table with a mug on it say. The rounded edges of an old computer monitor glinting from a nearby mass of cabling.
It's a pleasure to spend time peering into this pet-sized world, in other words. And happily, Gato Roboto is also a very good Metroidvania, offering a range of power-ups that are fun to use and suggest new possibilities in old environments. Want a way to clear certain rocks? Gato Roboto has that waiting for you. Want to be able to cross slightly bigger gaps? Your wish will be granted.
None of the weapons and gadgets you're given are enormously new, perhaps, but there is a reliable pleasure to seeing them wielded by a cat. And while the art is chunky, some of the levels are surprisingly intricate, offering mazes and puzzle rooms and battle arenas and slotting them all together in pacy ways so that you're never bored. Boss fights are particularly strong, even though one of them towards the end presented a bit of a road block for me at the time. No matter. The solution was not just to lean in and hone skills, but to rethink the tools I had at my disposal.
When the end credits first rolled for me, I hadn't even hit 50 per cent completion. That's a nice sign in a Metroidvania, but here's an even better one: I couldn't wait to go back in. Gato Roboto is self-contained and poised and very stylish. A bit like, you know, a cat.