Indie Heroes: parallel puzzling with Alien Cat 2

The Evercade’s “Indie Heroes” cartridge plays host to a variety of brand new games for classic platforms — and even if you don’t have an Evercade, you can try most of these for yourself in one way or another! Let’s explore them in detail!

One of the nice things about games that start off as “homebrew” for various retro platforms is that many of them don’t feel the need to over-justify their own existence. Mega Drive title Alien Cat 2 from Russian developer PSCD Games — also available as part of the Indie Heroes Collection 1 cartridge for Evercade — for example, is about a cat that needs to recover his spaceship parts. Why? Doesn’t matter, he just does. And that’s all you need to make a decent puzzle game.

Well, it’s actually a little more complicated than that. In order to recover the missing parts of his spaceship, Alien Cat will need to negotiate a series of increasingly complex mazes, making sure he doesn’t tread on anything that is typically regarded as harmful to cats — you know the stuff, things like spikes and high explosives.

Alien Cat 2

That would still be straightforward enough, but of course it isn’t all you have to worry about. In many stages of the game, you’ll find yourself accidentally summoning a clone of Alien Cat (an Alien Cat 2, if you will) who follows your every movement — unless, of course, either you or he bump into a wall. And, just to be awkward, Alien Cat feels strongly about clone rights, and as such if you think you can get away with sacrificing a clone just to clear a level, you’d better think again, sunshine.

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Yes, Alien Cat 2 is a distinct breed of puzzler that can be traced back to games such as Chip’s Challenge and Sokoban — every move counts, and it’s important to think several moves ahead in order to solve the game’s puzzles, because without doing so you’ll inevitably find yourself just going around in circles.

The key thing to get your head around in Alien Cat 2 is how you can use the walls and other non-fatal obstacles to manipulate the relative positions of the two Alien Cats when they’re both present. If, say, Alien Cat 1 runs into a wall on their southern side, but Alien Cat 2 has several free spaces to move into, you can continue pushing “down” on the directional pad to move Alien Cat 2 south while Alien Cat 1 stays exactly where he is. In that way, you can alter the relationship between the two clones, and in that way keep them both safe.

Alien Cat 2

That’s the theory, anyway. And, initially, it’s not too difficult to keep this in mind and successfully clear levels while keeping both Alien Cats safe. As the game progresses, though, the challenge factor ramps up significantly, with levels unfolding in distinct “stages” where you’ll find yourself having to prioritise several different objectives before you can even think about succeeding. Do you try and grab as many spaceship parts as possible first? Or do you go for that tempting big red button in case it retracts all the inconvenient spikes that are all over the floor?

The game has a good difficulty curve, wordlessly introducing new elements to the gameplay with each new stage and gradually teaching you its distinct design language. There aren’t actually all that many different mechanics to familiarise yourself with over the complete game — the complexity mostly comes from how they all interact with one another, and how you find increasingly creative ways to circumnavigate the hazards in your path!

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Alien Cat 2 is well presented, with attractive pixel art that has plenty of character about it. It might have been nice to see a bit more variety in the colour palette as the levels progress — the grey-blue tone gets a bit old after a while, and a simple change in colour palette often feels like a significant “reward” in classic 8- and 16-bit games — but things are at least broken up a little bit with short animated sequences between levels.

Alien Cat 2

The game’s music has a distinctly Amiga feel to it, making use of some pleasingly crunchy samples and synth noises. Like the visuals, it can get a bit repetitive after a while; again, it would have perhaps been nice to hear a different tune every few levels to provide a bit of variety. At least the tune itself is a bit of a banger — and the longer you remain stumped on a particularly challenging level, the more of it you get to enjoy!

Ultimately, Alien Cat 2 is a solid game that is well worth dipping into for a few puzzles now and again — or if you’re in the mood for some real brain-straining, seeing if you can blast through the whole thing in a single sitting, which should be eminently possible.

Thankfully, if you don’t think you can handle that much thinking in one go, the game offers a password function, allowing to you to resume your game at any point — and, of course, if you are playing on an emulator or the Evercade, you can always just save your game state, too, allowing you to pick right back up where you left off with no scribbling down of passwords required! Ah, the conveniences of modern technology.

Alien Cat 2

As part of the Indie Heroes Collection 1 cartridge for Evercade, Alien Cat 2 is a nice contrast to some of the more story-centric titles like Quest Arrest and Deadeus that are also found in the compilation. Sometimes you’re in the mood for a game that you can just pick up and play, and that’s exactly the sort of title Alien Cat 2 is: simple to learn, tough to master, satisfying to solve.

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