The Internets obsession with cats is hardly a new, unique or untapped phenomenon. There is a veritable smorgasbord of videos, pictures, songs and games regarding cats in some way, shape or form. Bundlestars has done at least one pack of all quality cat games. Simply slapping a cat into a game isn’t going to automatically make it a hit, although you still might convince a couple of fanatics to sink their dollars as long as the mascot is cute. It’s with a sigh of relief, then, that I declare Neko Navy to be a fun, frustrating and satisfying shmup that just happens to have cats.
If you checked out the game ahead of time and found the publisher attached – FruitBat Factory – then you already knew a little about what to expect. You’d imagine something adorable and Japanese, mixed in with some solid mechanics and a novel concept. Feel free to tick all the boxes on your FruitBat Factory bingo card: this one is right over the plate in terms of what you thought. Choose one of several cats (three initially, with three more to unlock) and fight through seven stages of kawaii, horizontal bullet hell on three different difficulty levels. Each cat has a different style of bullet pattern,you progressively get more powerful as long as you collect the power ups, and the bosses become more and more outrageous and grandiose. Continues are earned, not given, and achievements can be had if you choose not to continue. Deathmofumofu, the developer, knew exactly what they were getting into with the creation of this game, and the result is incredibly well done.
Graphically, I love how Neko Navy comes across. It’s got a great sense of someone who used to doodle cute characters in their notebooks, and then polished it up to look even more cartoony, less realistic. The cats are all recognizable types of tabbies that you’d find in Japan, whereas the monsters fluctuate from simple and geometric (little more than boxes with eyes) to complex and dangerous (multi-gunned airships…with eyes) to just plain weird (sausage links. No eyes). The great part about any shooter is knowing that you are alone in the quest: there’s no chance of accidentally shooting an ally or civilian who happened onto the scene. If it moves, shoot it. If you can shoot it, make sure you kill it.
Every enemy destroyed drops a number of cat sprites that can be collected for a bonus at the end of the level. An easy thing to remember: if it’s light-blue and cat shaped, pick it up. If it’s almost any other color or shape, dodge and roll to the best of your ability. There were some glowing cubes that were occasionally dropped when I either died or scored a particularly good kill, but I never worked out exactly what made them appear and if they were worth more or less than focusing on the cat spirits.
The controls are pretty tight, and the hitboxes for your cats are well mapped and fair. I never felt like I got unfairly shot, though I argued with myself about whether I deserved to squeak by on some shots and got slaughtered by others. The game is true to the genre at any difficulty (easy, normal or death). It very quickly stops being about shooting and starts becoming about not getting shot. The ramping of the difficulty also seems to vary accordingly for each level. For easy, things start going off the rails around stage four, normal is about stage three, and death is from the start if you aren’t prepared. I personally thought that the difficulty levels were EXCELLENT on all fronts. I was able to enjoy easy so I could see the ending but I didn’t fall asleep at the stick. Normal took a lot of tries to even get to level six. Death is when my controller ended up in the toilet, and I don’t even have indoor plumbing. The lesson should have been clear, but it bears repeating for those in the back. Don’t think, for a moment, that cute graphics means a cakewalk, or you get nailed to the wall.
Just a quick note on the controls: at first, the pause button, for whatever reason, is bound to the X button on a 360 controller by default. Make sure you get your controller totally set up the way you want in order to have the maximum fun and comfort with Neko Navy. I have no idea why I’m having difficulty with games as far as default settings as of recently, but I’m guessing it’s due to my own brain not being inline with the idea set forth by the developers.
Your overall success in Neko Navy will be a direct result of how well you mesh with certain felines. Due to the variety of bullet patterns from both your own ship(?) and the enemies, different levels favor different cats. A great example is Miracle vs. Chiyoko. Miracle is significantly weaker in the first few stages due to a straightforward shot, but becomes invaluably strong and makes levels five and beyond much easier as long as you’ve honed your reflexes. Chiyoko, meanwhile, has a huge screen-filling screen and bomb attack, which makes for sweeping the first few stages a breeze. However, Chiyoko is also a bit slower, and the bomb attack doesn’t solve everything. Dying in Neko Navy is rarely an isolated event, and, once it happens the first time, the next two are usually right on top of each other. My advice is to pick a cat you can match your own play style with and practice.
Lastly, don’t skimp on checking out the training section, no matter how seasoned a pilot you may be with other shooters. Training allows you to play any of the seven stages that you’ve encountered, on any difficulty, regardless of which difficulty you originally played at. Neko Navy, like other great bullet hell games, relies on reflex and memorization of patterns. Being able to unlock the majority of the game on easy and then go back and hone your memory on normal allowed for a more successful initial run in the game. Not completely successful: the Sausage Fest level is equal parts ridiculous and disturbing and the boss is a wrecker at any difficulty setting.
Neko Navy is a really fun shump with a good amount of replay baked right in. It’s cute, it has funny moments (the boss of stage 3 comes to mind) and it was made with a huge amount of respect for the genre. The soundtrack, while not outstanding, is both entertaining and fitting, and is free DLC that you can grab with the game. Players looking for the next CAVE shooter or a Touhou-level of challenge could probably skip this title without any loss of sleep. However, for players who are still rather new but hungry with shumps, or those who simply want to see the chaos a flying laser cat can wreak, should definitely add Neko Navy to their library and prepare for catastrophic explosions.