Skate Cat (NES Indie Review)

The lead designer on Skate Cat is a 10 year old kid. As opposed to many indies I’ve reviewed that were by overgrown children. Actually the kid in question, SJ, has shown a lot more class than I’ve gotten from many grown-up developers. Him and his papa requested this review and sent along the final game ROM, which will be available on NES Cart and Itch.io eventually. I warned them that, if we do this, it has to be a full Indie Gamer Chick review. That means no holding back. Full, unfiltered feedback. SJ Games wants to become an elite game developer eventually, and we all agreed for me to go forward with the review. Brought a tear to my eye. I mean, come on. How can you not feel good about the future of gaming with a new generation of developers coming along like that? So be it, young man! Let’s do the review.

Oh God, I’m using terms like “young man” now. I’m getting old.

Welcome to game development, SJ! Where people who have never made a game and will never make a game tell you how to make games. You’re going to love it so much.

Skate Cat is a basic platformer, and honestly, there isn’t a lot to critique because the game is pretty bare-bones. A move left, jump over pits, jump on enemies, beat a boss type of game. The hook is you’re a cat on a skateboard. The best part about Skate Cat is it does charm right. It’s a game that has personality, which is what you need to get people to want to like it. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get there. I didn’t hate Skate Cat or even close. If the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard included games that didn’t win my Seal of Approval, this wouldn’t be anywhere near the bottom. In fact, it’d be really close to the middle. It doesn’t really do anything I’d call a “deal breaker” but it also doesn’t really do anything to elevate itself over middle-of-the-pack. For every element of a level I enjoyed, there was one I didn’t.

These massive “last pixel jumps” are the main challenge in Skate Cat, and there’s too many of them.

The jumping has a steep learning curve to it. Skate Cat has snappy, low-angle jumping physics and most of the challenge comes from your leaping limitations. Skate Cat overly relies on last-pixel jumping, which is to say gaps that require you to wait to execute the jump until you reach the far edge of a cliff. It used this to such a degree that I found myself just last-pixel-jumping every jump that looked big, whether I needed to or not. I’ve never liked that in any game, because it turns platforming into a game of chicken. Like you’re trying to figure out who will blink first: you or the gap you’re jumping over. When Skate Cat relies on zig-zagging through terrain or doing timed-jumping sections, I enjoyed those fine. Actually, I thought the stage that took place in the forest was a strong level, and I was smiling contently as I hopped across falling leaves and avoided the quills of porcupines. There’s some genuinely good moments in Skate Cat, and not just for a game by a kid. No, the kid actually proved he can bring quality gameplay to the table. It’s why I can’t go easy on him. He’s got talent.

Now THAT’S the good stuff, kiddo.

Really, that’s what the whole game should have been: a twitchy, reactionary platformer with skateboard-based combat. When you get the hang of the jumping.. and it took me the whole play session on normal mode to do so.. I found the best moments were the ones where I didn’t have to stop moving. Those felt like they took advantage of the skateboard theme. Not that I wanted this to be like.. say.. the skateboard from Adventure Island games (which I can’t stand at all), but certainly I think the theme calls for a fast pace and quick reflexes. But, in the final two levels of the game, Skate Cat start to rely to heavily on electric gates, and the game grinds to a halt. See what I did there? Grinds? I’m down with the skate lingo. See, I’m not old yet. Anyway, there’s too much waiting around, and it becomes kind of boring. You can use an obstacle like that a couple times, but two levels full of them becomes tedious. Especially when the action was really cooking leading into that section.

This section would be fine, but Skate Cat over-uses the gates to an ever bigger degree than the last pixel jumps. So, by time you get to this area, you’re already over having them.

Finally, the combat isn’t really that good. You don’t get an attack at all in the first level and have to just avoid the enemies. After every level, you get a new skateboard, the first of which introduces the ability to jump on enemies. But, the enemies just lack satisfactory OOMPH to defeat. They blink out of existence with a thump and not enough pomp. Then, the game adds a kick-flip, and this is where it really goes off the rails. The timing for when to hit it feels inconsistent, and I just as often took damage myself instead of hitting enemies. In the hoverboard stage (yep, Mattel pink and everything!) I lost a life to an enemy trying to figure out where exactly I was supposed to hit it. I’m not even sure you can hit it without taking damage yourself. Since it takes three hits to kill, maybe the implication is supposed to be that it’s an enemy to avoid. Ironically, the enemy was used correctly: to complement the tight squeeze of that level’s environmental hazards, which is why it probably shouldn’t have been able to take damage at all.

I like that this section also goes slower, as space should. It’s a nice little touch in a game that needed a lot more little touches. Like, for example, the cat always has the same face on, even when attacking. His eyes blink and he’ll frown when you take damage, but that’s not enough. You can sell the combat with as little a detail as making the cat have an aggressive face when you attack. Same with the enemies. Having a “defeated” sprite instead of blinking out of existence can really make the combat feel more satisfying, because it feels like you’re affecting the game world and not just scrolling a bit map right. Often, it’s the small details you barely notice that makes a game memorable. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true.

Skate Cat isn’t a bad game by any means. I don’t even feel comfortable calling it below average, because I think it rises above that. It’s totally average, and simply didn’t do any one thing that sealed this as a must-play game. It’s a really short game. It contains four levels, each level with two sections. The whole thing takes fifteen to twenty minutes tops. The highlight is probably the four boss battles, which are fine enough, but also just right in the middle. On the other hand, a 10 year old managed to make a complete twenty minute-long platformer without a single major flaw, and one that managed to actually bring some pretty good gameplay in small doses. My advice to SJ now would be that you got most of the basics down. Work on play control first. The controller should vanish in your hand. Movement and physics should be intuitive by the end of the first level. The less players have to think about what they’re doing, the more immersed they become.

You know.. I really thought it would be another decade or so before I was reviewing games by developers younger than IndieGamerChick.com is. I’m going to go have a pity cry as soon as I finish this review.

After that, get really creative with the level design. Remember that video games are a series of small moments that add up to one big experience. Really, that’s my advice to all developers: if you have the mentality of designing moments and not levels, you’ll do great. The hopping across the falling leaves part? That’s an enjoyable, satisfying moment. So were the parts where you hopped across the sewers, and the teleporters in the fourth level. You want to be careful repeating those moments. Think of each section as a self-contained challenge, and then just merge the ending of that part with the beginning of the next, so it seamlessly leads into the next moment. Stick to that, and you’ll be fine. Hey, SJ? You’re going to do great. Stick with this game design thing, and don’t give up. You’re going to make it, kid. And when they award you best director of a video game some day, you’ll be able to thank me in the acceptance speech. “I’d like to dedicate this award to Indie Gamer Chick. We all miss her, god rest her soul. It’s still hard to believe she’s gone. Eaten by rhinoceros. Terrible way to go.”

Skate Cat is not Chick-Approved

Skate Cat was developed by SJ Games
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