I have a complicated relationship with Metroidvania titles. Super Metroid is one of my favorite games of all time, and the DS Castlevania entries are up there too. But the genre has become so oversaturated over the past decade, with dozens of games trying to recapture the magic of the classics by mechanically reproducing their conventions. Also, “Metroidvania” is the worst possible name for a genre of video games. James Rolfe calls them “‘where the fuck do I go’ games,” a sentiment more elegantly captured in the Japanese “search action.”
Whatever you call them, I haven’t played many in the last few years. But I picked up Gato Roboto on sale on the Switch last week purely because of the premise: a cat piloting a robot suit. If I didn’t like it, I was only out a few dollars anyway.
I tore through Gato Roboto in just a couple of hours — I know this because the game tracks and displays your time onscreen. It’s a short, simple game, and what you see is what you get. There are no genre-bending twists, no deep secrets to discover. You are a cat piloting a robot suit, making your way through different areas and acquiring upgrades which then allow you to access other areas.
Probably the biggest quirk here is that you can hop out of your robot suit at any time. Doing so allows you to squeeze through tight spaces and climb up to inaccessible platforms, but makes you vulnerable. You can also hop into submarines and turrets in a few places, but for the most part you’re in your mech.
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In genre tradition, your mech starts off with only the ability to jump and shoot. But by the end of the game, you’ll have infinite jumps and a dash ability that lets you pass through enemies. And this is where Gato Roboto really shines.
My favorite part of any Metroidvania is when you get an upgrade that lets you speed through the world. This is typically later on in the game, when you’ve gotten a little tired of traversing back and forth through the same areas. But then you get the Panther Soul or the Space Jump, and you’re just flying. At that moment, the pace of the game radically shifts, and you move into the final act.
Gato Roboto nails that structure and builds the rest of the game around it. The simple visuals mean that collectibles — health upgrades and palette swaps (like the red/black Virtual Boy visuals) — are pretty easy to find. Enemies don’t drop health powerups, meaning it’s often easier to just jump past them. And you aren’t managing any resources like missiles or bombs. If it seems a little shallow, it’s because it’s fixed on a different aspect of the Metroidvania formula than most other examples of the genre.
Besides, it’s just very cute. And it’s short enough that were it released back in 1995, you could have played through Gato Roboto on the Virtual Boy without sustaining permanent ocular damage.