Sometimes you stumble across a game that, as soon as you see it, think “That’s a great idea! Why didn’t someone do that before?” because it’s one of those obvious things that should’ve made complete sense to anyone to make. This was my reaction upon first seeing Cat Box Paradox on Twitter for #screenshotsaturday – a hashtag event running every weekend where indie developers showcase their wares.
As a fan of the Treasure shoot ‘em up Ikaruga, where the main mechanic of the game is to switch between a black and white ‘polarity’ to avoid damage from similar-coloured obstacles and projectiles, a platform game with that same mechanic seemed one of these completely obvious, and genius, choices.
For those who aren’t shmup-playing old sorts like myself, or those wisely wanting to experience Cat Box Paradox on its own merits without reference, the gist is that you’re a cat who can change between black and white states. Black can land on black platforms safely and travel through black projectiles and such but is hurt and killed by white ones. And vice-versa, with the levels themselves being designed around a mixture of both so that the aim is to switch rapidly, mostly mid-jump, to complete levels without succumbing to hazards represented by one’s opposite shade.
This concept has a little more room for expansion than one may think, as the game almost exhaustively provides situations in which flipping between a black and a white cat multiple times is the only way to proceed. And sometimes this is paired with some, frankly, evil precision-platforming.
This is where the game’s main challenge comes from. Switching between one and the other extreme very quickly becomes second nature, and so the levels themselves serve to place wrinkles in the cloth; hazards in neither black nor white but red will kill our monochromatic kitty regardless of which end of the luminosity scale they’re currently on.
These typically take the form of spikes and buzzsaws and such – a mainstay of the level designs. But thankfully aren’t the only wrinkle to mix things up. Over the course of the game, the colour-flipping mechanic is tweaked temporarily here and there, messing with the gravity, or flipping whenever the player jumps, there are even portals that go to different destinations depending on whether a black or white cat entered them. Sometimes, when clearly the level designer had awoken on the wrong side of their bed or whatever, black and white hazards are combined and overlaid in such a manner that neither cat configuration is safe, so you have to use your expert timing to deal with that.
The presentation is nothing particularly of note. Visually it probably had to be what it is to prevent further complicating an already kind of mind-bending premise. Sound effects are fine and functional. The chiptune-style soundtrack is great, though – a few tunes stuck in my head after playing.
So far, this all sounds good. Ikaruga-but-a-platform game turns out to be a great idea, but is there a cat-ch? A few, ranging from picky quibbles right through to questions regarding how thoroughly it was playtested. Nothing game-breaking, thankfully. Well, aside from some minor Godot strangeness with controller input that will only affect ageing relics like myself who insist on 2D platforming using the d-pad.
The first and biggest issue is that the levels often get long in the tooth quickly. I doubt it would have hurt to put a checkpoint system in place, and some levels could severely do with one, especially later on. Secondly, the switching can be a little lax in implementation – several times I noticed I had died on the exact frame I had switched to the ‘safe’ polarity, which was frustrating. Admittedly, there’s an assist mode to mitigate this one somewhat, which will auto-switch if the kitty is taking damage from their opposite colour.
There was nothing that stopped me from playing and enjoying the whole main game and eventually seeing the ending – a stock conclusion of sorts to the excuse-plot setup. That plot? A grey cat chased a mouse into their owner’s secret lab, ran over a computer keyboard, ended up in a box (apparently this was Schrödinger’s house) connected to said computer as part of some experiment and was therefore split into the component parts of grey that are black and white.
Cat Box Paradox is a good idea that’s implemented well, even if at times it can frustrate. It’s cheap and will last you a couple of hours, more if you have the steely resolve required to 100% everything. There are also some flipped and remixed versions of the main stages to unlock. And hats. Gotta have hats.
If the term ‘quirky indie pixel precision platformer with a gimmick’ doesn’t make your eyes roll into the back of your head, this comes recommended.
BiscuitLocker’s Cat Box Paradox is out now on Steam.