This game has no right to be this good.
Felix the Cat is a Nintendo (Entertainment System) game that was released in 1993. Yes, this was late in the Nintendo’s lifespan, and was the same year we saw gems like Gaygoyle’s Quest, Little Samson, and Panic Restaurant. But it was also the year we saw GI Joe: The Atlantis Factor, Contra Force, two mega buster-based Mega Man games, and Wizards and Warriors 3. Say what you will about such games, but it’s hard to argue any of them were better than their previous installments (W&W3 is a game so bad it made a young Goggle Bob weep). My point is that, even though the NES had probably hit its highest echelon (evolving from “can barely support Donkey Kong” to “Castlevania 3”), there was no “guarantee” of decent NES games, even from established studios. Hell, once we hit Kirby’s Adventure, even Nintendo moved on to greener pastures (albeit after briefly taking a detour through Wario’s Woods).
Though one thing remained consistent through much of the NES’s lifespan: licensed games sucked. Yes, we had Capcom churning out some great Disney games, but for every Ducktales there was an Adventures of Bayou Billy or Road Runner. This continued into 1993, when we saw amazing licensed titles like Monster in my Pocket, The Simpsons: Bartman Meets Radioactive Man, and Hudson Hawk. Nobody ever wanted a licensed Hudson Hawk game, but here it was, tricking children and grandmas alike into letting such an abomination into their NES collection. One may or may not enjoy the final offering of the Ninja Gaiden franchise, but it is at least a playable experience. You didn’t have that luxury when you popped in a game featuring The Addams Family.
So now we have Felix the Cat. For those of you not well versed in animation history, Felix the Cat is an animated character that is old enough to soon hit the century mark (1919), and hails from the era when talkies were still an unimaginable future. Felix the Cat predates Mickey Mouse by nearly a decade, and, while he might not be anywhere near as popular as ol’ squeaky, he has had a pretty extensive career. He was voiced by Jack Mercer and Dave Coulier! How many animated characters can say that?
But by 1993, Felix the Cat didn’t exactly have the star power he once possessed. Like Betty Boop or Droopy Dog, I want to say the average child had a glimmer of recognition for the frenetic feline, but I was the average child back then, and… how did I know Felix the Cat? He didn’t possess anywhere near the popularity of The Real Ghostbusters or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as far as modern merchandising goes, and he wasn’t Bugs Bunny’ing around as some omnipresent corporate mascot. It must have been that weird kind of cultural osmosis that also accounted for me understanding Gilligan’s Island despite avoiding that show like a coconut-based plague.
I had a friend who summered in Portugal. I remember he was really excited about Felix the Cat.
Whatever the case, obscure franchise plus NES licensed platformer was in no way a recipe for success. Felix the Cat should have been yet another terrible NES game that substituted “one hit and you’re dead” for challenge and awful level design for stage variety. Not having much recall about this game (I probably purchased it for a couple bucks at a random EB Games), I was dreading this play session when ROB rolled it in. “I’ll play it at least ten minutes,” I told myself. “Then I can be done with it, and go back to overthinking Xenosaga.”
But you know what? This game is pretty great. I played it for ten minutes… and then another fifty more to finish the sucker. I liked it.
First, and probably most importantly of all, Felix the Cat has an excellent powerup system. Collect ten floating Felix Heads (distributed like Super Mario’s coins), and you’ll earn a heart. A heart will “upgrade” Felix by one level, and (in most stages) there are four levels of powerups. In the first stage, for instance, a heart will upgrade Felix from “basic” to “magician” to “car” and, finally, to “tank”. Pretty natural progression. Each upgrade has a different attack, and, as you can guess, the tank’s attack is a little more effective than that of the magician (sorry, Atlanta). If Felix takes a hit, he’s reduced to the previous powerup stratum, and, should he take damage while he’s at the zero level, it’s life over.
What makes this system all the better is that it maintains a level of tension, even when you’re rolling around in your own tank. There’s a sort of “timer” associated with each powerup level, and, should it tick down to nothing, you’ll revert to an earlier form. To stop the clock, though, all you have to do is collect further Felix Heads, and then you can keep your advanced armaments. While I wouldn’t recommend it for every game, I really like this system, as it encourages the player to keep dutifully collecting everything everywhere, as opposed to many early NES games where, once you’ve got the best powerup available, all you have left to do is book it to the right. There’s gameplay in that gameplay!
And your powerup selection changes according to stage hazards, so your tank can become a sub in underwater stages, or… a dolphin? Sure, why not?
But a sensible powerup system is only one part of the Felix experience. Let’s see here: the level design is thoughtful, with many later stages successfully hiding bonus areas and multiple routes. Enemies are predictable but attentively distributed, so a few “bunching up” can make a difference in strategy. Bosses are difficult but fair, and, unlike many NES games, powerups can be found in boss rooms, which makes all the difference in a pitched battle. And, amusingly enough, the final boss is a battle against a mad scientist buzzing about in his private flying saucer. That just makes me feel right at home.
My only complaint about the game is that Felix is kind of… slippery. This seems almost appropriate, as half the time he’s in a vehicle that shouldn’t have precise brakes, but it’s not the kind of thing you want to see in a game with floating, moving platforms. But past the first level, you just plan your jumps accordingly, and hopefully Felix won’t need more than nine lives.
Ultimately, I want to say what most impresses me about Felix the Cat is that it feels like a modern “return to 2-D gaming” type of game. There have been a number of 2-D platforming revival games in the last five years or so (with Shovel Knight being the best), and the finest of them show a genuine understanding of the genre and what makes it tick. Felix the Cat feels like that kind of experience, to the point that I can nary believe that it was produced twenty years ago by the same guys behind Adventure Island. It’s not a perfect game, but it genuinely seems like something produced with more care than should be afforded to a primordial cartoon cat.
Felix the Cat is the best licensed NES game of 1993. Sure, that may sound like some faint praise, but give Felix a spin, and I think you’ll agree. Or don’t. I mean, Wizards and Warriors 3 is always available.
FGC #117 Felix the Cat
- System: NES, though I understand there is a Gameboy port as well. It’s the same game, but with fewer levels, so that might be good for a car trip if you ever find yourself stuck in 1995.
- Number of Players: There can only be one Felix the Cat.
- Favorite Powerup: It’s not the most powerful ability, but Felix randomly gaining a hot air balloon is delightful. And Felix’s attack in this form is… a Frisbee? Sure, that makes as much sense as anything.
- An End: So the sorta point of the game is to “rescue the princess”, who, in this case, is Felix’s girlfriend, Kitty. Kitty is tied up in classic vaudeville fashion for all of the “what you fight for” cutscenes that show Kitty and her mad captor. When you finally rescue Kitty, well, I guess someone blew the budget on making a first-class video game, so no one got around to animating an “unbound” Kitty. She hops up and down, elated at her rescue… but still hogtied. I guess, even with the villain defeated, cats aren’t very good with knots.
- Tanks for the memories: Felix’s tank is very reminiscent of Kid Chameleon’s own Juggernaut tank. It’s a weird similarity, particularly given they both shoot heads of one kind or another. Kid Chameleon fires chattering skulls, Felix the Cat launches smiley faces. Slightly different ammo.
- Did you know? Actually, Jack Mercer and Dave Coulier both voiced Popeye, too. And both Popeye and Felix the Cat had unusually fun NES titles. That’s oddly specific.
- Would I play again: Probably, yes. It’s a short game, and, having been surprised at the fact it’s, well, good, I think I’ll give it another go sometime to see how well it holds up. Or maybe I’ll never play it again, and keep the dream alive.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Catherine for the Playstation 3! You ever have that dream where you have to play The Adventures of Lolo against a bunch of sheep? No? Well, you’re going to. Please look forward to it!
3-2-1 Let’s Jam