How much does the happiness of your protagonist impact your enjoyment of a videogame?
Today we are looking at Rockin’ Kats, a forgotten gem from the good folks at Atlus. Long before Atlus produced videogames about teenagers obsessed with the subconscious and/or time traveling, there was Rockin’ Kats, a game about a cat-man fighting a bunch of dog-men for his cat-lady friend. It seems that Willy, aka “The Rockin’ Kat”, has caught the attention of a local mob boss, Mugsy, and Will’s girlfriend, Jill, has been kidnapped. Willy thus must defeat four of Mugsy’s chief lieutenants across four different bases, and then make the final assault on Mugsy’s compound to save Jill once and for all. But don’t worry about Willy, gentle reader, he’s got a “punch gun” that can clobber bad guys, grab objects, and even double as a grappling hook. Combine this with Willy’s natural, NES-born ability to jump around like a maniac, and he should have Jill home and loving the Jazz Age by lunchtime.
And, likely as result of being a “late” Nintendo Entertainment System title, Rockin’ Kats is oozing personality. The entire adventure is presented as a series of television “episodes”, so there’s the distinct feeling that this whole story is less a “videogame”, and more of a syndicated cartoon akin to Tom & Jerry. Dog kidnaps cat, other cat fights dog, the day is saved, repeat in half hour intervals at 7 AM every weekday morning. What’s more, every sprite is impressive, so the individual mooks are distinctive, every mini boss is a unique challenge, and the bosses are memorable for more than their patterns. And Willy! That dude is just having a ball scampering through cities, mountains, and sewers! He bounds and punches and flips through the air with ease. I mean, take a look at this hep cat…
Just flipping away like it ain’t no thang, and then landing with a perfect little flourish that is sure to wow the judges. Willy might be in a life or death situation here, but that’s not the first thing on his kitty brain. Willy is not worried. Willy is enjoying it.
And that got this glorious blogger to thinking: how many other videogame heroes actually enjoy their jobs?
Let us start with the obvious: Simon Belmont does not enjoy being Simon Belmont. Poor ol’ barbarian does exactly what he is destined to do, and is literally cursed to carry around assorted organs for his job well done. Similarly, it is hard to imagine any other Belmont actually enjoying their sworn duty, as, best case scenario for all of them is the opportunity to probably not be run out of town on a cross. Maria might be the sole exception to this rule in Castlevania, as she openly and loudly volunteers for vampire-slaying duty, but she is all mopey about every godamned thing in time for Symphony of the Night, so it appears this job is destined to take a toll.
And speaking of generations taking a toll, there is Mega Man. The super fighting robot could have spent the rest of his days working as a maid, but he famously volunteered to pew down his former buddies. And then he did it 82 more times. Or more? Are we counting the teleporter fights? No matter! What’s important is that Mega Man 2 laid the groundwork for solemn Mega Men way back in 1988, which eventually led to The Melancholy of Mega Man X five years later. Now there’s a guy that hates his job! Mega Man X is literally the most powerful reploid on the planet, has a great support group of family and friends that are seemingly invincible/immortal, and he gets a new set of armor from his dad every holiday season; but he still spends most of his adventures sitting around moping about how the cannon on his arm only knows for sure when he’s finally going to stop crying. In short, if you are playing as Mega Man X, you are playing as a character that hates his life.
But it is not all bad for iconic heroes! Mario initially was wholly mute in his adventures, and it was up to the player to determine whether or not Mario was enjoying his switch in vocation from plumber to pouncer. But from Mario 64 on, Mario has been “wee”ing and “woohoo”ing across battlefields, and, give or take occasionally drowning in silent agony, Mario visibly enjoys his time rescuing princesses. Conversely, anytime Luigi is in a group, he hoots along with his bro, but when he is alone, he is an unmistakable mix of scared and annoyed (sca-nnoyed… no, wait, that’s just what happens when The Mighty Mighty Bosstones come on the playlist). Luigi does not like exploring a haunted house, houses, or a motel, and the only thing he is not afraid of is someone knowing he is afraid. But between the brothers, there is a beoveralled tie-breaker: Wario. Right from the first time he stole a whole damn castle, and then immediately afterward when he tried to steal another castle, Wario has squeezed enjoyment out of his job just as easily as squeezing a garlic bulb. You can tell from that omnipresent wicked grin that Wario is not going to let some malevolent genie or gang of pirates get him down, so he is enjoying every time he gets to be a protagonist.
And, in the same way you can just know that Wario enjoys Warioing, having a happy protagonist can impact your feelings on a videogame. It is not a coincidence that Mega Man X(1), a game that just generally nods to X having some issues, is a more well received title than Mega Man X7, wherein X is so depressed, you have to fight just to get him to leave his lounger. Similarly, Super Metroid is a game wherein Samus experiences untold trauma (you ever accidentally wind up blowing up the planet you once called home? It isn’t great), but does not dwell on such. If you want Sad Samus, you have to hit Metroid: Other M, which you won’t, because there isn’t a person alive that would recommend that game. Sure, you could easily argue that these “sad” games have other factors that make them terrible, but there is a greater reason that people so vehemently defend why these games are bad. It is one thing to play a game that is bad, but it is another thing to play a game that makes your hero feel bad.
And if you need further proof of this, look no further than the Prince of Persia franchise from the early 21st century. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was an immensely popular game staring a hero that loved his job. Sure, this prince had screwed up the whole of his world to the point that he accidentally murdered his entire family and friends, but he also could rewind time and run up walls. And what could be more fun than that? The whole narrative conceit of Sands of Time is that Prince is practically bragging about his adventure, and any flubs or errant deaths are just “that didn’t really happen”. Prince likes being Prince. Meanwhile, the sequel, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within had the exact same gameplay, some improvements to the battle system, and a protagonist that would rather take an angry nap than fight a relentless sand monster. Guess what everyone focused on? Guess why IGN dropped Sands of Time’s 9/10 score to Warrior Within’s meager 8.5/10? (Look, that 0.5 meant a lot at the time.) The main reason was inevitably that this new, surly Prince was dramatically less fun to play as and with.
We play videogames for fun, dammit. Unless the whole point of the game is oppressive horror (yes, my Bloodborne create-a-saddy might be scowling right now), your protagonist should be happy. What is the point otherwise? Do you get off on making shirtless, Persian men do whatever you say, despite their persistent objections? Because, uh… if you’re into that… maybe shoot me a private message. There are some titles on Steam…
Bah! Never mind that! Just remember that it is important that a game’s protagonist actually enjoys being the game’s protagonist. Luigi might get a title game every console generation or so, but he’s sure not the dude hosting endless kart championships. By the same token, Willy’s exuberance has undoubtedly made him the most popular hero ever produced by Atlus, and we’re all awaiting this Rockin’ Kat’s next adventure.
Keep on rockin’ a complete lack of angst, Willy.
FGC #566 Rockin’ Kats
- System: Nintendo Entertainment System for its first and only release. You could technically count its presence on a PlayChoice-10 as an arcade release if you really wanted.
- Number of players: Just the one kat. A sequel would have probably introduced Milly Kat.
- Maybe actually talk about the game for a second: This is a great NES action-platformer with a fun character and expressive sprites. It is also one of those gauntlets that somehow makes the final, fifth level as long as the other four stages combined. Complete with including every boss and mini boss! It is… an odd choice. But regardless of a final stage that may as well be the entire game, it is very entertaining, and a fine way to spend a couple of hours having fun with a grapplin’ cat.
- An end: The final boss is defeated by punching Mugsy so hard, he is launched onto the moon. Very good, very dragon ball. But after the credits roll, you are presented with an even harder “second quest” that drops all your weapons and items, and will end after an extremely limited three lives. This is Rockin’ Kats: Super Hard Mode, and if you feel like finishing that, you are a better cat than me.
- Favorite Weapon: The… what are they called?… Two Balls? Double Shot? Whatever, those two thingys extend your weapon’s reach just enough so as to make practically every boss a cakewalk. I enjoy cake, so that’s my weapon of choice, even if the mace really looks cool.
- Favorite Boss: You cannot go wrong with a four-handed robot that eventually transforms into some bastardized version of Cut Man. Dr. Wily would be proud.
- Did you know? There are a few codes hidden in Rockin’ Kats. If you pause the game and press Down+A+B, you will have six lives and full health. If you pause the game and press Up+A+B, you will lose all of your lives, and only have one sliver of health remaining. Please remember to use the proper code for the proper situation.
- Would I play again: This is a great NES game! I would really like to see what could have been done with Super Rockin’ Kats, but we do not live in such a glorious world. I suppose I will be content with what we have for now…
What’s next? The season of love is upon us, so it’s time for Wankery Week yet again! Come back Monday for some mildly NSFW hijinks as we take a look at whether or not some Smash Sisters should be allowed into a boys’ club!
Another blue dude that very much enjoys his job.