Pix The Cat
Belonging to the same arcade revival movement as games like Super Hexagon and Geometry Wars, Pix the Cat is deliberately anachronistic but by no means obsolete. It’s true that the diversity of experiences video games offer has broadened significantly in recent years, and that the medium's emotional range is becoming increasingly more sophisticated.
What Pix reminds us though is that despite this perceived trajectory of intellectual growth (presumably towards some ideal threshold of “importance” or “maturity” that would place video games alongside literature and highbrow filmmaking), video games have been capable of connecting with us in immediate, powerful ways since their very inception, back when they were vying for loose change rather than emotional resonance. Simple arrangements of abstract rules and actions, the best arcade games offer sublime tests of skill that while certainly different from the kinds of experiences video games aim to deliver today, are no less valid. Pix the Cat might be about a square-shaped cat that leads conga lines of ducks through mazes to glowing waypoints, but that’s not so say it doesn’t feel serious to play.
For starters it demands intense concentration, cleverly layering simple components to achieve a holistic complexity in which every moment counts. Part Pac-Man, part Snake, players navigate Pix through a series of grid-based mazes, collecting eggs which then hatch into a growing train of ducks that follows behind them. These ducks must be dropped off at targets throughout the maze but with one important complication – if the player can collect all the eggs in the area before delivering them to the target spots, they’ll increase their score multiplier. This means each maze is its own puzzle, tasking players to find a route that passes through all the target spots without resulting in them ploughing headfirst into their own tail, a feat that requires honed reflexes and canny forward-planning in equal measure.
Whatsmore, maintaining a fluid forward momentum by “boosting” off of walls (i.e. turning corners early) increases Pix’s movement speed, thus allowing players to rack up points more quickly but at the expense of Pix becoming increasingly more difficult to control. The result is a thrilling balance of risk and reward that welcomes different approaches: for instance, forfeiting your multiplier for the sake of safety is often a sensible decision, be that by deliberately hugging walls to slow yourself down or by prematurely getting rid of ducks before you’ve gathered the whole set. The subtly randomised level layouts also add to this need for flexibility, in turn ensuring that consecutive attempts aren’t entirely identical.
The further you get, the faster and more difficult things become, and Pix the Cat neatly communicates this perpetual escalation of stakes by presenting each new maze as if’s nested within the previous one, winding deeper down in a seemingly infinite spiral. This visual gimmick creates a psychological effect similar to that of a Shepard Tone, inducing a growing sense of vertigo that becomes seductive and compels playthrough after playthrough. One side effect however (and this is true of some of most revered arcade classics) is that the early stages of subsequent replays grow dull by comparison, and wading through these initial sections time and again becomes a sluggish and laborious process that gets less enjoyable with each new attempt.
When you do burn out on the main game, Pix has three other modes to try. Each recontextualises its core mechanics within a new framework of rules that could pass for comprehensive standalone games in their own right, overhauled with a distinct audiovisual style and a host of unique components and features. “Nostalgia” reimagines Pix the Cat as depression-era cartoon complete with screen flicker and a muted trumpet soundtrack, splitting the game into separate short challenges that focus only on collecting eggs. “Laboratory” on the other hand apes the sort of sliding puzzles found in Zelda games, button presses committing Pix to travelling in just one direction until coming up against another object. Here the game becomes turn-based, tasking players with completing the puzzles in as few moves as possible while retaining the same premise of escorting eggs to target areas as the regular game.
Completing the package is a local-multiplayer battle mode that’s just as impressive as the others in its glossy presentation and wholehearted execution, but really none of these modes approach primal, compulsive appeal of the main game. At best they’re welcome but innocuous distractions and indeed their status as such strengthens Pix the Cat’s image as a throwback, paying tribute to the practice among home console ports of arcade games of including extra modes as a sort of perfunctory gesture of added value.
More importantly though, Pix the Cat is a convincing facsimile of a true arcade classic where it counts – it delivers accessible, yet nuanced score oriented gameplay that can dig right through to the bone within just a few minutes of play. Highly involving and borderline addictive, it’s an experience that’s perhaps irresponsible to recommend, especially since – like the Shepard Tone it’s recursive mazes evoke – it’s structure fundamentally dictates that it can never really go anywhere or offer any obvious resolution. But now that plenty of games are getting better and better at doing just that, maybe it’s OK that Pix The Cat simply offers us a good time.