‘Gato Roboto’ and ‘Dig Dog’ put pixelated pets to work in gleeful gaming homagesMay 30, 2019
Drawing inspiration from games of yore but with dog and cat protagonists that signal light adventures rather than grim, dark ones, Gato Roboto and Dig Dog are easy to recommend to anyone looking to waste a couple hours this weekend. Not only that, but the latter was developed in a fascinating and inspiring way.
Both games share a 1-bit aesthetic that goes back many years but most recently was popularized by the inimitable Downwell and recently used to wonderful effect in both Return of the Obra Dinn and Minit. This is a limitation that frees the developer from certain concerns while also challenging them to present the player with all the information they need with only two colors, or in Dig Dog’s case a couple more (but not a lot).
In the latter game, you play as a dog, digging for bones among a series of procedurally generated landscapes populated by enemies and hazards. Dig Dug is the obvious callback in the name, but gameplay is more bouncy and spontaneous rather than the slower, strategic digging of the arcade classic.
On every stage you’re tasked with collecting a bone that’s somewhere near the bottom, while avoiding various types of enemies and traps or, if you so choose, destroying them and occasionally yielding coins. These coins can be traded with a merchant who appears on some stages, offering various gameplay perks like a longer dash or higher jump.
The simple controls let you jump, dig, and do a midair dash that kills enemies — that’s pretty much it. The rest is down to moment-to-moment choices: dig around that enemy or go through them? If I go this way will I trap myself in this hole? Is it worth attacking that bat nest for a coin or will it be too hard to get out alive?
Collected bones contribute towards unlocking new stages with different, more dangerous enemies and devious traps. It gives a sense of progression even when you only get a bone or two, as does your dog rocketing back upwards in a brief but satisfying zoomies celebration every time. So even when you die, and you will die a lot, you feel like you’re working towards something.
It’s a great time-waster and you won’t exhaust its challenges for hours of gameplay; it’s also very easy to pick up and play a few stages of, since a whole life might last less than a minute. At $4 it’s an easy one to recommend.
Interestingly, Dig Dog was developed by its creator with only minimal use of his hands. A repetitive stress condition made it painful and inadvisable for him to code using the keyboard, so he uses a voice-based coding system instead. If I had been told I couldn’t type any more, I’d probably just take up a new career, so I admire Rusty Moyher for his tenacity. He made a video about the process here, if you’re curious:
Gato Roboto, for Switch and PC, is a much more complicated game, though not nearly so much as its inspirations, the NES classics Metroid and Blaster Master. In Gato Roboto, as in those games, you explore a large world filled with monsters and tunnels, fighting bosses and outfitting yourself with new abilities, which in turn let you explore the world further.
This one isn’t as big and open as recent popular “metroidvanias” like Hollow Knight or Ori and the Blind Forest — it’s really much more like a linear action-adventure game in the style of metroidvanias.
The idea is that you’ve crash-landed on a planet after tracking a mysterious signal, but the spaceman aboard the ship is trapped — you play his cat, Kiki, who must explore the planet in his stead.
At first (or shall I say fur-st) you really are just a cat, but you’re soon equipped with a power suit that lets you jump and shoot like any other action game. However, you frequently have to jump out of it to get into a smaller tunnel or enter water, in which the suit can’t operate (and the cat only barely). In this respect it’s a bit like Blaster Master, in which your pilot could dismount and explore caves in top-down fashion — an innovation that made the game one of my favorites for the system. (If you haven’t played the Switch remake, Blaster Master Zero, I implore you to.)
Gato Roboto isn’t as taxing or complex as its predecessors, but it’s not really meant to be. It’s a non-stop romp where you always have a goal or an obstacle to overcome. The 1-bit graphics are so well executed that I stopped noticing them after a minute or two — the pixel art is very clear and only rarely does the lack of color cause any confusion whatever.
Like Dig Dog and Downwell before it, you can pick up color schemes to change the palette, a purely aesthetic choice but a fun collectible (some are quite horrid). The occasional secret and branching path keeps your brain working a little bit, but not too much.
The game is friendly and forgiving, but I will say that the bosses present rather serious difficulty spikes, and you may, as I did, find yourself dying over and over to them because they’re a hundred times more dangerous than ordinary enemies or environmental hazards. Fortunately the game is (kitty) littered with save points and, for the most part, the bosses are not overlong encounters. I still raged pretty hard on a couple of them.
It’s twice the price of Dig Dog, a whopping $8. I can safely say it’s worth the price of two coffees. Don’t hesitate.
These pleasant distractions should while away a few hours, and to me they represent a healthy gaming culture that can look back on its past and find inspiration, then choose to make something new and old at the same time.