What’s New Pussycat? Well, quirky milk-mining shmup Astro Aqua Kitty is out on Nintendo Switch and we are about to let the cat out of the bag. The Finger Guns review.
The sequel to Aqua Kitty, Astro Aqua Kitty sends our aquatic diving-suit-clad furballs into outer space seeking yet more milk on asteroids rather than just under the sea. The original game was a 2D shmup on a horizontal plane with all the trappings of the genre. Astro Aqua Kitty is not the same game again – it’s an expanded framework, no longer confined to one plane, you can now go up and down, and explore expansive asteroid interiors. But is everything bigger and better? Let’s take a look.
So Astro Aqua Kitty doesn’t start with a whole lot of exposition; the game throws you right in at the deep end. If you didn’t play the first one here’s the yarn. Earth ran out of milk, but sentient cats found it under the sea. Presumably, now that has run out too. You are part of a crew of anthropomorphic space mining cats. Got spacesuit, did travel. You are both in space and underwater inside hollow asteroids filled with seawater. Don’t ask me, the clue was in the title.
You pilot a small but tough sub with a very swappable weapon turret, and it’s your job to smash rocks, help out erstwhile scientist cats, and generally blast all types of biomechanical life off the asteroids that your animal friends are mining. And what are they mining for you ask? Well, rocks, gems and crystals, like you might expect, but there are also pumps, trying to milk, what, the asteroid itself? I’m really not sure.
It’s a pretty off the wall premise, but that’s the beauty of games sometimes. Things that shouldn’t work, or never would in another medium, just work. It won’t help much to have played the first one, but you might be a little less incredulous at the get go. Don’t expect a narrative really, or any real depth to the story. It’s surface fluff, just a premise and an addictive gameplay loop. There’s probably an argument that it didn’t need anything deeper, but I did find I had no real connection to my cat character or anything that happened to them. Without named characters, plot or lore it’s hard to feel invested.
Good job then that the gameplay is fun. You are essentially an odd job cat, piloting your sub through each level as they get progressively larger, looking for jobs to do, cats to aid, and things to upgrade your ship. For what seems a pretty militaristic society, it’s a remarkably relaxed job role that rarely sees you need to answer to anyone. Just be helpful. What a nice message.
Each level is an asteroid that needs to be cleared and explored, and you’ll constantly be given new jobs to do. Jobs are excuses to explore more of each expansive underwater asteroid level, looking for lost catnauts, strange pollen to power batteries to get things moving again, drills and rockcrushers, and lots of space pirates, who are the cat’s nemesis and of course, they are space-faring rabbits. Yeah, I thought it would be dogs too, but nope rabbits, most of whom look like a beefed-up Jazz Jackrabbit or Bucky O’Hare on spice.
The levels play like those great underwater Crash Bandicoot ones. You can switch directions from left to right with the click of a shoulder button, and you have an array of weapons to clip on to your ship. Everything from straight shot cannons and rapid-fire, to AOE sonar rays, shotguns, and bomb launchers. You see there’s a hell of a lot of strange biomechanical life down (up?) here, and most of it wants to shoot you. The robot fish, because that’s what they are, come in many different shapes and sizes, from tiny buzzing nuisance enemies, through rays, crabs, weird larva, and a lot of worms sticking out of holes in the rock. All have individual behaviours and shooting patterns, meaning they all require a particular approach that makes for fun game design.
Once you’ve cleared the enemies, found whatever parts, batteries, seeds or actual pilots the catnauts need you to, it’s on to a final boss. These can be tricky but most need a particular weapon to really go to town on them. Experimentation is encouraged when you get stuck. You have very little health, and will need to hone your bullet-hell dodging skills. Boss down, you’ll wander on to the next asteroid and repeat the process. There are eight asteroid levels, and each one will take a good hour or more, and that’s without a number of inevitable deaths.
You do level up via kills, and get access to more powerful weapons, and increased health, armour and energy (to power a number of the weapons). It’s very necessary to save often and use the little docking stations dotted about the levels, because the levels just get so big. There’s also a good chunk of replay value in being able to choose from four different types of pilot, and four different engineers, all with their own unique skill sets, plus difficulty settings and a permadeath option, not for scaredy cats.
Astro Aqua Kitty has a pretty addictive gameplay loop, especially if you are the type of gamer who likes to clear the whole map and find every nock and cranny. Curiosity doesn’t kill, it rewards, and you get the satisfaction of this eight times over.
One restrictive holdover from the original game Aqua Kitty, is the shoulder button to change direction. The shooting mechanic really is just left and right. While this made a lot of sense on Earth and under the sea in the original, now the cats are in space, where there’s no kind of atmosphere, and no one can hear you meow. My point is actually there’s no gravity, so somewhere in that extra axis, I expected the leap to fully twin-stick shooter goodness. Left and right make less sense now that the world of the game has been opened up so much more. I wish it had opened up the movement and controls, and full 360 degree aiming.
Graphically, Astro Aqua Kitty looks pretty smart. It’s a pixel game, but the pixels are tiny and in quite high fidelity, meaning the whole thing looks quite sharp on the Switch. Hit boxes are precise, and the graphics never cause any issue to the shooting. However the designs are things we’ve seen many times over and Astro Aqua Kitty doesn’t really differentiate itself in the art department.
There’s some really fun chiptune tracks, each one providing the soundtrack to one of the asteroids. They sound like Under The Sea from The Little Mermaid, but gamified, and would fit nicely in a Sonic game. Very repetitive, but somehow, don’t ask me how, they’re still fun to listen to for an hour on repeat.
The Nintendo Switch is the purr-fect place for a game like this. A little handheld screen suits the genre and style of shmups and takes you back to the gameboy days. It just doesn’t look as good when you stick it in TV mode. Astro Aqua Kitty upgrades and expands on every aspect that was present in the original game, from level size and exploration to enemies, weapon variety, and scope.
But at the same time it restricts its control scheme to the horizontal, belying the addition of the Y-axis. Twin-stick shooter controls would have made this so much better. While every aspect present in the original is here in spades, there are plenty of things the developer has still completely shunned – actual characters, plot, lore, exposition and that factor that makes a game truly memorable. Without these Astro Aqua Kitty is a quirky shmup, but also only a quirky shmup.
With a fun addictive gameplay loop, Astro Aqua Kitty is often a purr-fect sequel. It features expanded level design and enhancements over the original. If you liked the first, you’ll like this, but seven out of ten cats would say it’s missing anything to truly make it memorable, rather than just a quirky shmup.
Astro Aqua Kitty is available now on Nintendo Switch (review platform) and coming soon to PS4, Xbox One, PC via Steam and even PlayStation Vita.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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