Power Dolls, Tuned Heart, Meltylancer, Sakura Taisen… mid-nineties gaming is stuffed full of unlikely groups of highly trained young women and girls saving the day using some combination of fantastical weaponry and mechs that run on spiritual energy or love (and on rare occasions, fuel) so it’s only natural the PC-FX would have its own take on this once popular formula, and that is Wakusei Koukitai Little Cats. Released in 1997 (at least a year after all of the titles listed above), Little Cats sets itself apart from the rest of the colourful pack by not only behaving like an off-brand version of all the games that came before it but also pretzel-ing around into a knock-off version of itself.
I really don’t object to titles being “inspired” by more successful or popular releases – some of the greatest games ever are based on somebody else’s good idea or meticulous refinements of an earlier work, and when I bought Little Cats I genuinely hoped I was going end up playing Sakura Taisen: IN SPACE (do make sure you play the original Galaxy Angel trilogy if that setting sounds appealing). Plucky bands of women being heroic while wearing matching uniforms is exactly my cup of tea, so more of the same – the almost-dating, the probably SRPG style battles, the stat sheets tied to some sort of personality/training system, can only be a good thing in my eyes. The trouble is Little Cats has all of these features yet somehow manages to get all of them wrong.
Spending time with a fun set of characters and participating in all the drama, bickering, and romance that arises from their adventures is a huge part of the appeal – and from a more mercenary point of view a bankable cast drive merchandise sales and fill up scores of cheaply-made drama CDs and image albums. Sadly Little Cat’s cast have be saddled with a barrel-scraping range of personality traits, making for a weak foundation – lead girl Rimri’s identity is defined by sweets and cushions of all things, which manifests not in her having a room stuffed full of the things or always being able to amusingly whip an impossibly fluffy pillow out of thin air whenever she needs a comedically frequent nap but her holding one in her hand in a single sleepy character portrait. She never mentions it, you can’t ask her about it, and you can only see a tiny portion of it anyway.
And she’s the one they made an effort with. The rest of the team consists of I’m A Real Grown-Up Because I Smoke Girl (a thoroughly wizened eighteen years of age), Glasses But It’s OK Because Look I’ve Got Huge Boobs Too, and Ninja Who Is Going To Do The [Dis/]Appearing Ninja “Joke” All Of The Time. This dull quartet are kept in line by the exceedingly mature and responsible clipboard-wielder Claire, who’s entire character appears to be “I can wield a clipboard responsibly and be exceedingly mature”. Being young and odd in a very specific way isn’t an issue in itself – I’ve played and enjoyed enough games containing child geniuses, overly stoic scarred orphans, kids who just happen to work really really hard and uh, Rebecca Chambers for a teenaged cast with extreme talents and unnatural privileges (Like “My dad’s president of the company that designed our mechs” or whatever) for the team’s youth and improbable abilities to not even register on my “This couldn’t happen” scale but even so there’s no attempt at making Little Cats small cast work within the sci-fi military format and the setting never attempts to wacky things up to try and make the format work for them – they’re just teenagers because that’s what worked in all those other games Little Cats is copying.
The shallow strangeness of the cast is only exacerbated by the low quality of the events they have to go through. Let’s go back to Rimri: She’s shown preparing for her first mission in an extended cutscene, as you’d hope any team-based girl ’em up would do. The thing is much of the beginning of this video is spent showing her putting on lipstick in her underwear. It’s not sexy, it’s not cute, it’s not funny… it’s just demeaning – to you as much as it is to her. They’re wasting your time (well, mine) with this meaningless drivel. And if you’ve set your sights on somebody else I’m sorry to say that far too much of the artwork for everyone, whether moving or still, looks strangely off-model, sporting lots of weird inconsistencies even within a single character – an incredible feat rarely pulled off by even the most budget-starved eighties cartoon. Oft-used portraits of key cast members are sometimes posed at extreme angles with poor proportions, and the frequent use of fixed-width black pixel outlines and simplistic shading make many images – images that should be conveying emotion and helping you relate to the person speaking – genuinely look like unfinished roughs.
The small silver lining here is that at least your opportunities to witness this visual vandalism are extremely limited when compared to other character-led games of this type, with many crucial introductory or potentially endearing scenes using nothing more than a single cut-off-at-the-knees piece of character art against a generic background as whoever it is speaks a sentence or two of dialogue before you walk off. They don’t even blink during these one-to-ones never mind do something as drastic as display actual body language and it all feels like a dreary series of “Caught in a lift with a complete stranger” moments – nobody looks especially pleased to see you or acts as if they mind when you leave. A good example is offered once again by cover star Rimri: On your wanderings you can find her in the food hall, which leads to the two of you eating together – this is the perfect opportunity to kick off a cute event the way many games cast in this mold do… however Little Cats has you pick a dish from a list of three (you can also ask her to choose instead), she’ll like it (of course she does), and… I want to tell you there was some unique illustration showing her having a comedic overreaction to pudding, greedily wolfing down her dessert before tearing through mine, or she shyly took the opportunity to engage in some sort of “I was worried you’d be strict, new and unwarrantedly in-charge self-insert guy, but you must be nice if you like strawberry dessert!” chatter but what actually happens, and I promise I haven’t omitted anything positive here just because I’m deeply annoyed with the game, is that you both clear your plates and then leave separately. That’s it. This non-scene doesn’t boost any of her stats either, it’s just a whole heap of nothing that benefits neither you or her in any way.
Oh yes, character stats. You’re expected to train your team in cute military exercises to raise their abilities, which in turn effects their performance in battle. Now this is where things get interesting as you carefully balance the Little Cats weekly drills against personal specialities, team balance, individual exhaustion, the danger of an urgent mission crashing through your rigorous planning and throwing everything out of whack… Oh wait no you don’t do any of that in Little Cats. In Little Cats you pick something to do from a short list and then the whole team does that all week, as shown via a series of cute pass/fail sprites (think Princess Maker). And next week? Do it all again.
All that’s left for Little Cats to fumble are the battles – and it does so like cursed clockwork, taking a pool of great concepts and somehow reducing them to shadows of their former selves. But before you set off on any climactic space skirmishes Little Cats goes to the dubious effort of showing your pilot’s cockpit flood with an orange liquid that soon turns clear, a reference so obvious even I groaned – and the last time I saw that anime it came on a VHS tape. Once that’s out the way our daring pilots have to bravely protect the innocent from
aliens an evil empire an asteroid hurtling towards a space station completely inert space debris (I am not joking) sitting at the opposite end of a long map with literally nothing else on it. “Oh but that’s just the battle tutorial, surely?” well yes it is but the problem is this aspect of the game doesn’t improve as the plot wears on – and the pixel art and animation on display when you do fight something that can fight back is noticeably sub-par, using flat side-on sprites to flaccidly pew-pew at each other until you turn the game off in frustration. The PC-FX can do better than this. The Game Gear has done better than this. In fact it’s no exaggeration to say the battles in Masaya’s Hisou Kihei X-Serd looks better than the ones found in Little Cats (it plays better too) – and if you’re unfamiliar with how old and basic that SRPG is please allow me to neatly summarise it by saying “password saves”.
I honestly don’t expect the SRPG segments in games like this to be more than a fun little bit of window dressing where the characters shout daft lines at their enemies and special attacks use fancy-looking cut-in art to make everything feel a bit exciting – it took even the immortal Sakura Taisen three whole games before battles did more than just exist, and even then they were so easy my pet cat – the one who climbs the curtains in a wild frenzy and then doesn’t know what to do once she’s reached the top – could clear them all with little difficulty. So you see I really wouldn’t mind if Little Cats was cheerfully simple – I find it quite relaxing to play something straightforward – but this game can’t even manage to grab that accomodating bar.
The sad thing is there’s no doubt all of the basic ingredients for a good game are present and correct: The youthful cast of slightly oddball people, the base to wander around, the mech-based battling… even the hardware’s perfectly suited to showing the genre at its best. There’s no reason why this couldn’t have worked – but it doesn’t. Everything that could have been charming feels like a quick disinterested draft, as if they hastily copied Sakura Taisen’s homework and didn’t really care if it was right so long as the job got done. Playing it feels weirdly empty, like you’re waiting for a game that never quite shows up. At least Little Cats is optionally compatible with the PC-FX mouse so if you’ve got one of those gathering dust then this will give you some use out of that underused accessory and if you haven’t got any PC-FX anythings lying around then you can still choose to inflict the later PlayStation port of Little Cats on yourself (it’s also available digitally via Japanese PSN) – from what I’ve seen the graphics have had a significant overhaul but unless they also fixed the writing, the battles, the everything else, then it’s only a slightly less broken version of an already disappointing game.