Imagine, for a moment, that you are a cat. What would you do for a can of delicious cat food? What about a can of delicious, destiny-altering Super Cat Food? If you're anything like the feline cast of Smash Cat Heroes — the latest eShop title from Escape from Zombie City studio Tom Create — you'd grab a kitten-sized katana and set off on a hack-and-slash adventure across feudal Japan to find it. This might not be be the deepest or most original of journeys, but tagging along with these samurai cats can still be good, old-fashioned fun for fans of simple, combo-heavy action.
At the start of your cross-country quest for the legendary lunch you'll select one of three playable characters: the wide-eyed every-cat Yoshitsune Mewmew, a well-rounded starter who's quick on the draw with his katana, his brother Yoritomo, sword-wielding leader of the Mewmew clan, and Kiyomori Kitte, head of the rival Kitte clan who fights by lobbing projectiles and twirling a deadly fan. Each warrior has different stats and a different feel thanks to their unique weapons, and by progressing through the story you can unlock three new characters, each of whom brings a new combat style along for the ride.
Smash Cat Heroes is split into different areas of two or three bite-sized, slice-'em-up stages apiece, and plays a bit like a top-down, two-dimensional, tomcat-themed version of Dynasty Warriors. You'll move your chosen kitten around a compact stage, using rinse-wash-repeat combos and the occasional special move to claw your way through successive waves of enemies until a big boss eventually shows up for a climactic catfight. It's a classic formula that's further simplified by the unscrolling stages, which span the 3DS' two screens but generally stop there; rather than fighting your way from point A to point B, you'll simply hold your ground until you're the last cat standing. To make things a bit more interesting, each stage also comes with three Missions to complete - time-, combo-, or K.O.-based challenges that reward you with coins or equippable items.
Though each character has their own stats and weapons, they all share a common control set: the Circle or D-Pad can both be used to move, 'Y' attacks, 'B' dashes, 'A' triggers a screen-sweeping special move, and 'X' activates the battle catnip, sending your character into a "Hyper Mode" frenzy that comes with increased speed and power. Special moves and Hyper Mode both require energy, which you'll gain in small quantities from landing successful hits, but can also charge up manually by holding both shoulder buttons while standing still. You can ready more powerful and ranged attacks by holding down 'Y' before releasing, and dial in combos and specific attacks by tapping the button in conjunction with various directional inputs.
It's a simple system overall, and the strict four-way aiming can feel restrictive at times — especially if you find yourself locked into a combo while facing the wrong way — but it's still fun to throw in charged attacks and 360° slashes every few moves. Stronger attacks are particularly satisfying, as they can send your enemies careening pinball-style across the stage, stunning any other foes they hit along the way.
A combo meter keeps track of your consecutive K.O.s, with a twist: the number only resets if you take damage, and there's no time-limit to beat in-between hits to keep a combo going. Racking up a 50-hit chain will produce a Shiny Cat Food power-up which turns your fuzzy fighter into a non-stop, spinning furball of death, allowing you to take out enemies simply by bumping into them.
Like many hack-and-slash titles, Smash Cat Heroes is somewhat mindless and seriously repetitive, but when you get into a groove it can be a lot of fun — rolling around the field from enemy to enemy, charging up special attacks for screen-clearing claw-swipes, juggling four or five foes at a time in a continuous combo, knocking baddies into each other, and generally feeling invincible as you stand alone against an army of aggressive alley cats.
It's worth noting, however, that you won't always feel invincible here. In fact, while the quest starts out simply enough, the difficulty ramps up steadily and quickly, so that making it through the middle levels alive is already a significant challenge: powerful bosses, pesky projectiles, and overwhelming odds leave little room for error. Fortunately, when the going gets tough you can always get tougher, using coins earned in battle or by completing Missions to purchase upgrades for your character's HP, attack, defence, and special abilities.
This focus on coin-based character progression entails plenty of backtracking, as you head to previously completed stages to fill your purse and power-up for tougher fights. For some gamers, the gold grind will provide welcome replay value, but in a game that's already so repetitive, where the single-screen stages tend to blend together anyway, it can feel like unnecessary padding. In truth, there's often very little tangible gameplay difference between replaying an old stage and moving onto a new one. That's not necessarily a problem in itself, of course — the compact, self-contained levels and challenge-based Missions make for portable-friendly play, and the button-mashing, hack-and-slash action is comfort gaming, plain and simple.
Smash Cat Heroes is a simple affair graphically as well, and could easily have appeared on the original DS — especially given the complete lack of stereoscopic 3D. But even if it's not pushing the boundaries of Nintendo's latest portable, it's still commendably adorable. The cartoony art design combines concepts from both feudal and feline Japan, and the samurai cat sprites are immediately appealing. Backgrounds are basic but pleasant enough, and their variety helps to differentiate the (otherwise largely identical) individual levels. Unfortunately, a tiny inventory of enemy designs means you'll be seeing some familiar faces dozens and dozens (and dozens) of times per stage; it's common practice for foes to feel like placeholder combo-fodder in the genre, but it's still a disappointing source of déjà-vu here. That feeling is compounded by the game's soundtrack, which consists of a single main musical selection — an energetic, Eastern-inspired battle melody — and sound effects which impressively evoke both the steely clashes of bladed war and the sweet squeaks of plush toy kittens in equal measure.
Smash Cat Heroes is a hack-and-slash game distilled down to the bare essentials: flashy attacks, waves of enemies, a combo system, and plenty of kittens. Though the gameplay is repetitive and the graphics unremarkable, it definitely has heart; the silliness of the theme shines throughout, from the dialogue ("Everyone purraises me on my swordsmanship!") to the "Paws" menu, and controlling a cat instead of a wandering samurai makes for a decidedly different experience. If you're looking to sink your claws into some simple, lighthearted action, Smash Cat Heroes is a solid choice.