In the grand pantheon of arcade shooters, few are more prestigious than 1981’s Defender. While the William Electronics-developed coin-op wasn’t an immediate success (creator Eugene Jarvis has blamed the groundbreaking five-button control method), the game proved to be immensely popular in the long run, earning over a billion dollars in revenue, one quarter at a time. It’s also the only interactive work ever memorialized on a U.S. postal stamp, with a depiction of two children playing the 2600 port released in the 2000 “Celebrate the Century” series. Beyond spurring a sequel, a board game, and a pinball machine, Defender also inspired a slew of imitators, from early knock-offs like Parsec, Chopper Command, and Attack of the Mutant Camels to later works like R-Type, Gradius, and Resogun– titles which offered looser interpretations of the celebrated horizontal shooter.
Players pining for the purity of a proper Defender clone might have stumbled upon Aqua Kitty – Milk Mine Defender on the PlayStation or Xbox digital marketplaces. Recreating the core tenets of the early arcade game, Aqua Kitty tasked players with protecting a pack of subaquatic, diver-suit clad felines from a steady succession of foes who were hell-bent on transporting the cats to the water’s surface. While a few mechanical tweaks prohibited Williams (now owned by lottery terminal manufacturer Scientific Games) from harassing developer Tikipod, make no mistake: Milk Mine Defender captured the style and spirit of the seminal arcade cabinet.
As the UDX subtitle suggests, the Nintendo Switch adaptation of Aqua Kitty – Milk Mine Defender adds a few more features to the already energizing formula. A standalone Arcade Mode reproduces the familiar mechanics of the main campaign but adds collectables which players can amass to augment their weapon systems. Boss battles have now earned a role in the undersea trek, sporadically pitting players against hulking foes capable of producing tidal waves of deadly fire. Since the original game was hardly a pushover, plunging players into fields of fire that could rival any respectable bullet-hell shmup, UDX also adds a reduced difficulty setting. That said, even on ‘easy’, Aqua Kitty offers up a formidable level of challenge across its main twenty-five mission campaign.
Mirroring the skeletal impetuses used as motivation for a myriad of pioneering arcade games, Aqua Kitty’s simple premise is rooted in a dystopian context where the world’s milk supply has nearly been exhausted. To remedy this situation, the lactose-longing felines have begun extracting the liquid from the ocean floor. Robotic fish, right out of the G-Darius series, seem to dislike the milk-mining meddling and dispatch a succession of increasing sturdy enemies to give the kitties the kibosh. Although the absurdist foundation won’t appeal to everyone, Aqua Kitty smartly doesn’t squander much time with its story. Following a few lines of text, players can jump right into the action, without any concern for context.
One element that will undoubtedly captivate gamers is the game’s graphical output. Offering cleanly drawn pixel art, Aqua Kitty UDX looks like it jumped right out of the 16-bit era, had the SNES and Genesis/Mega Drive been capable of high-resolution output. On the Switch, the game looks delightfully sharp, allowing owners of the powerhouse portable to enjoy details of every charmingly drawn cat and menacing-looking foe, with no sign of framerate fluctuation in either docked or handheld mode.
One of the subtler charms of Aqua Kitty’s aesthetic arsenal is the game’s backdrops, which change between clusters of stages, but offer an array of eye-pleasing trimmings. From parallax scrolling, particle-parading explosions, and even subtleties like an upsurge of water when a detonation happens near the surface demonstrate an adept attrition to detail. Socially, Aqua Kitty’s pulsating beats and wailing synth sweeps sound evoke the same era as the visuals. Player could be forgiven for thinking that the sound team is putting the Genesis’ cherished Yamaha YM2612 chip through its paces.
Given the amount of on-screen enemies and bullets, a responsive control scheme is essential for Aqua Kitty’s success. Fortunately, the game delivers, offering a movement method that echoes the style of Defender, but removing the forward momentum that could have propelled players into peril. Forgoing a hyperspace option, the main tool in the player’s arsenal is a rapid-fire laser, which is linked to a cool-down timer. Like any prodigious action game, the desire to use the secondary is strong, but so in the sense that players might need to save the power for the next screen of opponents. The capability is especially useful for the game’s boss battles, where predictable patterns allow for diminutive windows of offensive opportunity. Additionally, players can earn tools like bombs or guns which allow for fire in multiple directions.
Mirroring the trajectory of an arcade game, each new stage offers a new assemblage of adversaries, each slightly more challenging and numerous that the last. Here, Aqua Kitty excels, offering a distinctive array of foes that each have their own type of movement pattern and weakness. Just one example: in the third stage of the game, players will encounter enemies that explode when shot. While eliminating these antagonists immediately can make a zone less dangerous, gamers may want to delay killing until a chain reaction can be instigated, wiping the immediate area clean.
Although arcade mode offers a bit of variation with the ability to upgrade your sub by collecting gems and allowing your craft to be hit multiple times, in execution it’s a bit too similar to the main campaign. It’s also blemished by a lack of continues, with death sending you back to the start of the twenty-five stage, sequential trek. On the upside, Aqua Kitty extends one additional variant, where players combat a ceaseless barrage of enemies, in an effort to cultivate a prodigiously high score.
In the last few years, the number of Defender derivatives have decidedly shrunk, with many developers focusing on mechanically complex, narrative-based titles. For players who miss the appeal of these arcade-born amusements, Aqua Kitty UDX is worth of consideration. While the title may not offer an ocean of innovation, its subaquatic action is irrefutably competent shooter that’s occasionally captivating as catnip.
Aqua Kitty UDX was played on the Switch with review code provided by the developer.
Platform: Switch, Previously on PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS Vita, and PC.
Release date: February 15th, 2018
Price: $8.99 via the Nintendo eShop