As I sit down to play Cat Box Paradox for the first time, I'm greeted by a charming cutscene where the game’s story unfolds. The titular cat chases a mouse throughout a house, eventually triggering a series of events causing the cat to split dimensions. The narrative is certainly not the focus of this phase-shifting platformer (or "catformer," if you will). The gameplay takes center stage while you traverse through nine floors of this gigantic house.
The goal of each level is a familiar one: collect coin-like objects called charms, avoid obstacles, and try to reach the end without falling into lava - you know, usual cat stuff! What changes up the formula is that due to the self-inflicted lab accident, you're given the ability to switch between being a black cat or a white cat and can swap colors with the press of a button. You'll frequently be phasing because the white cat can only touch white surfaces, and the black cat can only touch black surfaces.
Recently I had an opportunity to sit down with one of the developers of Cat Box Paradox, Biscuit Locker's own Mr. Ben. He expressed the inspiration came from games such as Super Meat Boy and older Colecovision titles. Although my teammate got a code from the developer, I want to be transparent and state that I paid for my own copy of the game. Mr. Ben and Mr. Bob are a two-man team who created this game and wouldn’t describe themselves as coders. It could have fooled me! The controls are responsive, the hitboxes are fair, and the final product is quite polished. Although they admit that the project consumed too much of their time compared to what more seasoned developers could complete in the same window, their efforts are not lost on me. What they've created is nothing short of fantastic and is a true hidden gem on Steam right now.
The game forgives you in small ways by allowing you to touch the wrong color once or twice without being punished with instant death. Speaking of death, you'll be doing a lot of that. I don't say that to deter you. This game isn't surrounded by a "get good" culture, there is a clock always counting up with each level but you can take as much time as you need to reach your destination. Thankfully, once the game is booted up, you'll never see a loading screen, and a failure is met with an instant chance for redemption placing you back at the start of the map in a blink of an eye.
What stands out the most to me, for players who weren't born with a precision-based platformer like this in their hands, is that you unlock new levels from collecting the many coins scattered throughout each map. Because of this, you can focus on getting the easier-to-grab collectibles and always feel like you have a new level to try if you get stuck. The game also offers an assist mode that automatically changes the color of your cat when you’d typically take damage so that your sole focus can be on the platforming. Being an avid charm collector, I had already unlocked the two floors above me by the end of the third floor. This meant I had 16 levels to try if I had gotten stuck and needed a change of pace. Collecting charms has other perks, too. You are given cosmetic hats to wear for your exploratory efforts.
Cat Box Paradox never ran out of gameplay mechanics, which meant an individual theme never overstayed its welcome. There are trampolines to bounce on, portals to fall through, and trains to ride. Because each level brought something new to the table, it did feel like there was more room to stretch out these mechanics, but I was happy to not be chased by bees for four levels in a row. The difficulty progresses naturally and lets you build your confidence as you go. If you’re trying to collect as many charms as possible like I was, that’s when things can start to get rough.
Some collectibles are put in tough spots requiring multiple midair phase shifts. I dare you to try to get all the charms on 3-6 - the level called "Curtains," it took me 25 attempts but I never felt like "I can't do this," even though I was failing and having to restart. The game can pull me into a hypnotic state where I just keep playing until I accomplish my goal without ever becoming overly frustrating. The sense of triumph when you nail that perfect run and find hidden collectibles scattered across each level is nothing short of the thrill “larger” indie projects like Celeste gave me.
This game has speed-running potential, and I look forward to seeing the records being set for full clear/any percentage runs. I’ve been blown away by the value of Cat Box Paradox. At 5.99 USD, this game packs a lot of bang for your buck. Over 75 levels, including secret challenge levels, a local two-player co-op mode, and an assist mode, all bundled into this adorable and approachable 8-bit package. The cat’s out of the bag on this one. This is one indie delight you shouldn’t miss.
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