The rush to be the next Ninja Turtles was one thing in the 90’s, but the desire to be the next X-Men was another. Marvel’s merry band of mutants were easily one of the most popular and best selling comics of the era, with countless spin-off titles, a line of action figures, video games and who could forget the long running animated series on Fox Kids. Who better than to try to make the next X-Men then the person who helped it reach astronomical sales figures: Jim Lee. Lee was one of the creators along with Todd McFarlane (Spawn) and Rob Liefeld (co-creator of Deadpool) who left Marvel to form Image comics. It was there that Jim Lee created Wild C.A.T.S, a series about super powered aliens protecting the world against being invaded from evil alien forces known as Daemonites led by Lord Helspont. Now that I think of it, doesn’t that sound a little too much like Hellspawn? Anyway, while not remembered or spoke about much today, it spawned a one season animated series that ran on CBS as well as a line of action figures from Playmates, the same company that gave us the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys.
Toys it seemed, weren’t enough for Playmates, who wished to branch out their portfolio into the world of video games. In 1994 they helped bring Shiny Entertainment’s Earthworm Jim to market where it impressed with its bizarre sense of humour and cutting edge “animotion”. In 1995 towards the tail end of the 16-bit console cycle, the publisher would bring Wild C.A.T.S to the SNES. Like the property it’s based on, as well as the animated series it takes inspiration from, Jim Lee’s Wild C.A.T.S: Covert Action Teams is a relic of 90’s pop culture that’s a passable, but also pretty forgettable, entry in the at the time saturated beat-em-up genre.
Wild C.A.T.S owes more to the animated spin-off than the original comic book source material, as you can immediately tell by the SNES rendition of the shows awesome theme on the title screen:
The music is the most memorable part about this game, as the soundtrack was composed by none other than Tommy Tallarico Studios who also scored Aladdin on the Sega Genesis as well as Earthworm Jim among others. Today Tommy Tallarico is known as a founder of the Video Games Live music tour where he still plays music from EWJ, but I was introduced to him as a co-host of the Electric Playground TV show along with Victor Lucas, who is still with the program today.
Like many a superhero game at the time, Wild C.A.T.S is a beat-em-up, and when it’s sticking strictly to being one, it’s pretty fun. Punching feels satisfying, collision detection is good, and unlike say The Tick, the levels don’t overstay their welcome. Starting out you can only use one member of the team, its leader Spartan, but after a short introductory level you can choose to be two more characters: The hulking Maul, and the blade handed, um, Warblade. Like another game released that year, X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse, each character comes with their own unique mission which you can tackle somewhat in any order you wish. Some missions are dependent on clearing other characters, for example you can’t proceed too deeply in Maul’s first stage until you destroy five computers in Spartan’s stage.
The best thing gameplay wise about Wild C.A.T.S is how unique each of the characters feel, as it helps to break up the monotony inherent with these games. Spartan has a secondary laser attack that helps fight enemies from a distance and can be upgraded with power-ups obtained from fallen enemies; Maul is the heavy of the bunch and feels the part, even without a feedback device like a rumble pack. The third playable character, Warblade, is perhaps the most unique of the bunch with a double jump and an emphasis on platforming and wall climbing. These qualities also make Warblade the worst of the trio however, and a reason as to why this game should have stuck to being a beat-em-up.
As Warblade you have to climb walls to progress, but seeing where you need to go can often be hard because the way forward is often a tiny slit in the ceiling that you can only reach on barely on the apex of your second jump. My first time playing this game I got stuck not knowing where to go for way too long because I simply didn’t see that the right way to go was up through a barely noticeable break above me. These sections get increasingly tricky as you get to the second and third stage with Warblade, as you have to deal with moving fans, enemies placed along a wall that can knock you all the way to the bottom of a shaft you’re trying to climb and lasers you have to get past when you finally reach the top that are not only tricky to time getting through, but can also knock you back down an annoying climbing bit. I couldn’t help thinking about the Wolverine stages in X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse that were structured very similarly, but handled much better.
Sketchy platforming is not limited to Warblade though, but to Spartan as well in his final stage. Here you’re required to make jumps onto moving platforms to avoid losing copious amounts of health on electrified floors, and you also have to jump over smaller portions of the same floor while fighting enemies that can knock you on to the hazard, eating away at your health even more. Sections like this would be manageable if the perspective switched to a traditional 2-D side-scrolling perspective, but the entire game is in the perspective of traditional beat-em-ups like Final Fight or Double Dragon, which is not very helpful when precision jumping is required. It’s also frustrating seeing your lives drop because of things that never feel like they’re in your control. In the games intro stage you’re given plenty of health and lives, leading you to believe that this game is going to be a cake walk, only to see things get harder not because of trickier enemies or bosses, but poorly thought-out platforming.
Other than making some characters more desirable to play as than others, Wild C.A.T.S also misses out by sidelining a lot of the team. One of my favourite characters from the show, Grifter, is not on the roster nor or any of the female members, especially Zealot, who is just as accomplished a fighter as her male counterparts. This game isn’t terribly long, and during the game there are story parts that indicate they went on additional missions to help the playable trio accomplish their missions. Maybe it was an issue of time, budget, or interest, but even the earliest X-Men games had six playable characters, so why limit the roster to just three? It should also be mentioned that this game is a single-player only affair, so even if the developer didn’t include extra missions for other characters, why not have the option to play with a friend? Grifter’s blasters could have easily made him a comparable to Spartan, as would Zealot’s swords to Warblade’s claws for climbing purposes.
While not the worst superhero beat-em-up, that honour would probably fall to The Tick, Wild C.A.T.S is pretty average overall. When it’s being a traditional brawler it’s fun, and the character diversity in how different they play and feel is nice, but the lack of multiplayer as well as cheap live stealing platforming drags down the experience. If you’re a fan of superhero beat-em-ups and haven’t played this you might get some enjoyment out of it, but overall Wild C.A.T.S is pretty tame.