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Q&A: Exploring the design of cat-in-a-mech Metroidvania Gato Roboto

In this in-depth Q&A, the dev team behind Doinksoft's remarkable cat-in-a-mech explore-'em-up Gato Roboto dig into its level design and reflect on what makes a great lo-fi Metroidvania.

John Harris, Contributor

July 5, 2019

13 Min Read

An awesome little game to come out recently (on Steam and Switch) is Gato Roboto, which can be thought of as Metroid… but inside the suit isn’t a woman but a cat, and the cat can get out of the suit and do cat things even the suit can’t do, like climb walls.

It’s very fun, and funny, and a blast to play and watch. Its creators graciously listened to some questions we had about it; their answers are provided below.

Who are you, and what is Gato Roboto?

We are Doinksoft, a development team based in Eugene, Oregon. The three members of Doinksoft are Britt Brady, Cullen Dwyer, and Joseph Bourgeois. Our individual duties vary between projects, but generally our roles are something like "Britt- Art and Sound, Cullen and Joseph- Programming."

Britt and Cullen have been working together for the last 4 years, initially as the development duo Cowboy Color, and subsequently as members of Doinksoft. In the Cowboy Color days, they released the local multiplayer game Chargeshot and the arcade throwback The Handsome Mr. Frog, along with several game jam titles.

Cowboy Color was acquired by Nicalis in 2017. Joseph made various small games, released to sites like itch.io and newgrounds.com, before catching Britt's attention with The Adventures of Butt Saves Christmas at the end of 2016. Britt and Joseph slowly started working together to expand Britt's Metroid-style prototype, which eventually became Gato Roboto.

After leaving Nicalis in 2018, Britt and Cullen were in need of work, and the three Doinks came together to pitch Gato Roboto to publishers. The idea for the game, tentatively called "Catroid", was to make something inspired by the original 8-bit and 16-bit Metroid titles, with a charming story/world and a more accessible difficulty level.

We defined the scope of the game right away, to make sure that our development timeline was attainable, and that all the maps fit together in a logical way. Deciding on a small handful of areas, comprised of 6 maps, we wanted to make an experience that could be completed in 3-5 hours for most players. With this scope in mind we were able to quickly choose a gameplay focus for each area, in addition to defining other mechanics and visual features that we could use to differentiate the maps, despite the apparent limitations of the graphical style.

The most immediate thing people would notice about Gato Roboto is its visual simularities to Minit & Downwell, that purposely old-school, monochrome look. Why did you decide to go with that?

Brady: Aesthetically in general I like to consider Gato Roboto more lo-fi than retro. While there is obviously a retro influence, our restrictions are self-imposed and follow no pre-existing retro console’s specifications. Therefore, we can take the things that we like from retro visuals/audio and expand them in ways that wouldn’t have been possible in the past.

One of the main reasons the game is black and white is simply from the game’s origins as a hobby project. I initially created Gato Roboto to practice programming and thought that the 1-bit limitation would help me to save time when making assets. The visual style inspired me to explore some interesting lo-fi sound design and music, aspects that persisted once my programming duties were taken over by my capable collaborators.

Gato Roboto is what's often called a "Metroidvania," an exploratory game where you often backtrack to old areas with new powers. Gato Roboto makes heavy use of this gimmick: as a cat you can do things entirely differently than in the suit. It's an excellent advance upon what is now a very much-used and time-worn genre. What were your inspirations?

Bourgeois: The inspiration for the original demo, which was made by Britt during a holiday break from work, was the Metroid-like Hero Core. The idea at the time was to make a small game, consisting of a single map and a few abilities.

After I started working with Britt on expanding the demo, I saw his animation of the cat entering the mech suit, which surprised me because the armored character was not very cat-like in appearance. Upon seeing this, I immediately thought about one of my childhood favorites, Blaster Master. We discussed adding the cat / mech dynamic and within a few days it was part of the game.

Some months later, Cullen started helping out with programming and level design. He did a comprehensive study/playthrough of the 2D Metroid games, and titles such as Metroid Fusion and Super Metroid became direct influences for the map design in Gato Roboto.

Regarding the game’s narrative and NPC design, the work of Daisuke Amaya was probably a subconscious influence. The three of us share an admiration for Cave Story and Kero Blaster, and I think we all would like to create something with that sort of charm.

You can exit your suit at any time, but as a cat your abilities are very different than in the suit. How did you manage to design the map so that you can't trap yourself through exploration?

Dwyer: Initially, we were pretty lazy with the implementation of gating for Mech or Cat sections. Obviously, the cat can fit through small spaces, climb walls, and swim, where the mech cannot do any of those things.

We started with that in preliminary level design sketches, but ran into situations that you may want to have only accessible by the Mech, for instance, battle lock rooms would be annoying if you could squeeze into them in Cat-Mode and only have the option of dying. To remedy this, we made (most) battle lock rooms only trigger if you enter the room as the Mech, and created Metroid-styled blast doors which can only be opened with bullets, and which close if you try to exit the Mech.

A general rule of thumb when designing new areas was to gate "Mech-only" areas with double-sided blast doors, unless we came up with a clever or unique alternate solution to ensure that you have the Mech with you. The placement of savepoints, given that they also transport the Mech to you, were decided not only for points of respite, but to ensure that if you dropped the Mech somewhere unintended, you would have a way to get a new one.

The core of any Metroidvania is the exploratory abilities you pick up, both their overt uses (double-jumping!) and less obvious ones (rocket recoil!) How did you pick the abilities for this game, and design the map around them? Did you find it difficult?

Dwyer: In Gato Roboto, rather than designing unique new power-ups, we wanted to take typical and recognizable ones and put a spin on them. For instance, the rockets don't use ammunition, instead we have them on a cooldown so that they still feel limited and can't be spammed, but also you never have to farm for ammo. On top of that, they also offer rocketjump-style recoil, making them a movement mechanic.

The Spinner double-jump item is a mix between a riff on the Screw Attack from Metroid, and Sonic the Hedgehog's jump. When we designed it, we wanted to make it immediately understandable, but also unique-feeling to use.

As far as designing levels around these, the most important thing was probably designing all of the movement mechanics and upgrades ahead of time so we could test how they work in tandem. Can I get here with the rockets but without the Spinner? Can I only get here with the Spinner? We intentionally designed the first two main areas of the game to be able to technically be approached in either order (although there is an intended route), and had to test both areas with and without the items that you acquire in the prior in order to make sure it was technically possible.

We liked, while designing a relatively linear Metroidvania, the idea of giving more advanced players options.

The explosions from your rockets have the potential to bounce your suit around and potentially move you into areas early. This skill-based movement option is reminiscent of Metroid's bomb jumping. Was this intentional? What do you think about hiding secret areas, or even important areas, behind obstacles with a high skill requirement?

Brady: Technical rocket jumping was one of my favorite features in Gato, ever since the original prototype. I love when shooting affects movement, such as the kickback from Cave Story’s machine gun (which has always been a huge inspiration to me) and the rocket jumping in Quake.

During development, we all seemed to really enjoy this aspect of the game and started to get pretty good at it. From the beginning, we wanted to make sure to reward those who perfected the rocket jump by letting them get to certain areas out of sequence. There is even a Steam achievement for beating the double jump section of the game with only the rocket upgrade.

The rocket temperature gauge is a nice little piece of UI design. It immediately communicates both that rocket use is limited to every few seconds, and why. How did you come up with that idea, and how many tries did it take you to get it right?

Dwyer: The HUD was a very early design idea that we came up with when we were moving from our original pitch demo towards our first PAX demo, which would be more representative of the finished game. You'll notice that the more upgrades you acquire, the more the HUD fills out when you are inside of the Mech. When you're out of the Mech, the only HUD you see is a panel that contains the playspace.

We did this because we wanted to communicate that there are many differences between playing as a cat and playing as a cat inside of a robot suit. We like to think of it as what Kiki sees when she is piloting the Mech.

The rocket UI is a piece I'm particularly proud of. It didn't really take a lot of "tries" to get right per se, but more a lot of iteration and improvement. While I was designing it, I spent a good day or so adding as much character to it as I could, while at the same time trying to make it simple and communicate a few simple things.

First, it needed to display like a temperature gauge and show you approximately how many shots you might have left before overheating. Secondly, it needed to show you when it was overheated and unusable (this is when it wiggles out of control and what would say "20° C" now spills random characters to the screen.) Finally, it needed to show you if you are able to shoot a rocket or not. There's a gentle little pop and a sound effect and the grayed out button indicator re-illuminates. All together, it created this really lively and reactive display!

More difficult than creating the UI for it was deciding exactly how much temperature a rocket costs, how long it takes to cool down, and how long it takes for it to no longer be overheated and unavailable. Our initial default was being able to shoot three rockets in rapid succession before overheating, and the overheating would take about twice as long to cool. This was fun, but giving the player three rockets to begin with allowed them to get pretty much anywhere on the screen by tech jumping, making the Spinner kind of useless.

By the time we finished the UI, we settled on a base of two rockets that could be fired without overheating, and a quicker cooldown. This lets you shoot rockets about as often, but without allowing you to spam as many in instant succession. We did make increasing the efficiency of the temperature gauge an optional item, however.

The right sound design can add a lot to a game. The echo-y sounds in Gato Roboto are quite charming, and the garbled voice dialogue reminds one of classic Rare games like Banjo-Kazooie. How did you decide on and create those kinds of sounds?

Brady: Sound design was a huge focus for me on this project, and wanting to avoid chiptunes, I thought of some of my favorite sounds from the past. I remembered old computer speakers cranked all the way up, boom boxes with worn-out tapes, an old keyboard playing low quality samples on built-in speakers, and synthesizers coming out of wood-framed speakers.

It led me to take a step back from making music centered around a DAW and to get experimental with my approach. So I arranged a set-up of analog synths (notably the Korg MS-20 and Moog DFAM), guitar pedals, tape recorders, and an SP-404 sampler. One of our early concerns was making the different biomes feel unique from one another, so I played a lot with drift and warp to give the environments an alien and mysterious vibe.

I also spent time making ambient sounds such as water drips, fans blowing, steam, and lava bubbling (boiling towels works well for this FYI). In the end we were really happy with how different the areas felt and I think audio played a big part in that.

For spoken dialog, the garble-style vocal chat is the only way to do it, in my opinion. I always find its effect to be so charming, while it also allows the same vocal sounds to be used across multiple languages, conveying a singular sense of character and personality. The first implementation came by surprise when Joseph added a simple dialog system for the intro of a boss fight. He chopped up some samples of inward-spoken gibberish (which actually made it into the final game) and inserted them into the scene. This is just one of the many instances where we connected on an almost psychic level, as a team.

The best bits of metroidvanias, I'd say, is the finding of secret areas, unmapped and bonus-filled chambers in unexpected places. It's one of those things... you want people to find them, but don't want to make them too easy to spot. What do you think is too easy, or too hard, to find? Did playtesting change your opinion?

Bourgeois: In Gato, we wanted to make map exploration rewarding, without requiring too much back-tracking or repetition to find everything. Using the pause screen map, the player can find 90 percent of the game’s optional upgrades. However, even the more hidden upgrades can be discovered through environmental cues in the level design.

A few hidden paths can only be found by accident or exhaustive exploration, but these are Easter Eggs that don’t contribute to the player’s abilities or completion rate. We didn’t want the players who overlooked these secrets to feel penalized, and intended for the Easter Eggs to be their own rewards.

During playtesting, refinement of the mini-map was the biggest exploration-related change. An early version of the mini-map showed all rooms of an area, explored or not, and this was noted by most of our feedback testers. They would have no context for the sprawling maps and would easily lose direction during a playthrough. In response, we added map discoverability, which was helpful in guiding players.

Pointing out the adjacent unexplored areas made it so that the player always knew how to progress forward, or where to look for potential undiscovered health expansions and cartridges. We added mini-map visibility for save points and area exits, but otherwise left the map uncluttered, favoring clarity over complexity.

About the Author(s)

John Harris


John Harris writes the column @Play for GameSetWatch, and the series Game Design Essentials for Gamasutra. He has written computer games since the days of the Commodore 64. He also maintains the comics blog Roasted Peanuts.

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