Earlier this week, Atlus announced a remake of its cult-classic puzzle game Catherine. It was an exciting moment for fans of the stylish adult thriller. But amid the list of new features, there was one bullet point that meant the world to a small section of the community: the competitive Catherine crowd.
Catherine is a game about a man torn between two women, dealing with sex and adultery. The game divides days of conversation with nocturnal nightmares that involve sheep climbing crumbling towers. As a bonus, beating the game unlocked a multiplayer mode that pits two players as sheep against each other, to either reach the top first or simply stay alive as the blocks fall out from beneath them.
In the announcement of Catherine FB, or Full Body, one line caught the eye of people who played that multiplayer mode. A translation of some lines from Weekly Famitsu on Gematsu said that the game’s multiplayer mode would go be online, in part to “unexpected excitement for the competitive mode overseas.”
It wasn’t just a note that multiplayer would be returning; it was an acknowledgement that it was due to the fervent support from a select few Catherine players that drove Atlus to implement netplay. Even better, the multiplayer mode would work online, not just in the same room on the same console.
For David Broweleit, one of Catherine’s top players, it was like waking up in an entirely different world.
“Overnight, it went from something that we’re sustaining, we’re working hard to just keep things going...” said Broweleit. “This just kicks the door open. It’s ridiculous what the internet reception is to it right now.”
The passion for Catherine goes back for years, to 2011 when it was released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Two members of northern California’s fighting game scene, Broweleit and his friend Sean “Coopa” Hoang, saw potential in the game’s multiplayer mode and wanted to bring it out to tournaments. Over the next few years, Catherine popped up at events like Super NorCal Install, Frosty Faustings, and even Evo. In 2015, Atlus even sponsored an official side tournament for the game at Evo, marking a huge leap forward for a scene that averaged 30 or so entrants per tournament.
But as Broweleit told me over the phone, the lack of netplay was always a hindrance.
“There’s this phenomenon at tournaments,” said Broweleit. “Where people walking by will say, ‘I was watching a couple matches and it was awesome, does it have netplay?’ And I always had to let them down.
“It’s like, I’m out in Albany, Toronto, whatever, it’s always some place that doesn’t have a local scene,” continued Broweleit. “And this is just so empowering that we’re going to have the ability for anyone to jump online. It unites the people that can’t possibly have a local scene. Not everywhere is a mecca, not everywhere is a city that can have a prosperous local scene.”
Competitive Catherine is a strange, compelling mix of chess and fighting games. Block-climbing meets head-to-head combat, where pushing and pulling pieces of a tower are the punches and kicks during a desperate climb to the top. It’s as if two mountain climbers raced to the top of a mountain that was crumbling at the base, and they were allowed to get rough with each other and destroy hand and footholds in the process.
It was the secret highlight of any tournament, and every event, newcomers would see it played for the first time. First-time viewers would type “Competitive Catherine LOL” in Twitch chat. The novelty would draw them in, but it never failed to capture attention. “Competitive Catherine” even became a trending topic on Twitter during its Evo 2015 side tournament.
But Catherine was a game on an old system, limited to local play, with few features and no backing like the kind Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat might receive. To Broweleit and others, they say this is a huge recognition for a scene that has, against all odds, persevered on its love for the game.
Kris “Toph” Aldenderfer is a well-known Smash Bros. commentator and player, but he also moonlights as a top Catherine player. In a phone call with Compete, he talked about the potential netplay has to spread Catherine around not just the US, but the world.
“At Evo there was a guy named ‘mekasue,’ who’s quite a good Guilty Gear player but he also entered the Catherine tournament,” said Aldenderfer. “He’s from Japan and he was telling me, ‘I watch the videos and I wish I had more friends in Japan that I could play the competitive mode with.’ I think there’s a lot of potential there. I’ve always seen people from this region or that region talking on Twitter how they kind of wanted to get into it, but didn’t have the opportunity.”
For Aldenderfer, he says it was funny to see Catherine getting such support from a developer, considering his own background in Super Smash Bros., a game that struggles to get parent company Nintendo to acknowledge its competitive scene. But given Atlus’ support of games like King of Fighters, this could be a promising first step.
Broweleit told me players are already getting excited. Alongside the competitive Catherine Discord, plans are in the work to bring the game to a few local fighting game events to build up the hype. Though the game has sometimes been looked at with skepticism at fighting game events for being a “puzzle-fighting” game, Broweleit and Aldenderfer both feel confident in its potential at future events.
There’s still a small wish list players still have, like balancing some of the maps to fix player advantage or bug fixes. One mechanic called “pinning” would lock the game into a victory state for one player: smacking someone with a pillow, under the right circumstances, would let a player pin the other one down, leaving them to fall as the ground beneath them crumbled.
“You have to watch it for like, a minute, a minute and a half,” said Broweleit. “That was the whole reason we made that selfie-pin gimmick you may have seen, because of that. I realized there was this whole dead time where we’d be watching this and it would kill the excitement. So I just created this gimmick and it made it bearable, but it’d be much better if the pinned state didn’t exist.”
It’s a really minor thing, inventing a tradition of taking a selfie with your opponent and the audience after pinning someone, but it speaks volumes to the Catherine scene’s passion for this game. When it was a bonus mini-game, they went to lengths to keep the competitions alive for years. Now, with netplay and possibly more developer support on the way, and their game on a modern system, there are few limits on what’s possible for the competitive sheep of Catherine.