The relationship between cat and mouse has long been a staple in teaching children how the real world works. Think of the things we learned by watching Tom and Jerry. We know that it's always better to be small and clever (like Jerry) than to be big and dumb (like Tom). Through Tom and Jerry, we understand that sometimes there's no good reason for our actions. Tom was always chasing Jerry because he was a cat, and Jerry was mouse. It was woven into Tom's very fabric of being. There wasn't anything he could do about it—cats and mice are natural enemies. Studying this simple dynamic reveals something else we should know at an early age—all species have natural enemies.
Though the conflict between cats and mice has been well-documented in storybooks and cartoons, there haven't been many videogames based on the subject (and the ones based on Tom and Jerry don't count). Once again showing what they can do when they're not bogged down by the Sonic franchise, Sonic Team has created an absolute masterpiece in Chu Chu Rocket!—a raucous cat-and-mouse affair that never grows tiresome.
I'm giving this game a high score for several reasons. First of all, it's a puzzle game that flies in the face of typical puzzle-game conventions. There are no blocks falling down a well or colors that need to be matched up. The game doesn't brag about its "highly addictive" gameplay nor does it use it as a crutch. It's original through-and-through—a puzzle game with a unique sensibility, and I believe that goes a long way in a time where uninspired game design and sequels galore are the norm. Secondly, I love the whole idea behind this game. It expresses an instantly familiar theme with a child-like playfulness through colorful visuals and whimsical music, and makes it the basis for a totally unique, frantically-paced puzzler. Also, it doesn't do anything wrong. There's not one thing in Chu Chu Rocket! that I would have changed, nor is it lacking in any way. When you add to all that the many features, options and great multi-player support—which includes the fantastic online network mode, a first for Dreamcast—all the ingredients are there for a lasting gaming experience.
Part of what makes Chu Chu Rocket! so great is how it combines such simple gameplay with complex strategy. The basic set-up isn't at all hard to understand. The action takes place on a square grid, on which four different-colored rockets are placed. The objective is to herd as many space mice (ChuChus) as possible into a getaway rocket that's set to blast off—saving them from a planet full of hungry space cats (KapuKapus). The winner is decided by whoever has the most mice in their rocket when time runs out. This all sounds simple enough, but things really get interesting once the game actually starts—that's when all these possibilities begin to open up. You see, the ChuChus and the KapuKapus aren't too bright. They travel forward in a straight trajectory until they either hit a wall, at which point they always turn right, or until they enter a rocket, or just fall off the grid. Of course, you want mice in your rocket, but cats do nothing but make of mess of things once they get in your rocket (you lose one-third of your total mice). As a result of the stupidity of the mice and the cats, Chu Chu Rocket! quickly becomes a game of damage control. The only way these critters can be controlled is by dropping an arrow panel in their path. They'll go in any direction the arrow tells them. Successfully redirecting the never-ending flow of mice to your rocket is the key to winning, but there are many variables that can seriously affect the outcome of a game. This is where good strategy, not to mention a little luck, plays an important part.
One of the tricks is that only three arrows can be laid down at once. This forces you to pick the most optimal points for directing the cat and mouse traffic. But really, there's never an optimal point because three other rockets, whether they're controlled by another player or by the computer, are always competing with you and one another for the majority of the mice. This constant jockeying for position brings a whole new meaning to the idea of "marking your territory," and it's what makes Chu Chu Rocket! such a blast. But it doesn't end there. Don't forget that you control where the cats go as well, and the last place you want a cat is near your rocket. One cat can mean the difference between winning and losing. So the dilemma becomes: Do I place my arrows to get more mice into my rocket, or do I defend my rocket from cats, or do I send cats to the other rockets? Actually, winning in Chu Chu Rocket! requires that you do all of these things equally well.
One other factor that adds to the gameplay is the roulette wheel, which is triggered when special red ChuChus enter a rocket. The flow of the game can be drastically altered depending on where the roulette ends up, so getting these special mice into your rocket is crucial. Among the events triggered by the roulette include "Speed Up," where the already frantic pace is doubled; "Slow Down" has the reverse effect; "Cat Attack" sends cats to everyone else's rocket; and my favorite, "Mouse Mania," which really kicks the game into high gear by releasing thousands of mice all at once into the play field. In Chu Chu Rocket!, you're always one second away from victory or total disaster. No matter how many mice you've collected, you're never secure. Someone can get lucky with a spin of the wheel or other players can triple-team you by sending hordes of cats at your rocket. Chu Chu Rocket! has that rare balance between great skill and dumb luck. It always keeps you on your toes, no matter how good you are.
There are so many ways to play Chu Chu Rocket!, too. There's the standard Four-Player Battle mode, but there's also the Team Battle mode, the Stage Challenge mode, the Puzzle Mode and the Puzzle Edit mode. However, the most fun is to be had in the Network mode—where you can dial-up the Chu Chu Network online and take on Chu Chu masters from all over the country (and Japan, also). The is a noticeable lag—it takes longer for the arrows you've laid down to appear, but it doesn't hurt the online experience. It just means you have to think faster than you usually would and that only can make you a better player in the long run anyway. Once you discover the fun of online competition, you'll wonder how you survived without this game. There are also rooms for chatting and trading hints and tips (though I wouldn't recommend doing so without a keyboard), and there's an area for downloading puzzles created by other players. Chu Chu Rocket!'s Network mode is brilliantly implemented. If it's any sign of the things to come, Dreamcast's future looks to be very exciting indeed.
It's a little funny how Dreamcast's best game turns out to be one without the eye-popping graphics. Chu Chu Rocket! proves that original ideas and great game design will always triumph over graphics and sound. To but it bluntly, Chu Chu Rocket! charmed the hell out of me and continues to do so every time I play it.