In Japanese folklore, a cat spirit called the Bakeneko dwells in the mountains and uses its supernatural powers to cause mischief. It speaks in tongues, shapeshifts into human form and sometimes likes to dance and engage in sumo wrestling. A sharp contrast to the cats of the Western world that only want to sit in small boxes.
Meowza’s upcoming sidescroller is steeped in these kinds of myths. You play as a girl called Mineko, who moves to a suspicious Japanese island overrun with tricksy felines. To make a living, you run a nightly market stall and spend your days foraging and crafting items to sell to the townspeople. Once you’ve made some dough, you can explore the market itself, eating strange food, picking up collectables and playing a variety of minigames.
Developer Meowza, run by husband-and-wife team Brandi and Brent Kobayashi, is based in Vancouver, and the couple was inspired by the Richmond Night Market that runs throughout the spring and summer. “The idea initially started as a mock-up game illustration based roughly on this market,” says Brent. “We brainstormed a simple resource gathering by day, market selling by night mechanic. As we experimented, we realised there was a richer story emerging, so we started over and put narrative and exploration at the forefront.”
So it’s not all haggling with the locals. You’ll also be tasked with discovering the secrets of your new home and exploring parts of the island as they unlock with the passing seasons. Each location will offer special things to do and people to meet who’ll task you with important quests.
You’ll also be joined by the island’s sun god, Abe. If he sounds frightening, he really isn’t: just imagine a big, cuddly rice puff in the shape of a cat. In fact, cats play a huge part in Mineko’s Night Market. They’re resource providers (you can collect their hairballs to craft items) and can be used as vehicles to get around the island (with their consent, of course). Brandi says, “Cats have been worshipped and revered in a multitude of cultures for over 5,000 years. 5,000 years of history can’t be wrong!” In a delightful twist, you can even grow your own cats by watering patches of ground and watching them sprout up in cute tufts of fur and whiskers.
From what I’ve seen so far, Mineko’s Night Market looks like a world of enchantment. It has the vibrant visuals of a children’s animation, with all the whimsy and eccentricity you’d want from a fantasy indie game. “We wanted to capture the spirit of Japanese culture,” Brent explains. “We’re big fans of Hayao Miyazaki films and Japanese TV shows, so we kind of wanted to create the feeling of living inside a Japanese cartoon.”
Mineko’s Night Market won’t come as a surprise from Brent Kobayashi, who previously made the quirky mobile game Bushido Bear, but he hints that this will be his best, and most personal, release to date. “The game is a playground of things we personally enjoy,” Brent says. “Cats, Japanese snacks and learning about local traditions and customs. A couple of years ago we moved into a smaller town from the big city, which greatly changed our perception of life. We began to love the charm of low-budget local markets, so any chance we get to bring in some of that rural, handmade, tight-knit community feel to our game is a joy for us.”
You’ll have to wait until late 2018 to dive into the realm of Mineko’s Night Market. Until then, perhaps plan how many kittens you want to grow and what names you could call them. Cat haters can stand to one side and miss out on all the fun.