Neko Navy is an adorable yet difficult bullet hell shmup filled with flying cats, strange locations, and even more bizarre enemies. Nothing about this game makes sense, but with online leaderboards, six playable characters, three very different difficulty settings, a deep scoring system, and a few secrets for good measure, Neko Navy has everything shmup fans (and cat lovers) could ask for.
Even though Neko Navy is aesthetically distinctive, the basic controls and setup are instantly familiar. In fact, these elements are even more simple than usual. One button shoots as long as you hold it down and the other button uses a bomb and that’s it. You don’t have an alternate attack or any sort of ‘focus mode’ to adjust your speed. In a similarly simplistic fashion, there are upgrades which boost your firepower, but they are virtually impossible to miss and they remain with you through deaths and continues. Like in most bullet hells, your actual hitbox is far smaller than your character and it’s indicated by a glowing mark to allow for precise dodging. There are a total of six characters, but only three are available from the start; Chiyoko has a wide attack, Miracle has a straight, focused attack, and Mugi is balanced between the two to make for a standard, though solid, starting lineup. In short, the basic components of Neko Navy are all very standard for the genre to the point that it may seem as though the game has nothing unique to offer beyond its cute aesthetics. Thankfully, the bomb system is where things start to get interesting.
Bombs play a huge role in Neko Navy and are invaluable for veterans and beginners alike. You start with no bombs at all and can only ever have one bomb at a time. To get a bomb you need to collect 80 cats. Specifically, you need blue cat icons which also happen to be a major part of the scoring system. These icons gradually glide out of enemies as you damage them, but most enemies explode into dozens of them upon death and whenever you lose a life you likewise explode into enough icons to immediately grant you a bomb use upon picking them up. A ring of dots will gradually appear around your character as you pick up these icons and once the ring is fully formed you can use your bomb; picking up more blue cats while you have a bomb use available will still affect your score, but it won’t contribute to making another bomb until you use up your current one.
Each cat has a unique bomb and, while there are a few common elements, these bombs can be pretty different from each other. Some bombs stick around longer than others, but regardless of how long a bomb’s effect lasts for it will make your cat completely invincible for a few seconds. The other, equally important, shared trait amongst bombs is that any enemy bullets they hit will be turned into golden cubes any any cat icons gained from damaged or destroyed by bombs will instead also be golden cubes. These cubes are worth several times more than their feline counterparts and still count towards the cat icon total for the level (an important part of scoring), but they don’t count towards the 80 needed to use another bomb. Since gold cubes are worth so many points and since they can be created from enemy bullets to skyrocket your cat counter, the form your cat’s bomb takes and how well you use it has a major impact upon your final score as well as your general survivability.
In some ways the initial three cats are defined even more by their bombs than by their normal attacks. Chiyoko has the most ‘traditional’ bomb of the group as it hits everything on the screen over the course of about a second to almost instantaneous transform hundreds of bullets and weaker enemies into cubes while giving you a few post-bomb seconds of invincibility in which to safely harvest normal cat icons to put towards another bomb. Meanwhile, Miracle’s bomb enhances part of their normal attack for several seconds, giving you substantial control over this powerful attack and allowing you to get gold cubes from targets which appear over a greater period of time, though you won’t be generating many cats to put towards a second use until the bomb wears off. Lastly, Mugi creates a giant green orb which maintains a relative position on the screen for several seconds while Mugi is free to move around while invincible and farm up icons with their normal attack. The three unlockable characters each have their own bombs as well, though their executions are similar to these three.
This creative bomb system gives Neko Navy a rather different feel from most other shmups for a few reasons. First, it incentivizes you to use some strategy when picking up points rather than just immediately rushing to collect all of them. Since you can only have one bomb at a time, it can be worthwhile to leave a few dozen cat icons floating around, use a bomb, and then collect the icons to immediately have access to a second bomb use after the first one wears off. Second, the frequency with which you get bombs, especially in the later levels, means you are completely invincible for a significant amount of time. This may make you think that Neko Navy is an easy game, and to be fair it’s certainly not the hardest in the genre by any stretch, but it constantly throws enemies and bullets at you; the developers are well aware of how often you’re going to be invulnerable and have balanced the game with that in mind. Third, the limit of one bomb at a time combined with the way bombs are earned changes the way you use bombs. You can’t hoard bombs and you end up using them frequently since they sooner you use one the sooner you can start getting another. This also means that you can’t just effortlessly bomb your way through boss fights; bosses general a few icons as they take damage and most bosses have at least two destructible parts which explode into tons of cat icons when destroyed, but you can only ever go into a fight with at most one bomb and need to earn other uses within the fight itself. This is an all-around great system and I would even argue that it’s the primary defining feature of the game.
The scoring system here is pretty involved, as it should be for a competitive shmup with online leaderboards. The primary factor in the scoring system is the number of cat icons you’ve collected on a per-level basis. Each icon is initially worth a trivial 10 points, but this number rapidly grows as you collect more of them. As far as I can tell, the formula is 10 * X * 0.1 * 2 where X equals the total number of cat icons and decimals are rounded up. In other words, your first collectible in a level may only be worth 10 points, but the 100th is worth 200, the 1000th is worth 2000, and so on. Since gold cubes count towards this total, waiting for enemies to launch attacks before bombing to get as many convertible bullets on the screen as you can, as well as just when you use your bombs in general, will make a massive difference in your final score for a level. The cubes are also worth many times more than the standard icons, though I’m not sure of exactly how the cube formula is calculated, so there is plenty of room for variance.
The scoring system here is great because, like the bombs, it’s equally useful for players of all skill levels. For example, extra lives are earned every 100,000,000 points. That’s a big number, but you’ll probably earn at least one life by the end of the second level (or by the end of the first on the highest difficulty). The more dangerous a level is the more easily you can build up your score multiplier and earn bombs, which in turn means that points start to become so easy to earn that by the time you reach the fifth level you’ll start earning at least two or three lives per level just with average play. The best score I’ve been able to get on a single run is slightly over 800,000,000 yet the top scores in the online leaderboards for the standard difficulty setting fall between two to four billion as of this time; extra lives are generous enough that they can give new players a boost while scoring is nuanced enough to allow for incredible point variances for top players.
It’s worth noting that the graze system here is rather unusual. Within most bullet hell shmups, flying near bullets gets you a graze bonus, a risky way to get a good score boost if simply completing the game is not enough. In Neko Navy this system has been largely replaced with the ‘Brave’ system. In this system, you gain a Brave bonus whenever you kill an enemy while close to it, making this a system where you graze enemies rather than bullets. Despite the name, you do still gain this bonus even during invincibility frames as long as you kill the enemies with your normal attack rather than with damage from a bomb. I think this system works better than the standard graze systems because it rewards players specifically for being more active and daring; it’s easy to accidentally graze a bullet, but you’re probably not going to be too close to most enemies without making it a deliberate choice. This system, along with the varied bombs, makes for an interesting balance. Sticking to near the back of the screen or using characters with attacks which don’t require much effort to aim, such as the unlockable Kyrie with their homing lasers, will work fine for those who are trying to clear the game, but using a more aggressive playstyle with the slightly more involved characters is what will consistently allow players to top the leaderboards.
Aesthetically, Neko Navy is charmingly weird. Aside from the whole ‘controlling a flying cat’ thing, the first two levels are a city and a forest, both rather standard areas. However, the third level has you fighting off flying pills in a hospital, the fourth level takes place in a sausage factory, and by the sixth level you’re fighting flying jellyfish in Limbo. With enemies like cat caterpillars, a giant meat golem, and giant mannequin torsos tied to poles, the enemy design is every bit as memorably strange as the levels themselves and the colorful hand drawn aesthetic complete with wavy outlines fits the game perfectly. The music holds up on its end as well as the soundtrack is consistently dream-like or energetically upbeat and in many cases songs are simultaneously both. Neko Navy looks and sounds like one gigantic cat meme and, honestly, that’s exactly what I would hope for and expect from any digital form of cat-related media.
The difficulty curve here is odd, though not necessarily in a bad way. There are seven levels total. The first two levels are mostly easy; the second level is slightly harder than the first and the second boss is surprisingly difficult but you’re otherwise unlikely to lose more than one life between the two. Levels three and four are about on par with each other, though the enemies found in each are very different and they are both a noticeable step up from the first two levels. Things start to get weird with the curve around the fifth level. Other than the boss, this fifth level is almost certainly the easiest level in the game. It throws a lot of enemies at you and they have some pretty impressive attacks, but these enemies also happen to often be composed of multiple destructible parts which are so easy to get collectibles from that, regardless of your choice of cat, you can easily spend the entire level in a nearly perpetual state of invincibility all while also getting enough points for a bunch of extra lives. Lastly, the sixth and seventh levels make for a massive difficulty spike as they are both far harder than any of the previous five and the final boss in particular makes for its own difficulty spike on top of this. With the exception of the fifth level the difficulty does generally increase the farther you go, but this is certainly not the smoothest of curves.
Though the level-to-level difficulty is on the wonky side, Neko Navy does nail difficulty when it comes to overall selection. There are three difficulties to select between: Easy, Hard (Standard), and Death. The enemy placement between these difficulties is identical, but the number of bullets each enemy shoots when it attacks greatly increases at higher difficulties. Hard mode feels about right for a first run of the game for anyone familiar with the genre while Easy does a nice job of easing newer players into the game and Death lives up to its name. Since the basic layouts never change, the transition from one difficulty to the next is a rather smooth one. Moreover, you gradually earn permanent continues over time, presumably based on playtime. You don’t have any continues on your first run, but you gain an additional continue roughly every two runs. Your score resets when you continue so the continue system doesn’t affect the leaderboards, yet it does let players of all skill levels have a shot at beating the game on any difficulty with enough persistence.
There is one last thing to mention before bringing this article to an end. Beyond the three difficulties is a hidden, fourth difficulty known as Ura Mode. I won’t give away the exact method for entering this mode, but I will say you access it from within the Death difficulty. This mode features alternate versions of the standard levels. On top of the completely different background art and the increased bullet count, the enemy placement is completely different and there are a few other significant surprises along the way. It’s a fantastic bonus for anyone looking for an even greater challenge and the sheer amount of work that went into a mode which many players likely won’t even notice is incredible.
Neko Navy isn’t trying to reinvent its subgenre, but it offers up some very solid gameplay along with enough unique twists in the formula to keep it from feeling like a generic entry. This is a fun game with an adorably weird style and it has enough depth and variety to be worthwhile for players whether they are bullet hell veterans or if they just want to play a cute game with some flying cats.