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This 4-Year-Old Puzzle Game Has a Hardcore Competitive Scene

This 4-Year-Old Puzzle Game Has a Hardcore Competitive Scene:

Whether it’s with a knockout finish at an EVO fighting game championship, a crushing play in League of Legends, or a dorm-wide Super Smash Bros. tourney, eSports are taking the world by storm. Playboy’s eSports Highlights articles celebrate and chronicle their rise.


Two players, Blue and Orange, stand at the bottom of a tower of blocks. The round begins and both players commence shifting blocks forward, backward, left, and right to create a path to get to the top of the tower. Time works against Blue and Orange as the layers of blocks beneath them fall away. Blue attempts to hinder Orange’s progress by pushing blocks into a formation that traps Orange, while the stage continues to collapse below. All Blue has to do is wait it out, but he gets antsy and makes a wrong move, freeing Orange from the trap. Orange takes advantage by climbing up and smacking Blue with his pillow, just as the blocks below fall away, sending Blue into the abyss.

“The Catherine versus mode actually plays more like a fighting game than a puzzle game,” Catherine tournament organizer David “Dacidbro” Broweleit said during an Evolution Championship Series (Evo for short) tournament live stream. ”It turns out it’s very difficult to climb with an opponent that doesn’t want you to climb. You usually end up duking it out and someone ends up falling.”

If you have never heard of Catherine, you aren’t alone. The horror-themed puzzle game with an adult-oriented relationship simulator was a niche title released by Atlus for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 back in 2011. It sold well for an Atlus game, roughly 500,000 copies, but didn’t garner enough interest for a sequel. There’s a good chance even many Catherine players didn’t even know there was a competitive mode because it only unlocks after beating the game, which is no easy task because of the difficult single player campaign.

Four years after the game’s release, it was featured at Evo 2015, the world’s biggest fighting games event, held in Las Vegas. Super Smash Bros. and Street Fighter headlined the massive convention and tournament, but thanks to Broweleit’s persistence, Catherin had its own little sideshow. He bugged Atlus public relations manager John Hardin about holding an Atlus-sanctioned Catherine tournament until Hardin acquiesced. Many of the roughly 50 tournament entrants had never played the game or if they had, never played it competitively. But there are pockets of competitive Catherine players around the world, including one of the last surviving hubs of competition for the game, Australia.

“Australia is the only country in the world to have a surviving competitive scene in this game,” Broweleit said. “The match of the night was losers’ finals, where two Australians were playing each other. The veteran Australian who taught the newer Australian how to play the game lost to the newer Australian.” It was a case of the-student-has-become-the-teacher, and an epic conclusion.

3,500 concurrent viewers watched the Catherine tournament live stream at one point during Evo 2015. That’s a fraction of the amount of viewers for marquee competitive games like Street Fighter or League of Legends, but for a tournament running a forgotten game, that was more interest than anyone involved in the event could have predicted. It likely helped that Catherine makes for a good spectator eSport.

Multiplayer modes aren’t anything new to puzzle games. Games ranging from Tetris to Puzzle Bobble rely on dumping blocks or bubbles onto an opponent in order to impede their progress, and something like Super Puzzle Fighter takes the premise even farther. In these there can be long stretches where not much happens on-screen as players set each other up for the maximum possible damage, but Catherine provides thrills and intensity from the moment a round begins. Both players compete within the same space and any movement of the blocks changes the landscape of the tower. A level never plays out the same way twice.

If Catherine is a puzzle game, what makes it so much like a fighting game? While Broweleit believes Catherine possesses a foundation similar to competitive fighting games, he feels it actually makes for a better spectator event. In fighting games, there is a lot to manage as a viewer, especially one who might be newer to the scene or tuning in to Evo for the first time. Bars, meters, gauges, and timers are common characteristics for fighting games. It’s hard enough for players to manage at times, let alone asking a general audience to understand. Catherine doesn’t have life bars or super meters and its timer system is readily apparent to anyone watching—considering the floor literally drops out from under players if they don’t make enough progress upward.

“Health bars in fighting games are great because you know how close someone is to dying,” Broweleit said. “[In Catherine] you’re capable of being dead at any moment. That gets people excited when they’re watching Catherine.”

Thanks to Evo 2015, competitive Catherine is more relevant now than it probably ever has been, despite the game’s age and the fact that there’s no sign of a sequel ever being made. Broweleit organized two Catherine tournaments at the Summer Games Done Quick, an event dedicated to speed running through various video games, and has plans to hold more tournaments in the future. Broweleit is hopeful the competitive Catherine community continues to grow and that the exposure may push Atlus to consider future options with Catherine as a franchise.

“Right now, it has more legs than ever before,” he said. “I feel like this is a strong message to Atlus that Catherine is something valuable. This is a scene that still believes in the game and is active in it.”

Fighting game competition has been around for years but in the eSports realm, it’s still in its infancy waiting to break out. Players and viewers have more options with quirky, overlooked games like Catherine carving out its share of the competitive market. Should Atlus ever decide to make a sequel with competitive multiplayer, they’ll have a built-in fanbase ready to nurture this tiny hardcore scene into one that fills convention halls and stadiums.


Michael Martin is a full-time freelancer based out of Seattle. His favorite video game series of all time is Street Fighter and he loves the competitive fighting game scene. Follow him on Twitter @Bizarro_Mike.


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