Mega Cat Studios, a Pittsburgh independent video game company, specializes in what founder James Deighan calls “the vinyl of gaming” — eight and 16-bit pixel games that balance modern stories with enough throwback grit to remind players of the early days of home consoles.
“Most of us on the leadership side all grew up in the ’80s, ’90s,” Deighan tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “We probably spent more hours playing video games than any generation before us. It was this interesting moment where we grew up as this industry was developing.”
Although they’re often overlooked for Schell Games — a larger Pittsburgh-based video game company — Mega Cat Studios has, since 2016, steadily churned out small RPGs (Role Playing Games), puzzle games, and other retro titles for old-school systems like the Sega Genesis. Games such as Bite the Bullet, Lethal Wedding, and Renfield: Bring Your Own Blood — released as part of the recent Nicholas Cage Dracula movie — all showcase the company’s affinity for pixelated gameplay. Mega Cat’s bite-sized game lengths and prices have found them a niche, but loyal fan base in the retro gaming community, and what started as an operation based out of Deighan’s living room is now a network of remote developers and gaming diehards who collaborate from the company’s Polish Hill office, fittingly housed in a former creamery.
“It's the perfect place for a cat-based lair,” quips Deighan.
Their newest release, WrestleQuest, released across all major platforms on Aug. 22, aims to take the company in a bigger direction.
“A lot of wrestling games have been made — like 100-plus wrestling games — but none of them have ever been story driven. None have ever been an RPG,” Deighan says. “It's fun to play as Jake ‘The Snake’ beating up Sgt. Slaughter, but no one's ever explored, you know, Jake ‘The Snake.’”
The result of four years of hard work, WrestleQuest, with its nearly 50 hours of story and a dozen playable characters, stands out as Mega Cat’s biggest game yet, Deighan says. The game follows the stories of two wrestlers, named “Muchacho Man” and “Brink Logan,” on their journey to pro wrestling stardom. Along the way, they pass through different worlds with their own local champions, whom our two heroes will need to best to become legends in the ring.
Clever homages to real-life wrestlers such as André the Giant, L.A. Park, and Rocky Johnson populate the game, as well as references to the modern wrestling community through a podcast character.
All this occurs inside a toy world where the characters are rendered as action figures, a creative decision that gives the game creators flexibility with the wrestlers’ movements. It also plays into a make-believe aspect of wrestling fandom that diehard fans can relate to, says Mega Cat’s head of studio, Zack Manko.
“We realized how many of our earliest memories weren't necessarily about what we saw on the TV itself, and more the action figures, and the idea of maybe you have a Macho Man action figure, but you don't have much else from another wrestler, so you sub in a G.I. Joe or a Skeletor,” Manko tells City Paper. “The idea of these, like, dream matches and this kind of freeform creativity that you have growing up with not a lot of stuff, we wanted to capture in the game.”
Inspired by retro JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games), WrestleQuest’s turn-based combat showcases each wrestler’s traits while acknowledging the in-game live audience. Start spamming the same attack option and you’ll bore the crowd, lowering your “Hype Meter” levels and exposing yourself to enemy attacks. Need to regenerate your health? Taunt your fellow opponent and gain points on the Hype Meter.
As the game progresses, you can shape your character’s skill set around archetypal wrestling styles.
“You might want to make a showboat, whose taunting is way more effective than anybody else's, but some of his other stats are struggling,” Manko says. “Whereas you might have a powerhouse who doesn't have a lot of big moves and you can build that up throughout the game.”
Deighan believes part of the appeal of games like WrestleQuest is their accessible gameplay.
“We are generally known for games that are easy to pick up and accessible. Even if you very casually play games, there’s no finger karate needed to play a Mega Cat game,” Deighan says. “They’re intentionally fun for fun’s sake.”
In a world where most gaming companies flock to the tech hubs of the West Coast, Mega Cat embraces their Rust Belt roots with what Deighan, a Pittsburgh native, calls their “blue-collar gaming work ethic.”
“We proudly wear these colors,” Deighan says. “When people find us, it’s like ‘Wait, you guys do this full time?’ Part of the fun of our team is that we’re able to attract talent that didn’t know they could work in video games.”
During WrestleQuest’s development, much of the knowledge that was required to flesh out the game’s world came from lifelong wrestling buffs on staff. Deighan believes this high level of employee passion serves to connect Mega Cat with its fans.
“It’s pretty awesome,” says Deighan. “I don’t know how many companies get fan mail from job applicants.“