Salacious adult games that permeate the gaming landscape are the digital equivalent of a sleazy drive-thru: cheap, low-quality and likely to give you heartburn. Apologies. Came in too hot. Let’s cool it for a second. In an attempt to tamper down the self-righteousness, there’s nothing inherently wrong with spending your Friday night (or any given weeknight) sinking hours into this type of game. But, ask yourself, do you really need those empty calories?
Atlus’ 2011 game Catherine—rated “M”, but not for obvious reasons—was one novelty title that not only satisfied your hunger for flesh, but left you feeling surprisingly guilt-free afterwards.
The ESRB and PEGI have been slapping warning signs on games since the 90s, so we should be well-familiar with adult themes by now. This could encapsulate situations with deep emotional themes, horrible tragedies, gratuitous violence, or simply a liberal use of profanity. Maybe feeling that there was a deficit, certain game developers leaned even further into “other” adult themes. You know the ones. They’re easy to spot. Just look for the top-heavy female with the bedroom eyes and bathing suit on the cover and that should be a dead giveaway.
Take the developer qureate, for instance. One glance through their titles and you’ve got their number. And, judging from the latest controversy of their titillating (again, apologies) rhythm game, Massage Freaks (now renamed to ‘beat refle’), it seems that they may need to find a new angle.
Developer Big Way is another prime example. So far this year, they’ve released two titles that both include the word “hentai” in the title. The latter game, Hentai Uni, is available on the Nintendo Switch website with the nudge-and-a-wink claim that it “can be played with one hand”. As games by definition are required to have some type of objective as opposed to sheer idle ogling, games like Hentai Uni are wrapped up in a lackadaisical problem-solving mechanic, mainly a 3D puzzle, or simply a point-and-click RPG (and not the cool nostalgic kind) in order to give the faintest impression of user-interaction.
The 2011 game, Catherine, however, took a lot of those smut game concepts and turned them on their head. The plot centers on the relationship(s) of Vincent, a programmer in his 30s who is caught in the middle of a love triangle between his marriage-seeking long-term girlfriend Katherine and Catherine, a feisty actual succubus that he met at the Stray Sheep bar that he frequents nightly.
We’re all familiar with the habits of succubi, yes? Just checking.
After being seduced and sleeping with Catherine, there is no rest for Vincent. Each night he is thrust into a nightmarish domain with talking sheep (previous victims of Catherine) where he must successfully climb to the top of a puzzling tower, or die in real life. This is the main mechanic of the game, apart from interacting with a colorful cast of characters in the daylight hours. But that trailer though. You’d think it was a horror game.
At this point, I like to think that Atlus may have been at a proverbial crossroad. Having already met the prerequisite conditions with its visual novel/puzzle format, Catherine could’ve been just another “adult game” – a mediocre foray into risqué territory devoid of depth. Indeed, this may have been the case in less adept hands. But not so, and that’s the point here. The creative minds at Atlus subverted the adult genre by being sexy without showing the customary amount of skin.
Apart from the surface story, Catherine also set itself apart on several other levels. Vincent is assigned a type of mysterious meter that swings like a pendulum towards good and evil depending on his choices and words, which ultimately affects what ending the player receives. Morality systems in games are nothing new, but decisions about infidelity and making a relationship work help humanize Vincent’s plight and drive things closer to home.
On top of the meter, there are unavoidable “confessional questions” that Vincent must answer once he ascends to the top of the tower. Yeah, some of them are the banal stuff of online questionnaires, like “Do you get bored easily?”, or better yet, “Is popping bubble wrap fun?” However, other questions really make you ponder topics that wouldn’t feel out of place in a sex therapist’s office: “Has being embarrassed ever turned you on?”, “You’ve suddenly changed sexes. Where do you go?”, or “Could you have sex with an attractive ghost?” Look, if this is making you uncomfortable, you don’t have to answer these.
The endings ranged from the harrowing to the absurd. They range between Katherine and Catherine’s true, good and bad finales, with a separate ‘Freedom’ ending where Vincent bets and wins big on a wrestling match and heads to outer space instead of marrying either of his two love interests. Let’s see you do that, Elves Hentai Fantasy Puzzle.
The tagline was “The love triangle is now a square”. Catherine: Full Body was released in 2020 on Switch as a remake with a boatload of additional content. It opened to excellent reviews and is considered to be the conclusive version of the game due to the enhancements to the game’s aesthetics, a total of 13 possible endings, and feature new characters: the controversial Qatherine, and Rin, the piano player at the Stray Sheep.
It is the inclusion of Rin that takes the winning formula of the original Catherine to new heights, in spite of the firestorm it started regarding the game’s handling of Rin’s sexual orientation. On the record, it turns out that Rin is a male space alien sent to investigate the nightmare realm. Off the record, he could be some sort of sexless effeminate angel. However, Rin’s gender is secondary to the fact that Vincent (the player) does in fact have the option to end up and marry any of his three options. If Vincent goes with the True Rin ending, they end up together in outer space: Rin, a touring piano performer, and Vincent as her manager. Beautiful stuff. Whether Vincent picks Katherine, Catherine, or Qatherine speaks volumes at the progressive nature of this game. Try incorporating that one, Perky Little Things.
It’s only been two years since Catherine: Full Body was released, but hopefully it will be an example to devs that it’s possible to pump out material for mature audiences while still being, well, mature. Like having a drink with your parents.
Like sinking your teeth into a fresh black Angus steak instead of a defrosted Big Mac, Catherine and its sequel sets the bar higher using both hands.