In another dimension, Cats is the top contender for the Oscars this weekend. Tom Hooper is being anticipated for Best Director, “Beautiful Ghosts (from the Motion Picture Cats)” is a lock for Best Original Song, and all eyes are on Jennifer Hudson for Best Actress. The film, just like the Broadway musical, is a haunting display of choreography and showmanship, where everyone leaves the theater understanding “what happiness is” just a little bit better.
But in our reality, Cats isn’t up for a single Academy Award. Hooper’s film is utterly, inconceivably devoid of logic. It’s horrible. That’s not the fault of the Broadway show, though. Cats isn’t inherently bad. It’s just not right for cinemas.
Everyone knows there’s no “plot” in Cats. The musical can’t be ported over to film in the same way as Les Mis or West Side Story, because those shows have characters and conflict and rules. Cats, on the other hand, is a string of loosely related sequences that each reveal a new character in a new setting. The entire show is based around the “Jellicle Ball,” a tournament where the cats must compete for glory in front of an ancient sagely judge, Old Deuteronomy. In the end, only one cat will make it to the “heaviside layer.” But there’s a villain standing in the way: Macavity. To win the Jellicle Ball, you’re going to have to get past him.
The incoherent story of Cats is impossible to faithfully adapt for the multiplexes. But in the realm of Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, or Tekken, it is right at home. Yes, Cats as a video game—a fighting game, to be specific—makes perfect sense.
Take a moment to imagine Cats: Jellicle Kombat on your favorite video game console. The game opens with a pulpy synth overture—the same one heard in the 1980 Broadway show (god, even the music sounds like video game music). A polygonal 3D moon appears. Silhouetted cats spurt across a chunky, pixelated cobblestone street. And then, Macavity’s eyes appear. Spooky laughter. The word CATS animates center-screen. PRESS START.
You navigate to a character select screen. All of the familiar alley cats and tomcats and tabbies appear, each of them with their faces profiled in a small square. SELECT YOUR JELLICLE. Who will you choose to compete in the Jellicle Ball? Perhaps you’ll go for Victoria the White Cat—the base character, you know; the sort of Ryu or Scorpion or Super Mario default fighter of the game. Or you could go for the more technical Mr. Mistoffelees. He’s got magic projectiles that can be implemented into combos (though they don’t always work). There are the tank characters, Old Deuteronomy and Bustopher Jones, both of them sluggish but capable of taking higher damage. For fast-paced players, there are lighter fighters like the breakdancing Rum Tum Tugger, or Bombalurina, who can slow opponents with Cat Nip. And, of course, there’s the partner team of Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. They work in tandem, like the Ice Climbers in Super Smash Bros.—a bit more complicated, but if you can get the chain grab down, you’ll be on another level in competitive play.
Each cat, of course, has its own level. There’s Skimbleshanks’s rail yard with gigantic, old-fashioned freight trains chugging along in the background. Or Gus the Theatre Cat’s creaky, makeshift stage. And Bustopher Jones’s level is deep in his decadent lair of trash, where fish guts and wishbones rain from above.
With your character and stage selected, it’s off to the Jellicle Ball. Can you claw your way to the heaviside layer? Can you beat Macavity without a single Game Over? And even if you manage to beat the game, can you perform Mr. Mistoffelees’s secret finishing move, the “Conjuring Turn,” which consists of 24 consecutive fouetté turns?
I’m honestly surprised that an inventive Broadway fan hasn’t developed a Cats fighter already. The show lends itself perfectly to the format, even more so than some of the stories that have inspired fighting games already. Take Fight Club, for instance. David Fincher’s 1999 movie was adapted as a game—a disastrous one—in 2004. The PS2-era title failed because the narrative that inspired it just lacks all the necessary ingredients for a good fighter. There’s really only one “stage” in the movie, and we barely know more than three or four characters by name. Who’s the final boss? Capitalism? That doesn’t work!
Of course, just as there are already several cat characters in video games—King in Tekken, Felicia in Marvel vs. Capcom, Kintaro in Mortal Kombat—there has already been a Broadway fighting game. But it’s not based on a show that you’d expect. Back in the late ’90s, a group of Les Misérables fans got together to make Arm Joe, a 2D fighter based on the beloved Victor Hugo novel, with playable fighters that included Javert, Marius, Eponine, Enjolras, and even Robojean—a robotic Jean Valjean. Apparently, the game was called Arm Joe because those words are phonetically close to the translation of Les Mis in Japanese.
It’s wild that a Les Mis game exists. Not because Broadway shows can’t work as games, but because the Claude-Michel Schönberg musical just isn’t fighting game material! If you’re going to adapt a musical to a game, do Cats!
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s feral show is the longest-running production in the history of Broadway. It’s not absurd to imagine that a film adaptation of Cats could have become an Oscar phenomenon; the show is already a cultural treasure. Obviously, that didn’t pan out. Cats just plays by different rules. Bottling the sheer, senseless joviality of sexy human/cats with no genitals dancing for the glory of ritual death is impossible for a Hollywood production. But as a fighting game, it could be an all-time classic. And once we get Cats on consoles, that opens up the door for Cats characters to be added to Super Smash Bros. Or, my personal dream: Marvel vs. Cats. vs. Capcom. It’s my Jellicle choice.