I think it’s about time for more home computer sports game covers, don’t you? Whaddya mean, “no”? It’s too late now, I’ve already gathered together a bunch of cover art from tennis games and I’m not going to let all that back-breaking effort go to waste. Previously I’ve checked out cover art from “sporting” genres such as snooker and chess, but tennis feels like an especially appropriate sport to look at because hey, Pong is essentially a tennis game, right? And Pong is such a milestone in the development of videogames that making dumb jokes about the cover art of the games it spawned is basically the same as doing important academic work. I'm a historian! Cool, I’ve convinced myself. Let’s get to it, then!

Tennis Cup, Amiga, Loriciel

Immediately I realised that the concept of this article might be fundamentally flawed, because there’s only so much I’m going to be able to say about images of people wearing all-white outfits and holding tennis racquets. I suppose I’ll just have to zero in on the finer details, like the way the guy on the left is holding his racquet in a way that suggests he’s preparing for an overhead chop. I could create an elaborate backstory to explain this, one where he grew up in an isolated mountain cabin until one day he was spotted by an ageing tennis coach who realised the young man’s firewood chopping technique could be converted into a phenomenally powerful backhand. Hire me to write your sports anime, please.
However, what really stands out to me is just how incredibly smooth and hairless everybody’s legs are, especially the chap in the centre. He must be at least twenty-five percent dolphin.

Konami’s Tennis, ZX Spectrum, Konami / Imagine

More smooth legs on display here, too. I thought it was swimmers who removed all their body hair?  Are all professional tennis players competing in these tournaments in the hope of winning enough money to pay off the crippling debts they owe to Veet? I’m not complaining really, this is a perfectly good piece of artwork from prolific computer game artist Bob Wakelin. It’s got movement, precision, a weirdly out-of-place desert chrome logo and the guy on the right’s foot is dissolving away into nothingness. What more could you ask for?

Konami’s Tennis, MSX, Konami

Over on the cover for the MSX version of the same game, we see some very unsporting behaviour as one player celebrates hitting her opponent in the head with the ball. There’s definitely something nasty about that character, as though they revel in the pain of others. Between her single tooth and the fact she’s literally sticking two fingers up at the player, she’s got the air of a petulant baby-person. The on-court tantrums of John McEnroe in the body of a weird pop-art baby with a serious case of Popeye Elbows, that’s what this cover is all about.

International Tennis, ZX Spectrum, Zeppelin Games

Full marks to the artist on this one for taking on the difficult task of making a tennis game look “international” by covering the player in a variety of national flags. Some of the flags might look a little strange – I’m not sure what’s going on with that starless, six-striped US flag beyond the artist understandably not wanting to draw all those stars – but it gets the point across. If that wasn’t enough, there’s a world map printed on the tennis ball. Yes, the only way this could have more succinctly conveyed the idea of international tennis is if it was a picture of the very continents themselves holding tennis racquets, which is what I would have done. Antarctica would have been the umpire.

Advantage Tennis, Amiga, Infogrames

Now here’s a cover I do genuinely like. Sure, it’s painfully nineties with a colour scheme that reminds me of buying packs of highlighter pens during the back to school shop and then never using them, but at least it’s not smooth-legged people in white clothes. The stark background and logo makes for a nice contrast with the colour and fluidity of the chalk drawings, and if you ever needed a theme for a music video to go with an eighties song about tennis, then here you go. Not that there are many eighties songs about tennis, of course. There’s Chris Rea’s “Tennis,” I suppose, but that’s not really about tennis. Nice bass riff, though. Where was I? Oh, right, tennis covers.

On-Court Tennis, Commodore 64, Activision

This chap seems confused that someone has written a bunch of cryptic information on the tennis ball he’s trying to hit. “What is this ‘flash load’?” he ponders as he prepares to slice the ball back over the net. Unfortunately for him he will never be a world-class tennis player, because this artwork clearly depicts him as having hair on his arms. With the extra drag this generates he won’t be fast enough to compete against his hairless rivals.

Match Point, Commodore 64, Psion

Here we see a tennis player whose nickname is undoubtedly “The Underbite.” Captured in this image is The Underbite’s sudden realisation that maybe he should have brought a full-sized racquet to this match instead of the Action Man accessory he’s currently using. Speaking of Action Man, this image looks like it was taken straight from the cover of a sixties or seventies “men’s magazine,” except instead of surviving a World War II ambush or hunting big game he’s getting some healthy exercise down at the local tennis club before heading back to job at the council.

Tournament Tennis, Commodore 64, Imagic

Have you ever wondered what a statue of a tennis player carved from glistening, meaty dog food would look like? No, me neither, but here we are. This is the terrible knowledge that we both now share. I wonder what the thinking behind this particular aesthetic choice was? An attempt to create the ur-tennis-player, perhaps, one that exhibits protean strength and finesse, one that belongs to no single race or creed? That could be the case. Equally the artist could have been eating a treacle sponge while doing the artwork and, having dropped a big dollop of their dessert onto the paper, they decided to work it into the art. Whoever this mysterious player is, they’re in a for a real surprise when they realise that’s not a tennis ball coming at them, and someone’s whipped a cue ball towards them instead.

International 3D Tennis, ZX Spectrum, Sensible Software

I showed this one in an earlier sports game covers article, but I can’t leave it out. I just really like the idea of a tennis game cover that captures the exact moment a player suffers a horrible ankle injury. Not in a mean way, I hasten to add. I just think it’s weird, is all. I also think this player looks like unthreatening pop-jazz musician Jamie Cullum. Perhaps the broken ankle is punishment for Cullum’s anodyne cover of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over.”

Jahangir Khan World Championship Squash, ZX Spectrum, Krisalis Software

I figured I’d chuck in a few covers from adaptations of other racquet sports, because why not? What is squash if not a game of tennis played against a wall? I’m sorry, any squash players who might be reading this, I’m sure you hear that kind of unfair dismissal of your chosen sport all the time.
So, here we’ve got to blokes playing squash, which is fair enough for the cover of a squash game. Leg-hair status: just as bald as tennis. The guy on the left’s leg is so smooth that it’s producing a blinding glare with which he can dazzle and disorient his opponent, which I’m sure isn’t technically against the rules of squash but is certainly rather poor sportsmanship
I say “that guy,” but of course he’s the eponymous Jahangir Khan, a man who was certainly a squash champion. How much of a champion? Well, according to his Wikipedia page, Khan won five hundred and fifty-five squash matches. In a row. A five-and-a-half-year unbeaten streak. At that point you have to wonder whether all the other squash professionals’ hearts were really in it any more. “A tournament’s coming up, huh? Oh, Jahangir Khan has entered. You know what, I think I’ll save the air fare.” Khan eventually lost his streak in 1987. After that he went on another nine-month unbeaten run. He was good at squash, is what I’m saying, and he must have been a real easy pick for the star of this computer squash game. Khan is also the uncle of Natasha Khan, better known as the musician Bat for Lashes. I don’t know why this article has ended up containing so much music trivia. Maybe I’ve got a subconscious desire to write about music or something, so let’s give it a try – I’ve been listening to Alice Cooper’s albums that he doesn’t remember making recently, the ones from the deepest points of his struggle with alcohol and drugs, and there’s some fun, weird stuff in there. Check out the track “Skeletons in the Closet,” for example. Okay, hopefully that’s gotten the musical stuff out of my system for now.

Jonah Barrington’s Squash, ZX Spectrum, New Generation Software

Here’s another cover that you might have seen before if you follow me on Twitter, and it might be my favourite of the bunch. It must have taken a huge amount of effort to get a professional athlete to look this uncomfortable. What on earth was the direction behind this piece? “That’s great Jonah, we’ve got some good action shots, but what if you pretended to be trapped in a giant, invisible baby bouncer? I feel that could really work as a concept.”

Superstar Ping-Pong, Commodore 64, SilverTime

Ping Pong also gets a seat at this table, of course. Not an especially interesting cover on its own, the real charm of Superstar Ping-Pong comes from that advertising blurb. “The potential of a ping-pong game has at last been realised” is such an overblown statement that it’s impossible not to love, as though there were millions of die-hard table tennis fans out there thinking “soon the computers will be able to recreate the game we love with perfect fidelity, and when that day comes we can at last fold up our ping-pong tables and put them away in the garage forevermore. No longer will we suffer the tyranny of not having enough space to play table tennis! This glorious day is soon at hand, my brothers and sisters!”

Table Tennis Simulation, Atari ST, Starbyte

You might be thinking that’s it’s not going to be an accurate simulation of table tennis if you’re playing as a tortoise, and you’d be right. Have you seen how fast top-level ping-pongers go at it? No, I think this cover is actually a clever piece of expectation management. By showing you tortoises right out of the gate, the game is subtly conditioning you to not be surprised when the actual game runs really slowly. Crafty, very crafty.

Ping Pong, Commodore 64, Konami / Imagine

A much better cover here, as you might expect from a company like Konami. There’s almost a martial arts flavour to it, I reckon. Mind you, that might be because I’ve been playing Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise recently so when I see people leaving ghostly after-images of themselves when they move, that’s what I’m reminded of. Still, I feel like if you changed the background and airbrushed out the paddles you’d have a perfectly acceptable cover for Yie Ar Kung Fu.

Tiebreaker, Commodore 64, Kingsoft

The more you look at this cover, the more bizarre it gets. Just how long is that net? Why has the player gently knocked the ball straight to his opponent instead of trying to score a point by blasting it into the vast unoccupied space provided by this huge circular court? Are the insurers of this event not worried that one of the players might injure themselves by colliding with the six-foot tall trophy that’s right in the play area? The plaque on the trophy implies that the current holders are Kingsoft themselves, so we’re left to assume that they’ve created their own bizarro version of tennis in an attempt to spice things up.

Serve and Volley, Commodore 64, Accolade

I feel like the artist on this one ran out of energy just before they got to the racquet. Everything else is perfectly fine, but the racquet seems to have been painted on in Tipp-Ex. Unless… that’s the ghost of a tennis racquet?

Passing Shot, Commodore 64, Sega / Image Works

Definitely the most boring cover I’ll show you today is this re-release art for Passing Shot. It’s... a tennis ball. This is a tennis game on the Commodore 64, and that’s more than enough to give you a very strong idea of how it’s going to play. However, there is that title logo, and if on first glance you read it as Passing Shot and not Passing, erm, something else, you’re a better person than I.

Real Tennis, MSX, Takara

To finish the article, let’s quickly look at a selection of fascinating faces, starting with this one where a young man has suddenly arrived at the realisation that he’d rather be doing anything else with his life than playing tennis. “Aww geez, he’s hit the ball back towards me again,” his expression seems to say, “how long will this nightmare continue? I could be at home watching YouTube videos of motorsport accidents!”

Grand Slam, Amiga, Infinity Software

Look at this doe-eyed youth, fresh of face and lean of limb, a slight smile on his lips. That’s how you know he’s not a real sportsperson, they don’t tend to smile while they’re actually playing their sports. You wouldn’t either if you went through the same training regimen as a pro athlete.

Jonah Barrington’s Squash, Commodore 64, New Generation Software

Finally for today, this alternate cover for Jonah Barrington’s Squash reveals the true emotion that squash brings to the surface – pure, undiluted terror. These men are clearly very frightened of what’s going on around them, the icy claw of horror scratching at their hearts as the walls of the squash court seem to press in on them. I can only assume that the winner of this match has to face Jahangir Khan next.



Well, the Halloween season is over and as always it’s a bit of struggle to muster up the enthusiasm to return to writing about games that don’t include spooks or spectres or logo artwork that looks as though it was dipped in rancid cottage cheese. This time I figured I’d ease myself back in gently and bridge the gap by playing a game that stars a black cat. That’s at least mildly spooky, right? Hopefully today’s game will act as the Halloween equivalent of a nicotine patch, then – it’s Bill Williams and Synapse Software’s 1983 Atari 800 get-your-end-away-em-up Alley Cat!

Already the game’s trying to make a liar out of me, because that’s quite clearly a ginger cat. Don’t worry, it’s only orange because otherwise it wouldn’t show up on this background, it’ll be a black cat once the gameplay starts. The cat’s name is Freddy, and he’s on a mission – a mission of love, as he attempts to hook up with another cat called Felicia and get down to the kind of activities befitting of the name “alley cat.” Maybe that’s why there’s an otherwise incongruous martini glass up there, to convey that I’ll be taking Felicia for a night on the town? I have no idea otherwise.

Alley Cat begins, as you might expect, in an alley. Freddy perches on a rubbish bin near the bottom of the screen, which is the best place to be while I figure out what’s going on because if you hang around at street level for too long a dog runs onto the screens and murders Freddy in a cartoon-fight-dust-cloud situation. And what is going on? Well, Freddy needs to jump into one of these windows when they open, because that’s where the gameplay is.

To reach the higher windows, Freddy can cling onto the clothes on the washing line and clamber up that way and hey, if you’re feeling adventurous you can also try to catch some of the mice that scurry around for extra points. Unsurprisingly, the residents of this building don’t take kindly to the night-time antics of a horny, dog-fighting, clothes-shredding alley cat, so they try to shut Freddy up by throwing objects at him; objects such as rolling pins, shoes and, erm, rotary telephones? Throwing a telephone seems a bit much. Even I’m not old enough to remember how much a rotary telephone would have cost back in the day, but it can’t have been that cheap. Also, they’d be quite hard to throw accurately, what with the receiver dangling off and everything. On the plus side, if you landed a clean hit you’d probably get a satisfying “ding!” sound for your efforts.

With grace, agility and a hefty dose of luck, I managed to guide Freddy through a window. The inside of the room may be sparse, but that’s definitely a fish bowl on the table and I’ve watched enough cartoons to know that, as a cat, it’s my mission to eat that fish. Jumping up to the table is easy enough, but Freddy isn’t alone. He’s constantly being chased around the screen by a furious broom. This Fantasia reject relentlessly harasses Freddy, smacking him around the screen, away from the fish bowl or, if you’re especially unlucky, straight back out of the window. The broom can’t kill Freddy, but it’s perfectly capable of swatting you into something that is fatal. The only thing that will distract the broom from it’s cat-battering mission is dirt. If you run around on the floor Freddy will leave mucky footprints, and the broom will stop chasing you in order to sweep them up. You can use this to your advantage, but honestly I had more luck when I ignored the broom entirely.

Touching the bowl is something of a mixed blessing for Freddy. On the one hand, there’s way more than one fish for him to eat. However, the fish bowl works on Tardis principles and is much bigger on the inside. Oh, and it’s full of electric eels. That’s what the wobbly blue lines are supposed to be, so don’t swim into them because Freddy will lose a life if you do. To clear the stage, you have to “eat” all the fish by swimming into them while avoiding the eels and not drowning. I had trouble with that last part, because for some reason it didn’t occur to me to swim to the surface to get more air. My eyes were too big for Freddy’s stomach – well, Freddy’s lungs, anyway.
Freddy can freely swim in any direction but he does have a lot of momentum, so taking your time and waiting for the eels to wiggle into more favourable positions seems like the best way to go.

If you manage to catch all the fish and avoid a grisly end via electrocution or drowning, you’re awarded a score on this cat-o-meter. Here I’ve managed to score a respectable 36 cat-heads out of 48. Your score is determined by how quickly you finish each event and going for a high-score is what Alley Cat is all about, but slow and steady wins the race, you know? Also, I’m playing as a cat. Rushing around and doing things as fast as possible seems very out of character.

Once I’d cleared an event, a special kind of window opened up, a window with the feline object of our affections sitting in it. Felicia was no doubt awed by Freddy’s ability to eat a dozen goldfish in about thirty seconds, so she’s giving him the chance to prove his love by… climbing up a series of platforms made of hearts? Reach the top level and Felicia will, ahem, reward you, but that’s easier said than done when the Cupids at the top of the screen are destroying the platforms by shooting them with their arrows. What kind of evil nega-Cupids are these that would stand between a plucky cat and his true love? But wait, some of the Cupids repair the platforms with their, erm, arrows? This whole situation is a theological nightmare.
Not only do you have to deal with the predations of minor Roman gods, but each level of platforms is also patrolled by one of Felicia’s overprotective brothers. They’ll knock Freddy down to the level below if he touches hem, and I don’t know if it’s by design or I’m just unlucky but there always seemed to be another brother right below me so I’d get knocked all the way back down to the bottom. After getting bumped back down to the bottom multiple times and eventually falling off the screen entirely, I decided it was time to try some of the other events, and maybe look for a different cat to seduce while I’m at it.

In this challenge we can see a bird cage perched precariously on a table. Once again, old Warner Brothers cartoons have prepared me for this, much as they taught me about the concept of hunting seasons and where not to buy my comically oversized bird-killing tools from. Part one of this mission involves avoiding the broom long enough to reach the bird cage and nudge it off the table so it pops open and the bird flies out.

Of course, this now means that I have to actually catch the bird. There is is, perched on the curtain rail, every one of its twelve pixels taunting me as it flits about the room and I realise there’s one big problem with Alley Cat -  I find it really difficult to control. Freddy moves quickly and likes to slide around a lot, but it’s his jumping that I had the most trouble with. He can jump fairly high from a standing start but with very little horizontal movement – to make a longer leap, you need to get a run up, which makes sense to a degree but I often found myself doing a short hop even when I thought I’d built up enough speed to make a mighty leap. Even worse, once you have done a long jump you lose all your momentum as soon as you land and have to build up speed again, which is the opposite of the way almost every other platformer I’ve ever played works. I’m sure I’d learn to get used to it if I played Alley Cat for a long enough time, but coming at it as a complete beginner meant jumping around often felt finicky and laborious.
I caught the bird eventually. It would have been a faster process had I not spent a minute or so staring at that portrait on the wall. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s supposed to be professional footballer Jonjo Shelvey. Either that or someone drew a crude face on a large spoon and dressed it in a shirt.

This screen is very simple, and has the most cat-like objective of them all: climb up the bookcase and knock down the vases of flowers at the top. That’s, like, Cat 101. The only danger is the threat from the deadly dangling spiders. You might have seen a cat deal with a spider before and subsequently wonder why the spiders are a threat, but the manual claims that this apartment belongs to someone called Nick Cromancer so those probably aren’t your friendly neighbourhood house spiders. A fun little challenge, this one, and as I say it’s the most cat-like amongst them, especially as you watch Freddy scrabbling for purchase on the bookshelf.

This enormous cheese raises some questions. How did it fit through the apartment’s door? Where does the owner of this apartment sleep? Have they carved another, smaller apartment out of the cheese? Will we ever see the truly gargantuan fondue pot that’s presumably stored in the bedroom? All questions without answers, I’m afraid. All I know is that Freddy has to catch all the mice that are scurrying around on the cheese so really, I’m doing the insane owner of the mega-cheese a real favour here. It sucks for the mice, though. It’s like arriving in Heaven to find the Devil has followed close behind.
More jumping is required to grab the mice, although those holes in the cheese aren’t just for show; pressing the fire button near one causes Freddy to scurry through the cheese tunnels and exit from a different hole. You can use this to sneak up on the mice, although it all felt a bit random while I was playing – I did better when I chose a cheese-hole on a whim and leapt around like I was on the proverbial hot tin roof than I did when I tried to plan my movements.

The final type of room sees Freddy trying to catch one of the projectile telephones so he can call the RSPCA and report the owner of this flat for keeping so many dogs in this cramped room. Not really, it’s time to show off Freddy’s large, resolutely un-neutered balls by sneaking into this room and drinking all the bowls of milk from under the noses of the sleeping dogs. The full bowls take longer to drink and the more time you stand in place, the more likely that a dog will wake up and tear you to shreds, so you have to be take care not to push your luck. This is the hardest event of the bunch, in my opinion, mostly because it’s hard to tell when the dogs are about to wake up. Oh, and there’s a flying carton of milk that constantly tops up the bowls you haven’t eliminated. You’d think Freddy would ignore the bowls and just stand until the infinite milk dispenser if he wants a drink, but I suppose at this point it’s a matter of pride. He is trying to impress a lady cat, after all.

Okay, time for another crack at reaching Felicia, except this time I’ve got a secret weapon, and that weapon is generosity. For every event you clear, you begin this stage with a gift-wrapped present at the bottom of the screen. You can only carry one at a time, but once you place it down any of Felicia’s brothers that touch it will be momentarily transfixed by Freddy’s display of magnanimity, allowing you to get past them far more easily. And that’s how I got past the cats, ascended the tower of love and thwarted the machinations of Cupid. I can’t blame Cupid, really. Those platforms are heart-shaped, and when he sees a heart he shoots an arrow into it. It’s kind of his whole deal.

Your reward is a smooch from Felicia, followed by a brief scene of them flying through the night sky in a pair of heart-shaped bubbles while fireworks explode in the background. I imagine the game’s creators felt that footage of a train going into a tunnel would be a bit too crass.

So ends Alley Cat – for me, at least. Once you’ve reached Felicia, you gain an extra life (up to a total of nine, naturally) and the game restarts at a higher difficulty level so you can shoot for the high score. I… won’t be doing that. It’s not that I dislike Alley Cat, I just didn’t find it all that much fun to play thanks to the fussy controls, especially when jumping, and trying to get into the windows to start one of the challenges is more frustrating than it needs to be. I’m sure most of my issues with the controls would be smoothed out with more practise, but I don’t fancy spending more time with Alley Cat even given the positives of the game – the animations are tiny but still smooth and full of character, with Freddy’s movements especially capturing a very cat-like essence. Plus it’s just weird, which I like. Giant cheeses? Multi-dimensional fish bowls? Someone who calls themselves Nick Cromancer and is presumably sitting somewhere smugly thinking that the Papal Inquisitor Squad will never find him now? I can’t argue with that. You had your moments, Alley Cat, so let’s leave it at that. Okay, this time I really am going to take a break.

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