06/11/2018

ALLEY CAT (ATARI 800)

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.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks again for reviewing this. It's unfortunate that you didn't fall head over heels for this game, but you're not WRONG, either. I reviewed Alley Cat a few years ago on my own blog and felt similarly ambivalent about it. Bill Williams had the right idea by patterning Alley Cat after an arcade game, but the control is needlessly frustrating. There really should have been a second button for jumping. There really SHOULDN'T have been stray cats poking their heads out of the garbage cans and knocking you into the dogs below all the time.

    A programmer named Joflof remade Alley Cat, adding some quality of life improvements (a jump button! Thank goodness!), improving the audiovisuals, and throwing in a few new stages. It's still Alley Cat, and it's still frustrating in ways it probably shouldn't be, but it's a valiant and mostly successful effort.

    By the way, Bill Williams went on to make Bart's Nightmare for 16-bit systems. It wasn't very good (apparently Acclaim constantly interfered with the production, prompting the designer to call it "Bill's Nightmare"), but it does have some of the spirit and the multi-faceted gameplay of Alley Cat.

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  2. Was thinking of Primus and Tom Waits the whole time I was reading this. "TOMMY THE CAT IS MAH NAME AND AH SAY UNTO THEE!"

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  3. I had the stage theme to Turtles in Time, Alley Cat Blues in my head the whole time I read this.

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  4. A cat must have meandered on your keyboard causing this typo.
    "and just stand until the infinite milk dispenser if he wants a drink"

    ReplyDelete

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