For too long I have enjoyed the relative comfort and ease of use that comes with console gaming, so it's time to toughen up and reacquaint myself with the Commodore 64, via Rino Marketing's 1986 outside-pet-em-up Tales of the Cat. So, a solid round of sleeping, a quick break to take a dump on my lawn and some more napping to cap it off? That's the only tale the cats in my neighbourhood ever have to tell.
Here's the cat himself, and he looks a bit like the eponymous star of the British cartoon Henry's Cat. More specifically, he looks like a cuddly toy of Henry's Cat that got its paw caught in a mangle and was subsequently left in an oil-slicked puddle to bleach under the sun. He could also stand to lose a few pounds, but then again, couldn't we all? As an aside, every time I see Henry's Cat mentioned I immediately get the theme song for the unrelated British cartoon Roobarb and Custard stuck in my head, for reasons that are unclear to me. Check that one out on YouTube if you want to hear the most aggressively harsh opening theme kid's TV has to offer.
The cat looks much more appealing now that we're into the game proper, in that it looks like a regular white cat. Tales of the Cat could be described as a platformer, although while there is jumping to be done little of said jumping is between platforms or over gaps. Mostly, your goal is to get from one side of the screen to the other while collecting items for points, items such as the strange green icon at the bottom-left of the screen, which I believe is the alchemical symbol for "pointless collectable." The main twist is that you walk from right to left rather than from left to right. Thrilling, I know.
There are many obstacles in the cat's path, and because this is a Commodore 64 game each of them are fatal should you so much as glance in their direction. Cars are the obvious danger, although their threat was diminished once I realised that standing right on the white line meant neither lane of traffic could hit you. Still, negotiating the rush-hour was made difficult by the cat's inability to walk directly upwards: pressing up on the joystick makes the cat move diagonally upwards, creating the illusion that it necked a bottle of scotch before the game began. There are also deadly animals to contend with. I'm not sure if these black creatures are supposed to be dogs, larger, meaner cats or Umbreynard, the Shadow-Fox, Messenger Between Realms. Whatever they are they're slower than you, so you can lure them out of the way and run around them.
On this screen, there's a dead mouse to collect. That seems much more appropriate than a strange symbol. That's Tales of the Cat: the game where you dodge traffic to gather up animal carcasses like an inbred hillbilly preparing for a family barbecue.
I can't decide whether this rotund chap is supposed to be a policeman or a parking warden. I'm leaning towards parking warden. That would be the more British answer, plus I think parking wardens are more widely reviled by the British public and are therefore more believable as someone who would kill a cat for no reason. Speaking of dying, you start the game with nine lives, except they're referred to as "tales," thus ruining a perfectly good "cats have nine lives" joke. Cats are not known as dazzling raconteurs, so them having nine tales doesn't make sense. Unless one of the programmers is into S&M and it's an oblique reference to a cat 'o nine tails.
A new foe has appeared: it's a breakdancer who moonwalks across the screen and poses very little threat. The guy just wants to express himself through dance, is all, and that's fine by me.
You might have noticed that each screen in Tales of the Cat has it's own name, which you can see at the bottom of the screen. Some of them make immediate sense, while others are a references to other things and because this game was released before a large chunk of VGJunk's readership was born a lot of these references will remain a mystery. I know what "Bill and Ben" refers to, of course - it's Bill and Ben, The Flowerpot Men, the gibberish-spouting nature-gremlins that star in the kid's TV show of the same name. Why "Bill and Ben"? Because some psychopath is trying to kill the cat by throwing flowerpots at it from an upstairs window, presumably while shouting "flob-a-dob this, you goddamn cat!"
As this screen's called "The Bad Seed" I was desperately hoping for an appearance by moribund crooner Nick Cave. I thought maybe he'd stick his head out the window of a passing car and sing a haunting ballad steeped in dark religious imagery, but no. Instead you have to move some bird seed so the bird will vacate the entrance to the next screen. Why is it bad seed, then? Have I poisoned the seed? That's definitely it, the cat species has embarked on a new and deadly phase of their anti-bird machinations.
Now we're out of the city, there's a welcome change of scenery as the urban jungle is replaced by a rural hellscape littered with craters. From barely requiring you to jump at all in the first set of screens, Tales of the Cat does a complete one-eighty and demands nothing but a succession of perfectly-timed jumps from here on out. As you can see, I struggled to get past the first bloody hole - RIP, indeed - but eventually I stumbled upon the solution. Look at the hole on the left. You see that pixel-wide strip of green just below the hole? yeah, you can walk on that. The first hole has one too. Why yes, that is kind of a bullshit solution.
More deep-cut references in the next screen - "Go Wild In the Country" is presumably named after the 1982 Bow Wow Wow song. What does this scene have to do with Eighties New Wave music with a twist of African rhythm? Absolutely bugger all, as far as I can tell. What it does have is birds - deadly birds, naturally. Dogs, cars and flowerpots I can understand, all of those things could pose a problem to a cat. Birds? Not so much. In a fight between cats and birds, cats are usually the victors, unless you're unlucky enough to have an eagle swoop down and abduct your kitten. These are super-birds, then, dedicated cat-slayers that have a secret weapon: shit. The birds shit on you as they fly past. Real classy, that. What's worse is that the droppings linger on the screen for a while after they land, and I died multiple times because I thought I'd avoided the, erm, bombing raid only to step in a pile of crap that hadn't quite faded from the screen.
And then the pain begins. The goal of this screen is immediately apparent - you must jump from the riverbank and land on the small raft that moves back and forth across the water. It is not that simple. For starters, there's a ruddy great hole next to the water's edge, and simply getting yourself into position without falling into the void is a challenge in itself. Then there's the jumping. Tales of the Cat's jumping mechanics are okay. Not amazing, and you're locked into an arc once you're airborne, but they come out pretty quickly when you hit the button and they're consistent. The hit detection on the platform, however...
Ah yes, the grace and agility that cats are famous for is on full display here. It definitely didn't take me about fifty attempts to land this jump, because I am a cool dude who is really good at computer games, he lied. This isn't even the hardest part of the game, either.
"No Nukes is Good Nukes," it says, so the developers will be pleased to know that the Windscale nuclear power plant - which is referenced in the background - is in the process of being decommissioned. Also, the proximity of high radiation levels might go some way towards explaining where all these vicious killer scorpions came from. They're the yellow things on the pipe, and they fly towards you as though they were bullets fired from the devil's minigun. Jumping over them is your only option. That's for the best. You'll need all the practise you can get for the next screen.
Here, then, is where Tales of the Cat decides it's had enough of being a computer game and wants to embark on a new career as a digital flagellation device. In concept it's simple - just like the previous screen, scorpions run along the pipe in endless waves and you have to jump over them. However, there's also a squadron of birds with full intestines and loose cloacae patrolling the skies, ready to unleash acrid, runny hell upon you. There's simply so much on the screen, and it's all moving so fast, that when combined with the game's extremely unforgiving collision detection you might as well give up and try something less frustrating like buying a crate full of gerbils and training them to re-enact the Battle of Hastings in minute detail. Mr. Squeaks will not sit still while you attempt to glue a fake arrow near his eye, I'll tell you that much for free.
You can't hang back and try to figure out a pattern, because scorpions are known for their impatience and there's a fairly strict time limit to each screen, and you can't even use an emulator's save-state ability to scum your way through it because you simply don't have time to hit save and even if you did you're overwhelmingly likely to save in a position where you've screwed yourself. In the end I got past it through sheer blind luck, after roughly four times the number of attempts it took me to land on that bloody raft. It's a section so unpleasant, so agonizingly unfair, that it makes the rest of the game worse simply by existing. You could be eating the world's most delicious sandwich, but you're not going to enjoy it if you know someone's waiting to shove a live porcupine up your backside once you've finished, you know?
On the plus side, it makes every other screen in the game feel like an absolute piece of piss. Oh no, a one-ton weight is going to land on my head if I don't walk slightly to the left! Yeah, nice try. Jog on, pal.
The final "proper" screen features that one boss from the Kirby games. The tree blows leaves at you. I assume the leaves are deadly to the touch, but I wouldn't know because I never got hit by them. That nightmare screen taught me well.
"I Wish I Was A Dog," it says. I wish I was playing as a dog, too. A dog wouldn't care if a bird shit on it. This is the problem with playing as a cat, the preening divas of the animal kingdom.
Then things get a bit weird on the final screen. The usual walking and jumping has been replaced by, of all things, anagram solving. Unexpected, but if it means I don't have to jump over any more scorpions, I'll take it. To finish the game, you just have to pick up each letter in turn and place it on the board so it spells out "Tales of the Cat." There's a helpful clue at the top of the screen, you see.
It sounds simple enough, and I suppose it is. That makes it all the more embarrassing that I managed to bugger the entire thing up and leave myself in a situation where I couldn't finish the game. I don't think this is entirely my fault, however. What happened is that I accidentally picked up the wrong letter. Once you've picked up a letter, you can't put it down. Nor can you put a letter on the board if it's not the next letter in the sequence. You can't swap it for another letter, either. So, once I'd grabbed the E instead of the L I was aiming for, that was it. I tried more combinations of buttons, positions and joystick wagglings than a robot orgy, but that letter E remained steadfastly glued to the cat's face even when I ran out of time and lost a life. So, all I could do was wait for the time to run out over and over until I was all out of lives and hit a game over, which was a stunningly dull end to an already underwhelming game. The thing is, as far as I'm aware, there's no ending to Tales of the Cat and the game simply loops again if you finish the anagram. "Is It Worth Being Virtuous?" asks the message at the bottom of the screen, in a moment of unexpected existential angst. I'm not sure about that, but I'm definitely leaning towards it not being worth playing Tales of the Cat.
It's not really a terrible game, although it does have a few terrible moments. On the whole, though, it's exactly what I expect from a C64 platformer - a jolly enough romp that occasionally demands a level of precision usually reserved for docking with a space station or building a microchip with tweezers and a magnifying glass. It's nice to play as a cat for a change, and it was interesting trying to puzzle out some of the references in the screen names, but it does lose points for reminding me of Bad Cat. On the whole, it's just about better than being crapped on by a real bird.