Thursday, March 26, 2015

Good Bad Kitty! The Ballad of Alley Cat

Cats are frustrating beasts. When they're on your lap, they're the cutest, most cuddly-uddly balls of fluff you've ever laid eyes on, but once they leap off, they turn into instant headaches. They shred the furniture with their scythe-like claws, barf hairballs on your freshly cleaned carpet, and try to turn your smaller pets into an afternoon snack. They're stubbornly defiant and notoriously difficult to train, and even if you succeed, you'll always notice a hint of resentment in their hauntingly reptilian eyes.

It's with that same sense of ferocious ambivalence that I review Alley Cat, designed by Bill Williams (William Williams...?) for a handful of home computers in 1984. Williams took the mercilessly addicting gameplay of early arcade titles and put it in the framework of a Warner Bros. cartoon, with surreal situations and vicious dogs that threaten to sweep you off the screen in a rolling cloud of pain and suffering. It's hard not to love a game like this, even when it does its best to get on your bad side. (Which is often.)

Let's give Alley Cat a thorough inspection before we feed the disc into a shredder, shall we? You're an alley cat (natch), and your world is a mid-century apartment complex surrounded by a rickety fence and clotheslines full of drying laundry. Hungry dogs make outside a very bad place to be for feral felines, so you'll have to invite yourself in using this gameplan...

Once you've snuck inside an open window, just about anything could be waiting for you. There are five different mini-games, which I'll describe in order of difficulty...


There's a massive wedge of cheese in the living room, with mice hiding in the holes. Sure, it makes sense for the rodents to be here, but how'd they get the cheese in the house? Who leaves that much cheese lying around unrefrigerated, anyway? Furthermore, if that's just a wedge, could you imagine the size of the wheel that spawned it? 

These questions will have to go unanswered... your only concern is to stuff yourself with the mice hiding in the super-sized Swiss. You'll only need four of them to beat the stage, and you can even duck inside one hole and peek your head out of another by tapping the action button, making you a hard target for the broom and any dogs hoping to add another link to the food chain. Even in the later levels, and even on the Atari XE where the mice run off screen when they see you coming, this will be a piece of, er, cheesecake.


Everything seems perfectly normal at first, with three delicate vases perched on a bookshelf. You're a cat! Just do what comes naturally, you bastard. But then you notice the pair of spiders crawling along the ceiling; spiders large enough to turn a careless kitty into lunch. Between the previously encountered mice and arachnids the size of footballs, it's clear this apartment hasn't seen an exterminator in a while.

Anyway! The spiders are threatening at first, but they're as stupid as they are scary. Just lead them to the left side of the screen, let them drop from their threads, and quickly scale the bookcase on the right while they're dangling. Knock down the three vases and you'll earn a juicy point bonus, along with the irritation of the apartment residents. Presuming the spiders haven't already laid eggs inside their desiccated corpses.


This is where things start getting tricky. Resting atop a table is a bird cage. You'll need to knock the cage down to claim the canary inside, but the bird won't make it easy to reach her, randomly flitting around as you're pursued by the broom and the family's other pet, a frothing mutt. You'll need to gain as much altitude as possible, clinging to lamps and hanging portraits to escape the threats below and sink your teeth into the treat above.

There's one thing worth noting, and this remains constant throughout all the mini-games: you can track mud on the floor to distract the broom, giving yourself some breathing room while you finish the stage. Walking back and forth over the same area adds layers of pawprints, giving the broom more work but increasing the chance you'll be ambushed by a dog. Tread carefully!


Yes, it looks just like the other stages, but there's more going on here than you think. Leap into the fishbowl on the table and it becomes a vast aquarium, full of delicious goldfish and less appetizing electric eels. As you snarf up the goldfish, they're replaced with eels, giving you even less breathing room. Oh yeah! Speaking of breathing, you'll have to surface for oxygen regularly... otherwise, you'll slowly turn blue, then purple, then dead.

Your best bet in the eels stage is to eat the fish at the bottom of the screen first, so you won't have to go back when the fishbowl is thick with unagi. Also, the bubbles that rise to the surface and the sounds of rushing water illustrate the extra care that went into the Atari XE version of the game. One gets the distinct impression that it was designer Bill Williams' top priority, even though the DOS game (with its four often hideous colors) is quite good in its own right.


This stage offers fright and delight in equal measure, with a dozen bowls of milk just waiting to be lapped up but just as many dogs sleeping next to them. It's time to put on your night vision goggles and engage in a little pre-Kojima stealth action! Drinking from the bowls slowly empties them, but wakes the dogs from their slumber, forcing you to pull off a nerve-wracking balancing act to finish the stage. The PC version makes matters worse by flashing blood red when a dog is nearly awake, your last warning before you take a one way trip through its digestive system. (Watch that last step! It's a doozy!)

As usual, the Atari XE version is more complex than its DOS counterpart, with a carton of milk floating around the room refilling the bowls and undoing your work. Considering the already intimidating difficulty of this stage, it's debatable if this extra feature is a plus or an unnecessary annoyance.

Beating any one of these five stages attracts the attention of a female cat, leading to the final challenge... a desperate climb to the top of a room filled with hearts and rival felines. The cats can be distracted with gifts, but the only thing you can do about the angels circling the playfield is cross your fingers and hope they don't fire an arrow where you're standing. Should they break the hearts under you, you'll fall to the floor below, or off the stage if you're especially unlucky. Succeed and you'll hook up with the female in a touching scene capped off by fireworks in the Atari XE version, and an ever-growing troop of dancing Hello Kitties in the DOS port. Fail and you'll have to start the level from the beginning, if you're not clobbered by a shoe as you're ejected from the window.

Not much fun to get one of these in the head.
I was going to mention some of the things that sour the Alley Cat experience, and this is the perfect place to start. This game is cheap. It's not just cheap; it's downright nasty about it. The player's cat sometimes gets caught in a chain reaction with a deadly conclusion... for instance, he could be shooed out the window by a broom, only to get nailed with a thrown telephone on the way out. (Not today's pocket-sized iPhones, but a big, heavy rotary dial telephone that could probably kill a real cat if properly tossed.) The garbage cans that are your only path to the apartment windows are often home to stray cats, which love to knock you down to the floor and into an oncoming dog. This is especially obnoxious in the later levels, where there are just a few cans, positioned so far apart that they're difficult to climb.

So close, and yet so far away...
The control is also a sticking point. To the game's credit, the lead character moves much like a real cat would, darting across the screen before gracefully leaping for higher ground, and clinging to drying clothes, hanging pictures, and anything else that will hold his weight. Problem is, there's no dedicated jump button, robbing you of the chance to properly plan your pounces. The cat also has a distressing lack of vertical reach to his jumps, leaving you vulnerable when you're outside the apartment and a dog is in hot pursuit. You can bound over the slobbering hound with a running jump, but it's smart enough to turn around when it realizes you're behind it. If you can't reach the fence- and in the later levels, you probably won't- you're not going to last long.

You'll sometimes want to throttle the damn thing, but you can't stay mad at Alley Cat. It's got the thrills and charm of an early 80s arcade classic, and it's one of the few pre-Wolfenstein games for DOS PCs that's worth coming back to decades later, despite a color scheme that would give your interior decorator a nervous breakdown. So put down the hammer... you'll want to give this one another shot. At least after your blood pressure drops to a safe level.

POSTSCRIPT: After you play Alley Cat, you may be tempted to shake Bill Williams' hand... or punch him in the gut. Sadly, you won't get the chance to do either, as Williams died from cystic fibrosis at the much too young age of 38. He had retired from game development years before thanks to constant meddling from Acclaim while he was designing the Super NES title Bart's Nightmare, which he dubbed "Bill's Nightmare" after one too many demands from the marketing department. Yeah, I don't miss Acclaim either.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Is This the End of Zombie Konami?

Freelance game writer Nadia Oxford recently posted this on her Twitter page:

Say Capcom and Konami, which of you is the sadder, more anemic shadow of the game studio I loved as a child? CAPCOM: "Me!" KONAMI: "ME!!"

Don't forget ME, Nadia!
I super-suck!
It's a harsh assessment, but it's not far off-base when you consider the two companies' increasingly lackluster output and puzzling wastes of human resources. A couple of years ago, Capcom did the unthinkable, firing Mega Man lead developer Keiji Inafune before cancelling the hotly anticipated Mega Man Legends 3. (Capcom claims the two events are unrelated. I claim that's a huge load.)

Konami would probably prefer
"dead" at this point.
Not to be outdone by its rival, Konami has recently shown Hideo Kojima the door. Yes, the very same Hideo Kojima who gave us the Metal Gear series, the only franchise that's kept Konami relevant in the last ten years. Seriously, when was the last time Konami released something from their vast catalog of beloved properties that had nothing to do with scruffy soldiers and long-winded cut scenes? For me, the last reminder of Konami's good old days was when they released Gradius V, and that was nearly ten years ago. And it was outsourced to Treasure and G-Rev! And it wasn't even the best game in the series!

Evidently, the reason for Konami's face-first fall from grace into a cement sidewalk is that they've lost their appetite for video game publishing. They're distancing themselves from the industry and investing in casino equipment and fitness centers, the same move Bally made in the late 1980s when it cut ties with Midway. Konami still intends to make Metal Gear games without Kojima's involvement, but considering the tight association between the series and its creator, and the dismal state Mega Man has been in since Inafune's departure from Capcom, you'd be wise not to expect much from future Metal Gear installments. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Jess and the Too Many RPGs

I have a habit of being very stupid with my money. Take the last three months, for instance. I've picked up a dozen role-playing games for the Vita, PSP, and even the 3DS, thinking that these lengthy adventures would offer more bang for the buck than ordinary action titles. Or they would, if I bothered to play them. Let's look at the stats, shall we?

PSone Classic

Time Spent: 2h 38m
That would explain the barely any clothes
you're wearing.
Will I Return? I ought to! I bought this because I played through the original on the Sega Saturn when I first lived in Arizona at the turn of the century. It's a bit slow and the translation lacks the zest that the game deserves, but it holds up pretty well for its age, and the candy-colored graphics are a delight on the Vita screen.

PSOne Classic
Time Spent: 5m
Will I Return? As you can probably guess from the whopping five minutes I spent with it, probably not. I loved the first two Suiko games to pieces... their cast of 108 heroes scratched that "gotta catch 'em all" itch in a way the more juvenile Pokemon series never could. However, I'm starting to think that the season has passed for this franchise... I can't even get into the good Suikoden games anymore. (Not that there's been many of those lately.)

PS One Classic
Time Spent: 38m
Yes, this is the game where you body slam
an oncoming train. If only it looked as cool as
this drawing by DeviantArtist Porcodotranstorno!
Will I Return? Abso-freaking-lutely not. Maybe on another system, but the five second pauses between battles in the PSOne port kill the game's momentum like you wouldn't believe. Beyond that (and I risk the wrath of Square fans for saying this), I find the combat animation off-puttingly primitive, even by the modest standards of the Super NES. It might actually be charmingly quaint on the Game Boy Advance, but not so much on an uber-handheld like the Vita.

PS One Classic
Time Spent: not one damn second
Will I Return? I'd have to play it for the first time to return to it! Anyway, this purchase seemed like a good idea at the time, as it brings back the more whimsical atmosphere that the previous two Final Fantasy games abandoned. Despite this, I haven't been inclined to download it, and unless someone can make a strong case for the game, I probably never will.

PS One Classic
Time Spent: again, not even a second
Sorry, you want the other RPG down the street.
Will I Return? I actually DID download this to my Vita, but haven't fired it up yet. I've always liked the Seiken Densetsu series, and Legend of Mana's more straightforward beat 'em up action (described by critics as a fantasy-based River City Ransom) is a tempting prospect. Don't be surprised if this one gets featured in a future post.

Time Spent: 9h 23m
Will I Return? Of all the games mentioned in this entry, this one and Valkyrie Profile have soaked up the most of my free time. Trails in the Sky in particular strikes me as the second coming of Grandia, with similar combat and an inviting, lighthearted atmosphere. I'm confident that I'll be coming back for a second helping of this one.

Time Spent: 36m
Will I Return? Possibly! This is Falcom's attempt to rehabilitate the third Ys game, which received an unenthusiastic response from fans and critics alike when it was first released for the Super NES and Genesis. Wanderers from Ys made the mistake of switching to a side-view perspective, but the Oath in Felghana offers polygonal playfields that are closer to a traditional Ys game and give the player more space to dodge the attacks of hungry wolves. Which, uh, explode into meaty chunks when they've been killed. That's as good a reason as any to give this one a chance, I guess!

Time Spent: 27h 13m (!!!)
Will I Return? Are you kidding me? I've made too much progress in this game to quit now! I gave Valkyrie Profile a glowing review last December, and I'm still a fan three months later... even if the storyline has taken a detour into Looney-ville with creepy boy wizard Lezard Valeth and gods cloned from elves. Okay, really, isn't Nordic mythology weird enough without all this extra baggage?

Time Spent: 1h (too many)
They've been a big help to me, too!
As a sleep aid!
Will I Return? Ahem. HEEEEEEEELL NO! This game is so boring it could drill a hole to the center of the Earth. Dig Dug and Mr. Driller look at it and go, "Dayum." 

Seriously, I fired this one up on a trip from Tucson, thinking that it would keep me entertained. Heh, nope. I would have been better off just watching the cacti zip by for that hour. It's designed by Tri-Ace and it's got a tantalizing science fiction setting, but it's ALSO got lots of idiot non-player characters who have nothing interesting to say but love the sound of their own voice. After about an hour I was ready to pop the UMD out of my system and fling it out the window. Let the coyotes have this one.

Time Spent: 52m
Will I Return? I was warned that I probably wouldn't enjoy this much, given my well documented contempt for Final Fantasy VII. However, despite borrowing much of its setting and mythology from that, ahem, game, Crisis Core is an entirely different animal, with combat that strikes an intriguing middle ground between turn-based strategy and real-time action. It also looks gorgeous by PSP standards, a trait it shares with...

Time Spent: 1h 4m
Cower in fear at my mighty, uh,
Cinderella powers.
Will I Return? Disney and Square are a combination of flavors so bizarre that it should only appeal to pregnant women, but you know, I think I could choke this one down. It looks terrific, the combat is nimble and action-packed, and the gameplay is pretty meaty, with a variety of Disney-themed worlds to visit and three different heroes to explore them. Best of all, the late, great Leonard Nimoy lent his voice to the lead villain, which was ultimately the deciding factor in my purchase. Oh yes, this will be going back into my PSP... count on it.

Time Spent: 10m?
Will I Return? Bryan Ochalla was right... this IS a whole lot different from the demo that was released last year. I feel a little disoriented starting this one and being dropped in a completely different city. I'm also pretty damn annoyed that it has no apparent support for Miiverse, unlike practically everything else that was released for the 3DS and Wii U in the past twelve months. Come on, Nintendo, get with the program! If it weren't for Miiverse (and Smash Bros.) I probably wouldn't even turn on my 3DS! Anyway. I might come back to this, but it's not high on my list of priorities, especially now that I know the game turns into a train wreck about three quarters of the way through.

EDIT: Scratch that... there IS a Miiverse community for Bravely Default! A search didn't bring it up, but that tends to happen when you use one too many spaces. Thanks to MetManMas for the catch.

So there you have it. I've got too many damn RPGs, and not enough motivation to play them all. Let this be a lesson to you... lengthy adventures aren't a cost-effective way to play video games if you don't spend any time with them.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Fun on the Cheap

My readership has flatlined, so you know what that means... it's time for another hasty update! I wanted to let all y'all know about my work-in-progress entertainment center, which was assembled from the following bits and pieces...

Price: $15

Purchased: July 2014

Don't buy this thing. Really.
This seemed like the sale of the century when I picked it up at a yard sale for a fistful of fivers, but in hindsight this thing has been a monkey's paw with one finger extended. Really Sony, what kind of idiot makes a Blu-Ray player without a wi-fi antenna? That makes it useful for playing discs and that's about it. Technically, you could connect it to a router with an Ethernet cable, but good luck finding one that stretches across three rooms.

A few months after arriving in Arizona, I found another Blu-Ray player at another yard sale for two dollars. It was even worse, if such a thing can be imagined. I should have just gotten a PS3 instead...

Price: $150
Purchased: Jan 2014

Pronouns ahoy!
You know it, you love it (at least since Mario Kart 8 was released last summer)... it's the Wii U, Nintendo's next generation game system built with last generation hardware! I've been squeaking by with the GamePad over the last few months, playing games and drawing on its modestly sized screen, but lately I've been wanting a display I don't have to press my nose against to see. Which brings me to...

Price: $10
Purchased: March 2015

Get your board shined up,
grab a stick of Juicy Fruit...
I came across this budget monitor at a thrift store for a pretty reasonable $15... but with a little finagling, I was able to bring the price down to a downright ridiculous ten clams. It's hardly in mint condition- there's a dead pixel hidden in the center of the display and a scratch just below that- but it's proven to be a perfectly serviceable monitor with just a few extra parts. And speaking of those...

Price: $25-$30
Purchased: Late February to March 2015

Sugar... spice... and everything nice. These are the ingredients Professor Utonium used to make the perfect little girls. But since I was trying to make an entertainment center instead, I needed a few cables and gadgets. First up to bat was a DVI to HDMI adapter, found at Walmart for about $17. Good lord, that cost more than the monitor!

This costly doodad let me connect devices like my Blu-Ray player and the Wii U to the Sceptre with little fuss, but I was still left without sound. So I had to pick up a 3.5mm male to twin RCA male cable on eBay, and a 3.5mm male to twin RCA female connector from Radio Shack ($7 in total, with the Radio Shack connector making up the lion's share of that expense). After picking up a Wii A/V cable from Goodwill ($1), I could pipe sound directly into the monitor, letting me play games and watch shows on Netflix. I could also do that with the Blu-Ray player, but eh, who cares.

Price: $5
Purchased: March 2015

Hard to hate,
despite the name.
Originally designed for Apple's iPod line of trendy music players, this device will work just as well with an Android, or pretty much anything with a 3.5mm jack. You just need an external power supply, because two AA batteries aren't going to cut it... contrary to what the clerk at Goodwill told me. Hmph. The power supply wasn't included, but as luck would have it, the AC adapter I'd salvaged from an old DSL modem was an adequate substitute. I'm testing it right now with my Android phone, and the iH8 delivers big, big sound even over the din of multiple fans. It ought to provide a boost to the volume of both my Wii U and that crappy-ass Blu-Ray player, which was barely audible through the monitor.

Price: $2
Purchased: March 2015

This has nothing to do with the entertainment center... it was just entertaining for me to find a copy of Microsoft's best operating system for such a low price. You would not believe the nightmare I had trying to get Windows 7 back on my laptop after my hard drive died... maybe this (and a few other tricks up my sleeve) will make it less of a headache. Plus, it's Professional! I don't know what that means, but it sounds high class!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Smash & Grab: Super Smash Bros. for a Super Low Price!

News from the CAG front: an obscure department store called Fred Meyer (not to be confused with the former Thrifty Acres) is selling the 3DS version of Super Smash Bros. and the latest two Pokemon games for twenty dollars each. In the extreme likelihood that you don't have a Fred Meyer nearby, you may be able to coax Best Buy or Toys 'R Us to match the price. It's not a guarantee, but they were willing to do it for me at a Best Buy in southern Arizona.

If I knew he was coming, I'd have
baked a (urinal) cake.
As for the game itself... well, you've probably heard the cliche "plays like a dream" in reviews before, but that's quite literally the case in Super Smash Bros. Everything about this title is so surreal and completely unlikely that you half expect to wake up in a cold sweat after you close the system. This is especially true in the Smash Run mode, which drops you into a massive gauntlet filled with thirty years of random video game enemies. You'll be swarmed by everything from Dig Dug's inflatable monsters to Metroid's creepy alien bugs to that spandex-clad polar bear from Ice Climber as you hunt for stat-boosting treasures... until time runs out and you're dropped into a climactic battle against three other Nintendo heroes. You will probably lose this fight, and you may not even know what the hell is going on as the arena fills with chaos, but you'll still be happy you came.

By the way, while I was at the Best Buy, I managed to snag one of those Amiibo figurines that's got everyone so excited. I'm usually not one for collecting random game-related trinkets, but who could resist owning their own tiny little Mega Man? (Even if his emotionally void face gives me the willies.)