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.


  1. OK, this sounds *and* looks fun! Which version is showcased in the screens you included in this post, though? The DOS version or the Atari version?

    1. Oops! I knew I should have labeled these! I used a mix of pictures from the DOS and Atari versions. The more colorful ones with the black bars on the sides came from the Atari game... the rest are from the DOS version.

    2. Thanks, Jess! I actually like the look of both versions. I guess I'll have to attempt to emulate one or both of these systems at some point so I can give the game a try...