Converted for the IBM-PC compatibles by Bill Williams, and published by IBM in 1984.
Also converted for the NEC PC-8801, and published by Kotobuki-Raison in 1985. Further credits are unknown.
This came out as a suggestion a while back, but since the bulk of the blog's readership is mostly C64 and Spectrum-based, for a long time I thought it wouldn't serve much purpose in doing a comparison about a game that wasn't released for either of those, nor even the Amstrad. But Alley Cat has a curious status of being one of the most widespread DOS games, at least in Finland, but I suspect it's probably so all around the world, and most of retrogamers know it through that connection, even if most of their gaming history is related to some other computer. So, while all of the machines included in this comparison are often featured on the blog, this is the first time ever, that the Atari 8-bit or IBM-PC's are not put against their arch nemesis - or is that nemesi in plural? Anyway, this one goes out to that certain anonymous reader who suggested the game in a comment a few months ago, as well as all you others who have Alley Cat somehow included in your gaming history. (And sorry about the cover picture - I couldn't find a scan of the original anywhere.)
At Atarimania, the game is placed at #12 on the visitors' top rating list with 8.39 points from a total of 1,838 votes, which is rather remarkable, really. However, the DOS version has as many as 5752 votes at Abandonia, and the people's rating is 3.2, while the editor has given it a nice rounded 3.0. The PC-88 version has a score of 4.3 at MobyGames, curiously placing it above the other two versions there, although it has to be noted, that the PC-88 version only has 5 votes, while the Atari version has been given 12 votes with a score of 3.8 and the IBM version has 91 votes with 3.9 as its score. Interesting, isn't it?
DESCRIPTION & REVIEW
Alley Cat is an interesting mixture of arcade-style gaming, homegrown platform mechanics and adventure mentality. Your mission as Freddy, the titular feline, is to rise from the back alley via laundry lines to people's apartments, where you need to accomplish certain tasks in order to get to fight for Felicia's heart. The game features a wide variety of different sorts of arcade sections, wild physics and cartoony action at every turn, which is really what must have made the game age so well, regardless of your chosen platform.
However, make no mistake - the game has certainly aged, in both good and bad ways. Controlling the cat can be easily aggravating for anyone with more modern quality requirements, even though it's one of the things that make the game so addicting. Both graphics and sounds can be considered crude, but still charming at the same time. But for an arcade game from 1983, Alley Cat offers a surprising amount of variety and depth, and can easily be seen as a heavy influence on some of the later 80's arcade-like titles. It's just quality old-school gaming, and should be considered as a pivotal part of any gaming historian's study program, if there were such a thing. Needless to say, it's highly recommended.
I suppose every retrogamer has a copy of at least the IBM version of Alley Cat somewhere, and the Atari version can be easily found from Atarimania, if you don't happen to have a proper original in your possession. Tracking down a working disk image file of the NEC version of Alley Cat was a bit more troublesome than expected, but I finally found it from a forum dedicated to Japanese games you've only heard about. Even then, I found out that the game was only fixed/cracked for emulator use less than a year ago, so it would have been impossible for me to do a comparison of this game with all versions included before that anyway. I'd say this difficulty alone would make it quite a bit more difficult to play than either of the other two versions, but you will need a specific sort of an emulator in order to get to play the game as well as it can be made to run on modern computers. Read all about it here. But once you get everything set up correctly, the NEC version turns out to be surprisingly playable. However, let's go through the actual gameplay mechanics first, before heading into the differences.
The title screen offers you a choice of difficulty level, which are from the easiest to the hardest: Kitten, House Cat, Tom Cat and Alley Cat. The game's controls are pretty much as easy as they can get for a platformer, as you will only need to use the directional controls, and the fire button is rarely used for anything more than starting the game and skipping some of the fancy but useless graphical bits.
Moving Freddy the cat around the screen is a bit tricky, since he accelerates up to a certain speed within a short period of time, and his jump length and height slightly improve upon each higher step of velocity. Your first hurdle is to get yourself above the fence, which can already be very difficult for beginners. The thing is, you will normally have only one or two spots from which you can successfully jump on the fence and onwards, so it's a trial-and-error sort of a thing. Then, by latching onto clothes on the laundry lines (which are constantly moving), you have to jump around the top half of the screen, catch mice for bonus points and find an open window to jump into. You might want to look out for flying debris from the windows, though. Also, if you stay too long at the bottom of the screen, a wandering dog by the name of Bowser Von Spike (yes, Bowser!) will arrive on the screen and attempt to catch you, and if he does, a fight will occur and Freddy loses one of his three lives.
Inside the building, there are five different rooms you can get into, each with their own mission to accomplish. The easier ones only have some items you need to collect in order to complete the mission - mice inside a giant chunk of cheese (The Pantry) or three ferns atop a bookshelf (The Library). One room (The Aviary) features a birdcage you must drop down to the floor from a table, and catch the consequently free bird. All of these rooms so far feature a fairly similar gameplay to the back alley. Another room (The Kennel) features twelve dishes you must eat up, while watching out for five or seven sleeping dogs, depending on the version you're playing. Eating the dishes happens by keeping the fire button down when next to a dish as long as it takes to empty one, although you can do it gradually - and you have to, really, because of the dogs. Yet another room (The Aquarium Room) features a fishbowl on a table you must dive into, and collect all the fish while avoiding drowning and a bunch of electric eels. All of the rooms will also contain a self-employed broomstick frantically cleaning up the floor and shooing you out, and sometimes you will also meet a dog similar to the one at the back alley.
Once you have successfully completed one of the above missions, you are given a chance to get to smooch Felicia, but you have to get past her six guarding brothers first. Felicia's room (or the Cupid Room, as it is called in the manual) is set up of several rows of hearts, which can be toggled on and off by Cupid's arrows. Each row is occupied by one of Felicia's brothers, who will always be watching your every move, and they cannot be dropped by a disabled heart on their row, unlike yourself. The game will give you a certain number of gift parcels, which can be used to bribe one of the other cats for a short period of time, and the number of gifts depends on your difficulty level. If you manage to get to Felicia, the game proceeds to the next level, and that's all there is to it.
The biggest difference comes in how the difficulty levels are structured. In the original ATARI version and the NEC version, all the rooms appear in a random order, all the time. Just the way how the enemies move around is made more difficult on further levels. In the DOS version, though, it appears that you only get two or three of the easiest rooms on the easiest level, and one room is added to every difficulty level, although I could be wrong here and the game acts more randomly than I think. All versions have similar amount of waste barrels for each level, and the placing is pretty much the same as well, but the way all the laundry has been set on the lines is very different. The NEC version has all the laundry hanging very similarly throughout the game, while the ATARI and DOS versions change the order and amount a bit for every game.
Speaking of the NEC version, there are a number of other rather notable differences in it. The most unhelpful one is that Freddy doesn't appear to accelerate while walking normally, although when you jump after having walked for a bit, he jumps longer and higher, as if having just been running. It makes the game design feel inconsistent, or at least unfinished in the port. Due to this problem, Felicia's room is nearly impossible to beat even on the easiest level, since all her brothers will follow your every move (which they don't do as forcefully on either the Atari or the DOS version), so they will be in your way almost constantly. Another conversion lapse that I noticed was that in the Cheese room, the mice won't move from the cheese holes, and you can climb the cheese more freely than in the other versions. Also, any debris won't be flying from open windows in this version, which helps some more. So, while most of the differences make the NEC version more difficult by not being faithful to the original, some differences make it slightly easier. But on the whole, it does feel worse than the other two.
The ATARI and DOS versions differ from each other in two other, fairly pivotal ways. The ATARI version is noticably more difficult on the more difficult levels, and getting into the mission rooms is nearly impossible when playing on the Alley Cat (hardest) difficulty level due to the amount of time you have for getting into the windows after one has been opened and once an item has been thrown from within. Which it will, every time. Also, in the DOS version, Freddy accelerates his walk much quicker than in the Atari version, making it easier to move around the screens on your own accord - the broomsticks and dogs will make your life a living hell on the Atari after the second difficulty level already. So, it seems as if the playability has been readjusted for the DOS version, and all for the better, in my opinion. There, I believe, you have the biggest reason regarding playability, why the DOS version is so much better remembered than the Atari original.
1. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
2. ATARI 8-BIT
3. NEC PC-8801
Sigh... I could make this even easier for myself than it is, but necessity makes me do this properly. At least there is no need for overcomplicating the screenshots, since there were only three versions ever released. So, let's start with what the game starts with - the title screens.
|Title screens and menus, left to right: Atari 8-bit, DOS title, DOS options, NEC PC-8801.|
Well, yeah, the DOS version has its very own separate options screen, so there's that abnormality. But otherwise, the basic graphical idea of the title screen is very similar: it's just Freddy walking back and forth on the wooden fence, while the other areas of the screen are occupied by the great big title logo (each of them VERY different), the writer and copyright info (although the NEC version doesn't tell who was actually responsible for converting the game), and then there's the high score display and the difficulty option displayed wherever it is displayed. Clearly, the NEC version has the most awkward colouring, and the least impressive title... and basically, everything else as well, to some extent. The very pink-and-cyan DOS version looks like a CGA game usually does, but the graphics are of a much better quality overall than those of the NEC version, having more details and a better use of the available colours. The ATARI version's title screen has a more natural look with the dark background and a proper wooden fence, but the title logo itself gives a surprisingly sleazy feel to the game, as if this was supposed to be the feline edition of Leisure Suit Larry. Well, I suppose it's not that far off, really.
|Screenshots of the back alley in progression of difficulty, top to bottom: Atari 8-bit, DOS, NEC PC-8801.|
Once again, I have to apologise for the quality of the pictures, but due to some necessary and slightly radical resizing, some of the screenshots have lost some data, most particularly the NEC screenshots, but you'll get the basic idea. If there's anything actually missing, I will make note of it, starting with the back alley already - you can't see the windows closed here, because the closed windows have an interlaced sort of look to them, and the resizing has practically skipped the black lines. (I might update this picture later on, but I'm in a bit of a hurry at the moment, so this will have to do.) Now then...
Out of our unexpected threesome, the ATARI version is the only one that doesn't continue on into the game with the same colours as are shown in the title screen. Instead, we get a relatively bright look of the back alley with a clear indication that the apartment building behind the wooden fence is also made of wood, but is more naturally coloured than the greenish painted fence. Also, the background colours are neatly shown behind the fence and everything where possible. The windows, of course, are light blue and have different shading textures on them, which isn't perhaps the most natural choice, but considering it's an 8-bit game, you couldn't really do any better than this at the time. From the opened windows, you can see differently coloured rooms already, which might indicate what sort of level is waiting for you within, although I'm not entirely sure of this, but it's a nice detail. The laundry comes in six different colours and four different shapes, so there's a good deal of detail for you. Then, there are those little peek holes in the fence, which are situated differently for every level, following the changes in the number, sizes and locations of the waste barrels. Also, the bones on the ground are always random.
Although the other two versions have a fairly similar choice of colours here, that is the biggest similarity between the DOS and NEC versions. Sure, both versions have similarly single-coloured laundry, but the DOS version has different sizes of laundry, while the NEC version has all the socks and undies stretched to similar sizes as shirts. What the NEC version is missing otherwise are the random bones on the ground, any peek holes in the fence, lids on the waste barrels, and any detail around the windows. The DOS version follows the ATARI original in style and detail as much as it is able to, although the dog has been changed from a terrier to a cartoony bulldog. Strangely enough, the NEC version features the terrier again. One of the most curious differences in detail is the two-letter bits at the low left corner of the fence: in the ATARI version, every level shows "HM", and the NEC version has "TO" instead, but the DOS version shows a different two-letter thing on every difficulty level, which I'm guessing represent "Kitten Level", "House cat Level", "Tomcat Level" and "Alley cat Level".
|Screenshots of the Pantry, left to right: Atari 8-bit, DOS, NEC PC-8801.|
The Pantry, or the Cheese Room has to be one of the most absurd things I have ever seen in an arcade game. Imagine, a giant slice of cheese full of holes with mice peeking out of them and moving inside the huge piece of cheese. Then, there's the broom without a user frantically following you around. Just to throw some sense of perspective, there's the window you came in from (and can fall out of again), a table and a chair, all of which look like miniatures compared to the cheese. It's just plain ridiculous.
All three versions have a similar enough set up in the room, although the NEC version has a big lamp instead of a table. All three versions also have entirely different colours, apart from Freddy the cat, who is always black. The mice are mostly black as well, but the ATARI version has some differently coloured mice as well. What makes this particular room tick is the colouring, which in every single case is more or less questionable. On the ATARI, the room is blue, and the cheese is sort of brown with light brown bits on it, which reminds me of goat cheese, but the holes are a bit much in that case. The DOS version has a dark red room with everything else mostly green with some orange bits. Green cheese is a bit worrying, and doesn't remind me of anything else than blue cheese gone horribly wrong. The NEC version has a bright red room (ouch) with bright yellow cheese, which might show some limitations in colour use, but at least I can accept cheese being yellow. None of them are particularly pretty, but the ATARI version looks the least intrusive.
|Screenshots from the Aquarium room and the aquarium, left to right: Atari 8-bit, DOS, NEC PC-8801.|
The Aquarium Room is one of the more realistic bits of the game, at least to a certain point. All three versions have the same set up in the room, but radically different colours, each to suit the second half of the mission. As you can see, the water in the aquarium is of the same colour that the water is in the screen where you're swimming inside the aquarium; in all versions. Green for the ATARI, cyan for DOS, dark blue for NEC. The case with the room colour is a bit different, though: while the ATARI and DOS versions show the room colour correctly enough when you're in the aquarium, the NEC version shows the room colour as yellow, even though it was cyan originally.
Inside the aquarium is where the unrealistic switch gets turned on again. Freddy shrinks to the same size as the huge number of fish that occupy the aquarium, although in the previous screen, he was roughly the same size or larger than the aquarium. But who cares, it's a game. Anyway, while diving in the aquarium, Freddy can drown, so he needs to get back up at least once during his excursion. While holding his breath, he goes through several colours before he drowns, although the NEC version doesn't give you as much time nor colours as the other two versions. Also, the NEC version doesn't have as much colours in the electric eels as the other two. But the ATARI wins easily with two colours of fish and a nice little bubble effect at the bottom of the screen, making the screen feel more aquarium-like. If you're considering the colour of water compared to real life, then I can safely say that none of these versions get it right, since water has no colour at all, so it's all the same.
|Screenshots from the Aviary, left to right: Atari 8-bit, DOS, NEC PC-8801.|
The Aviary shows some slight differences in detailing and layout. The most notable difference, apart from the hugely varied colouring, is the missing painting from the NEC version. And before you say, "it's also missing the broom", I have to point out that it's only missing from the screenshot due to the stupidly flickering manner of the graphics. The NEC version is also the one where the layout is slightly different - the table is closer to the left side chair than in the middle, like it is in the other two versions. As an unnecessary curiosity, the DOS version has a slightly differently shaped bird cage.
|Screenshots from the Library, left to right: Atari 8-bit, DOS, NEC PC-8801.|
I probably like the DOS version of the Library the most, because it has the most colourful bookshelf and the biggest spider. Also, the fact that it only has one spider instead of two helps the playability of the room a lot. The dark purple background makes the room feel more sinister than the other two versions, which I like. But if sinister is not what you're after, then the ATARI version is probably your thing.
|Screenshots from the Kennel, left to right: Atari 8-bit, DOS, NEC PC-8801.|
The Kennel is the room with the most differences from the main mission rooms. First of all, the colouring again is very different in all versions. Secondly, the NEC version is missing a painting again and the lamp is situated in a different spot. But the biggest thing is the layout and appearance of the dogs and food bowls. While on the ATARI and DOS versions, there are seven dogs, the NEC version only has five, and even in the previous two, the dogs and food bowls are scattered around the room in a very different manner. Although it doesn't make much of a difference on the said two versions, the NEC version of the room even plays differently - see the floor lines in the screenshot? You have to jump on them and drop down as if this was just another (badly conceived) platforming screen, and not a free roaming food thieving run-around marathon as it is in the other two versions. The ATARI version differs in yet another manner from the other two in that the bowls are mostly empty as you enter the room, but there's a flying milk carton filling the bowls little by little, which you need to sort of race against.
|Screenshots from the Cupid room, left to right: Atari 8-bit, DOS, NEC PC-8801.|
The Cupid Room has also been made a bit differently for each version. In the original, every line of hearts is of a different shade, going from pink to dark purple, and all the broken hearts are dark blue. Felicia remains white as she appears in the window, and her brothers are dark blue. The Cupids arrive on the screen at some point and shoot a red arrow that bounces around the screen, toggling the full hearts and broken hearts as it goes, and simultaneously all the lines of heart change their colours. The gift parcels are light blue, and will make Freddy flash pink.
In the DOS version, the lines of heart are red (full) and black (broken), and all the cats that are not you are orange. The Cupids surround the play area all the time, and will not affect the colouring in any other way than by toggling the hearts with their arrows. The gift parcels are orange with black edges and a red ribbon, and will turn Freddy and the broken hearts dark blue. I don't think the NEC version actually has those gift parcels, nor does it show the actual Cupids in action, so what you see in the screenshot is what you get. Felicia is red, her brothers are blue, all the hearts are more or less red, and the broken ones have some blue in them. The Cupid's heart (arrow) is as black as you are.
|Level completion screens, top to bottom: Atari 8-bit, DOS, NEC PC-8801.|
As usual, the main attraction of the game is supposed to be the ending, when you reach Felicia and kiss her, after which all the fireworks come out and all that nonsense. Well, to be fair, when it's good and cheesy enough, it's fun to watch, but in most cases where a game ends like this, it's just a bit... meh. Take the NEC version here, for instance. It's just a big flashing heart that is drawn on top of the Cupid Room as it ended, plus the bonus points. This is exactly the sort of thing gamers don't want to see at the end of the game. The DOS version has it much better: first, a fittingly sized heart envelopes Freddy and Felicia together, and the bonus scores are shown above the center of the screen; and then, the screen starts to fill up with different sorts of heart-based designs. But while this is a rather nice ending, it's still nothing compared to the utter cheesiness of the original ATARI ending. First, the two cats get to kiss, and then the screen turns to another colour (different for each level), the two cats float down beside each other inside flashing hearts, and proper fireworks are displayed all over the screen. It all ends with the bonus scores shown instead of our two lovebirds... well, cats. Whatever. For once, an ending worth seeing in an arcade game.
|Some of the DOS-exclusive cutscenes.|
The DOS version features some exclusive cutscene-type graphics, which gives it some more unique appeal. My favourite one is the angry dog saying, "Here kitty kitty kitty", when you get caught by a dog in the Kennel. The other ones that I have seen are some level transition bits, which feature an increasing number of dancing cats. I think I have seen some more of these on the internet, but at the moment, I can't seem to find any. Oh well.
|Failure messages from the Atari 8-bit (top) and DOS (bottom) versions.|
I saved the least important bit to end this section with - the failure messages. Whenever you fail at completing a mission within the rooms, you can see one of these messages in the ATARI (above) and DOS (below) versions, but the NEC version has no such luxury. The only transition thing you will ever see in the NEC version is a white inward spiraling line, which wipes out everything on the screen. Both DOS and ATARI versions have their own colour-based animations in the messages, and in that regard, the Atari version (again) is easily the more impressive one. However, when you fail in the Cupid room, the DOS version shows Freddy's head falling down from the top of the screen and hitting the bottom, making him close his eyes and say something censored. The ATARI version only shows the censored word in large noisy characters with a different colour-based effect.
Of course it goes without saying, that the ATARI version looks the best. It has the most detail, the most colour, and even the smoothest animations. The DOS version takes everything possible out of the CGA capabilities, and makes the game into a surprisingly enjoyable experience even with the four rather unappealing colours, and you are additionally given some extra bits that were not done for the Atari version. And then, while the NEC version clearly tries to stay true to the DOS version for some reason, some of the details look pretty damn horrible, and the colouring hurts your eyes more often than that of the DOS version.
1. ATARI 8-BIT
2. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
3. NEC PC-8801
When it comes to sounds, most of us will probably connect Alley Cat with its simple and memorable theme tune, but more likely in its beepy DOS rendition. The original ATARI version of the theme song is a slow and slightly sleazy rendition with something resembling a triangle as its sole rhythm instrument, and the melody appears into the mix in a sneaky manner, kind of creeping from the background. This effect has been done so well, that you won't necessarily even be able to recognize the tune hidden between the horribly loud triangle hits and Freddy's meows. Now, I like the idea of an alley cat being a bit of a sleaze, and even the title screen supports this view of Freddy, but I'm not sure I like the ATARI rendition of the song as much as I like the DOS rendition. Of course you'll know that the DOS version doesn't have anything but the bare minimum in terms of sound capabilities and quality, so a beeper soundtrack is what you'll get, but the theme tune has been made into a much more cheerful and energetic version, which suits the game better. The NEC version doesn't have much of anything resembling a tune in the title screen, just some random-sounding tick noises.
So, how do the three versions line up when it comes to sound effects? For starters, the ATARI version naturally takes all the advantage out of its comparatively very capable sound chip. All the sound effects are masterfully done - some are perhaps even a bit overdone for the game, but mostly they serve their purpose nicely. Jumping on the trash cans sounds very much like hitting a fairly large tin can with something that weighs around 2-3 kilos, and whenever there's a dog on the screen, the actually makes note of this with nicely simulated barking noises. Swimming in the fish tank sounds really like something was happening in a fish tank. Also, in the Cupid room, Felicia's brothers hiss every time you jump into them, and once you get to Felicia, the sound effect sounds very much like a long, overacted kiss. There are lots of other reasonably good sound effects to watch out for, but all of this fantasticness is accompanied with a nice bluesy background music. Also, you get to hear some other small tunes when you fail to achieve your goals and once the smooching is done and the level transition animation steps in. Very high quality.
As expected, the DOS version sounds like a 48k Spectrum game. All of the sound effects are very reminiscent of a vast majority of early Spectrum arcade games, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The amount of sound effects is quite good - I managed to find at least 8 sound effects that sound very much their own thing, although there could be more. There are also two other short tunes in the DOS version, one of which is played when you finally get to have a little one-on-one with Felicia, and the other of which is played when you either fall out of the window or get caught by an enemy inside the building. It's not nearly as high quality and entertaining as the sound effects on the ATARI version, but I can't really say that any of it is really bad either, considering that it's still beeper stuff.
The NEC version only has four distinctly different sound effects, all of which sound pretty horrible and distorted compared to the DOS sounds. One is a small beep for catching a mouse or a fish, another is a series of long beeps of a differing pitch for completing a mission and getting scored (the higher the score, the higher the pitch), and another is a long descending beep for the screen to go blank, and the last distinctly notable one is a long high-pitched ring for when you score with Felicia. All the other sounds are random ticking and pipping noises. I guess the end results for this section are quite clear.
1. ATARI 8-BIT
2. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
3. NEC PC-8801
It's a surprisingly tight fight between the original and the other version by the original writer. But then, that's how it's really supposed to be, when the original writer is responsible for a conversion. These are the final scores, take them as you will:
1. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
2. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 7
3. NEC PC-8801: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3
Alley Cat is one of the most well-known early PC games, and is better known than the original version for two good reasons. First of all, it was so much easier to spread around on the PC. Secondly, the playability is just that much better enough on the PC to make it count. As it is, the PC version is still my favourite version, but I can appreciate the artwork in the Atari original better now that I have gone through it so thoroughly.
What still baffles me after all these years, is how on earth did this game not have conversions for either C64, Spectrum or Amstrad. Perhaps even MSX and NES. It just oozes that sort of gameplay and everything else, which should fit right in with all the major 8-bit machines in whatever manner. But no such luck as of yet. At least there are some PC remakes around, which you can try to enjoy while waiting for someone to create a proper missing 8-bit conversion. For what it's worth, I don't think either of these remakes are very playable at all, but at least they are attempts.
Alley Cat 2 by Aset Games - http://asetgames.altervista.org/alleycat2.html
Alley Cat Remake (beta) by Kitty Cat Surprise - http://kittycatsurprise.freeiz.com/play.html
|Left: Alley Cat 2 by Aset Games. Right: Remake beta by Kitty Cat Surprise.|
That's it for now, hope that wasn't too useless. Next time, I'll be revisiting another special series that I haven't done in a while. Until then, throw in a comment if you feel like. Corrections and suggestions are welcome as ever.