Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Game 367: Alley Cat (PC)

Funny coincidence - the last commercial IBM PC game I covered was GATO.

I already covered the original Atari game, which I now and will always consider the definitive version, but truth be told, I've spent far more hours of my life playing the IBM version, which commands over 80% of the Mobygames vote tally and is probably the sole reason Alley Cat enjoys the enduring popularity needed for whale status. Ported by original author Bill Williams, we can credit this to his adept conversion skill.

Alley Cat, remarkably, ran perfectly fine on PC's for decades without having to bother with any of the remedial fixes that so many abandonware cargo cultists prescribed. Even as late as the Windows XP era, when DOS games were terribly hit or miss, Alley Cat always was well behaved. It never ran blisteringly fast like nearly all others of the CGA period did - the game uses the system clock for timing instead of being CPU-bound. It always played nice with whatever sound card you had - because everything came through the motherboard buzzer. No problems whatsoever with EMS, MSCDEX loaders, mouse compatibility, or VESA drivers - it didn't need them. Even joysticks just worked, though I found keyboard play a bit easier. No matter how bad a day my computer was having, Alley Cat proved just as reliable as Solitaire, and twice as much fun.

Those cavalier days of running DOS executables within a Windows environment are long gone now. Today, even Alley Cat needs DOSBox, and the context for its feat as a conversion no longer applies. Nearly every game works fine in DOSBox, and if you need to emulate anyway, then you might as well emulate the better version, right? Well, yes - mostly.

I thought I'd replay the PC version in DOSBox one last time, using a booter image rather than a pirate DOS conversion for a bit of extra authenticity, and deep dive into the differences.


Most of the differences from Atari original are cosmetic downgrades. All of the original content is present, nothing meaningfully new is added. Obviously the colors are worse, and the animation is worse with a framerate seems to run at about 20fps compared to Atari's solid 60 and a lot of little flourishes missing. The Atari's rich, albeit busy soundscape is downgraded to a lot of beeps, buzzes, and clicks.

On the gameplay front, Alley Cat plays a bit different. You'd think the choppier framerate would amplify the difficulty, but in fact it's a bit easier now. Freddy's handling feels less "heavy," and takes less time to accelerate to maximum speed, which makes the "runway" needed to reach high jump takeoff is shorter. There's also a standing high jump maneuver performed by immediately jumping after coming to a stop - this works in both versions, but the timing is much easier in the PC version, and I didn't even realize it was possible in Atari until I checked while writing this sentence. In the PC version, the condo windows stay open longer too. Because of this, I actually managed to finish a fourth loop on maximum difficulty here, which I never pulled off in the original version.

The cosmetic downgrade is apparent from the moment you see title screen, which loses the neon sign motif (what's with the cocktail glass?) for a generic scrawled-font logo. Difficulty selection, performed on Atari within the title screen, is relegated to an options sub-screen on PC. Freddy's animation loop is simplified, cutting the mischievous tail-twitching and his occasional pauses to meow at the fourth wall.

The biggest change here has to be the music, which on Atari is dominated by a slightly harsh triangle tinkle that almost cuts right through the mellow slow jazz theme, and is punctuated every few notes with Freddy's raucous mewling. On PC, you just get the melody, sped up and louder.

The total effect is that a lot of personality lost in the conversion. Atari version says you're a mangy, noisy, flea-ridden, unwanted pest who lives in the alleys behind a grimy apartment complex, and tonight you're gonna be a real nuisance. PC version says you're a cat walking on a fence.

The scene outside the condominiums is a mostly direct visual translation, but with less color. The solid magenta background suggests that this is the color of the Catalina's facade rather than a night scene like the Atari version does. A mysterious 'HM' spray-painted on the fence instead becomes KL, HL, TL, or AL to indicate your starting difficulty, but does not change when the level increases.

The audio, of course, is nerfed hard. On Atari, the scene may well be called Tin Pan Alley, with its broken down piano tune and sounds of mice squeaking and dogs barking. Freddy makes a convincing metal "clang" when leaping onto the trash cans, and a thud when he misses the clothesline and lands on the wrong side of the fence. PC just gets some rhythmic background clicks which get frantic in pace when the dog shows up, and a bunch of various screeching sounds if he gets you.

Speaking of which, the dog got a lot fatter in the PC version, and is really hard to avoid. If the feral cat knocks you off the top of a trash can, you'll probably get killed by the dog before you can find another perch.

The fishbowl room isn't changed much. No reason it should be, since it's not the real minigame.

The fishbowl itself, though - well, Bill tried his best, but the IBM PC just can't replicate the colors and sounds of the original scene. The fish are all magenta, the pearling bubbles are gone, the water sounds are out, the alarming palette-cycling electrocution animation when you touch an eel is just a ZAP. Freddy does cycle through colors as he gets close to drowning, but it's in the CGA palette, going from black, to blue, to magenta, and red. Which means Freddy's "sprite" must actually be the background layer here.

Swimming is easier than in Atari - there's a bit of momentum, but it's less weighty, and he does not bob up and down.

The birdcage room looks very similar - no bird chirping sounds any more, though. I swear the dog's spawn timer is much more random - sometimes it shows up the instant you hit the ground. The bird seems harder to catch too.

There's a new failure animation added -



In the original cheese room, mice scamper and leap around the hunk as you try to catch them. On PC they just sort of poke their heads in and out of the holes, carefully avoiding the ones you're in any position to reach. The animated numbers 1-4 that appear each time you catch a mouse, which I thought was a cute touch on Atari, are absent on PC.


There's only ever one spider in the spider room now, and the flower pots are wider, making it much easier to knock them down - you can hit two of them with one jump without meaning to. This is probably the easiest minigame in the PC version.

The flying milk carton is gone from the kennel and no longer refills the dog food bowls, but this minigame feels much more difficult despite that. The dogs are much lighter sleepers now, and without any pre-awakening growl to warn you when you're pushing your luck.


Felicia's queenly lair gets a cupid-heavy do-over, but it's just for show. Arrows spawn randomly from nowhere in particular and don't ricochet around as they did.

The animation where Felicia's brothers slink offscreen after receiving presents is cut. They just disappear now.

Reach Felicia, and the, ahem, courtship animation is much simpler than the fireworks seen on Atari.


But on the plus side, you get a collage of dancing kittens.

Higher difficulty = more kittens. Like in real life.

 There's a new failure animation too.

GAB rating: Good. It's a downgrade from the Atari version, but remains highly playable in its PC conversion, and the game almost certainly owes its legacy to the quality of Bill William's coding work here. Still, play the Atari version.

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