Monday, December 14, 2015

Alley Cat - Epitome of a Timeless Early PC Classic

IBM PC Screenshots on the Left Side of the Page                       IBM PCjr. Screenshots on the Right Side of the Page

Alley Cat from Synapse Software is one of the best examples of a classic game released for the IBM PC. Originally programmed for the Atari 8-bit computers by Bill Williams in 1983, it was soon ported over for the PC by Williams and published by IBM.

Alley Cat is not an overly complex game and is easy to pick up and play.  You play as an alley cat named Freddy who is trying to impress his would-be girlfriend Felicia by doing all sorts of alley cat things that people who live in the alley find to be a nuisance.  The object of each level is to get into one of the rooms of the condominiums above the alley using the windows that open and then complete the challenge in that room. Once you complete the challenge, Felicia will beckon to you through an open window.  There you must dodge her brothers and reach her to get a kiss.  Once you kiss her you will advance to the next level, which is more difficult than the last.  When you start you can select one of four difficulty levels, Kitten (easiest), House Cat, Tomcat or Alley Cat.

You can control the game with the cursor keys or a joystick, but I highly recommend using a joystick.
Moving Freddy is done by pushing left or right and jumping by pressing up.  Pressing down descends off clotheslines, fences and other platforms.  Jumping left and right is done with by holding the up and left or right cursor keys or directionals on the joystick.  Freddy can cover a lot more distance from a running jump than a walking or stationary jump.  The jumping mechanics are a bit stiff in this game, but eventually you should be able to get a feel for the game's mechanics.

Holding down the cursor key down will make Freddy move faster.  The same thing happens with an analog joystick no matter how far from the center the stick's position is held.  Considering that Alley Cat was originally programmed for the Atari 8-bit computers and their digital joysticks, it is not surprising that there is no real analog joystick support.  It seemed to have no problem with a "digital" Gravis Gamepad when run on a real IBM PC.  You can "paws the game" by pressing the Escape key.

You begin in the alley with three lives and can earn up to an appropriate nine.  Your task is to hop on the small or large trash cans, then onto the fence.  You can run on top of the fence but not on the clotheslines.  You must jump onto the clotheselines where there are clothes hanging off them.  From there you can leap or descend into an open window.  This screen is the most lethal between the dog patrolling the ground (helped by the other alley cat that pushes you off trash cans) and the things thrown out of windows.  You can catch the three mice for points, but they can knock you off a clothesline by touching Freddy as he clings to laundry.  The high score is displayed on the left side of the fence and the current score is on the right side of the fence (as telephone numbers) with the number of lives you have remaining.

There are five challenge rooms and when you jump into a window you can encounter any of them :

The first room you may enter is the Aquarium.  Your first task is to hop into the bowl by touching it.  Then the screen will change to Freddy swimming in the bowl.  He needs to catch all twelve fish without touching the increasing number of electric eels or suffocating.  Freddy and the screen border will change color as his oxygen runs out.  You can replenish your air supply by swimming to the surface.

The second room is the Pantry.  Here there is a huge wedge of cheese with multiple holes.  You have to catch four mice in this stage.  You can jump across the cheese or use the action button to crawl between holes in the cheese.

The third room is the Aviary.  Here you must knock the bird cage off the table by touching it several times.  Once the bird cage falls to the floor, it will break and a bird will fly out.  Catch the bird to complete the challenge.

The fourth room is the Library.  Here you must collect all three flower plants on top of the bookshelf without touching the two spiders.

The fifth room is the Kennel.  Here you must drink all the dogs' water bowls (twelve in all) with the action button without waking up the dogs.  You only have a certain amount of time to drink bows next to a dog before he wakes up.  The screen will flash red when one starts to wake up and if he does wake up, he will attack you like the dog in the alley.

In each of these rooms is a mad housekeeping broom that will chase you and fling you about the room with contact.  It will also sweep up your paw prints, which you can use to distract it.  Sometimes, it is helpful to propel Freddy to a hard to reach area.  In each of these challenge rooms, the dog from the alley can run across the screen and the consequences are identical as if you encountered him in the alley.  You can jump out of the window from which you entered, which causes you to lose the challenge room and return to the alley.  You earn points depending on how quickly you completed the challenge room, and on the score screen the background and border will flash green.

Felicia's room is a little different.  No dogs or broomsticks here.  However, there are six levels between you and her, and each one is patrolled by one of her feline siblings who will knock you down to the level below.  Moreover, the cupids shoot arrows that can turn parts of the floor solid or allow you to fall.  If you fall off the lowest level, you lose and must complete a challenge room before you can get to Felicia's room again.  When you enter Felicia's room, you will find one present for each time you have tried the room.  If you drop this present and one of her cat brothers touch it, it will leave the room.  The black colored objects and border will change to blue when you have a present.  All the colors change if you get to kiss Felicia.  If you kiss Felicia you will get a bonus depending on how fast you cleared the level and may also earn extra lives.

You will not lose a life if you fall off the fence, get knocked off a clothesline by a mouse, fall off a clothesline and go behind the fence, jump into the window from whence you came after entering a room or falling below the lowest level in Felicia's room.  You will lose a life if you get hit by an object thrown out of a window, being touched by an awake dog, an electric eel, a spider or drowning in the fish bowl.

Alley Cat is a very fun game, one you can or could have found yourself losing half an hour of time (when you should be working).  The challenge rooms are fun without getting too frustrating at the lower levels.  The graphics are cute and clear, the sound effects are quite appropriately done for the PC speaker.  Getting the noise sound effect when the dog attacks you is pretty impressive.  This game was a product of its time when character control was seen as part of the challenge, but the jumping control is still on par with Mario Bros.  It proves that fast paced, engaging arcade-style games are quite possible on the limited graphics and sound capabilities of the PC speaker.

Many other games from the IBM-dominated PC era (1981-1986) will fail when run at a playable on hardware substantially faster than that in the IBM PC.  One of the most interesting things about Alley Cat for the IBM PC is that it is very speed friendly when it comes to faster machines, something very rare in its day. However, this is not quite as forward thinking as you may believe.  When this port was released in 1984, IBM had no less than three speed classes of PCs on the market during that year.  First there was the 8088 running at 4.77MHz running in the IBM PC, IBM PC/XT and IBM PC Portable.  Second was the PCjr., which had the same CPU and ran it at the same speed as the PC, but system is slower with 128KB due to the sharing of the memory between the CPU and PCjr. graphics adapter.  Third was the IBM PC AT with a 80286 CPU running at 6MHz and up to three times as fast as the IBM PC.  The developer probably had to sign a few non-disclosure agreements and put up with the legendary IBM secrecy in order to gain access to that information or hardware, since the AT was not released until August of 1984 and was incredibly expensive when first released.  The result is a same that runs at a consistent speed regardless of the hardware being used to run it.  It does a speed test prior to loading and uses it to adjust its timing appropriately.

On any system other than a PCjr., Alley Cat is displayed using CGA color limitations.  Alley Cat has better color selections and some 3-voice music when run on an IBM PCjr.  However, this information had to be re-discovered at some point during the 2000s, Alley Cat has some support of PCjr. graphics and sound.  There is three voice PCjr. sound chip music on the title screen.  (The PCjr. can play the PC speaker music by selecting N for the prompt "Are you using a TV or an external speaker (Y/N)?")  However, all in-game music and sound effects use the PC speaker with the PCjr.

For graphics, as with the CGA card, only four colors are used.  However, the PCjr. allows the colors to be selected freely from its 16 color palette. Of course this is not a patch on the Atari 8-bit plaform, which could display 16 colors from a 256 color palette, and on some screens even more can be seen because Alley Cat uses scanline interrupts.  You can see differences in the screenshots posted throughout this blog entry.  CGA screenshots are on the left side of the page, PCjr. screenshots are on the right side of the page.

Outside the PCjr., all later graphics cards should display the colors and effects correctly.  Alley Cat strove for compatibility by avoiding direct hardware access to the CGA card and instead used BIOS functions for its graphics control.  All other graphics cards except for Hercules monochrome are or should be CGA compatible at the BIOS level.  The BIOS functions are more limited than direct hardware access; BIOS functions only allow the programmer to change the palette color in 320x200 Mode 4 to either green/red/brown or cyan/magenta/light gray and to set the background and border color.  It does not allow you to change the palette intensity and emulation of BIOS functions after the Tandy Graphics Adapter tend not to allow you to show the alternate cyan/red/white palette by selectiong 320x200 Mode 5 (which is a side-effect of how the color palettes work on the CGA card). Many other games write to the CGA registers directly to change modes and colors displayed by the card and these tend to fail on the PCjr. and graphics adapters more advanced than Tandy's.  Some cards may show this game using the intense versions of the standard CGA palettes, but you should see both palettes employed.

Very recently, there have been patches made to allow the 3-voice introduction music and the PCjr. colors to be seen and heard on Tandy 1000s.  Also there are patches to allow EGA and VGA cards to display the PCjr. palette colors.  Find them here :


  1. i played this on my tandy.

    was NOT copy protected.

  2. Great game! i loved it!

  3. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I loved this game even though I didn't understand how to play it.

  4. Hello,

    This is not a comment. I am looking for help on a problem I'm have with my IBM PCjr. I have noticed blogs being posted about the IBM PCjr on Nerdy Pleasures and I am hoping someone will know the answer to the mystery I am going through. I am playing "The Black Cauldron" on my 256k PCjr, and the game runs just fine until I try to enter the stair case room at the enemy's castle. Before the character gets to move I get this message "Error #16: 208 Press Esc To Exit." The game comes in a two disc set. I bought and tried two other sets of discs and the exact same thing happens in the exact same area of the game. I am looking for someone who can shed some light on this issue. Thank you.

  5. I think you posted your question on five different blog entries, only one is sufficient.

    The Black Cauldron came in several versions, which is yours? I know of version 1.1J, 1.1K, 1.1K Tandy, 1.1M, 2.00 and 2.10. The 2.xx versions are hard drive installable, the 1.x versions are PC Booters. Are both of your disk sets identical?

    If you have a booter version, I wonder if removing your PCjr.'s memory upgrade sidecar will make any difference. If you have a hard drive-installable version, the Reference Card for AGI games suggests booting with regular DOS without the memory manager loaded. The game's executable can set up the extra memory for you.

  6. Hello,

    I posted in multiple areas on purpose. I wanted to be absolutely sure people would notice. I don't know how much it has to do with the memory. I tried on both my 256k PCjr and my 128k PCjr, and the same thing happens. It says on the title screen version 1.00.00 which I think means it is what you call a PC booter. It is a PCjr original, it does not need DOS in order to run. If I set up DOS first, will a booter game run on DOS? I was afraid to try that because I figured that if something was not meant to run on DOS, then DOS would not except it. The sticker on the game box says "IBM PC, PCjr Compatibles" and does not mention DOS at all. I prefer the original booter game because it contains nuances that the later versions don't. If you'd like, you can watch a youtube video I posted where the error occurs. The video is called "The Black Cauldron Part 8" and my youtube name is "barth82." The Error happens at the end of the video.

  7. Hi Ray,

    Your version is a "PC Booter". PC Booter programs do not need DOS to boot or to run the software. They may need DOS indirectly because they require a formatted disk or to copy a disk. You insert the disk into the drive, turn on your PC and wait for the program to load. DOS itself is a PC Booter program.

    Your software version is 1.1K. It comes with and without the text "Licensed to Tandy Corporation Version 01.00.00" You can find the game version of the Black Cauldron and later games using Sierra's Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI) by pressing Alt + D during the game.

    There could be many reasons why the game crashes at this point. The reason is apparently not memory based, since Sierra booters do not recognize more than 128KB in a PCjr, otherwise they would run faster. Unfortunately, while I have all known versions of The Black Cauldron, most of my booters have been cracked to run on the PC but not the PCjr. or Tandy, including the version you have.

    The video you posted helped me pinpoint your issue. I was able to replicate the crash in DOSBox by following your game path, more or less. The good news is that the bug is not an issue with your disks or your PCjr., as DOSBox was emulating a PC with a CGA card. The bad news is that you must figure out a path that will bypass the bug. What would happen if, instead of getting to the basement via the wine cellar's secret tunnel, you went through the castle and down the stairs? This bug may have been fixed in v1.1m, v2.0 or v2.1, but the latter two versions require DOS.

  8. Hello,

    Your suggestion worked perfectly! I went down the stairs from the castle entrance, and then once I got to the dungeon hallway, I had no choice but to be captured by the henchman. No worries about that though, because the Princess helps you to escape down to the basement. From there, I got the sword and returned to the dungeon hallway. From there, just like last time, I turned left to enter the stair case room. No bug was triggered, and I realized that entering the basement from the garbage chute is what started that whole mess. I started doing a bunch of saving after that. I triggered one more bug while exploring the castle. Since I was a prisoner, and my possessions were taken from me, I had to climb the stairs up to the middle section, and retrieve my possessions one screen to the east. I decided I wanted to go back to the stairs and explore the top of the castle. The game didn't like that. The moment I got my possessions and walked one screen back to the west (where the middle section of the stairs are) the game showed me that same error message. I thought to myself no problem. All I have to do is explore the top of the castle "before" I retrieve my possessions. I made sure I was saving because I was dying of thirst. After I was satisfied with exploring the top floor, I restored my game back to climbing the stairs. Also, just for fun, I recorded jumping off of the left outdoor balcony to escape the henchman, and then restored my game to the stairs again. Those two bugs were the only bugs I encountered so far. I saved the garbage chute for last, only when I was ready to deal with the Horned King. Thanks to the alternate route you suggested, I was able to get the sword and harp, and then actually get out of the castle this time. I learned in a walkthrough that if you get the sword and harp, and then go back home, there are some interesting things you can do before going back to the castle. You can show off your sword to Dallben and he tells you what he thinks of it. You can also give, not only the lute, but the harp to the King of the Fairy Folk, and score extra points. Thanks again for your thoughts! It worked out very nicely and I finished the game with ten extra points than I should have gotten. I brought Hen Wen to safety in this game. Next time I will play and record the version where Hen Wen gets captured.

  9. Hello,

    I am looking for physical copies of "Troll's Tale" and "Dragon's Keep" for the IBM PC/PCjr. If anybody knows of anyone who has these, and wouldn't mind selling them, please let me know. Thank you.