31/08/2016

CAESAR THE CAT (ZX SPECTRUM / COMMODORE 64)

You’re all familiar with Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, but get ready for the fresh and furry stylings of Catulus Caesar, the cutest, fuzziest, most snuggly-wuggly leader in all of Ancient Rome! Thrill as he directs his legions from the comfort of a cardboard box! Be amazed as a video of him conquering Gaul is uploaded to YouTube and gets a million hits because he does a little sneeze at the end! Oh, all right, today’s game isn’t about a cat that leads the Roman Empire, as wonderful as that would be. He’s simply a cat named Caesar, in Andromeda Software and Mirrorsoft’s 1984 vermin-control-em-up Caesar the Cat!

This is the loading screen for the ZX Spectrum version of the game, which is the one I’ll be looking at first. There’s not much to say about it, other than that Mirrorsoft was a publishing arm owned by the Mirror Group, producers of the British tabloid The Daily Mirror. I don’t know why, because it’s a business venture like many others, but the idea of a newspaper company also publishing computer games just seems strange to me. For non-UK readers, The Mirror is the newspaper that used to employ the enormous gasbag and multi-year winner of the World’s Most Punchable Face award, Piers Morgan. If you’re American, I speak on behalf of my country when I say I’m sorry he spends so much time in your fine nation.


Here’s the title screen, where the endless battle between irreconcilable foes is once again joined. It’s cat versus mouse, and you’re the cat. There’s Caesar at the top of the screen, sitting around and not doing much like all good cats should. There are also mice, one of which is eating the game’s title. Caesar lets the mouse do its thing, saving his energy for the game itself, and I let the title screen run for a while to see what would happen when the mice ran out of text to gnaw on.


Gah! I was not expecting the sudden appearance of Caesar’s huge disembodied head. The numbers are either some kind of score total you need to keep Caesar happy, or a countdown until he unleashes his doomsday weapon.


“My cat has no nose.”
“How does he smell?”
“He can’t, he doesn’t have a nose. It’s very sad.”


The game begins, and you’re presented with Caesar, some mice and a packed larder. The rodent infestation is hardly surprising with all this uncovered food knocking about. At least put some cling film over it, jeez. There’s a real feast on display here: suspiciously-coloured cheese, red and black food logs and what I took, at first glance, to be a rosary hanging from the top-left corner. I think it’s actually supposed to be a string of sausages and the cross is attached to the lid of the bottle underneath. Would it be sacrilegious to suggest that the Catholic Church start looking into edible rosary beads? Oh, and remember that red jar, it’s important later. Anyway, you control Caesar on his mission to rid the pantry of mice, and controlling the cat is as simple as using the joystick – no other buttons to worry about with this one, folks. The larder is split into four horizontal rows, and Caesar can go up and down to move freely between them. It’s a maze game without the walls, in a way.


Catching a mouse is, in theory, as simple as walking on top of it. As you can see above, Caesar delicately picks the mouse up in his mouth, and you then have to carry it to the door that appears somewhere on the screen (it’s the red-and-blue rectangle at the top-right, in this case.) I assume the mice are removed in this way to spare the player the grisly sight of Caesar batting the mouse around for a while before moving in for the kill. It’s a good compromise, in my book. Having a cat walk all over your food is unhygienic enough without the room being splattered with mouse innards.


However, Caesar the Cat is much less forgiving than the premise might lead you to expect, turning a cutesy romp into a surprisingly tense race against time. The most important thing to remember about catching mice is that if you move on to the same horizontal level as them, they’ll disappear. The way to catch them is to approach from a different row and only make your move when you’re directly above or below them. However, you can’t take too long about it because your score is constantly running down, and if it reaches zero it’s game over. So, speed is of the essence, but don’t get too over-zealous in your joystick wranglings – if you accidentally try to move Caesar beyond the confines of the screen, he bangs his head into the wall and you’re docked a chunk of points for your tacit endorsement of animal cruelty. The mice disappear and reappear pretty quickly, so you might think that a good idea would be to sit in place and wait for the mice to come to you. Don’t do this. I did, and I couldn’t figure out why I was getting almost immediate game overs. It turns out that if Caesar stays still for more than a couple of seconds, the rate at which your score decreases multiplies about ten-fold. I’m allergic to cats and have as little to do with them as possible, but even I know that constant frantic scurrying goes against the very essence of cat-ness.
If that wasn’t enough obstacles on your road to a pest-free pantry, there are also some jars on the shelves – the pink one on the right, the blue one in the middle and the previously-mentioned red jar. If you move up or down while touching the jars, they fall off the shelves and break. Two of them cost you a points penalty if you smash them, but if you break the red one…


That’s the jar in which Caesar’s owners store the smallpox samples they smuggled out of a Soviet virology lab during their escape from behind the Iron Curtain, and smashing it is an immediate game over, complete with vaguely threatening message. When you do get a game over, the game plays a beepy version of Auld Lang Syne, the main effect of which is to make you realise how weird it is to hear Auld Lang Syne on a day other than New Year’s Eve.


If you manage to survive all these pitfalls and catch enough mice, the screen is reset and the black mice are replaced by blue mice. The opening screen also implies the existence of rare and elusive red mice, but I can’t confirm that because I didn’t manage to get past the blue ones. The problem is that they eat all the food really, really quickly, and every time a piece of food is devoured, you guessed it, you lose a bunch of points. How much faster are the blue mice than the black when it comes to sating their relentless appetites? Put it this way: I didn’t even notice that the black mice were eating the food but the blue mice get through this enormous buffet like, well, I get through an enormous buffet. So, the red mice will go forever unwitnessed aside from that brief glimpse on the title screen. Caesar the Cat is a fun little game in short bursts, but the dedication – and luck with the mouse’s positions – required for mastery is no justified by the amount of entertainment on offer.


Here’s the Commodore 64 version, and it must be said that this game (in all its forms) is cute as heck. There was a BBC Micro port, too, which looks much the same as this C64 version but with a more garish colour palette.


The C64 version plays identically, although the playfield looks a little different and the generic smashable jars of the Spectrum version have been replaced by stacks of cups and a fancy teapot. The teapot is this version’s “instant failure” breakable, so let’s assume it’s a priceless family heirloom. Also of note is that someone appears to have racked up a game of pool in the bottom-right corner.


There’s nothing to choose between the different versions in terms of gameplay, and while part of me wants to say that the gentler colours and larger objects make the C64 version the superior one, I have to say I think I prefer the Spectrum Caesar for one simple reason: the seeds in the watermelons make it look like they’ve got grumpy jack o’lantern faces. I do like the graphics in both versions, though. The C64 version especially has a nostalgic “’early reader’ kids book from the seventies”  aesthetic that reminds me of half the books in my junior school’s library, thanks to the semi-abstract food illustrations and the yellowy-brown colour palette.


It lacks a real hook to keep you coming back and it’s random enough that it probably won’t hold your attention if you were aiming for true mastery in the way something like Pac-Man might, but for a tiny little game about cute animals that controls well and moves quickly Caesar the Cat is a fun way to spend ten minutes, and sometimes that’s all you need.

4 comments:

  1. i owned this game when i was a kid, it's so nice to read a blog about these sort of thing no one but old cruds care about

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm not old or British enough to have ever had a ZX Spectrum, so the colors are always pretty jarring.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "Suspiciously Colored Cheese". At first, I thought you had found a hilarious way to describe the watermelon.

    ReplyDelete

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