CAT, CAT, THAT DAMN CATBy: Commodore
Published Under: Mirror Image Games
Released: October 10, 2009
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Doubtless, the ZZTer I am most thankful for since I first began (re)playing and writing about ZZT games has been Commodore. With a little more than a dozen released ZZT worlds to his name, I've covered six of them, making him the most prolific author whose works have received coverage on the Museum.
In addition to his numerous worlds created in a variety of styles and typically in well above-average quality, Commodore also deserves some extra praise for his YouTube channel. Createdin 2010, the channel is full of videos where he simply took the time to play some ZZT worlds of note, and uploaded some footage to show off the games. In a pre-Museum era, this was pretty forward-thinking, and his ability to recognize the usefulness of having these games in a format that anybody could use to quickly get a grasp on what they were like deserves a lot of accolades.
Today I would like to talk about one of Commodore's most unique games, CAT, CAT, THAT DAMN CAT, more frequently shortened to just "Cat, Cat". For a ZZT game, its release date is rather late, towards the tail-end of 2009. This is right when new releases were themselves becoming quite rare, and the community was sun-setting, ready to quietly fade away into obscurity. Despite the late release and the risk of few ZZTers being around to even play the game, Commodore wound up creating what is perhaps the most visually distinct art style of any ZZT game.
Its title screen bears no relation to the art style of which I'm trying to praise, but its quite unique in its own right. (Com)Buster's 2003 release of ZBitmap was responsible for giving ZZTers the ability to take images and easily convert them to ZZT boards, but it seems to have been used rather infrequently save for a few jokes at converting explicit images or screenshots non-ZZT games then known for their unparalleled graphics. A few others saw fit to use the tool for more experimental worlds with works like Aeris's Moustache series or Viovis's Bogart, but Commodore was perhaps the first to use it for just creating a ZZT board worth looking at rather than as a core component of a world. There's even a far simpler original title screen that can be accessed via the editor.
Cat, Cat is at its core, a light-hearted adventure with some small puzzle elements and just a smidge of action. It's not a particularly challenging game, but then it's not supposed to be. Commodore is simply sending this cat on a journey that begins fairly grounded in reality. The cat's motivation is as simple as wanting to find some food or their owner so that they may be fed. This is an adventure for most cats that would rarely leave the confines of the home. Here however, the cat goes outside, is beamed onto an alien spacecraft (populated by alien cats), and explores a volcanic planet. Things escalate slowly, easing the player into the fact that anything can happen here as the cat goes from unlocking doors with keys to switching electrical fuses, throwing grenades, and having laser-pistol shootouts.
What Commodore does with the game to turn that journey from a fun adventure into a stand-out ZZT release is through the use an exceptionally simple, yet incredibly clever engine that does the heavy lifting graphically. Cat, Cat, like many other engine based ZZT worlds puts the actual player element in the corner of the screen, keeping them confined to a limited space. However this isn't your usual engine where the player is surrounded with objects that look like arrows that can be touched or shot to take an action. Instead, Commodore creates a small rectangle the player moves around in that corresponds to the rest of the board, and the player's position in their corner will determine where the feline protagonist is drawn onto the main board.
The engine in this case isn't a platformer, but rather more akin to something like an old LCD handheld game. Throughout each board the cat is drawn with invisible walls for each possible position. As the player moves, the screen updates, turning the old cat "sprite" back into invisibles and a new cat sprite is selected and changed from invisibles to normals. I believe this is a wholly unique engine that hadn't actually been done in ZZT before. Sure invisible-powered animations are incredibly common for title screens or for creating illusions of movement with non-moving vehicles, but Commodore goes well beyond that. Even something as pleasing to watch as the ending to Barjesse's Nightmare (GIF) is ultimately just a sequence for the player passively sit and watch, not a form of control unto itself.
The understanding required of both ZZT and its scripting to create something like this is far from advanced, and if you're looking for jaw-dropping programming, you'll be better off with Commodore's RPG Psychic Solar War Adventure. Cat, Cat, That Damn Cat is more concerned with entertaining the player rather than surprising a ZZTer who knows their way around ZZT-OOP. Commodore avoids the pitfall commonly referred to as "an engine without a game" where somebody comes up with a clever engine and releases a game that uses it, but forgetting to make sure that the game itself is actually fun to play. Receptions to games like these varies wildly depending on the name attached and when the games were released.
Perhaps most notably is Jojoisjo's 4, which serves as a good counterexample to Cat, Cat's brilliance. In 4, the player uses the mouse to move a cursor around rooms drawn entirely out of fake walls. At the time of release it was praised for being an innovative game whose engine, a "point and click" adventure system, was bringing something that should have been impossible in ZZT to reality. Playing it today, it's incredibly apparent how poorly developed the game itself is. A unique engine that leads to room after room of nonsense puzzles and a story that only gets revealed at the very end. The two are worth contrasting though as both engines require some major sacrifices to be made. With 4, there's a need for all the art to be made up of fake walls excluding objects to interact with in order to let the game's cursor move (mostly) freely. This dramatically reduces the graphical fidelity of the game and when combined with puzzles that quickly turn into finding the tile that can be interacted with leads to a slow experience whose novelty wears off by the time you finish the first chapter.
Commodore has to deal with graphical issues as well. Since ZZT-OOP can only reference the seven default colors, it means that at a maximum there can only be seven positions the cat can be in on any board. (In fact, Commodore sticks to six, effectively dividing each room into a 3x2 grid.) Since the cat sprites need to be toggled on and off, it means that every room will by its very nature be mostly black in order to keep the invisible cat sprites from being silhouetted. Despite this extreme limitation though, Cat, Cat is an absolutely gorgeous looking game. There is a very visible care to hide the seams of the engine. The non-cat areas of the boards are very detailed and take advantage of not having to worry about anything moving around leading to little animations like a dripping faucet or a mouse made of objects running around that moves from space to space as a sprite like the cat does. At times Commodore even plays with the idea that the cat sprite itself may be obscured with the bedroom being the best example. Here the cat can actually travel under the bed, with little more than some paws and a tail visible while the rest is covered by blankets draped over the foot of the bed.
The cat itself is also fairly versatile. I've been using the term "sprite" to describe drawings on the cat on screen, and there are quite a few. Despite each sprite being completely static the cat may sit, stand on all fours, prop themself up against a ledge, and make a few other poses. This makes for a varied appearance as the cat moves around each room. Sitting poses also pull their weight in dealing with one of the few areas in which the engine's limitations do show themselves. Namely, that when the cat moves across a room, the sprites all look just fine, but upon turning around they can look a little odd as you'll wind up having the cat essentially facing backwards from where they're walking. Like 4's fake walls, there's nothing that can be done in ZZT about this. Generally it's nothing jarring, but it can be a bit silly after watching the cat walk up some stairs and seeing it use the exact same graphics to descend them a minute later.
One other positive aspect of the engine is in that lack of a player being surrounded by arrows. By having the player physically move around in a tiny representation of the room, Commodore is free to block the cat by just blocking the player. It's safe to try to leap up onto a table, but you can all the same physically look to the corner and see if there's a free tile for the player to move into. Engines like first person mazes usually fall into the trap of it making far more sense to just look at the map and not the first person perspective which basically defeats the whole purpose. Here though, Commodore's visuals are far more eye-catching, creating a far more immersive gameplay experience.
The gameplay is more involved that just navigating spaces. The space bar is transformed into a general purpose "interact" button which can be used on a good number of spots to investigate objects, press buttons, open doors, and so on. As the game escalates the cat will find themselves operating self-destruct mechanisms and throwing hand grenades so don't go thinking it's just handling the most basic verbs for an adventure game.
Without spoiling the game too much, there also exists some attempts to turn the engine into a crude cover-shooter where the cat will be taking on some rather unusual foes in ranged combat. If the connection with LCD games wasn't clear earlier, it becomes incredibly blatant in these fights, moving back and forth to line up your attacks while dodging those of the enemy. Conceptually, it's a good way to take what's a fairly slow paced game and made something a little more frantic. In practice though, these fights are one of the weaker areas of the game. The adventuring and exploration are able to keep themselves entertaining through varied locations along with a touch of humor thanks to the protagonist being of feline persuasion. The fight sequences themselves are fast paced, but can't stay fresh long enough. That they come as a sort of abrupt end to the game doesn't help either.
This unfortunately leads to a game that ends at its worst moment, but it's overall a small dip in quality at the end of an adventure that will have you smiling the whole way through. Commodore has contributed a fairly significant number of noteworthy worlds to ZZT, and frequently in an era where they never got the recognition they truly deserved. CAT, CAT, THAT DAMN CAT is well above average compared to most ZZT worlds and definitely pushes itself beyond being a mere curious novelty like many engine games that came before it. It's a short adventure, with few chances to fail, and serves as a fantastic introduction to the sort of things that ZZT isn't really meant to do while still being approachable. For a newcomer to ZZT, Cat, Cat eases the transition from traditional ZZT adventures to the more clever uses of ZZT-OOP out there. This one comes highly recommended to those making their first journey into user-made ZZT worlds. As for those who are familiar with ZZT's beahviors that can immediately look at and understand how the game is doing what it does, you're still going to find yourself having a fantastic time making searching for the cat's owner (or food).