You can take the cat out of the alley

Two years after they were founded by Dave Palmer in 1988, Hi-Tec Software managed to acquire a license to produce computer games based on various cartoon franchises owned by the now defunct, legendary American animation studio, Hanna-Barbera . They published eight tie-in titles in total for various eight and sixteen bit systems, with varying degrees of success.

Fifth in line was ‘Top Cat Starring in Beverly Hills Cats’ developed by Twilight, released in 1991 and based on the 1988 made-for-TV movie of the same name. I single this one out because when the designated Retro Review Dice ™ came to rest, the number of dots facing upwards amounted to five. I’ve already written a zillion word essay on the Sooty game so why the heck not?

These quick, lazy gaming cash-ins have a reputation for being quick, lazy gaming cash-ins, largely because that’s what they are. This one’s no different, although it’s at least refreshing to see it’s not a run of the mill side-scrolling platformer for a change. Rather it’s a run of the mill maze exploration affair presented via an off-kilter bird’s eye view that warps the perspective. It’s not quite deliberate or clever enough to require an MC Escher tuned brain, just inconsistently and badly drawn.

Where are they now?

“The game has an angled overhead view without much regard for proper perspective – irksome when you’re trying to be precise avoiding hazards such as bouncing bombs, rolling barrels and skateboarders who steal any objects you’ve collected! The graphics aren’t too bad, colourful and cheerful. However, the accompanying tune is rather basic. Gameplay isn’t too sophisticated either, consisting simply of exploring a largish flickscreen maze, dodging the baddies and picking up vital objects. It’s tough with just a single life and isn’t hugely addictive, but not too bad either and acceptable enough fare for mapping-minded fans.”

60% – Zzap! (C64 version, August 1991)

Acknowledging it’s a bit of a duffer, Hi-Tec (aka PAL Developments) marketed Beverly Hills Cats as a £7.99 budget game, no more advanced than the 8-bit versions from which it was ported. A mere £3.99 would have secured you a copy for the Speccy, Amstrad or Commodore 64 a year earlier, which is more reasonable given it would likely have ended up shredded for litter tray lining in record time.

Undeterred, Sheffield based publishers, Hi-Tec, later repackaged Top Cat along with Hong Kong Phooey, Ruff And Reddy In The Space Adventure and Yogi’s Great Escape, releasing the single disk quad pack for £19.99 as the ‘Hanna-Barbera Cartoon Character Collection’. Four games of any kind fitting on one low capacity disk really doesn’t bode well. Even some PD game coders struggled to achieve that!

Hi-Tec’s game adopts the premise of the feature length movie; a padded out reinterpretation of a 25 minute episode of the original cartoon series produced in 1961 entitled ‘The Missing Heir’. Produced 27 years later, some of the gags and frames of reference had to be updated for a contemporary audience, and the ending was tweaked to show TC in a more aspirational moral light. Otherwise it’s the same story with extra, superfluous fluff, and even a dancing rap number! Clearly Hi-Tec weren’t alone in recognising an opportunity to recycle old IP to make a swift buck. You might like to compare and contrast TC with Hi-Tec’s earlier licensed tie-in, ‘Yogi Bear & Friends in the Greed Monster: A Treasure Hunt’. Treasure hunt being the operative phrase.

“Ol TC and his gang are back, to save Benny the Ball from becoming cat food at the hands of a dastardly butler. Previous Hi-Tec licenses have been a bit of a mixed bag, but this is quite a laugh, with some really nice graphics, and an addictive nature that keeps dragging you back for ‘one more go’. Check it out!”

82% – Computer & Video Games (Spectrum version, March 1991)

Whilst the ordinary Top Cat episodes are set in Manhattan, New York, TC and company’s alley home was relocated to Los Angeles for the movie when they became homesick and desperate to reconnect with their working class roots (you’ll find a bit of social commentary if you scratch just beneath the surface). In any case, I suppose because cats aren’t allowed to travel on busses unaccompanied, it would have made the 2811 mile commute a bit of a nightmare.

I’ll let the back of the VHS box whet your appetite…

“How did alley cats Top Cat, Choo-Choo, Brain, Fancy-Fancy and Benny the Ball end up in the swanky mansion of Gertrude Vandergelt? What’s Benny doing in a dog pound? And why are the conniving butler Snerdly and his mad wolfhound Rasputin out to get Benny?

Get the breathless answers to these and other nutty questions in the fabulous feature-length animated caper, Top Cat and the Beverly Hills Cats. What starts off as an another ordinary day in Hoagie Alley turns into an adventurous romp through Beverly Hills, with Top Cat and the gang riding in limos, attending lavish costume parties and saving the heir to the Vandergelt fortune! Original Top Cat series voice actors Arnold Stang (T.C.), Marvin Kaplan (Choo-Choo), Leo De Lyon (Spook and Brain) and John Stephenson (Fancy-Fancy) memorably reprise their roles.”

When you’ve caught your breath we’ll continue. Although before we do, it should be noted that Maurice Gosfield who played Benny in the original TV series inspired by Sergeant Bilko didn’t return to take part in the first movie (or any of the others that followed) on account of being unexpectedly dead, as of 1964. Frustratingly, that always throws a spanner in the works, making comebacks tricky.

A synopsis of the crucial episode on which the movie is based (borrowed from TV.com) will help to fill in any blanks in the plot outlined above…

‘The Missing Heir’ (November 1, 1961)

“When the gang realizes Benny fits the description of a missing heir they take him to palatial Ridgely Place to collect his inheritance, unaware that the butler, Chutney, and his dog, Griswald, who are next in line for the money, are planning to do away with Benny.

Dibble saves Benny from a series of near-fatal mishaps and arrests the butler (who is really Machine Gun Chutney), after which the genuine heir appears. Hoping to cash in, Top Cat lets the heir, a cat named Catwaleder, join the gang, but then discovers that the heir has given away all his money.”

You may have spotted that the source material also features a butler, dog and an initially absent heir, only they’re different characters between mediums (only one dog hijacks Muttley’s wheezy laugh for instance). Hi-Tec’s interpretation only takes the missing heir element of the movie into account, and even that’s a very diluted representation of it. This is explained in the instruction pamphlet like so…

“When an old lady leaves her worldly fortune to Benny the Ball because her only rightful heir, Amy, is missing, Top Cat and the rest of the gang end up in Beverly Hills in the luxury of Madam Van Der Gelt’s mansion. Snerdly the butler is next in line if he can get rid of Benny. In between rides in the limo and having fun around the pool will T.C and his gang save Benny and find the missing Amy?”

You’ll have to imagine the Playboy lifestyle bit (artistic license, you know how it goes). Level one begins in Top Cat’s newly furnished alley home, recreated in the backstreets of LA. Playing as the ‘Boss Cat’ (as he was known in the UK due to a copyright conflict with an existing cat food brand) we must track down the rest of the gang so they can join us on our trip to Madam Vandergelt’s mansion.

Beginning with just a single life we accomplish this by navigating through a junkyard of harmful obstacles and enemies, some of which you wouldn’t readily identify as being a threat to cats. We must avoid wasps, hedgehogs, mice, dancing bombs, rolling dustbins and beach balls, skateboarders pulling off 360 degree spin tricks, leaking water hydrants, and guillotine-ised fence panels. Skateboarders are also a hindrance in that they can pilfer objects from Top Cat and scatter them randomly so that they have to be rediscovered.

Likewise, rotten fruit is to be swerved as consuming it reverses our controls. Yes, that old ‘disorient the player’ chestnut. What is this, some kind of early ’90s Amiga game? Oh, ah, umm. At least the ripe kind awards bonus points, as does finding and binning rubbish. See, this is educational as well as enterta… well, it’s eco-friendly anyway. Don’t push your luck.

Any hits deplete our energy as you’d expect, though this can be replenished by drinking milk, as long as it’s not the sour kind since that does precisely the opposite. If too much energy is drained, your rescued pals freak out and do a runner, forcing you to retrace your steps to round them up again. Another means of artificially extending the severely limited scope and challenge the game has to offer. Let’s face it, it needs all the help it can get!

Our chums don’t tag along for the ride once found like Cool Coyote’s mini-mes, you know, from Fire and Ice. Instead they are pocketed in the GUI as a progress guide, along with a menagerie of other useful objects. These form the basis of the game’s very primitive puzzle element. All ‘conundrums’ are of a ‘pick-up object and deposit in the appropriate location’ nature, so there’s little to really strain the grey matter. Guybrush certainly wouldn’t have been quaking in his Cavalier boots, or his timbers shivering.

“As in the case for most of Hi-Tec’s other cartoon licences, they seem to have spent so much time getting the graphics to look right (TC really is adorable), that they’ve forgotten to write much game. There’s not enough action going on – it’s easy to avoid all the baddies, it’s not fast enough for a straight maze game, and the puzzles are a bit easy and far between. You could certainly do a lot worse with three quid (lose it for example), but I’m sure with little effort you could do a lot, lot better, especially with all these re-releases around at the moment.”

49% – Your Sinclair (March 1991)

Using keys and arranging four numbers in the right sequence are a recurring gate-opening mechanism. We can use a shovel to dig beneath a flower to unearth a bone. This is left in Crusher’s dog bowl to lure him away from the passage he guards, thus granting access to the next area – the Beverly Hills streets beyond the alley.

This being California, the sidewalks are paved with five-pointed terrazzo and brass stars, no doubt an allusion to the Hollywood Walk of Fame; a 15 block monument established in 1958 to acknowledge the achievements of notable figures in the entertainment industry.

Speaking of which, in the movie Sly Stallone is referenced twice, being such a massive pop culture icon at the time (and still). Incidentally his star can be found at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard. The real street I mean – Hi-Tec weren’t going to go to those lengths.

Benny name-checks him first when he asks Mrs Vandergelt how to spell ‘Rambo’. He’s just saved the life of a vagabond who the audience soon learn is the millionaire lady of the manor in disguise. In gratitude she asks him to sign her memory book so she’ll never forget his altruistic good deed, though really intends to find out who he is so she can bequeath her vast fortune to Benny when she passes away. He doesn’t have to wait long because she soon fakes her own death to establish who her true friends are. Oops, spoiler alert, sorry. Please unread that last bit if you plan to watch the movie with the twists in tact.

Later Benny is captured by a pest control warden and imprisoned in the local dog pound (there’s a sub-plot involving a canine mask you see). Top Cat’s solution? Ring Sly Stallone to seek his advice on busting him out, the joke being that jail and breaking out of them feature significantly in Rambo 1-3, as well as Over the Top. Post 1988 Stallone went on to star in many other movies that incorporate prison related shenanigans, though without the benefit of time travel, Hanna-Barbera wouldn’t have been aware of these.

Hi-Tec’s nod towards these Sly-isms appears to be the ads for Rocky VII you’ll notice adorning Hoagy’s Alley in various places. As time would tell, Rocky 7 didn’t emerge until 2015 – it’s otherwise known as ‘Creed’. I suppose this was Hi-Tec’s way of saying the franchise was likely to run and run indefinitely, which in hindsight it obviously has.

Further movie hat tips were aimed towards OJ Simpson, Magic Johnson and a “real Beverly Hills cop”, further cementing the era in which the movie was produced. Hi-Tec weren’t so interested in these three apparently (they had already nailed their colours to the mast in producing the Rambo homage, Blazing Thunder). OJ Simpson wouldn’t be charged with the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman, for another six years. Otherwise it’s unlikely he would have been elevated to a pedestal in a kid’s cartoon.

“The game is visually very good with recognisable characters and a lot of colour, even if it’s a little blotchy in places. The initial puzzles are not very difficult, but they do get harder the further into the game you get. Top Cats in Beverly Hills Cats is another great game from Hi-Tec. All fans of the cartoon will love it.”

80% – Crash (January 1991)

Not wanting to miss a golden opportunity to celebrate four other hugely popular Hanna-Barbera stars, the movie producers crow-barred in a cameo from Fred and Wilma Flintstone, and Barney and Betty Rubble. The “modern stone age family” and their bosom-buddy neighbours can be seen taking it easy in their respective gardens on Megabucks Drive as the Beverly Hills tour bus cruises by.

“TC and all his cohorts are easily identifiable. The theme tune is a bit of a disappointment though. Gone is the tune from the series and it’s replaced instead by a nagging little cutesie drone. Gameplay is simplistic but for £2.99 it will provide a certain amount of entertainment.”

55% – Commodore Format (C64 version, March 1991)

Using a phone card in a call box it’s possible to lead Officer Dibble towards a telegraph-pole-mounted receiver and away from the gate he patrols, allowing us to pass through unchecked. In the movie Dibble has retired and subsequently taken a job as a security guard at the fortified mansion, thereby rejuvenating the cartoon’s trademark cops and robbers style rivalry.

Access to another critical area is blocked by the gates to a car wash. Deploying a wash token will open these up allowing you to glide through the active rollers. This plot device exists to mirror Amy’s workplace in the movie; parodying little orphan Annie, Amy has been enslaved in a car wash by Snerdly so she’s considered MIA when the inheritance of her grandmother’s estate is allocated via the probate process.

“The fourth disappointment is the utterly, utterly bog-standard arcade adventure game design, and the final disappointment is the realisation that we, just like you, had to go out to the shops and fork out eight quid for this. (They STILL wouldn’t send us a copy you see). It wasn’t worth it.

Undemanding stuff that might be okay for the under 12s, but that’s about all. Cute but totally vacuous.”

46% – Amiga Power (September 1991)

Our final task is to navigate around the ghosts and Griswold clones to extinguish the fire set in the mansion’s hearth using a bucket of water found in the library (and filled in the bathroom). Once doused we squeeze through the fireplace and onto a secret area where we discover and rescue Benny who is in danger of being assassinated via a multitude of innovative, nefarious schemes. In the movie anyway – don’t put your imagination back in its box just yet, you’ll need it.

Our supreme bravery is commended with a few lines of text stating that we’ve completed the game and congratulations are in order. Whoopie-duppy-doo, kitty power! Sorry, wrong ‘toon.

Even now there’s not an iota of a hint of the ‘most effectual’ Top Cat theme tune putting in a cameo appearance. One piece of music plays throughout, and sadly it bears no relation to the cartoon’s audio accompaniment composed by Hoyt Curtin. That had to have been a licensing restriction surely. You wouldn’t forget to include it otherwise. It would be like producing a Superman game and not letting Clark Kent pack his lycra outfit! Quite an appropriate metaphor for Beverly Hills Cats as it happens.

Reassuringly, ultimately everything reverts back to the status quo Top Cat and his gang have come to know as life. Likewise, Hi-Tec continued to knock out second-rate Hanna-Barbera licensed games, and parents – oblivious to the horrors contained within – went on buying them for their little cherubs. For birthday and Christmas presents, or simply to say little Johnny is a pip, he’s the championship. He’s the most tip top, Top Brat. Ha, that’ll teach him!

6 thoughts on “You can take the cat out of the alley

  • May 14, 2018 at 11:37 am
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    I was going to comment on how a lot of these licenses would be perfect for a modern game but then I thought that who would care about Top Cap in 2018? Oh and did you see the 2011 film? They used flash or something to animate it, bloomin terrible.

    • May 14, 2018 at 3:12 pm
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      You’d have to market any remakes/CGI versions towards kids I suppose and that’s so much tougher than tapping into adult’s nostalgia, where the groundwork has already been laid. Still, talking cats never go out of fashion so it may have found a new audience by now.

      I’ve seen clips of the modern rehashes (there’s an origin story too, released in 2015), though I don’t think I could force myself to sit through them from start to finish. The 2011 one has a sci-fi plot which I know didn’t go down well with the traditionalists. In the later one the DVD of this is chucked out as rubbish in the cartoon itself! 😀

  • June 3, 2018 at 2:07 am
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    What ? No mention of his appearance in a Halifax advert 🙂

  • June 3, 2018 at 4:24 pm
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    No proper mention, just a pic and a link… you’ll find it if you do a ctrl+f and type ‘Where are they now?’

    This was the first time I’d seen Rachel Jordache since Brookside. She’s hardly changed after all these years.

    I actually wrote some of this article standing in the queue in Halifax next to a cardboard cutout of Top Cat. That was surreal.

    • June 4, 2018 at 1:20 pm
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      Ah didn’t realise it was a link, I noticed the picture which is why I thought that terrible cash in would be mentioned. Top cat was ace as a kid.

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