On The Level examines one small part of a larger game.
Bishop was a few measly pounds of black-and-white squalling desperation when I found her. She was stuck in the concrete and steel breezeway connecting two buildings in my Harlem tenement. Heavy metal doors far more than 10 times her weight blocked each end of the passageway. It was clear that someone left her there, and I never found the bastard. I picked her up, and when we couldn’t find her people, I brought her upstairs. Now she was home, content to pee in my roommate’s closet and play in the sheets after I made my bed and run at the sight of a skinny Kenyan statue that inexplicably terrified her.
My good friend Bishop never behaved like the Nintencats or Ubisoft’s Petz or the EyePet. When she was hungry, she didn’t beep like a Tamagotchi. On the rare occasions she met other animals, we never had to worry about her devouring them, Viva Piñata style. While she was an affectionate beast, she never gamboled up and licked you like the felines in Kinectimals (unless you had pizza cheese on your face). No video game about pets or raising animals has ever properly captured what it’s like to live with a cat, but Sony’s Jingle Cats comes close. The first level alone manages to bottle some of the unpredictable, fickle, hilarious, contrary, and satisfying reality of becoming friends with a cat. The only difference is these video game cats sing an awesome version of “Smoke On The Water”:
Even if Jingle Cats, which Sony itself published in Japan in 1998, had gotten an international release, this is precisely the sort of game destined for obscurity and the adoration of a small group who accidentally stumble upon it. Not exactly a pet simulator, Jingle Cats is, much like living with a real cat, more of a puzzle. After selecting two kitties from a group of eight, each one a cartoon version of a mixed-breed domestic cat, they’re plopped into a house and you have to make them like each other. Also like the real thing, making them do anything is harder than forcing the sky to cough up snow in July.
In the first level, figuring out the game’s rules and the cats’ predilections is an exercise in constant, seemingly illogical experimentation. It’s not clear what the hell is happening when your chosen cats—like yellow goofball Twizzler and wide-eyed, glamorous Graymer—start wandering around the house. The whole place is viewed in profile: a kitted-out kitchen, a homey bedroom, a warm living room with blobby animated trucks driving in the background.
Meanwhile, you don’t play as the human in the house. Graymer and Twizzler have the run of the place, but they have little affection for each other at the start. It’s your goal to spark their friendship. You’re just a disembodied hand that can either interact with the house or the cats: petting them, picking them up, offering them toys like a wind-up mouse, feeding them. Just trying out the options without reason won’t get you much traction. You need both cats to be into whatever’s happening, filling up the love-o-meter at the top of the screen before time runs out, but not every cat gets psyched about balls of string. It’s only when you figure out what these kitties have in common, and how to manipulate the house itself to keep them together, that things start to work.
This is unusually close to the bonafide cat experience. Bishop was never a huge fan of actual cat toys. Buy her a little stuffed mouse with catnip, and she’d rip it apart until the drug was all used up, then promptly ignore the damn thing forever. But give her a piece of loose-leaf paper, and she’d freak out, clawing it up and biting it until the room looked like it was covered in the refuse of a malfunctioning shredder. A wire toy that would bob a little piece of cardboard up and down was a blast, but only if you were playing along with her. Jingle Cats’ furry little weirdos are just as particular, and working out their Rube Goldberg machine of cat neuroses makes for a captivating puzzle.
After enough experimenting, you might discover Twizzler and Graymer both like that wind-up mouse. Now you just need to get them in the same room to activate “Special Time”—that’s right, “Special Time”—and maximize their affection. So while Graymer’s hanging out in the bedroom, you can rattle the stack of dishes in the kitchen to lure Twizzler in her direction. Meanwhile, you can pick up the fishbowl in the living room, drop it in the bedroom to keep them transfixed, and bust out the little feather-on-a-string toy for maximum Special Time action. Suddenly, the rhythms and personalities of the critters is revealed. When the love meter’s full, you click the little heart option in your menu and if the cats really like each other, their first performance unfolds: a bunch of crayon cats meowing out Deep Purple’s biggest hit. No cat I’ve ever met knows the work of Ian Gillan, but this weird reward feels surprisingly like the first time you lay out a gross old towel you know your cat will love sleeping on, and they actually do.
Jingle Cats loses a dollop of its true-to-life surreality as you get farther into the game. Even as subsequent stages add more cats, it becomes easier and easier to decode a pattern that leads to success. CheesePuff likes the wind-up mouse, Cueball likes the duck. Unlike cats you live with, who develop their own recognizable habits and predilections only to abandon them for no reason years later, these ones don’t ever change. They’re locked in—hard to get to know but ultimately not unknowable, at least not in that spiritually edifying way that sharing your home with a beast can be. But the unpredictable experimentation of Jingle Cats’ first stage, with its Crayola wash and funny sound effects, is unknowable in that same tender way.