Is That Bird Holding a Cat?

Is That Bird Holding a Cat?, by Ismail Hassan (2016)

Ismail Hassan made Is That Bird Holding a Cat? in ten days (or less) for the fifth annual GBJAM, an event that asks players to obey the Game Boy’s four-color palette restriction, the system’s 160×144 resolution, and to create something “Game Boy-themed.” This game certainly obeys these three tenets. Keyboard-controlled, the game first flashes the keyboard keys it uses not with descriptions of what those keys do, but with what keys on the Game Boy hardware they substitute for in a familiar murky green palette. It’s a small gesture, but it’s clever.

Yet Hassan has not chosen to make something that feels like it could be on the Game Boy (unlike some others from the same jam, such as Witchwood Academy), instead taking advantage of the processing power of a computer from this decade to create more complex, contemporary-feeling camera panning/object following and parallax scrolling than might have been possible on the Game Boy, let alone advisable. The game adheres to a tidy 160×144 resolution, but blows itself up to 3 times that (at least, unless you hit Alt+Enter to go fullscreen) in order to render what might have dissolved into a messy swamp of pixels on even a Game Boy Advance SP legible. The effect is something like a fantasy scenario in which the Game Boy’s guts got upgraded, but the buttons and screen stayed rooted in 1989.

Like The Lost Vikings (Silicon & Synapse, 1993), Is That Bird Holding a Cat? asks you to switch player characters on the fly (forgive the pun). In this case, we indeed have a bird and a cat that must find their way to their individually marked goal posts. The characters have two different movesets. The cat agilely zips around stages, hopping over deathtraps and scurrying through little crevices. The bird can’t walk and therefore can’t really platform, but has an unlimited flying ability. This ability isn’t quite so precise and agile as the cat, though, putting a much-needed limitation on what could make the bird too powerful.

The bird and the cat well thought out in their contrasts (they’re also adorable!). You’ll encounter situations where you could conceivably use either and situations where you simply must use one character to reach a key.  But the game really sings when it forces the characters to really cooperate. As the title suggests, the bird can hold a cat for only so long. The bird can fly forever on its own, but the second it picks up the cat, a stamina bar appears that severely limits the distance and height the cat can be carried and requires real forethought as players tackle levels.

The game’s weakest point is a level design that favors a too-quick ramping up of difficulty. The game’s somewhat overeager hit detection, too, makes some passages frustratingly finicky and certain large projectiles move with a pace that doesn’t quite mesh with the small area of the screen. I’m actually quite grateful Hassan has made available a version that comes with stages pre-unlocked (the initial release requires a linear progression through stages). I haven’t cleared every stage, but I’ve been delighted to move on from stages that get overly frustrating, so I can see each stage and situation the game has in store for me. The interaction between the bird and the cat is a delight and, coupled with their immense cuteness, contrasts excellently with the weirdness and hostility of their environs. Helping them struggle through the air together makes this game well worth playing.

Is That Bird Holding a Cat? is available on Windows for free from itch.io. You can follow the developer Ismail Hassan at @LifeAfterLunch.