Pretty much everyone loves dogs, right? I mean, what’s not to love – affection, companionship, works as both a kind of warm, furry footstool and a sentient vacuum cleaner for dealing with spilled food. Dogs are great. Or at least that’s what I thought until I played today’s game, which may have soured me on the entire concept of dogs forever. It’s Imagineering’s 1993 SNES failed-cartoon-em-up Family Dog!
There’s the family dog now, with his curiously pointed muzzle and bat-wing ears that make him look like a minor Jim Henson character with a one-line description on the Muppet Wiki. Family Dog is yet another licensed SNES platformer based on a cartoon, in this case also called Family Dog. The cartoon started as an episode of the American TV series Amazing Stories, before being spun off into its own show. There were some big names involved with the show – Brad Bird wrote and directed the original episode, Tim Burton did some work on it and Steven Spielberg was an executive producer, but the show flopped and was canned before the first season was even finished. It’s the story of the nameless family dog, who lives in a family of a mum, dad and two kids, and the various hijinks he finds himself involved in. In the interests of research, I watched a couple of episodes and it’s… not great. The best description I can give is that it feels like a sub-par segment from an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures. Oh well, maybe the game will be better than the show, he said with absolutely no conviction.
Isn’t it just?
Before the gameplay starts, you’re treated to a brief intro showing the dog enjoying a sunny, carefree morning in the garden, having a nap, scratching around and generally acting like a dog. Then the son of the family sticks his head out of the door and calls for his pet. The dog’s expression immediately becomes one of horrified desperation. The dog is right to be scared. Bad things lurk within that house, and I don’t mean bath time.
So, yeah, it’s a platformer. Take control of the dog and get from one end of the stage to the other, jumping over or otherwise avoiding the various obstacles and hazards, like the family cat, (who is bitter about not receiving his own spin-off show,) bouncing balls and, erm, flying books?
Yep, flying books. Okay, sure, why not, let’s just assume that the family are heavily into blasphemous tomes filled with the darkest sorcery. It definitely seems like the son of the family would be into that kind of thing, what with him being a hell-spawned devil child and all.
For some reason the family home has more shelving than a mid-sized branch of Ikea, stretching upwards over multiple screens, its upper reaches populated by the flying books – although not nearly enough books to necessitate this much shelving, you could fit half of the Bodleian’s catalogue on here.
There’s not much reason to come up onto the shelves, either, unless you’re on the hunt for power-ups. Bones give you extra health, while dog biscuits are ammo. Your weapon? Barking at things, which you can see happening in the screenshot above. The dog’s posture and expression may make it seem like it’s howling after receiving a hefty kick up the backside, but it’s actually barking at the flying book.
While I was bouncing around up there, amongst the bland, featureless storage solutions, the son appeared from behind a shelf and attempted to shoot me, the vicious little shit. More evidence for this being a house of black magic and diabolical sorcery is offered by the kid somehow leaning out from behind the shelf despite it being affixed to the wall. He’s up to some Hounds of Tindalos nonsense.
This seems like a good time to discuss the game’s jumping controls, which are weird. The main issue is that there are too many different kinds of jump. A normal, horizontal, arcing jump – the kind of jump you use most of the time in almost every other platformer ever made – is slow, fussy and has an extremely small range, making it kinda useless. On the other hand, if you jump vertically from a standing start, the dog will leap pretty high into the air – and even higher if you’re holding up on the d-pad – but in an almost purely vertical trajectory. You can get a bit more use out of the horizontal jump by running, but to run and jump in this game you have to hold X to run and then press B to jump, which is a very awkward-feeling system when you consider where the X and B buttons are on a SNES pad. You’re going to end up wasting a lot of your limited barking ammunition by accidentally pushing Y while trying to run and jump. A least, I know that happened to me a lot.
Thus, the real challenge of Family Dog is figuring out how to jump properly. I think it’s fair to say that this does not bode well for the quality of the rest of the game.
In the end, I decided that leaping as high as possible using the vertical jump was usually the best option, because you can move the dog left or right as he’s falling and with enough height you can move him as far as with a horizontal jump. It’s not a great system, let’s be honest, and jumping in Family Dog is a complete pain in arse from start to finish, especially when you discover that most of the smaller platforms have slippery, ill-defined edges. It’s a shame ninety percent of the game is purely about jumping, really.
Here’s part of the remaining ten percent, where you have to run away from the kid while he tries to shoot the dog. What a vile little arsehole this child is, tormenting a poor dog whose only recourse is to run away and occasionally jump over the building blocks in front of him and the kid’s projectiles that come from behind. It’s more enjoyable than the previous, more traditional platforming section, but we’re working with very fine margins here.
The kid shot the dog so much that the dog exploded and died. It’s horrible, just horrible. I cannot remember the last time a character caused such an immediate and visceral loathing in me as this kid does, with his American Dennis the Menace meets Chucky from Child’s Play look and red nose that implies some kinship to the hated clown. You’ll notice the kid’s missing a tooth, and I sincerely hope it’s because another kid punched it right out of his bulbous head.
Okay, back to the game, and now the kid wants to play fetch. What’s he throwing, a hand grenade? As I am playing as a dog, I dutifully waited for the ball to be thrown, then ran after it and brought it back. It is my understanding that this is how the game of fetch works, but unless Family Dog shipped with a SNES peripheral that feels like a drool-soaked tennis ball, can it really be said that we’re getting the true fetch experience? Anyway, I fetched the ball. Then I fetched it a few more times. And a few more times after that. Nothing happened, the kid just kept throwing the ball, and while it’s definitely preferable to him trying to murder the dog it’s still not fun.
Eventually I let the ball roll away, where it hit the daughter of the family. She started crying, which I assume was the son’s plan all along. That’s right, the only way to progress in this game it to make a little girl cry. I hope that by now the people who made this game have dealt with whatever familial issues they were clearly struggling with in 1993.
After the gun chase and another short section that was almost identical to the first area, the dog finds himself in the kitchen. It’s okay, I guess. You can avoid most of the danger by walking around on the countertops, although I must take issue with the idea that toast could be dangerous. Toast! Wonderful, delicious, life-giving toast does not deserve to be besmirched in this way. If it was covered in chocolate spread I could understand why it’d be dangerous to a dog, but not in this situation. To get past the toast, and other hazards such as the blenders that flip their lids at you, you can simply bark at them a few times until they disappear. I would definitely recommend doing this, because you really don’t want to head down to floor level…
The kid is back, and he’s swapped his gun for a vacuum cleaner. He’ll chase the dog around with it if you go down there, and any contact with the vacuum is instantly fatal. I cannot overstate how much I hate this kid. This game shouldn't be called Family Dog, it should be called The Omen But Also There’s a Dog.
I would rather set the dog on fire than have to deal with that kid. It really is the more merciful of the two options, at least the dog’s in control of his own fate this way. Awkward, difficult-to-judge control, sure, but if I don’t manage to jump over the fiery kitchen hobs it's mostly my fault.
After being chased by a psychotic child, fleeing in fear for my very life, I made it to the mother of the household. I thought she might scold her devil-spawn or something, but it seems the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. All the dog did was snuffle around on the floor for a bit, but that was enough to upset the mother. “That’s it!” she cries. She’s had enough of this dog. Everyone’s had enough of this dog. Why do you people even own a dog? Jesus. Also, I’m fairly certain this woman is the sister of the mum from Dexter’s Lab.
Well, this is ominous. This ride isn’t going to end with a trip to the ice cream parlour, is it?
Nope, the family are sending the dog to the “hilariously” named “Kennel of Love.” They’re ditching their family pet in a maximum-security dog prison, for no real reason besides the dog trying to escape from his torment. Is it weird that this set up is bothering me so much? I might be more inclined to forgive it if the gameplay was better, but it’s tedious and completely lacking in imagination. The weird thing is that there’s no humour to it. Like, the show is (nominally) a comedy but there’s nothing even remotely funny here, it’s just horrible people being mean to a dog.
The inside of the dog prison is just as grim as you might expect. Rabid dogs with genuinely disturbing sprites swipe at you from their cages, electrified pools of water cover half the floors and the whole pace is a dark maze of dripping brickwork and cold steel. It’s all laid out as a series of ascending floors with staircases between them, but on the plus side each floor is only one screen tall so there’s much less jumping to do. Any part of this game where you’re spending less time struggling with the jumping controls is welcome, but don’t get too excited – it’s not like they replaced the jumping with some different, more interesting gameplay. It’s mostly just slowly inching forwards and barking at things.
You most pressing goal is to lower a gate that blocks entry to the upper floors. There’s a switch in plain sight, but I couldn’t get the dog to interact with it no matter how hard I barked. I guess I’d better get to exploring, then.
Speaking of barking, there are some dogs chained up in the middle of rooms. I don’t know whether they’re inmates or guard dogs, but they’re definitely mean. They bark at you, you bark at them, it’s a whole thing. I’m sure you can defeat them by jumping over the (mercifully visible) soundwaves of their barks and shooting back with yaps of your own in the gaps, but between the game’s fiddly jumps and the way the barks expand in size as they travel it really is not worth the effort. Instead, I simply stood in front of each dog and barked like a Jack Russell when the postman shows up, hoping that I’d have enough health for the other dog to “die” before I did. It mostly worked. It wasn’t fun, and it meant I had to spend the other parts of the stage carefully avoiding all the other hazards, but it worked.
Oh, so these are the guard dogs. They’re also despicable traitors to their species, and if the family dog goes near them they’ll try to smash his head in with a truncheon. How do they sleep at night, the bastards? Apart from “in a dog bed, with their legs twitching as they dream about chasing down escaping prisoners,” I mean.
However he justifies his actions, it seems like this guard dog has been doing his job for a while; those three chevrons on his arm imply he’s risen to the rank of sergeant, at least. It is only because of the lack of dog-related puns on military ranks – the best I can come up with is “wooftenant,” which doesn’t even work if you use the US pronunciation of lieutenant – that I haven’t planned out the entire hierarchy of the dog army.
The dog prison is also a bird prison. There’s probably some cats locked up in here somewhere, maybe a few sheep. I didn’t see those, though, just dogs and birds, and of course I set the birds free. Not for any altruistic reasons, I was just hoping they’d distract the guard dogs.
As it happens, the birds are the key to activating the gate switch. Once you’ve saved three of them, they land on the lever and weigh it down, which opens the gate. Okay, fine, whatever. Not sure why the dog couldn’t have just done that himself, but the two leading possibilities are laziness or stupidity.
I’ve made it to the outside of the prison, and as you can see it’s a real treat for the eyes, a visual spectacle rarely matched amongst the SNES library. Family Dog is now the greyest game since Battleship Painting Simulator, which is appropriate since it’s also about as interesting as watching paint dry. Family Dog really suffers from having these big, empty stages, where technically you can travel a long way in any direction but why would you? There’s nothing there worth seeing, and making the effort to explore is only ever rewarded by giving you power-ups that you’ll need to replace the health and barking power you lost exploring in the first place, power-ups you wouldn’t even need if you’d stuck to the most basic route. It’s not like moving around in this game is fun enough to be its own reward, either.
As an example, most of this stage involves scaling the walls by using these bulldog gargoyles as platforms. The dogoyles are stacked in long vertical columns, so all you have to do is jump straight up to land on the next one until you reach the top. If you stand on them for too long, they come to life and try to bite you. I suspect they are not stone statues, but rather real bulldogs that have had their heads smashed through the prison’s outer wall as a punishment.
There’s a boss, of sorts. I use boss purely in the “unique enemy at the end of a videogame level” sense, because this man is not the boss of anything. Just look at him, he looks like such a nerdlinger that I bet he takes orders from his own dog-catching net. Yes, Slenderman has fallen on hard times.
You don’t even need to fight the boss. To finish the stage, you just need to bark at the gate’s control box a few times (despite that not being how you opened the previous gate) and you can do so while totally ignoring the lanky weirdo. Don’t worry, I’m sure he’s used to being ignored.
After escaping, the dog find himself in the deep, dark woods. The guard dogs are in pursuit, but now that they’re back in the wilderness and have escaped the influence of man they’re regressing to their primitive, four-legged state. They can still be defeated by barking at them, though. Go figure.
As for the rest of the stage, imagine if Konami gave the Castlevania license to a small-time Western developer with no budget. That’s sort of what it feels like, what with the swooping bats, dangling snakes and bizarre spider-creatures. It’s an improvement over the “outside the prison” stage, I’ll give it that much, because it’s mostly horizontal and obvious where you’re supposed to be going, plus the spooky creatures of the haunted woods are a damn sight more interesting to look at than an endless expanse of grey bricks.
This is the final stage, and it sure is something. It’s a vast expanse of dead trees (about ten screens high and what feels like twelve thousand screens across) with no variation or landmarks or anything but woodland that seems to have been razed by a forest fire. You have to get the dog from one end to the other by making him bounce on the springy limbs of the trees in the foreground, but there’s no “floor” so if you mess up, you’re dead. That’s it, that’s all you do. Bounce from one dead tree to another, an agonisingly boring process made worse – worse, would you believe it! - because you have to wait for the dog to bounce on each branch a few time before he reaches his maximum height.
All you get is trees. So many trees for you to slowly leap between. Just trees. Actually, that’s not technically true. I saw a wasp once. Only one wasp, mind you. I think it was an enemy, but I’d already started bouncing to the next tree when it appeared on screen and I never saw another one. I saw lots of trees, though.
I am struggling to find the words to convey just how awful this stage it. It is, without a doubt, one of the very worst videogame stages I’ve ever suffered through, and if you have a browse through the list of games I’ve written about in the Article Index you’ll know that’s really saying something. Because it’s so completely lacking in, well, anything, it somehow feels worse than any number of other terrible videogame stages that are bad because of extreme difficulty or glitches or poor controls, because at least those stages were trying to do something. Family Dog, on the other hand, appears to have forgotten what videogames even are.
Having somehow escaped from the forest by reaching the far end and jumping into a hollow tree trunk, the family dog falls from the sky and literally lands in the arms of his abusive owners. Congratulations, sucker, that’s what you get for playing Family Dog. I hope you’ve learned your lesson.
Well, that was a dismal experience. The sad thing is, Family Dog could almost have been a perfectly acceptable little game. I really did like the dog himself, he’s well-animated and possesses far more charm than anything else around him, and some of the stages aren’t that terrible, especially the narrower, more pared-down ones. If they’d fixed the dog’s jumping abilities and unified them into a set of moves that made sense, while also trimming down the more expansive stages, it would have been a lot better. But they didn’t, so we’re stuck with sprawling, empty levels with unpleasant platforming, a final stage that scrapes the bottom of the barrel so hard it turns the barrel into a sieve and that repugnant little boy. He’s reason enough to avoid playing Family Dog, honestly.
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