Family Dog is… too real for me.
Family Dog is a Super Nintendo game, but before that, it was an animated series, and even earlier than that, it was an animated “short” showcased on Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories. The “original” Family Dog of that program was directed by Brad Bird and written by Brad Bird and Tim Burton. I realize that I don’t talk about my movie tastes much on this blog, but let it be said that “animated short by Burton and Bird” is a phrase that makes me more excited than a rabbit injected with Trix. I liked 90% of Tomorrowland, so combine that guy with the man that gave us Beetlejuice, and I’ll be there with
bells skulls on.
The original Family Dog “episode” is fun, if not exactly all that interesting. I can see how the novelty of “animation for the whole family” (and not just the kiddies) was something people would notice in the pre-Groening days, but in a post Simpsons universe (and, reminder, Brad Bird worked on that show, too, and even directed Krusty Gets Busted [aka the premiere of the devious Sideshow Bob]), it just comes off as fairly quaint. This was before even the wave of “marginally mature” (aka gross) cartoons like Ren and Stimpy, and, when you’re applying Looney Tunes thinking to your typical sitcom family, you do get something at least remotely remarkable.
The Family Dog TV show was in the works for a number of years, but it finally materialized shortly after The Simpsons became a nationwide phenomena. Unfortunately, my beloved Bird was not involved, but it was a perfectly passable animated sitcom. The titular family dog was prone to a bit more slapstick and lesson learning than in his premiere short, but it was still a generally gentle (again, think early Simpsons era, when Bart was a “bad boy” for speaking ill of cow reproduction), classic sitcom. Here’s the Wikipedia description for episode two of the show:
“When the Binsfords take a trip to the zoo, their pooch tags along and causes plenty of trouble.”
See? Typical, dumb sitcom crap. I ate it up as a kid, but I reviewed an episode or two before writing this, and, yeah, I can see why this show only hit eleven episodes (even if the official excuse involves overseas production or some nonsense. Sure, blame all your problems on Asia).
So, because Family Dog, ya know, existed, it received a SNES platformer. It worked for Tim the Tool Man Taylor, so why not use a character that practically already exists in pixels? I actually played this game as a rental back when I was a wee Goggle Bob, because I liked the show, and Super Castlevania 4 was probably already taken that week. I don’t recall getting past the first world, and I know this because I would definitely remember seeing what came next.
Now that I have gotten that far, I’m probably going to remember it until the day I die…
Before we go any further, I want to note that I like animals. As a point of fact, I like most animals more than most people. I’m not a misanthrope (well, completely), I just see animals as a lot more pure than human beings (dogs very rarely want anything more than food and pets), so when one is suffering, my absolute first instinct is boundless sympathy; meanwhile, I see a ten year old with a cough, and I assume it’s because the kid secretly egged my house last year. It’s completely irrational, but I absolutely go out of my way to make sure a dog, cat, or even pig is comfortable before I address the creature’s owner. I also very rarely give my human friends belly rubs.
That said, the first world of Family Dog is mostly around-the-house comic mischief. Billy Binsford, the brat of Dog’s family, attempts to harm Dog, and it’s your job to steer the mutt away from danger. There are other hazards, like naked cats and bouncing balls, but your main goal is to simply make it to the right side of the screen without Billy perforating the pooch. Bounce on couches, collect bones, and avoid the vacuum. That thing sucks.
And, yes, Family Dog is in danger the entire time, but it’s Itchy and Scratchy style danger. It might involve some kind of stylized ferocity, but it’s pretty much the definition of cartoon violence. I’m sure there are some dogs that have been seriously injured by cats, but when I see something Tom & Jerry-esque happening, my first thought isn’t of the real world. But that all changes after the initial areas…
Family Dog has apparently been bad…
So he is asked to go for a ride.
This seems like fun!
Wait a tick…
BY LASSIE’S GOLDEN MANE, WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING HERE!?
Yes, Family Dog is left at a kennel for the crime of attempting to survive a destructive child, and it’s a prison-esque hellscape. Yes, there are still a few cartoony elements, like bulldog footholds and doberman pinschers in guard uniforms, but, by and large, this whole area is made to be far too real. The goofy music of the earlier stages is gone, and now it’s just the drip, drip, drip of leaky pipes and the barking of other inmates. Family Dog, who looks like a random mess of triangles and cylinders, is met by realistic looking dogs with very realistic looking teeth. The only escape is by freeing other captive animals, literal jailbirds, and then plowing past the barbed wire fence that surrounds the building.
I’m not going to lie, even if I didn’t have affection for animals, I would be disturbed by this area. The difference between the opening area of the (mostly) loving home of Family Dog and the chilling penitentiary of the second area is night and day. Maybe I just have more psychological issues than I care to admit, but a fear of abandonment is a universal anxiety, right? You wake up one day, and everything you love is gone, and you’re left alone in an unfamiliar hostile environment… that’s Hell, right? We agree on that? I want to say Dante wrote something about this…
I really don’t think this has a place in whacky 16-bit platformer. I just reviewed a game that featured “Heck”, and that level barely registered as spooky. Here, it’s downright petrifying.
After you finally escape from the pound, the final world is basically just “outside”. It’s supposed to be an unnerving forest or something, but it’s a level very much like the early areas, and its aesthetic seems to be inspired by the similar spooky forest of Amagon. Then you’ve got some random branch hopping straight out of Wizards and Warriors, and… you’re done. Back into the arms of your loving family.
That abandoned you.
And required you to survive trial upon trial just to force your way back into their family unit.
Screw you guys, I’m never looking at this game again.
FGC #158 Family Dog
- System: Super Nintendo. Genesis kids are probably more well-adjusted as a result.
- Number of Players: One is the loneliest doggy.
- Salt in the wound: Family Dog’s only offensive maneuver is a powerful bark that will repel enemies after way too many hits. And you’ve got a limited count that can only be increased through powerup acquisition. Wow, this is a lot like Amagon.
- More from Brad Bird: We never got an Iron Giant video game, did we? I want to say that could have been really, really cool, and completely against the theme of the movie. I’d be okay with that.
- Did you know? Scott Menville voiced the homicidal Billy Binsford on Family Dog. Given Billy’s one consistant character trait was his overwhelming disdain for animals, it’s amusing that Menville also played Captain Planet’s Ma-Ti, aka the kid with the monkey. I evidently like Menville facts!
- Would I play again: Go to hell.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Karaoke Revolution Presents American Idol Encore! That’s a mouthful, which is just great for a mouth glued to a microphone. Please look forward to it!