New England duo resurrects long-lost Super Nintendo game starring Clinton family’s late cat
The year is 1993: Bill Clinton is president, his family has a cat named Socks—and for some weird reason, a company called Kaneko intends to publish a Super Nintendo game about the aforementioned feline saving the world from nuclear devastation. But alas, this 1MB oddity of the 16-bit era is never released. The company shuts down in 1994.
Enter 2016: Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee for president, and the real-life Socks has been dead since 2009—but Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill, the bizarre platformer that has become a legend among retro game hobbyists since it was featured in magazines years ago, will soon live thanks to a pair of New Englanders.
Old prototype cartridges, which developers used for bug testing or showed off at trade shows, have a way of winding up in the possession of collectors willing to spend lots of money. On occasion, collectors even obtain nearly complete versions of unreleased games, with EarthBound—the lost NES prequel to the humorous Super Nintendo game of the same name—possibly being the most well-known example. As it turns out, a prolific collector named Jason Wilson managed to buy a prototype of Socks from a former Kaneko employee who worked on the game. Wilson later agreed to sell the possibly one-of-a-kind cartridge to fellow collector Tom Curtin around 2012.
Curtin, a channel manager for a tech firm and a Massachusetts resident, says the deal didn’t happen overnight. “I think he had maybe three things that he kinda considered from his collection that were off the table, [Socks] being one of them. And then the other one was actually a prototype of The Legend of Zelda [for the NES],” Curtin says. But Wilson relented on Zelda: “I think I paid six-thousand for it or something like that, which is obviously a ridiculous amount of money. But it did kind of establish the fact that I was a serious buyer and that we built up a good rapport.”
Eventually, Wilson relented on Socks too: “One day, he was just going after something that he wanted … and he said that Socks was available … I knew if I owned it, it wasn’t something that I was just going to hold onto. I knew it would become a project. It wasn’t a trophy for me. So I thought about it for a little bit, and then we settled on a price, and I ended up buying it.” Curtin wouldn’t say exactly how much he paid, but did say it was four figures.
That led Curtin to where he is now: managing a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign to produce Super Nintendo cartridges of this strange game during an equally strange election cycle. His right-hand man and publisher is Adam Welch, who—when not at his day job as a database administrator and application developer for a utility company—runs Second Dimension, a Connecticut-based business that makes homebrew video games and hardware for old consoles, particularly the Sega Genesis.
Curtin says it wasn’t his original intention to market Socks during the 2016 election. However, releasing the game to the public ended up being a much bigger investment, both financially and timewise, than he anticipated. While he owned a copy of the game, he didn’t own the rights to distribute it, so he hired lawyers to negotiate a purchase of the copyright—a process that took years. He also registered the trademark for the actual Socks the cat to cover all his bases. (The trademark was previously held by a Virginia nonprofit that ran the, believe it or not, Socks the cat fan club, but the trademark lapsed in 1996.)
Another problem was that while the prototype was complete, it had a number of bugs—including a kill-screen bug during the level-six boss battle which left the fight and final two levels unplayable. “[W]hat would happen with the game is it would go to this grayish, pinkish screen, and you couldn’t see anything … It was very similar to when your old Nintendo games needed to be blown off,” says Curtin. “[I]f you tried to move the character, Socks, he would just fall through the floor … to his death.” Curtin and Welch hired an expert Super Nintendo ROM hacker who Welch had corresponded with over the years. Welch says he thought the hacker solved the major bug during the first day and estimated he completed all the debugging work in about 10 hours, an impressive feat considering he didn’t have access to the source code.
Curtin also had to hire an artist to create three different pieces of box art as well as instruction manual art and posters because he was worried about copyright issues with the art designed in the ‘90s. He also didn’t have high-resolution copies of the old art, just low-res scans from magazines that are available on the internet. “[W]e figured we’d do all original art,” Curtin says. “Just do it how we want to do it.”
So is this game actually worth playing? Or is it just another piece of outdated digital trash? Magazines gave it passable reviews in the ‘90s, but Curtin and Welch say the reviewers probably only played the first level or two. They both loved the game, particularly the bosses, who are caricatures of well-known political figures. “[I]t’s a game that just gets better and better as you play it. The levels get cooler, the end bosses definitely get much cooler,” says Curtin. “It’s funny ‘cause a lot of the stuff that’s in the game is still relevant today, even some of the end bosses, which—I can’t tell you who they all are, but they are very recognizable, and some of them are very, very fun.”
Curtin did confirm that a certain right-wing talk-show host is in the game. “[I]t’s based on the Rush Limbaugh of the early ‘90s, not Rush Limbaugh today, as we know him. So as you can imagine, his stature is quite a bit bigger in the game,” Curtin says. Other appearances include Jimmy Carter and Ross Perot, according to old gaming magazines.
“[M]y reaction to Socks the Cat was nothing but laughter. It hits both sides: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party,” says Welch, who—like Curtin—describes himself as “independent” and vows to vote on Election Day, the last day of the duo’s Kickstarter campaign.
Through Kickstarter, the two are offering a digital-only version of Socks, a cartridge version, and a “complete-in-box” set (which includes a cartridge, box, and instruction manual). Those who donate enough will also get copies of Get’em Gary for the NES and Handy Harvy for the Sega Genesis, both of which were inspired by Fix-It Felix, Jr., the fictional arcade game in the Disney movie Wreck-It Ralph. The two games were produced by Welch, who created them from scratch with the help of friends. Welch says all the cartridges will be made from new parts rather than repurposed old games, which is common among manufacturers of so-called reproduction cartridges. Backers will get the games by next July at the latest.
Curtin says he just wants people to appreciate Socks itself, the effort he and his small team have put into it, and why they are trying to raise $30,000 for the project: “[B]elieve it or not, that actually represents our breakeven. So after all is said and done, including Kickstarter fees, legal fees, the trademark fees, our artist, our videographer, our programmer, the publishing, the manufacturing, taxes that we’ll have to pay, all that stuff, 30,000 is break even—and if I break even, that’s all I care about. It’s getting a game that people have wanted for over 20 years into their hands and giving them the best version of that game that’s ever existed. That was important to us.”
This niche fundraising campaign has already raised more than two thirds of its target and will continue for several more days. If you’d like to help it meet its goal, check out the Kickstarter page here.
Andrew Quemere has been making public records requests in Massachusetts for more than a decade. He writes The Mass. Dump Dispatch, a newsletter about public records. Subscribe to read about the latest developments in government transparency. Follow him on Twitter @andrewqmr.