The unsettling meows of a Garf

This post is about the 2007 Nintendo DS game, Garfield’s Nightmare. While it would not be terribly off-brand for me to review a 12 year old video game based on a syndicated comic strip, I don’t really plan to do that. Because honestly, there isn’t much to review. It’s a serviceable platformer with very little in the way of challenge. There are some hidden things can find, some very lightweight box-moving challenges, some enemies to stomp on. It’s a simple game, and, you know… it’s fine.

Gameplay is actually extremely similar to the developer’s earlier GBA games based on the Maya the Bee franchise: Maya the Bee: The Great Adventure and Maya the Bee: Sweet Gold. The developer in question is Shin’en Multimedia, a studio made up of – I shit you not – a bunch of current and former demosceners. This makes more sense when you look at, say, their first GBA game, Iridion 3D which is incredibly impressive from a technical standpoint, or even their recent F-Zero-esque Wii U/Switch title, Fast Racing Neo/Fast RMX. Aside from demos, the Abyss1 group dabbled in games early on with Rise of the Rabbits and Rise of the Rabbits 2 – both, of course, for the Amiga. They developed Rinkapink for the GBC. While it doesn’t appear to have ever been published2, it seems they used bits of it for Ravensburger’s Käpt’n Blaubärs verrückte Schatzsuche. A promotional brochure for Rinkapink seems to be selling their demoscene experience as a company that can avoid “bad programming, flickering graphics, and awful music”, which… makes a lot of sense! You don’t win at demo parties without knowing how to make the most of a given system. Abyss was and is particularly known for its music, at the time largely done by Manfred Linzner, the lead programmer on Iridion 3D, Maya the Bee: Sweet Gold, and, yes, Garfield’s Nightmare. They developed trackers and audio toolchains for the Amiga (AHX) and Gameboy (GHX). They’re still releasing audio demos.

What does any of this really have to do with Garfield’s Nightmare? Likely not much, but it sure is fascinating. If anything I think it explains how technically competent this game is while also being a pretty sub-par Garfield experience. Which brings me to something that I highly doubt was intentional and can only imagine was a byproduct of a team of highly-skilled demosceners having agreed to take on a licensed title about a syndicated comic strip cat: Garfield’s Nightmare is actually fairly nightmarish. Not in a blatantly scary, horrorish way, but rather in its completely disquieting approach to what Garfield’s world is. The basic premise is that Garfield ate too much (shocker) before going to bed, and is now stuck in his own nightmare. But throughout the game, he really doesn’t seem concerned himself. Either he has good enough lucid dream control abilities to will himself into perfect calmness, or else he’s just oddly resigned to being in this nightmare world that he is, of course, ostensibly trying to escape. It doesn’t make any sense, and the disconnect that it presents as perfectly normal is more and more discomforting the more one thinks about it.

This isn’t the only weird disconnect. Aside from spiders (which Garfield does canonically hate)3, none of the enemies are things that bother canon Garfield, or even things that exist in his world as we know it. They seem like entirely generic platformer enemies (for instance, turtle thing with a cannon built into its back) yet they’re in a very specific licensed setting. I’m sure the studio just didn’t want to cough up the handful of dollars to license a sound bite or two of Lorenzo Music’s voice, but Garfield meows when he gets injured in this game. It shouldn’t be unsettling to hear a cat meow, but I assure you it is extremely so to hear what sounds like a sample of a real live cat coming out of Garfield. There’s no lasagna in sight; pizza stands in for health points and donuts are akin to coins. There are hidden doors that lead to brief minigame reprieves in the real world, but this version of the real world is cold and empty, it feels like the Garfield who is in the nightmare has himself fallen asleep and is experiencing a nightmare version of the real world. Even the box-moving puzzles feel planned and placed, which… Obviously they were, by Peter Weiss of Shin’en, but it makes the nightmare feel like an escape room situation that someone has built for the sole purpose of torturing Garfield. On the surface it’s almost certainly just a bunch of half-hearted design decisions, but it adds up and makes for an unnerving, uncanny experience.

So, should you play the game? I don’t know. I mean you can grab one on eBay for like six bucks, and if you let your mind really take in the nightmare world, it’s… weird. It’s fascinating to think about how the developers, active demosceners, got into the DS development program and got shit on for making a Santa Claus demo that they couldn’t link to because of licensing violations months before releasing this oddity. Everything about Garfield’s Nightmare is just weird, and that in itself is worth quite a few donuts to me.

  1. While it takes a bit of digging, the connection between Abyss and Shin’en is readily available. See this retrospective on demosceners gone professional, for example. Manfred Linzner, AKA Pink is credited as the programmer and sound effects designer for Garfield’s Nightmare. Florian Freisleder (Wintermute) and Martin Sauter (Fade1 of TRSI) are credited with graphics. Bernhard Wodok (Bartman) is credited with tools programming. ↩︎
  2. It was, apparently playable enough to win 3rd place at the 2002 Mekka & Symposium console demo competition. ↩︎
  3. Spiders in Garfield’s Nightmare do have 6 legs, which is oddly true to the strip. ↩︎