Insects. Bugs. Vermin. Synonyms for the creepy critters whom have a storied relationship in classic arcade video games. Games like Centipede, Millipede, Spiders and Galaga (featuring intergalactic bees and locusts!), reinforced the idea that these creatures are expendable and wholly undesirable.
On occasion, however, a game was released that invited a player to step into the tiny shoes of a friendly little insect. This month’s Lost Arcade Classic is one such game. Let me introduce you to Mr. F.Lea, the star of Pacific Novelty Manufacturing Corp.’s 1982 release The Amazing Adventures of Mr. F. Lea. Our hero is a cartoon flea in a top hat that attempts to achieve various dog-related goals. We never learn what the “F” officially stands for, but he looks like a “Francis” to me. Everybody needs a first name, so I shall refer to him as Francis for the duration of this article.
Upon surrendering a quarter, and pressing the start button, the player is presented with an opening selection screen, which is functionally similar to a comparable screen on Midway’s Tron. However, instead of a “bit” moving across a grid of glowing circuitry, we instead have Francis himself at an intersection of two roads. Pushing the joystick toward one of the four main directions sends our star down the chosen road, and selects from one of four screens to be played.
In the following paragraphs, I will discuss each screen, along with providing a difficulty rating according to the International Flea Difficulty Scale. Higher numbers indicate a greater level of difficulty, as defined by the IFDS Act of 1979 by select members of the Supreme Court, the FBI, Interpol, and two members of legendary rock group Supertramp. Which band members? I’m sorry… that’s classified information.
The easiest of the four screens is the “Dog’s Tail” sequence. Francis begins the level in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, with a goal to reach a doghouse located in the upper left. To get there, he uses the wagging tails of various dogs much like Tarzan would use a vine. In fact, the basic idea of this screen is very similar to the vine sequence in Taito’s Jungle King.
Twelve dogs are seated on three brick walls, four dogs per wall. Francis swings on the first puppy’s tail until the next dog’s tail wags within the flea’s reach. The player then presses the jump button, and Francis leaps for the next pooch. If he connects, he scores 100 points, and prepares to leap for the next tail. If he misses, he looses a life. Once Francis reaches the last dog on each wall, his next leap automatically whisks him up to the next one by way of a yellow arrow.
A timer counts down during the level, which translates into bonus points once you reach the doghouse goal. The quicker Francis reaches the goal, the higher your bonus.
The graphics in this level are particularly amusing. Observe the dogs wearing heart-shaped sunglasses, and the dog in the upper right corner, seated in a red easy chair, looking for all the world like he’s getting a little TOO MUCH enjoyment out of that wagging.
This screen rates a lowly one out of four on the IFDS, as the only control used here is the jump button. Additionally, judging the correct timing in leaping from one wagging tail to the next offers little challenge. As long as Francis jumps when the next tail is swinging toward him, he’ll make it every time. Not only that, but each wall’s final leap is a “gimme”. He’ll always land on the yellow arrow and be safely transported to the next wall no matter what. As such, this serves as a good “warm up” and is an excellent choice for the first screen played.
Ascending one level on the IFDS scale to a rating of two, the “Lawnmower” screen invites Francis to navigate safely through ten rows of obstacles in order to reach the doghouses at the top of the screen.
The first five rows are populated by lawnmowers. Old fashioned push-mowers to be specific. It’s also possible these are HAUNTED old fashioned push-mowers, given that they are moving by themselves! Touching a spectral mower results in losing a life, as is to be expected. Luckily these mowers move slowly and have large gaps spaced between them, so it should be no problem to reach the next five rows populated entirely by dogs.
The dogs are running around on what appears to be a stretch of asphalt. Instead of avoiding the canines, Francis leaps across their backs in order reach the doghouses. There are four total houses, and the game regenerates Francis on the hedge at the bottom of the screen following each successful occupation of a doghouse. This continues until all four houses are filled, or all of Francis’ spare lives are used up.
Each leap forward earns 50 points. A timer bar diminishes as Francis makes his way up the screen, and a life is lost if the timer runs out before he reaches the doghouses. Curiously, this level offers no bonus points based on remaining time left over after reaching a house.
The mowers and dogs travel in alternating directions exactly like the traffic patterns in Frogger, upon which this screen is very clearly based. And like Konami’s 1981 classic, the only control used here is the joystick. Anyone who is reasonably adept at navigating highways and rivers in Frogger will do well here.
Next up, is the “Dog’s Back”, which actually reminds me not of another video game, but instead of the classic “Cliff Hangers” pricing game on the “The Price is Right”. Yodel-ayy-heee-whooooooo!
The screen displays a side-view of Francis ascending the back of what appears to be a Dalmatian with very few black spots. His goal is to reach Fido’s head, along the way leaping over the spots on his back for 100 points a piece. Touching a spot causes Francis to fall off the dog’s back and loose a life. Why these spots are so deadly is anybody’s guess. Maybe Fido has been sunbathing with inadequate skin protection!
Tiny little balloons float down the dog’s back, which Francis can jump up and pop for bonus points. Pink balloons are worth the most at 1,000 points each. Red and blue balloons add 100, 200, or 500 points to the score. Notice that these balloons must be INCREDIBLY tiny, as each one is only slightly larger than Francis!
A bar at the bottom of the screen marks the distance that Francis has covered. Once the bar reaches “finish”, the level ends, and we are treated to a scene involving Francis dancing on top of a dog’s head that is oddly disturbing. I think it’s the eyebrows.
While the level is simple in concept, it’s actually deceptively challenging. The screen scrolls from right to left, so Francis needs to constantly adjust his position in order to have enough room to leap the spots, and to try for any of the bonus balloons. Little margin for error is offered when jumping and maneuvering on this level. Because of this, and despite the fact that the control scheme isn’t very complex (just left, right, and the jump button are used), Dog’s Back rates a solid three out of four on the IFDS.
The final screen that Francis must complete is called “Dog Hollow”. Here, Francis must climb a hill to reach a dog dish belonging to a pooch whose rear-end is sticking out of a dog house, all the while kicking out objects behind him. And yes, that is rather funny.
Francis begins at the bottom of the hill and ascends to the top via horizontal and vertical paths. Along the way, the dog kicks rubber bones and beach balls down the paths, which can be jumped over for 100 points each. Contacting one of these objects knocks Francis off the hill and looses a life. Balloons dot the pathways, and provide the same bonus points as they did in the Dog’s Back round.
Once Francis reaches the dog dish, the level ends, and a time bonus is awarded depending upon the amount of time left over. By now, this should sound very familiar to anybody that has played Nintendo’s legendary Donkey Kong. The paths duplicate the girders and ladders, and the bones and balls serve the role of the barrels. There is no counterpoint to the hammers, but leaping up for the balloons does add bonus points, which ultimately, is one of the functions of Mario’s hammer.
Although this is clearly Donkey Kong dressed up in a different outfit, the graphics here are more detailed and colorful than in the original game. The hill has differing shades and patterns of green representing a variety of grass and plant growth. Humorous details abound, such as the wooden arrow sign marked “Mr.Dog”, (which is pointing the wrong way), various multi-colored fire hydrants, and the ominous “NO CATS” visible on the hillside.
Dog Hollow is quite challenging, as the erratic movement of the tumbling obstacles require Francis to act very quickly to dodge or leap over them. Also, this is the only screen in which all four directions and the jump button are used to complete the level. Additionally, the vibrant colors on the screen can make it difficult to quickly assess and react to approaching obstacles. However, I am partially color blind, so perhaps I’m biased on that last point. Still, these reasons all add up to give Dog Hollow a rating of a solid four out of four on the IDFS.
Possibly the most impressive aspect of Mr.F.Lea overall, are the musical selections which accompany the various scenarios. The tuneful library includes such standards as the “William Tell Overture”, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”, Tchaikovsky's “1812 Overture”, and after successfully completing all four screens, “For He's a Jolly Good Fellow”, which plays to the amusing visual accompaniment of Francis dancing across the screen with a top hat and cane.
Although, my personal favorite has to be the charming rendition of the 1956 Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers hit “'Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” which serves as the background tune for the Dog’s Hollow screen. Not sure what this song has to do with ascending a hill to get to a dog dish, but I always smile and hum along for the duration of the level anyway.
Pacific Novelty was quite the curious company. Their first game Shark Attack, released in 1980, played like an underwater game of tag. The player controlled a shark attempting to devour divers in an open expanse of ocean, all the while avoiding their deadly harpoons. Shark Attack, while certainly not a blockbuster success, caught the eye of Game Plan Inc., who licensed the game for additional release.
The following year, Pacific Novelty released Thief, which recast the chase-or-be-chased maze motif of Pac-Man as a bank heist caper. NATO Defense followed in 1982, amounting to little more than a re-write of Thief with a military theme replacing the crime spree storyline.
Of technical interest, these three games used a cassette tape system that played recited dialogue and other audio effects to compliment the computer generated sounds. Mr.F.Lea was the only Pacific Novelty title that did not utilize this cassette system, and it was also the final game from this obscure company, released in April 1983.
Despite Mr.F.Lea’s obvious borrowing of themes from other titles (to put it mildly), the game succeeds in spite of itself, much like a local cover band. Nobody says a cover band plays the songs as well as the original artists, but still, it’s pretty cool to hear decent versions of favorites by different artists all in one set. The same logic applies here. Mr. F. Lea may not be original or groundbreaking, but it is a fun game with charming graphics, outstanding music, and proven play mechanics that wraps up quite nicely into a family-friendly package.
So there you have it – the totally amazing adventure of one Mr F.Lea, Francis to you and me. He traverses the hills and front yards of town and country in order to reach the dogs that tickle his fancy. Pay him a visit today. He’s spotlighted on the center pedestal of the entomology exhibit in the museum of the Lost Arcade Classic.