In 1993, gamers flipping through GamePro and Nintendo Power found themselves reading about the strangest video game they’d ever heard about. Starring the Clintons’ beloved pet Socks, Socks The Cat Rocks The Hill promised to offer something unusual for gamers at the time: A dose of adult political satire to go along with the platform hopping and enemy clawing.
Socks The Cat Rocks The Hill ultimately never saw the light of day in the ’90s, but it’s had an odd half-life ever since as an urban legend with some truth behind it. Yes, a company really did make a game about the Clintons’ cat, and the developers might have been lucky it never hit the campaign trail in the ’90s. But Socks isn’t quite done with gamers yet, as a few dedicated fans are attempting to revive the game.
Rocking The Hill
Socks The Cat Rocks The Hill, which was developed by American company Realtime Associates, was stepping onto complicated turf for gaming at the time. As recently as 1994, Nintendo specifically banned “subliminal political messages or overt political statements.” This was part of a blanket attempt by the company to keep its games as family-friendly as possible, something that developers in the early ’90s chafed against as Mortal Kombat took over arcades.
“Overtly political” is also a good description of the game. The plot follows Socks as he spots some terrorists loading up a nuclear bomb. He has to work his way from the Pentagon to the White House while dodging spies, politicians, and Millie, George H.W. Bush’s beloved pooch, who was supposedly sicced on some terrorist felines. The head of the company developing it remembers what would have been some fairly biting humor:
I’ll tell you this – it was VERY irreverent. The level bosses were main political figures of the time in situations that parodied their political lives. All I remember is that we had Nixon calling in bomb raids and we had Ted Kennedy driving a car around on a bridge. Maybe it’s better it didn’t come out after all!
Why would the Clintons ever approve this? They didn’t; they didn’t own the rights to Socks. A Washington resident had started the Socks The Cat fan club and copyrighted his image, and sold the game rights to Kaneko, a Japanese publisher hoping to get a foothold in America. But unfortunately for Socks, his game stardom wasn’t to be.
Out Of Cash
Many assumed that the Clinton family was unhappy with the idea of their cat being used in a video game, and they stopped the release. But the real problem was surprisingly simple: money. Kaneko closed its American operations in 1994, and without a publisher, the game was doomed never to see shelves. Curiously, though, despite the claims of Realtime Associates employees, the game appeared to be finished, or at least close enough to be reviewed by the major gaming publications of the time, and GamePro‘s review summed up the critical opinion quite well:
Flat, cartoony graphics and phony “mmrow” sounds undercut Socks’ charming personality. Best of all are the bosses — Caricatures of Ross Perot and other political pinheads. The satire makes the game purr, but it doesn’t roar.
Why, if the game went out for review, was it never simply bought by another publisher and released? That remains an open question. Realtime Associates claims that it was never submitted to Nintendo for approval, a crucial step to get on the Super NES, and that it probably would have ultimately failed to meet the company’s content guidelines if it had. It seems likely that Socks The Cat was simply given up and everyone involved moved on.
But not, it turns out, by those same kids who read about it. And, in fact, a few of them are even trying to finally give Socks his day in the sun.
For more than a decade, Socks The Cat was little more than a trivia question, but it also became a Holy Grail of sorts. Video game historians tend to be an obsessive bunch, like any historian, and Socks was particularly tantalizing because if review copies had been sent out, that means a complete, or at least mostly complete, version of the game had to be somewhere. And now, four years later, collector Tom Curtain and publisher Second Dimension are running a Kickstarter to get the game out there, complete with SNES box art.
How? “It takes a lot of research, time and patience.” Curtin explained over email. “Personal collections are definitely a piece of it. That’s where Socks came from. But sometimes they fall in your lap or you get lucky.” Surprisingly, Curtin was able to confirm that the game was, indeed, complete enough to be played, although there was still some major work to be done. Second Dimension’s Adam Welch notes “we had to find a SNES programmer who could work with a decompiler and SNES assembly to adjust the code” in order to fix a major bug in the game’s sixth level that made it impossible to progress.
And the rumors, it turns out, were true: Socks gets into some pointed satire. Curtin told us, “I have literally laughed out loud at some of the boss fights. They are just so over the top especially for a game that is 23 years old,” with everything from paparazzi, who damage you by taking your picture, to rats dressed as spies. While Curtin and Second Dimension aren’t giving too much away, it seems that the game was everything the reviews promised, a rarity when dealing with never-released titles.
If you’re curious as to what the Clintons think of all this, Second Dimension has been trying to get a comment, and has mostly been met with silence. While ultimately it’s up to Kickstarter, it seems likely that more than two decades after it started, and a decade after Socks himself passed away from cancer after a long 19-year life, he’ll achieve an odd sort of immortality, if only as a historical curiosity. We don’t often remember Presidential pets, but Socks, at least, may finally have a second term of his own.