[’Free Play’ is a regular weekly column by Ancil Anthropy about freely downloadable video games, and the people who make them. This week’s column profiles ece4co.]

ece4co’s website shares its clean, simple presentation with the games it contains. Most of the games on the site, originally developed in Shockwave, use a two-shade palette with finely-detailed sprites that some might find reminiscent of early Mac games. These games, presented in rounded windows in cool gradations of cyan, are Yoshio Ishii's "Neko" games.

Cats in trouble

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Each game places the same big-headed kitten in a different, perilous situation, and requires a different play mechanic to get it to safety. In Fura-Fura Neko you balance the kitten at the end of a stick with the mouse, trying to reach the end of a barb-wire maze with both the cat and your hand unhurt. In Ito-Neko you drag the mouse to draw a platform that will keep the cat out of the water. And the glorious Nekotama has you dropping giant cat heads into pachinko machines, trying to land one in every marked pipe.

My favorites are Xananeko and its sequel, single-screen tributes to Falcom’s Xanadu series. Armed with shield and oversized sword, the feline hero explores magnificently detailed pixel dungeons fighting monsters (by bumping against them classic Xanadu-style), collecting gold, finding treasures and buying upgrades.

The Neko games caught the attention of laptop manufacturer Toshiba, who commissioned Yoshio Ishii to develop some advergames for their website. They starred impromptu Toshiba mascot Tobby the dog, his ladyfriend Jelly and rival Bull, and were mostly reskinnings of Neko games. There were a few original games, though, including Tobby Room 1048—a platforming adventure in which Tobby searches a hotel for explosives—and a snowball fight game in full color for the first time. Unfortunately, these are no longer available on Toshiba's site, but can be found elsewhere on the internet—try running a search for "tobby".

No-neko adventures

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Besides the Neko and Tobby games, ece4co has developed a number of other games in Shockwave and Flash. Rayspline is a beautiful 3D shooter patterned after United Game Artists’ Rez, where the player is encouraged to lock on to as many moving targets as possible before firing. The game features Darius-like branching paths through 21 stages, each of which contains a large, pretty boss that probably wouldn't seem out of place in UGA's game. Other shooters include the gloriously huge-pixelled Cellblast games, no longer hosted on ece4co's site (but, again, available to a crafty websearcher).

The most recent project on the ece4co site consists of a collection of shooters clearly inspired by Geometry Wars. Each a variant with a slightly different objective, the games use the mouse for both moving and aiming--surprisingly effectively.

Finally, be sure to check out...

Neko-Kaitai Iseki Tanken, an oppressive, almost melancholy game of quiet underwater cave exploration starring a kitten with a snorkel.

[Ancil Anthropy is a game developer and space invader. She fills dessgeega.com with lots of good stuff and writes for a bunch of places, including The Gamer’s Quarter and The Independent Gaming Source.]