Saturday, 7 September 2013

Psycho Fox - Sega Master System: Retro Review

Game: Psycho Fox
Format: Sega Master System
Developer: Vic Tokai, Sega
Year Released: 1989
Also released on: Nothing
Now available on: Nothing

Many people associate the Master System with Alex Kidd. Some associate it with Wonder Boy and some even associate it with Sonic the Hedgehog. Each character featured in multiple games for Sega's 8-bit machine, but there was another platform star whose appearance on the console was well-received at the time and is remembered by those who knew him with fondness today. That character was Psycho Fox who featured in a game which bore his name in 1989.

Psycho Fox throws the bird.
As with most platform games, it's Psycho Fox's job to rid the world of some troublemaker who has some dastardly plan to do bad stuff. I'm sure the troublemaker and his intended bad stuff is described in the instruction manual somewhere, but I really can't be bothered to find out. The text on the back of the box just talks about Psycho Fox being "an adventure game centering around the entertaining and thrilling escapades of a very special fox", who "ventures into many strange worlds to conquer the strange beasts and boss monsters he encounters." It then goes on to say the same thing in other European languages. Well, at least I think it's the same thing. There could actually be six completely different descriptions of the same game on the boxes for European releases. The text on the box for the US release is slightly less generic and asks if you're bored of rescuing princesses, sick of dungeons and "mother brain". What the fudge is "mother brain"??!! It basically suggests that, if so, Psycho Fox is the game for you. It also talks about the world needing saving from Madfox Daimyojin. It also asks if you've heard of Zizo Zizo or Poola. Apparently these are some of the unheard-of enemies that you'll encounter. I suppose they wouldn't be able to be described as unheard-of if you'd actually heard of them. Oh yes, we need more analysis of the descriptions of games from their boxes in the future.

What on earth?

So, the game itself. Psycho Fox must travel through many strange worlds to defeat Madfox. Although the strange worlds don't actually appear that strange - there's your usual desert, ice, cloud, underground levels on offer here - some of the creatures that inhabit the worlds are very bizarre, and there are some unique ideas in the levels to set the game apart from its contemporaries.

Invincibility a go-go.
As his name suggests, Psycho Fox is a bit of a nutter. Like Mario, he can defeat enemies by jumping on them. But, unlike everybody's favourite Brooklyn-based plumber, Mr Fox is not content to just bounce on nasties and move on. He can land on enemies multiple times, pounding on them again and again until they are buried deep underground. If a semi-buried enemy tries to get out, just jump on it another time to make sure it doesn't try to escape again. Alternatively, Psycho Fox can just walk up to an enemy and punch them in their face. Or, if the enemy is too far away, he can throw a bird at them instead. Yes, even for a fox, Psycho Fox seems quite disturbed. The bird that Psycho Fox throws at enemies is called Birdfly. You can find Birdfly in eggs scattered around the levels. Being a fox with clearly psychotic tendencies, Psycho Fox cracks open eggs by thumping them. After being thrown, Birdfly will loyally return to Psycho Fox, ready to be thrown again. Maybe Birdfly is a bit of a hardnut too. Birdfly also acts as a shield. Usually if you collide with an enemy, you lose a life. But if you're carrying Birdfly, he will vanish but allow you to retain your life. Finding Birdfly again is a simple case of smashing open more eggs and hoping he's in one of them.

Spray that insect thing with insect spray and it'll buzz off.

Psycho Fox as Tiger on level three
It's not just Birdfly that you can find in eggs. Other eggs contain special items, extra lives or bags of money. But not all eggs contain Brucie Bonuses. Some eggs are empty, while others contain enemies. The sneaky beggars! The special items that you collect get stored in an inventory which you can access by pausing the game. The items to choose from in this screen are a Psycho Stick (which also goes by the name of the stick of the Shinto Purification - ???!!), a straw effigy and a potion. Using the effigy makes the screen go wibbly-wobbly and destroys all enemies on the screen. The potion makes Psycho Fox invincible for a short period. And the Psycho Stick, or the Shinto Purification thingy, allows you to transform Psycho Fox into another animal: a hippo, monkey or tiger. Each animal has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the hippo is slow, doesn't jump as high, but has an extra-strong punch, useful for breaking down some otherwise indestructible walls. The monkey jumps high while the tiger runs fast. Psycho Fox in his foxy form is a good all rounder. You will remain as the animal you've changed into for as long as you wish to. Just use another Psycho Stick to change into something else.

Bonus level! Get yer bonus level 'ere!
So, what about the money bags you collect? Well, after each round, you get to gamble it away. In a quick bonus round, Psycho Fox is presented with 5 pathways. At the end of each pathway is a prize. You have to choose which pathway to send Psycho Fox along and will win the prize at the end of the path. As you can collect multiple bags of cash on your way, you can bet on multiple paths. Or you can place multiple bets on one path. So, if you collect five bags of cash, you can bet on each path which guarantees that you win each prize. Be warned though, because one of the prizes is a boobie prize. Not a pair of tits, but a hole which Psycho Fox will fall down if he reaches it. All that happens if he does is that he doesn't win anything for that path, but will still win the prizes at the end of any of the other paths he reaches. The prizes that can be won are the special items found throughout the game plus an extra life, or the chance to play on a number stopper thing (apparently it's a shrine). Whatever number you stop it on will grant you that number of lives. And depending on how many bets you placed on that path, the number of lives you get will be multiplied. The bonus round is a fun little interlude and gives you the opportunity to build up a healthy number of lives. Get lucky and you can get up to 25 extra lives on the bonus round.

Bouncing around on level 5. That thing to above left of Mr Fox is blowing air which will push him to the right.

Levels are split into three rounds with a boss at the end of each third round. For some bosses, you are provided with an item to help you to defeat them. This may be a pesticide spray or an air gun. Some are defeated using more traditional means, and the end battle is a good old 8-bit battle of wits and skill. Unfortunately, each boss - including the final one - only requires three hits to be defeated, so the battles don't tend too last long at all.

Barney the dinosaur has a problem with bees.
Each level in Psycho Fox is full of colour and cartoon-like in appearance, with everything well drawn and animated. The music is of a good standard too, well-suited to the game, although the last few levels seem to use the same tunes for some reason. It is one of the better-looking and sounding Master System games. But it's also good fun to play. At first, Psycho Fox feels a little sluggish to get moving, gradually building up speed as he goes along. And if you play the game cautiously, it will feel quite slow and frustrating to play as you never get the chance to get up to a good pace. It's best just to go for it, running, jumping and thumping your way through the levels and hoping for the best. But even following this strategy can be a pain as it's simply not possible to maintain it. All too often, Psycho Fox will come up against something which will stop him in his tracks and cause him to have to slow down. And when Psycho Fox goes slow, he goes real slow. Heaven knows how I used to play this on my PAL Master System back in the day, but I do remember loving this game! There are also a lot of blind jumps in the game. They don't often lead to deaths, but it would be nice to be able to make informed decisions about where you want to send the crazy fox next. Repeat play does reap rewards though, as the more you get used to the levels, the easier it is to remember what is coming up, and the more fun the game becomes.

There are some nice touches to the game. A way of getting over a large body of water is to build up enough speed and running into it. You'll find that whichever character you're controlling will skim on its ass across the water. Apart from the hippo who just falls in. Well he does whenever I try. There is a wind level with wind blowers which suspend your character in the air, and bendy poles which you can run and jump into which fling you off at speed, height and distance. The key to making the most of these is to hit them as fast and as high as you can. There are also the usual platform game features, such as bridges which fall away as you walk over them and steps that turn into slides, or statues that come alive. There are also hidden bonus stages. These are usually found accidentally by throwing Bird Fly into what appears to be empty space. Bird Fly will hit a point in the emptiness, causing a crack to appear. Throwing him a couple of times will cause the crack to become a hole (should have gone to Autoglass). Go into this hole and you'll find yourself in a secret level. In a blatant copy of Super Mario Bros, Psycho Fox (or Psycho Hippo, Monkey or Tiger) can go down a tube which will bring him out in another level. It's possible to get to the final level in the game through a secret level found in the first level of it. Bit pointless though, but it's possible.
Hmmm.... Not a lot to say here.

The final battle with Madfox. Get him!
Psycho Fox isn't a hard game, nor is it that easy, but the abundance of extra lives and unlimited continues means it is possible to complete it fairly quickly with a bit of persistence. It never gets to the point of being insanely difficult or with any parts where you can get stuck for days without being able to figure out how to get any further. Despite being a bit sluggish at first and having some blind leaps of faith every now again, it doesn't feel too unfair to play. It really is a great title, looking, sounding and playing well, and it's a shame that Psycho Fox didn't go onto have further adventures or achieve greater recognition as he certainly deserved it.

Presentation: 90%
A bright, cartoon intro screen and a high level of presentation throughout. A great ending sequence too.
Graphics: 92%
Some of the Master System's best. Colourful, well-defined and varied.
Sound:  85%
It wasn't easy to make the Master System sound good, but this game doesn't make it sound bad at all.
Playability: 83%
Takes a little bit of getting into due because of its initial sluggishness and frustrating collisions with enemies that you don't see coming, but becomes much more fun the more you stick with it. The game features plenty of variety, surreal enemies and lots of great ideas which are mostly well-implemented.
Overall: 84%
An often over-looked Master System gem.

Being a psycho on other consoles
Kid Kool. Pure turd on a NES cart.
Psycho Fox was a Master System exclusive and the character has never appeared anywhere else. But, the game itself did. Kind of. Games were released on the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Mega Drive by the developers of Psycho Fox which were so similar in design and in gameplay that they are pretty much Psycho Fox in different clothes. And with different level layouts. Kid Kool was the NES version. But it's pretty much unplayable. Kid Kool is able to land on enemies and pound them into the ground, just like Psycho Fox. He is also able to collect a Bird Fly-like creature, although obtaining him seems to be through random luck, and he can throw him around at enemies. But there is no punch ability, and the game has a weird vertical scrolling feature where if you go to the top of the screen, rather than the screen following you and scrolling upwards, it flips upwards. So, if you happen to jump quite high, the screen flips up and then back down. There are too many blind falls and, urgh, the game is just a mess.

The wacky Japanese Mega Drive remake of Psycho Fox.
The Mega Drive was home to two reprogrammed versions of Psycho Fox. Both were actually almost the same game, just with different graphics and characters. In Japan, the game was Magical Flying Hat Turbo Adventure. In the west, it was Decap Attack. The Japanese version appears to be based in the Middle East and, like Psycho Fox, features colourful, cartoony graphics and similar bonus stages. As it was based on a Japanese anime, the rights of which weren't obtained for a western release, Magical Flying Hat Turbo Adventure became Decap Attack. This used a horror theme instead. Graphics were less colourful, more in fitting with the game's theme, and the music was changed too. But the gameplay remained pretty much the same. Both games though are highly playable and are worth looking out for. Decap Attack is regularly rereleased on Mega Drive compilations and on download services. You can get it as part of the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and as individual downloads on Steam and through Sega's own website.

The more horrific Western Mega Drive/Genesis remake of Psycho Fox 

Back to the Master System, where Psycho Fox saw a rerelease under another guise. In Brazil, where the Master System was massive and is still fairly popular, Tec Toy updated the game in the mid-nineties to feature characters from a comic book series. The game was called Sapo XulĂ©: Os Invasores do Brejo and in it Psycho Fox became a frog while the other characters were a pig, turtle and a mouse. Despite the character changes, the game played identically to the original.

Playthrough video
Here's a video of me playing Psycho Fox from start to finish, and amassing a huge number of lives in the process, mostly down to a flukey go on the bonus level.