Fox ‘n’ Forests very deliberately harkens back to a golden age of gaming; which is to say, 1991. Back when renting video games was not just a thing but actually popular, and games were made brutally difficult kind of just to spite you for not buying it. Back when our portable consoles had the same available colour palette as Theresa May’s face. Back when we were too cool and radical for two thirds of the word “and.” In retrospect, why do we remember 1991 so fondly again?
I jest, of course. Mostly. I’m fortunate / bad enough with money to own a Super Nintendo, and it houses some of my favourites platformers to date (alright, “platformers” plural is an exaggeration – it houses Yoshi’s Island) and marks the point where gaming both got its act together and didn’t take itself too seriously – no DLC, no loot boxes, no post-release patches. If a game shipped with a bug still in it, you had to make up some nonsense in the manual ala Sonic 3. But does Fox ‘n’ Forests accurately capture that feeling? I don’t know why I’m asking you, because I’m about to tell you. Kind of.
For starters, Fox ‘n’ Forests’ plot definitely gives me a 90’s platformer vibe, in that I couldn’t care less about it. You play as the titular fox Rick (who makes me slightly uncomfortable because the game exclusively describes him as “naughty” and generally has a whiff of DeviantArt about him, probably because he’s wearing pants but no shirt) who is recruited by cereal-mascot-reject Patty the Partridge (Partridge Puffs weren’t a hit with the focus groups) to help the Great Deku Tree’s flamboyantly gay cousin recover four pieces of magic bark so he can prevent the spread of a mysterious (and entirely unseen for ages so completely non-threatening) fifth season. Rick agrees in exchange for payment, isn’t promised any, then promptly partakes in the quest anyway. So far, so 1991. The dialogue ranges from “acceptable” (peaking with the first boss, a large frog who speaks in frog puns and initiates the fight by yelling “UNFROGIVABLE” at you) to “bad but it doesn’t matter” (the rest of the game, minus one notable exceptions I’ll get into later). The menus are all reasonably authentic, even down to bit-crushing the Unity logo, which was a nice touch, and down to the annoying, difficult-to-read pixel-y text, which was not a nice touch.
Gameplay is where Canine ‘n’ Copses really anchors itself about 25 years in the past. Super Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins is evidently the game’s biggest inspiration – not just because of the liberal attitude towards grammar but also because it’s a 2D difficult adventure platformer – but draws on aspects from multiple classic games like the most successful retro-thon, Shovel Knight (or to give it its working title, Super Megamucktalesvania Bros 3). The main map screen and flying levels are for me more reminiscent of the original Rayman than anything else, and the “Magic Melee Crossbow” (patent presumably pending)’s projectiles have definite Megaman 7 vibes. Asides from some weird clunkiness, this mostly works pretty well. Rick has a decently sizeable amount of combat options at his disposal that grows as the game progresses, which combo nicely and fluidly out of a jump or run but not necessarily out of each other. Enemies are fairly satisfying and visceral to beat thanks to sound effects and the fountain of coins they produce, but respawn too frequently for my liking. The game’s main niche, the ability to change between two seasons in each level, is also a mixed bag; it’s beautiful for starters, changing both the level’s art and music, and gets used fairly well in later levels – but in earlier levels is basically a switch to hit when you reach an uncrossable gap, and also has some 90’s clunk to it, in that you have to stop and do an animation to activate a season change, but can change back in a blink, which slows otherwise fluid gameplay down. Additionally, there’s a certain amount of hidden collectibles required to unlock each world, which is fine because they’re fun to find, but quite often are hidden behind targets you can’t activate yet, which discourages any more exploration than is necessary until the postgame, which is a shame.
One of the SNES features the game has done away with, however, is visual limitations, and is all the better for it. Shovel Knight did this too but sparingly, whereas Fox goes completely bonkers and throws restraint out the window – colours are vivid and sprites are intricately detailed, which really makes an otherwise standard set of level themes pop. The music is more faithful but also benefits, pumping out bombastic fantasy tracks on bit-crushed SNES trumpets – and nothing gets me more pumped for a boss fight than an electric guitar more compressed than the entire population of Stoke-on-Trent in a single Fiat 500. This is Fox ‘n’ Forests’ strongest aspect and will push your nostalgia buttons like nothing else.
Aaand then there’s Retro the Badger. Lord help us all. A “funny reference” character who is the most cringe-tastic thing I’ve encountered in a long long time. I’ve never encountered anything so forced – the references don’t even contextually make sense most of the time – in my whole life, and then it goes and makes me feel old by implying Conker’s Bad Fur Day, a game that came out in 2001, is retro, which is unforgivable. I haven’t had so much disdain for a pile of pixels since A Hero’s Tail turned Spyro into a fire-breathing Bart Simpson, and it took months of therapy to repress that one.
The justification for badgercide aside, Fox ‘n’ Forests is another of those indie titles that, while a faithful and enjoyable homage to their subject material, also isn’t going to blow anyone away or change anyone’s mind. Whereas Shovel Knight kept what worked from retro games and threw out what didn’t, Fox brings over slightly too much in the name of nostalgia and ends up with a few rough edges. It’s definitely fun, and more gorgeous than it has any justification to be, but will also remind you why most people’s SNESes are packed up in the attic; a slightly too expensive price point for the given content, and a cast of characters with the personality of a paving slab. Worth picking up if you’re a fan of retro or have some money to burn for sure, but be prepared to experience the strange feeling of wanting to slap a badger repeatedly across the face.