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Psycho Fox

Genre: Platform Developer: Vic Tokai Publisher: Sega Ent. Players: 1 Released: 1989

Like most Americans, I grew up without a Sega Master System nor any great desire to get one. Nintendo’s illegal business practices ensured that Sega’s 8-bitter would struggle finding a place on stores’ shelves across the nation, so it wasn’t something you’d see on demo let alone displayed at many stores. When I did get an unexpected chance to play a Master System while visiting a friend’s house, Double Dragon and Rambo just weren’t much to convince me I was missing out. No, it was Video Game & Computer Entertainment‘s July 1990 review of Psycho Fox which had wishing I had a SMS. Not Phantasy Star… not The Dragon’s Trap… Psycho Fox.

Never mind that it received a rather poor review, too. Joshua Mandel gave it an overall score of 4 out of 10, dismissing Psycho Fox as an “imitation of Super Mario Bros. 2. Though there are some cute elements, and although the game is very challenging, it reveals precious little imagination.” This criticism didn’t bother me as I loved Super Mario Bros. 2, and the game’s title screen alone is just so full of color and detail that I never saw on my NES. Really, it was that title screen, a simple group shot of all the player characters with the logo, which made the game look so fun and like something I should be playing. While the in-game visuals shown weren’t nearly as impressive, it still looked good to me in the limited screenshots I saw.

I finally got my own Psycho Fox in 2017, some 27 years after the game’s release. Mandel’s critique was on the money, as usual. There’s nothing truly special about Psycho Fox, though I find his judgment a bit harsher than my own, perhaps due to the then-recently launched Genesis and glut of platformers at the time. DuckTales, Ninja Gaiden, Faxanadu, and so many other games released that year alone certainly make Psycho Fox look rather pedestrian by comparison, but it’s still a nice looking game. Psycho Fox‘s detail and color look about as crisp as you can get on its generation of hardware. Things like being able to see the pocket on the monkey’s overalls, the bounce of the cannonballs down slopes, the smooth swinging of the whiplash poles, and the wavy line effect when using the screen clearing Straw Effigy item all impress me. Likewise, if you’ve played Kid Kool and the Quest for the Seven Wonder Herbs on the NES, the first game in Vic Tokai’s loose trilogy of platformers, you’ll better appreciate the smooth vertical scrolling whenever the player sprite moves beyond the edge of the screen. Those Legend of Zelda-style screen transitions – screen; pause; new screen – just do not work in a platformer, and Psycho Fox is a better game for it.

Occasionally a round may offer an alternate path only accessible via another personality, and that’s when you may want to consider cashing in a Psycho Stick item to swap out your mentally unstable fox for something else. The aforementioned monkey personality brings with him a very high jump, and changing into the tiger gives the player improved long jumping and running abilities. The hippopotamus is the slowest and least agile form, but he can break up the stone walls blocking some routes. Character swapping is Psycho Fox‘s gimmick to set it apart, and it’s something neither Kid Kool nor Decap Attack (the U.S. revision of the third Vic Tokai platformer) utilize. I can see how the game could warrant comparisons to Super Mario Bros. 2 due to the different characters, but Psycho Fox doesn’t pull it off as well due to its weaker level design.

Psycho Fox‘s problems all can be traced to its milquetoast enemy and level design. Each world has its own little twist and boasts multiple paths, but the layout is overly long and redundant. The expansive levels run many screens tall and wide, and this has the effect of forcing the player into several blind jumps. Not being able to backtrack hurts, too, since Psycho Fox needs a running start to build up speed, and sometimes you’ll find that you’ve moved too far ahead to clear the jump you’d want. The slippery control and one-hit deaths make Psycho Fox rather frustrating to play at times; you want to run through the game and explore everything, but until you learn the levels and enemy placement, you need to take it slow. It’s the same thing with ruined Bubsy for me, though thankfully Psycho Fox has a friend which makes it a bit more bearable.

The game’s 21 levels are littered with eggs, and Psycho Fox can punch them open to reveal items, enemies, or his friend, Bird Fly. Bird Fly is both a weapon and armor. The player can launch him at enemies to defeat them, and so long as Bird Fly is perched on his shoulder, Psycho Fox can survive one enemy hit but loses his friend in the process. Bird Fly will always return to Psycho Fox as long as he hasn’t strayed too far, and he can be found in other eggs later on when lost. The enemies in the game just get in the way more than actively attack you, so you never really feel like you need Bird Fly to combat threats; he’s mainly a cushion as you zip through each round in case you charge into something you shouldn’t have.

All but one of Psycho Fox‘s bosses are easily dispatched via gimmicks which initially feel novel until you find yourself thinking “that’s it?” seconds later. Worst has to be Robo Fly, a giant fly creature which is dispatched via a giant pesticide can on the screen. You literally just stand on the can until the boss runs into the spray enough times to die. It doesn’t help that the bosses are recycled, making for only four unique encounters across the game’s seven worlds. The soundtrack also repeats, and while what’s here is quite good, not having original themes for each of the seven worlds is disappointing. The tones are a bit too chirpy for me at times, but the dueling melodies and arrangements are excellent. No FM sound support here unfortunately, but it sounds fine as it is.

While you won’t get to show off your FM capable SMS with Psycho Fox, you can better your experience with a controller pause button mod. I’ll never get used to having to physically hit the reset button on a console to access a menu, and having to do this every time you want to use an item is an unavoidable pain. As annoying as all of the sub-menu switching in Mega Man is, could you imagine a SMS version? I suppose it can be argued that’s a hardware fault and not something to count against the game itself, and there’s some truth to that in a similar vein as it would appear wrong to dismiss, say, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening due to the Game Boy’s horrid display. Still, for the unmodded, Psycho Fox‘s use of the console pause button will detract from the experience same as it does for all games which rely upon it.

Despite this and other nuisances and flaws, Psycho Fox remains a capable platformer, just not a very memorable one. The personality the game teases with its title screen and ending is absent throughout journey, and it lacks the multiple endings of Kid Kool or the solid gameplay and charm of DecapAttack. I’m tempted to point out how it seemed like Sega didn’t even care that much about the game given its misspelled cartridge label, but that was somewhat common for SMS games. For platform starved SMS owners, I can see Psycho Fox helping to fill in the void, but reading and dreaming about the game 25+ years ago, I find the game hardly returned my excitement in favor.

Score: 6 out of 10

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