Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Master System Platform Games #1

Psycho Fox (1989)
By: Vic Tokai / Sega Genre: Platform Players: 1 Difficulty: Easy-Medium
Featured Version: Sega Master System
Also Available For: Nothing

Most of my time spent gaming during the 80's and 90's, certainly on consoles at least, was spent playing two types of games - shoot 'em ups and platform games. Most systems of the day were of course swamped with games of both types but my interest in them began with my awesome Master System. A limited selection of titles it may have had, but among them were some superb examples of both of these genres. One of the first platform games I played on the system, and therefore pretty much the first arcade-style platformer I played at all, was Psycho Fox. I can't remember which of us introduced it to the other now, but my good friend, and fellow MS-owner, Luke, and I both loved and still love this great game. However, in order to determine if our affection is rooted in nostalgia or if it really is a great game, I thought I'd dissect it once again. Behold, the results...

The star of the show is of course the titular fox. I'm not sure what makes him psychotic but perhaps it has to do with the evil Madfox Daimyojin who's invaded the peaceful land and unleashed his legions of weird and unpleasant creatures, making life miserable for the formerly happy inhabitants. Whatever the reasons for his psychosis, though, he's also a courageous fox for he gathers his friends and immediately sets out to rid the land of the evil that's infested it. To begin with, he undertakes this quest with nothing more than the fur on his back - a measure of his bravery for sure - but it's bravery that will need to carry him through seven distinct and diverse worlds consisting of three sizeable stages apiece, each filled to the brim with dangerous creatures and obstacles beyond reckoning.

The first world is of the default platform game type - green grass, blue sky, etc, and features three types of enemy - slow but slightly inconvenient snail things, less common but far more dangerous red hopping things, and quite happy-looking helicopter dudes who only become active when you get close. To begin with, Mr Fox is able to take out all enemies in two ways - by punching them or by jumping on their heads, Mario style. He is soon, however, reunited with his good friend, Birdfly, who is a small black bird who sits on his shoulder and can be thrown at the enemies! He always returns after a short while too so he soon proves to be an indispensable ally. Occasionally, the defeated creatures may leave behind a power-up but more often these are found in the many eggs that litter the platforms of each stage. They are opened by punching them and can contain money bags, magic potions, straw effigies, transformation sticks, extra lives, or... enemies!

These enemies are the same as the normal ones in the game and can kill Mr. Fox with the merest of touches so a cautious approach is advised when cracking the eggs open. On the other hand, the extra lives, which look like a ghostly image of the player character, will try to immediately run away when freed! The other items are less troublesome. The money bags are used on the between-stage bonus round which consists of five criss-crossing paths - each money bag you've collected allows you to place a bet on a path. Once all bets are placed, Foxes will walk along the paths until their end with the resultant (random) item awarded which include a hole (no bonus!), a standard power-up, or an extra lives temple. If you're lucky enough to reach this, you can stop the rolling counter and receive the appropriate number of extra lives!

The other items, each of which you can hold up to nine of at once, are used as and when you want from the pause screen. The magic potions act as a temporary shield, the straw effigies destroy all on screen enemies but, best of all, the Psycho Sticks allow you to 'transform' Fox into one of his friends, all of whom have special talents! Fox, as it turns out, is the 'average' character with reasonable running speed and jumping height. Monkey, however, runs a little slower but can jump much higher, Hippo runs and jumps quite poorly but can punch down otherwise obstructive walls, and Tiger runs super-fast. These unique abilities can make each stage easier or quicker to finish, or help you to reach otherwise inaccessible bonus items, but their use is not essential as each stage is designed so that it can be finished by each of the creatures.

Indeed, the stages of each world are generally nearly as high as they are long and feature numerous paths through them. In most cases you can stick to the ground but it's here that a larger number of enemies and obstacles dwell, or you can try crossing the stage by its highest route, but this has the problem of lots of small platforms which require very precise movements and a long (and potentially fatal) fall if you mess it up! There are usually many possible ways through a stage though, so it can take a good while to find the easiest or most rewarding. One thing that can help speed up the process is fantastic device called a Whiplash Pole. Most stages (or at least outdoor stages) feature at least one of these things and they're pretty awesome.

They are tall, flexible poles which Mr Fox or any of his friends stick to when they jump into, but if you hit them at speed they'll wang back and forth at increasing speed before flinging their passenger halfway across the stage! That does of course mean they can be a hindrance as well as a help - you'll have no idea where you're going to land after all, but generally there is a specific area which you can only reach by making full use of the splendid contraptions. There are a few other helpful features such as springers and air puffers (which do the same thing as springers really, just less reliably) but most other features are somewhat less helpful. Appearing through the third world are fake stairways which turn into slopes and then roll a rock down them towards you, and there are some more usual obstacles and traps as well like spikes, disappearing bridges, and watery areas.

Liquid of any kind is fatal to all player characters but most of the problems come from the enemies. The few already mentioned populate the first few stages but a few others begin appearing later on as well including skeletons and statues in the foreground that come alive - eeek! Some of them are a real pain in the arse (the erratic green springer creatures, for example) while others do very little (the cute helicopter guys) but they are all drawn well and have an appealing look. The player characters are even better - the tiger is perhaps the most appealing sprite in the whole game and, even though he isn't the most useful (he runs so fast you'll often end up running into enemies) I often use him just because he looks so awesome!

The foreground graphics are really nice too. Each world is themed as you might expect with the first featuring the standard grassy terrain which is then followed by a desert world, an Egyptian style one, and a cloudy one. The fifth and seventh worlds are the only ones set inside something - the former in a fiery cavern filled with pipes, the latter in a scary trap-laden complex with lots of escalators. One of the most picaresque, though, is the sixth which is the seemingly mandatory ice stage but it's a good one. All the foreground graphics are detailed, well drawn, and nicely coloured, and the tiny amount of sprite flicker is very rare and insignificant. The only slight disappointment is the backgrounds which have almost no variety. All but outdoor worlds have a blue sky with an occasional cloud while the indoor ones just have a plain black background.

This might make the screenshots look a little sparse but luckily it doesn't detract from the gameplay at all. Each stage is just the right side of simple with well laid-out platforms and features and several routes through them, some easy, some hard. Overall though, the game is quite well-balanced and fair. There's no time limit but you can't double-back on yourself if you think you may have unwittingly taken a troublesome path either, which means it'll take a good while to explore each stage fully. There are even a few hidden warps which can transport you to new worlds without the hassle of boss fights! The four player characters each control noticeably differently and choosing the right one for the right area is the best way to make steady progress, but you'll quickly pick a favourite anyway!

Their movement is inertia-based - your jump distance is governed entirely by your current running speed so if you need to jump an exact distance, you'd better make sure you moving at the right speed. You can control a jump to some extent but you certainly can't make it longer once you've started it. All characters but the hippo can run at a reasonable enough speed though, and they are also able to 'skim' across the surface of watery areas, even the pink buffoon. However, this isn't a Sonic game so running at full pelt all the time is not recommended, especially with red hoppers and green springers about! Some stage surfaces affect your running ability too - the sand on the third world slows you down and the ice on the sixth stage is predictably ultra-slippy so great care is often needed as well.

Since Psycho Fox isn't an especially well-known game, mainly due to the Master System's limited impact around the world, most of the details in this characteristically long review may be new to you but, as mentioned at the start, the reason I wrote it is to see if my long-held affection for the game was down to nostalgia, as is often the case with retro games, or if it really is/was a good game. It's certainly not an especially hard game - I had already finished it many times, but playing it for this review represents my most thorough look at it yet and I soon found myself amassing a considerable stock of lives. I noticed that the boss fights aren't very challenging too, despite the fact that the special items and even Birdfly can't be used in them.

There are only four different bosses - three of them are repeated in slightly tougher forms on later stages with the final boss being Madfox Daimyojin, and to defeat most of them you're given a one-off gadget to use. I also noticed that some of the aesthetic aspects of the game are a little repetitive - the aforementioned backgrounds, the music which, although really nice and catchy, does repeat quite a bit, and the jumping effect quickly grates too. The fact that I've been playing this game for so many years and only even noticed these things after such a comprehensive play-through, though, indicates how little they affect the enjoyment of the game which remains immense thanks to its large size, appealing characters, and superbly-designed stages. Happily, therefore, I'm very pleased to find that Psycho Fox is still the finest platform game on the Master System and one of the finest on any 8-bit system. Platform fans are strongly advised to seek it out forthwith...

RKS Score: 9/10


  1. A joy to play and tehnically superb, the MS at its finest. Given the extreme storage limitations, you can forgive the repetitive backgrounds :) BTW, u said "tall, flexible poles"....

  2. Hey buddy - I think you're the only person that comments here now! :P You're right though, it's an effing classic! There might be some great platformers on the NES but there's nothing quite like Psycho Fox. Did you like the screenshots, by the way? They were hard to grab as pausing the game takes you to the item selection screen of course... Huh huh... pole...