Nostalgia can be a tricky market to pander to. The aim of the exercise is to recreate an atmosphere in which people can relive the emotions that they had as children. In the context of video games however, the medium has come a long way in its short 40 or so year history. The best games of this ilk seem to adopt an iterative approach, mining the genre’s history for the best visual and musical inspiration, whilst splicing in gameplay that takes the spirit of classic action platforming, but introducing modern sensibilities that polish up rough edges present in yesterday’s game design to create a more palatable product for modern audiences. Games like Braid, Super Meat Boy and more recently Shovel Knight, Ori and the Blind Forest and Hollow Knight have found success through this iterative approach, but Fox n Forests seems to aim for a more straight forward philosophy of recreating the past.
Fox n Forests is an independent, 2D platformer from German developer Bonus Level Entertainment. Originally kickstarted in 2016, it has been released this month and is available for purchase on Steam and Nintendo Switch’s eShop. Whenever another title in the saturated retro gaming genre is released, comparisons are inevitably drawn to whatever games of the 80s and 90s that the game has seemed to draw most influence from. Many developers are attempting to differentiate themselves in this space with unique art styles or non-linear level design, but Fox n Forests feels like it really has sprouted straight from a Sega MegaDrive cartridge circa 1995. The developer has worked hard to recreate the exact feeling of a game from this time period. The game’s beautifully blocky pixel art and colour palette feel very reminiscent of Treasure releases of the 90s like Gunstar Heroes. Big beautiful sprites populate the world, and the forest setting is suitably beautiful. Changing seasons also drastically shifts the aesthetic of the levels, so it feels like presentation wise you are often getting four levels in one. The game’s excellent soundtrack is catchy, drives you forward and evokes traces of classic platformers like Castlevania and Megaman. Whatever else is said about the game, if you play retro primarily for the presentation, you will be extremely impressed with Fox n Forests.
The game strives to cross off the requisite boxes on the retro platformer checklist. The simple story features an annoying sidekick bird and wisecracking fox named Rick as our hero, on a quest to save a peaceful land corrupted by evil power. The writing is cheesy and the story a bit throwaway, but this is never really the focus of games in this genre. The game features an overworld map for moving between levels and a base in which you can return to purchase health and mana upgrades, as well as new bolts and moves (sidenote: you really need to do this to get the most out of the game). RPG-lite elements are present in the upgrade system and despite being mostly linear the games level design is reminiscent of titles like Sonic the Hedgehog, with a lot of verticality and alternate paths to the levels, which can encourage replayability and experimentation.
2D indie retro platformers are literally a dime a dozen these days, and the central point of difference here from a gameplay perspective is the season mechanic, in which with a simple button press the player can change between seasons and therefore influence the environment in order to solve puzzles. At first, only Winter is available and the player will find themselves freezing over lakes and waterfalls to allow safe passage across gaps, or freezing enemy projectiles and hurling them back. As the game goes on however the rest of the seasons are unlocked and the layers of puzzles do start to come together nicely and introduce some complexity into the gameplay. I really admire simple puzzle solving gameplay mechanics like this. As a concept, it is very reminiscent of something like Braid’s time manipulation mechanics, which are easy to use but hard to master. However simplistic puzzle mechanics do also require the implementation of clever level design to ensure a steady increase in difficulty over the course of the game. Super Meat Boy, for example, emphasised this importance of iteration in its puzzle design, introducing simple gameplay mechanics, then repeating them and making them gradually more complex over time. Fox n Forests makes an admirable effort to follow this same philosophy, and while there are a lot of clever uses of the seasons mechanic in the game that do feel organic and fun, sometimes the lack of focus in the level design can cause the puzzles to feel like a case of just swapping through seasons until the solution appears.
Though the game mostly serves as a functional example of the platforming genre, its main fumble is a pretty substantial one. The controls in a game like this are paramount. A good platformer substitutes complexity with precision, making the player feel like the character is an exact extension of their own inputs. A good platformer should make you feel as though you want to move fast once you are good enough, but also that you can slow down and be precise when you need to. Fox n Forests struggles in this regard. Issues of this nature can be a little subjective and hard to convey without playing it for yourself, but the jumping in this game just feels a little slower and stickier than it needs to be. The enemy and level design also serve to highlight these faults in the platforming mechanics. Flying enemies are placed at a height where a jumping attack will often miss them, and the player can initially only attack during a certain small window during the jump animation, rather than having full control. These issues are somewhat alleviated with upgrades throughout the game, but I’m a big advocate of giving players the full arsenal of required movements from the start and then layering on top of them when the level design requires it. Some other enemies appear suddenly, often causing you to take unavoidable damage unless you have played the level multiple times and know where and when they will appear. Even seasoned platforming veterans will find themselves taking a lot of hits in this game. The game seems to present itself as a run and gun with the addition of the crossbow as a central gameplay tool. Upgrades throughout the game give you access to new bolts and moves, but you cannot shoot whilst moving or jumping, which seems like an oversight from the developer and limits the fluidity of the players movement. There are often times where you will have to come to a complete stop to pepper enemies from afar with bolts until they are dead. Combine this with respawning monsters and the result is a gameplay experience that can feel frustrating and cheap at times, appearing as though it plays fast, but actually requiring slow, methodical progress with repetition and memorisation of enemy placements, rather than a freer flowing platforming experience.
This theme of repetition finds itself stitched into more aspects of the game’s design as well. The game attempts to encourage exploration of its slightly non-linear level design by locking out progress between worlds until you have not only completed all levels, but collected a required number of seeds hidden throughout the levels as well. Whilst this does increase replayability and encourage the player to go back and tinker with the seasons mechanic to find new areas, it can also hamper the pacing of the game and prove tedious in sections when there is one item left to search for. I feel that the best approach to trinket collecting in these games is to incentivise it using the prospect of upgrades, but make it optional for those that want to move through the story unimpeded. Fox n Forests doesn’t do this, but rather attempts to pad its short length with pointless backtracking and it’s to the detriment of the gameplay experience.
Whereas retro titles like Super Meat Boy or Braid take the retro platformer as a base but then iterate on it and elevate the genre, Fox n Forests feels like it is literally a game made in the early 1990s, warts and all. Whereas games like Shovel Knight take the outdated tropes of 16-bit design and mine them for comedy whilst still providing their own fun experience, Fox n Forests is mostly looking to be a straight forward recreation of something from times past. That may be exactly what some people are looking for, and it is certainly a fun and nostalgic game for the most part. However, if you’re craving a more refined platforming experience, there are definitely better examples of the genre.
Review by Dylan Cook
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