Although the idea of indie games using retro graphics is about as overdone as a chicken cooked in a volcano, very few of them are authentic. With a few exceptions – Shovel Knight and VVVVVV immediately spring to mind – the majority of indie games using 8-bit and 16-bit style visuals would simply never have been possible on systems of that era.
Fox n Forests, however, happily joins that exclusive club of games that not only use an old-school art style, but would actually have you convinced if you were told it was a long-lost unreleased game from that generation. Playing as a fox called Rick, it’s your job to recover pieces of bark that have been stolen from the old Season Tree (not the Deku Tree, honest) and return them to restore balance to the forest. To help you do this, the tree gives you a special ability: the power to change the seasons. This forms the basis of the game's central mechanic, a cool effect where each stage has a default season and a second alternate season. By switching between them at will with the ZL or ZR buttons, you can manipulate the game world and solve basic puzzles.
Can't jump across that river? Switch from summer to winter to freeze it over. Can't jump from tree to tree because the leaves are blocking your vision? Switch to autumn and the leaves disappear, exposing the branch platforms. Stuck in an autumn stage and can't reach the ledge above? Change to spring to make fruit grow on the nearby vines and jump onto those for extra height. It's a clever gimmick and one that’s satisfying to pull off, even though it rarely does anything more elaborate than making platforms and hazards appear or disappear. Some more intricate puzzles would’ve been nice, but what’s there is impressive. Slightly less endearing is the way Rick controls. The idea is that he starts with a basic set of abilities and over time you spend coins to upgrade him and add new moves – a double-jump spin attack, a triple-shot, a downwards thrust and so on – but the majority of the game is spent struggling with some awkward controls as a result.
Rick can either shoot enemies with his magical crossbow or attack them with a melee weapon. The problem is, you can only use each in certain situations. For the most part you can only shoot when you’re on foot (and even then he’ll stop to shoot when he’s running), and you can only perform melee attacks when you’re ducking, jumping or aiming up. If you want to jump to shoot an enemy above you, you can’t. If you want to duck an enemy’s attack and shoot them from a distance, you can’t. If you’re standing right next to an enemy who’s on a small step above you (which happens regularly) and want to melee them, you can’t: you have to duck, which means you’ll miss them. None of this is game-breaking by any means: what’s there is still a solid 16-bit platformer. It’s just a shame that if the game had simply given you two separate buttons for shooting and melee instead of a single ‘attack’ button, there could have been more scope to play the game the way you want to, rather than feeling restricted by Rick’s limitations.
Elsewhere, Fox n Forests continues to give with one hand and take away with the other. The stages are enormous, lengthy affairs, with a variety of available routes and secret pathways. It’s clear a lot of work has gone into creating each of these epic levels but it quickly becomes apparent why: there are only six of them (along with two brief but enjoyable shoot ‘em up stages, four impressive but simple boss fights and a handful of unlockable bonus levels). This is a game designed to make you play through the same level multiple times, returning each time you get a new weapon, in order to reveal new areas and collect the five magical seeds hidden in each stage. These seeds are needed to unlock the next area, but it’s not always immediately clear that this is the case, meaning there may be occasions where you’re wandering around the game map wondering what the hell you have to do to make the next world appear.
This is accompanied by occasional moments of slowdown – not authentic retro slowdown where the music and everything literally grinds to a crawl, but choppy slowdown with missed frames – and some horrendous writing. The latter is forgivable, though: the game was developed in Germany so it’s perhaps understandable that practically every joke falls flat, as it may have been translated by someone who doesn't speak English natively. For all we know the German version may be up there with Fawlty Towers.
Fox n Forests is a game we desperately want to like more. Performance issues aside, it does a phenomenal job of replicating the days of 16-bit platformers: the developer has cited ActRaiser 2, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Do-Re-Mi Fantasy and The Magical Quest as influences and it’s clear to see that’s what they were going for (especially in terms of the brilliantly authentic SNES-style music). It’s just a shame that it constantly throws up niggles that hamper your enjoyment: the controls, the progression system, the short length (it can be beaten in under four hours), the ropey writing. The developers may have been aiming for the level of a high-quality SNES platform game, but while it certainly ticks those boxes in terms of presentation it plays like the sort of thing that would’ve been considered a "good" title on something like the Amiga, where average platformers like Superfrog and (fittingly) Titus The Fox enjoyed success.
Fox n Forests can’t be faulted for its fantastically accurate portrayal of 16-bit platforming; very few indie games have managed to nail the look and sound of the SNES so well. Its season-changing gimmick also makes for some inventive moments. Where it lets itself down is in its fiddly controls and its short length, which combine to make a game that’s merely good when it could have been great.