Do you remember is our regular retrospective. This week, it’s shape-shifting platformer Psycho Fox, released for Sega Master System in 1989.
There have been, to my reckoning, a disproportionate number of video games about foxes. Not an enormous number compared with, say, guns or cars, but more than any other class of animal, save perhaps cats and dogs.
Don’t believe me? Well, there’s Miles ‘Tails’ Prower in the Sonic the Hedgehog series, for starters. He’s famous, sure, but other than a couple of Game Gear spin-offs, he wasn’t the star. Star Fox himself, then, Fox McCloud? They don’t come much bigger than that. Or Lucky, of Lucky’s Tale fame; Kingsley, of Kingsley’s Adventure; Titus the Fox; Spy Fox…
Looking for a reference a little more recent? There’s Andrew Shouldice’s 2022 smash-hit Tunic, featuring an adorable fox in a classic Zelda adventure. Or Never Alone, or Tanglewood, or Spirit of the North, or Fe. And then there’s Rime. (Don’t even get me started on how mad Rime makes me.)
See? It’s not exactly a scientific claim, but that’s a lot of foxes I can conjure off the top of my head. In spite of those big names from the past and the youngsters on the scene, when I think of video game foxes, my brain automatically goes elsewhere, however: to Psycho Fox, released on the Sega Master System in 1989. (And the Game Gear in 1990.)
Psycho Fox was developed by Vic Tokai of Shizuoka, a Japanese telecommunications company and cable TV provider turned video game developer. (Not to be confused with Tokai Gakki, the guitar manufacturer also based out of Shizuoka, best known for lawsuit-era Gibson clones in the 1980s.)
Vic Tokai’s games were notable in that they often shared controls and mechanics, but were re-themed and re-skinned for different platforms. Psycho Fox, for instance, shares its magical, character-modifying mechanics with Clash at Demonhead, also released in 1989 for the NES. Where Psycho Fox sees you transforming into other animals to suit the challenges ahead, you can shrink your super soldier down, among other powers, in Clash at Demonhead.
Psycho Fox’s companion creature throwing mechanic – called Birdfly – was borrowed from Kid Kool’s Wicky, released on the NES in 1988. Decap Attack, released on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive in 1991, goes a little more route one on this, and actually sees you lobbing your own head at enemies. While attacking with your other face, embedded in your stomach. It’s quite the image and would be truly horrifying with modern graphics. (Please, I’m begging you, don’t ever remake or reboot Decap Attack.)
The other recurring features of Vic Tokai’s games are the idea of multiple paths – not just through each level, but potentially, through the game – and very slippery platforming. And nowhere is this slipperiness more evident than in Psycho Fox.
The titular fox – chosen by fox priests to save the world from one of their order turned bad – can shape-shift into multiple animal forms using Shinto sticks. The basic fox archetype is Mr Average; the hippo is slow but strong and can punch through solid walls; the monkey is agile and can jump especially high; and the tiger… is really fast for some reason. (Could’ve been a cheetah. Just saying.)
When you’re playing as the tiger, in particular, Psycho Fox’s platforming is especially slippery, given the high speeds you can reach. But the hippo is equally awkward, as his extra bulk makes decelerating a challenge, especially on ice. In the modern era, where speedrunners pick apart each frame and indie developers share the ins and outs of balancing super-hard platformers like Celeste and Super Meat Boy, players are more aware of things like acceleration, deceleration, slipperiness, and coyote time.
But back in the day? Psycho Fox was just hard. Not because it was designed to be punitive, like Meat Boy or Cuphead today, but because its floaty platforming and slippery mechanics made everything just that little bit more awkward than it needed to be, for players used to the deliberate preciseness of Mario, the slow, languid platforming of Alex Kidd, and latterly, the necessary forgiveness accompanying Sonic’s speed.
Making the transformational Shinto sticks limited, though? That was a choice.