FOX n FORESTS: A retro-style platformer with a surprising twist.

About 10 years ago on another WordPress blog I had, I made a rather dumb wordy rant about how retro pixel-style games sucked and how I was getting sick of them appearing everywhere. This was before games like Undertale and Celeste came out, games that showed how you could make that style work perfectly. In essence, I was being a graphics snob, which is somewhat uncharacteristic of me these days.

I only mention this because this post is gonna be about a game that uses pixel art, and how surprisingly good it looks. Basically letting my past self have some crow. Though in this case we’re talking about a fox, not a bird.

Oh no the fox is kinda cool-looking

FOX n FORESTS is a retro-style 2D platformer developed by Bonus Level Entertainment and Independent Arts Software, two studios based out of Germany. Bonus Level is a modest indie studio founded by Rupert Ochsner, a former developer who worked on projects at Deep Silver including Saints Row The Third, though mostly in a business role. Independent Arts on the other hand, are known for a myriad of games, mostly ports of games like Tropico 6 to console platforms and the Moorhuhn series of games (known as Crazy Chicken outside Germany). So two developers with at least some amount of game history, just on the more “shovelware” side of things.

Originally pitched on Kickstarter in 2016, FOX n FORESTS was released in May 2018 on all the major platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and of course, PC via Steam. Outside of getting mentioned by James Stephanie Sterling in their “Greenlight Good Stuff” series, this game very much came and went when it came out. Yet I’m always curious about lesser-known games that aren’t talked about much, so I was willing to give it a try.

“Fifth season” sounds like a boy band from the ’90s. I guess it fits, considering what the game is referencing.

You play as Rick, a “foxtastic” – their words, not mine – hero who is persuaded from murdering a poor partridge to help the Season Tree, who’s lost their magic bark to various villains around the seasonal world. It’s up to Rick to recover the pieces of magic bark and give them back to the season tree to save the day, and get handsomely rewarded in the process.

Is the story a bit silly? Yeah, definitely. But I’m not expecting high-quality writing here, especially for a game trying to hearken back to the days of retro platformers from the SNES era.

Rick’s journey begins! …and already it’s a bit tougher than he was expecting.

Rick starts with a fairly simple arsenal of a sword and a bow. The sword is used to attack enemies while moving, crouching or jumping. The bow is used to attack enemies at a distance, but requires Rick to be completely stationary and on the ground. As Rick progresses, he gets arrows that can alternate between special fire modes that come in handy later on for damage, or to activate platforms he couldn’t get to previously.

Damn, I wish he could do that for real!

The sword has a very special ability: pressing on either left or right trigger changes the season, which varies from level to level. The first level lets Rick switch between the warm summery colors to a wintery cold, which freezes all the water and makes some platforms easier to see.

Another level switches between a spring dusk to a fall breeze, complete with growing fruit and falling leaves that double as platforms to make progress. This is a pretty neat mechanic. However, visiting the other seasonal area slowly drains your mana bar, so this requires a balance of switching between seasons at the most opportune times to make progress.

Damn, this badger ain’t even phased by those bees

At various points, another character named Retro the gaming badger appears to save the player’s progress mid-level, at the cost of some gold. Naturally he spouts off a bunch of retro video game references, as a wink and a nod to the games inspired by FOX n FORESTS.

In each level are magic seeds used to make progress and unlock new levels, mana crystals to upgrade the mana bar, and stones to upgrade weapons. The central hub level gives Rick the opportunity to buy health and weapon upgrades, new skills, and even potions that can be used to activate special powers with gold Rick finds while opening chests and defeating enemies in the main levels.

While the potions and spells are neat, I only used them a few times, as I felt I didn’t really need them as the sword and bow could easily kill enemy foes. Though, one particular powerup became pretty helpful during the final boss, so they weren’t all useless.

Since I think they’re taking the bottle concept from The Legend of Zelda, honestly they should’ve added potions that fully refill health and/or mana, or even something that could give Rick another life if he died before reaching the next checkpoint, like the fairies in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Would make it a bit more forgiving, at least.

Personally I wouldn’t be flying near barbed vines, but that’s just me.

The third level in every season is a boss fight. The season mechanic is required to do damage to the boss, which involve a huge version of a forest animal, like a wasp or a frog. No checkpoints here, dying results in a game over followed by an optional protip to defeat the boss. Thankfully not much time is lost except starting over and skipping the dialogue each time.

Thankfully the bosses are challenging even with the season mechanic. One late boss did require me to quickly climb upwards through a level while the spider-like boss was slowly destroying the arena under me. Another required me to do some rapid season switching so I could do damage to him. So I’ll give the developers credit for trying to do different things than the conventional “shoot at it ’til it dies” fare.

These levels made me rage in a way I hadn’t since I played Limbo a few years ago. Screw these levels.

One last trick it throws up its sleeve are these really annoying shoot-em-up sections. Using Patty the partridge as his guide, Rick shoots his way through areas while grabbing goodies and occasionally switching seasons to make progress. These levels are absolutely terrible, as Patty has only one heart, and getting hit forces the player back to the last checkpoint.

This includes not just enemies, but certain scenery or solid flat floors counts as taking damage. It’s like if the designers were taking a page from Silver Surfer on the NES where touching any obstacle instantly kills the player. These were the most frustrating parts of the whole game, and ruined otherwise what was a really okay game up to that point.

Somehow I got stuck after switching back from a season. Glad I didn’t die, at least.

Graphically FOX n FORESTS looks pretty nice, going for a pixel art aesthetic that’s pretty darn good even if it’s not period accurate, and a soundtrack that’s definitely taking a few pages from games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Castlevania IV. One tune in particular, the one that plays in Revolving River, has gotten in my head a few times, so I’ll give Filippo Beck Peccoz some props on that front. Even in spite of the groan-worthy dialogue sometimes, it was at least enjoyable and charming.

But for every good thing, there’s particularly baffling choices. Dying at any point takes Rick back to the last checkpoint, and anything collected after hitting that checkpoint disappears, including critical collectable items like the Magic Seeds.

The shoot-em-up levels got a lot more tedious because of this problem, as I had to not only get hit or smack into a stray pixel of jagged rock, I had to reacquire the magic seeds every time. In some cases, some levels were frustrating not just because I got hit too much, but because I had to also remember to grab the items in the area I found once again, which was an absolute pain.

I would’ve made it so that once you grabbed the items in question, you don’t have to worry about them again, and it would’ve made collecting these a lot less tedious.

Wouldn’t be a video game without some bats. er, I mean, bugs.

At one point I suffered a game-breaking bug. In level 3-1, there’s this platform that’s supposed to move pretty erratically and is needed to progress. Well, in several cases the platform would not move whatsoever, no matter what I did. The developers themselves have pointed this out, mentioning “the combination of the GPU used […] as well as the operating system and CPU,” of which is a rather confusing explanation. The only solution that seemed to work for me was alternating between pausing the game and alt-tabbing out of the game.

That, combined with occasionally getting stuck in scenery when changing seasons happened occasionally. Made for a semi-frustrating experience sometimes.

Did I suddenly hop into Mohawk and Headphone Jack?

FOX n FORESTS is a retro platformer with some ideas that seemed interesting on paper but whiffed a bit on the execution. This is a perfectly average game. As someone who doesn’t really dabble in this genre all that often, it’s fine for what it is. But it made me think of similar “animal saving the world” action games that did some of this stuff better, like Dust: An Elysian Tail a few years prior. I wouldn’t say FOX n FORESTS is some hidden gem, but it at least had its heart in the right place.

Now, normally that would be the end of this post. I’d link to the store pages, give some related thoughts, and go about my day. But there’s probably a good amount of readers going “wait a minute, haven’t I seen this game before somewhere?” And you’re right.

In an unexpected case of synchronicity and me going “I swear I’m not trying to ride the coattails of someone more notable,” noted YouTuber Harry “Hbomberguy” Brewis had recently released an incredibly long informative video talking about the origins of the “OOF” sound from the game Roblox. It’s a fascinating deep dive into a small sound effect as well as the origins of one Tommy Tallarico.

Tommy Tallarico, a noted sound designer and game composer, bought the Intellivision brand from Keith Robinson, one of the early programmers for the Intellvision; and attempted to market a new video games console called the Intellivision Amico. There’s already a ton of information about the Amico elsewhere: Hbomberguy covers it briefly in his video, Pat “The NES Punk” Contri and Ian Ferguson on their CUPodcast has a long-ass Youtube playlist of the rise and fall of the Amico. Basically it would take too long to cover that travesty here.

Wow, that’s… quite the downgrade.

The reason I mention that here is because one of the games that was being developed for the Amico and being shown off at press events was a cutesy little cartoon platformer named Finnigan Fox. After looking at the footage, I’d say that game looks… quite familiar.

Finnigan Fox is an updated version of FOX n FORESTS. This is mentioned by Tallarico in a gameplay video for Finnigan Fox. Finnigan Fox seems to keep most of the same mechanics as FOX n FORESTS, but replaces the neat and cool pixel art with more bland looking drawn art, eliminates certain mechanics like the bottle system, and tries to shoehorn it onto the Amico’s controller, which is… a hot mess, even when Tommy’s showing it off on the video.. The original FOX n FORESTS wasn’t some underrated gem, but they turned an average platformer into something more shovelware like, which is somewhat ironic considering the developers past work.

Intellivision were so proud of this game that it was one of the several games that got a “physical copy” alongside an Evel Knievel game originally on mobile devices, and a modern remake of Moon Patrol. I put physical copy in quotes because it’s not a cartridge or anything cool like that, it’s a cheap box with a RFID card that would’ve been used to activate the game on the Amico.

If I had to guess how this came about, I’d assume that German investors gave Bonus Level and Independent Arts some grant money to update FOX n FORESTS and have it support the Amico’s interesting-yet-flawed controller in the process. It certainly doesn’t seem like something that they would’ve offered to do themselves.

With the uncertainty of the Amico’s future at this point, I fully believe Finnigan Fox will likely disappear and just be another footnote onto the trainwreck that was Tommy Tallarico’s bizarre Intellivision Amico project. As someone who basically followed a lot of the Amico disaster, this makes me feel bad not for Intellivision and Tommy, but for the developers who were making these game projects for a console that was dead in the water.

Though, don’t feel too bad for either Bonus Level or Independent Arts: Both of them are still working and making new games in spite of this. Bonus Level is making a new action game based on a stained glass window aesthetic called Saga of Sins, intending to be released sometime in 2023. Independent Arts are still around, porting games to other platforms, so they’re both still thriving in some capacity.

Wow! I should’ve shown this to past me, I would’ve been impressed.

The original FOX n FORESTS is $10 on all the major platforms. It goes on sale occasionally, and I only paid $2 for it on Steam. It’s at least worth that much for a platformer that otherwise would’ve been mostly forgotten, had it not been shackled to one of the most infamous gaming blunders of the past decade.

I honestly hope those who got to work on porting or updating their games for the Amico eventually get a chance to release their work on other platforms, including FOX n FOR- er, Finnigan Fox. Even though the original game wasn’t anything outstanding, I still think it would be interesting to see the updated version available. It doesn’t deserve to be lost to the ether thanks to the bluster of one Tommy Tallarico.

This was available on Patreon a few days early. If you wanna be able to read this earlier before everyone else, or at least to support a writer writing about the quirkier side of games, you can contribute to my Patreon here. It only costs $1! You don’t even need to get magic bark for the Season Tree to see it!

beverly jane

I'm the creator and writer of You Found a Secret Area. Fascinated by obscure pop culture and wanting a place to write about curated stuff, I created the blog in 2012 and have been running it ever since. Also on other places. (Pronouns: she/her, they/them)

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