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atari mania
Written by  :  SomeRandomHEFan (142)
Written on  :  Apr 12, 2021
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars

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A bold experiment with mostly positive results

The Good

After already successfully expanding the scope of the Junior Adventures quite a bit the year before with Pajama Sam's debut, Humongous Entertainment tried it once again with an equally ambitious game. And although not to quite the same extent, they succeeded once more in adding something fresh to the Junior Adventures.

What becomes apparent immediately is that this game has a more elaborate plot than usual. It's still not the main focus by any means, but whereas the plots in Putt-Putt and Freddi Fish games are just basic excuses to go on adventures, and the Pajama Sam plots, although charming allegories, are still just there to give the adventures some background, this game's plot is more firmly integrated into the adventure and gradually expanded upon as the game progresses. It's a spy fiction parody, so it borrows many of its ideas from the likes of James Bond and Get Smart, but it often twists them into something far sillier, both for the sake of child-friendliness and simply because it's funny.

But the humor doesn't just stem from that, but also from the writing. Much of the character dialogue is loaded to the brim with wordplays, while some other parts are just utterly bizarre, but in a charming way. Not all of the gags hit the mark, but most of them are quite fun to listen to. I found myself often repeating the same action over and over again, just to hear more of them.

The puzzle department is no slouch either. Since the game was made for an older target demographic, the core mechanics are a bit more complex than usual, with three different types of inventories. In addition to normal items, you also have access to an array of spy gadgets that can perform a more specialized task. You can only carry four of them with you at a time, so you may have to return to their vending machine from time to time and go through the explanations on how they work to see if there is one that can help you solve what appears to be an impossible task. Additionally, you will also occasionally run into situations where you need to uncover missing information in order to proceed, so the game hands you an interrogation balloon you can use to ask NPCs for help. Though there is always only one right person, other people will often still nudge you in the right direction with more or less subtlety. Their hints aren't hugely different at their core, but the ways in which they express them are still impressively diverse at times and often rather amusing.

Another key strength of the game lies in its replay value. It's one of the more heavily randomized Junior Adventures. There are three components of its structure that can change between playthroughs, with two of them having two variations and another having three. Their scope varies, but the first one in particular encompasses a rather large portion of the game. As such, there is enough randomization to cover two playthroughs with fairly drastic differences and a third one with some moderate differences.

The Bad

But as one would expect from Humongous Entertainment, the game falters when it comes to minigames. There is a shoot 'em up called Happy Fun Sub that you can play at any time using your spy watch. I suppose it's not the company's worst effort in this genre, but it still gets old very quick. There's very little depth or variety to it, and the field of view is too narrow to spot enemies and collectables reliably. But at least that minigame is completely optional, so it doesn't really worsen the experience. Which is more than I can say for the Go Fish minigame. That game is clearly just meant to serve as a silly parody of the games of Poker you see in many James Bond movies, and the overly serious way in which the story treats it is indeed funny. What's less funny is that on every second playthrough, you'll run into a puzzle that actually requires winning this game. And Go Fish is a really simplistic game where victory is determined mostly by luck. If fortune doesn't smile upon you, you'll have to play this game over and over again until you finally emerge victorious. And that's just plain tedious.

Furthermore, though many of the individual puzzles are well-thought-out, the overarching structure of the game is very unusual for Humongous Entertainment. I've talked about this in a few of my older reviews, but a typical Junior Adventure makes its objectives clear to you early on, then opens up a relatively large portion of its world to explore at your leisure. Some of the larger areas might have roadblocks, but the puzzles to remove them rarely have much in the way of prerequisites. What's important is that the main objectives can be tackled in whatever order you please. So you will usually have access to a large array of different puzzle chains at once. If you're stuck on one of them, you can put it on hold for quite a while as you prioritize other objectives, which gives you plenty of time to think about it without your progress grinding to a halt.

This however is the first and probably only Junior Adventure that doesn't follow this formula at all. There is only a single key objective you must fulfill, and the whole game is effectively just one very long puzzle chain. It has plenty of sub-chains whose order isn't always strictly linear, but you can never put one of them on hold for long without stagnating. To the game's credit, it does take advantage of its linearity to gradually develop the plot and expand the initially small scope of its world as you progress. And this is a much better way to handle linearity than the first Freddi Fish's approach, where the linear order of the puzzle chains simply didn't match the open design of its world. But it does still make it a lot more frustrating when you get stuck on a puzzle, seeing how this will quickly cause you to stop making any progress. And it causes the game to lack the sense of exploration that the Junior Adventures are usually known for.

The presentation is all-around decent, but unspectacular. The sprites get the job done, but occasionally suffer from weird proportions. The backgrounds are purely computer-colored, much like in Pajama Sam, but with a lower level of detail. There is also a clearly deliberate mismatch between the placement of the color and the outlines. I don't know what sort of style this is supposed to be parodying, but it does have a certain charm once you get used to it. But overall, this kind of coloring just isn't as striking as in the first Pajama Sam when you primarily rely on bright colors with only a mild level of contrast.

This is one of only two Humongous Entertainment games to have a soundtrack by Julian Soule. Contrary to his brother's surreal and bouncy rhythms, he seems to specialize in relaxing jazz tunes. It fits the setting, but not many of the tracks are anything more than simply nice to listen to.

The voice acting is a bit below Humongous' usual standards. Most of the voices fit the characters and are pretty entertaining, but some sound a bit off. In particular, certain characters have a strange tendency to speak in a constantly fluctuating tempo. Captain Drydock is a particularly notable example. I have no idea what they were going for with this, but it just sounds weird in a bad way.

The Bottom Line

While Spy Fox did not start off quite as strong as Pajama Sam, his debut can still be considered a success overall. It adds a lot of interesting new elements that simply wouldn't have worked with any of the other Junior Adventure protagonists. Though I can't say it for certain until I've replayed his two sequels, this first entry is probably his weakest outing overall, but that's not as bad as it sounds. Spy Fox is easily the most consistent of the four big subseries of the Junior Adventures, and so even the weakest of the bunch is still pretty decent and well worth playing.

atari 50th