Many of us have childhood memories of adventure games, but lots of those games weren’t actually made for kids. Some of the jokes may have passed us by, and you may remember getting frustrated by not being able to solve a puzzle. Spy Fox in 'Dry Cereal', a game produced over a decade ago by Humongous Entertainment (co-founded by Monkey Island’s Ron Gilbert) and recently ported to the Nintendo Wii, is just such a junior adventure designed specifically for children. The Spy Fox franchise was Humongous’ most advanced (with Putt-Putt, Freddi Fish and Pajama Sam aimed at even younger audiences), targeting children eight and up, but in reality it can be enjoyed by anyone as young as six. The series spanned three adventure titles in total, beginning with Dry Cereal, a humourous and engaging experience which is bursting with charm.
Taking centre stage is the game’s namesake, Spy Fox, a suave, anthropomorphic – you guessed it – fox, who begins his story on a plane, receiving a message from his co-worker Monkey Penny via the in-flight meal. Yes, you read that right. He learns that the evil William the Kid has captured all of the world’s dairy cows and plans to replace their milk with the goat alternative. Kid has created a Milky Weapon of Destruction to flood the world with dairy milk so that the cows suffer the blame and are locked away. It’s a suitably wacky plot that lets you know straight away that this will be an offbeat experience, despite clearly being influenced by other popular spy stories from James Bond to Mission: Impossible.
Flying over Spy Fox’s destination, a Greek island named Acidophilus, he abruptly ejects himself from his seat and begins to plummet towards the ground. This action basically acts as a very brief tutorial, with Spy Fox opening his inventory and inviting the player to pick a gadget to help him land safely. If nothing is selected after a time, the game automatically picks one for you. Not only does this introduce children to the point-and-click control scheme, but also makes them aware of time limits that come into play further on.
In the original PC version (on which this review is based), one click from the mouse enables all the commands possible. There is no complicated verb selection, and the game decides how Spy Fox is going to react to something, whether that is talking to a character, picking something up or simply providing a witty one-liner. Rather than seeing important items lying around in the open for later use, objects are obtained through plot-progressing devices such as solving puzzles or the gadget vending machine at the secret spy headquarters. As the fox says himself, “a spy without a gadget is like a shopping cart without a broken wheel.”
The zany Professor Quack rustles up six inventions for the vendor, which vary from putty to night-vision shoes, of which Spy Fox can store a total of four at a time. Once you’ve begun exploring, it’s often glaringly obvious what you should be taking from the machine, such as the safe cracker for opening a safe or suction cufflinks to move across a wall. However, players can return to replace their selections if they haven’t chosen the correct ones, so even if you’re not sure what gadget you should be using, a small spout of trial and error will quickly see you along the way. The restriction simply encourages some thought as to what you should be taking. Unfortunately, this simplistic approach puts most of the puzzle-solving items all in one place, removing some of the sense of personal discovery.
Apart from using your spy tools, interacting with the world directly yields most of the solutions to the problems you’ll encounter. Spy Fox’s first task is to rescue Mr. Udderly from the Feta Cheese Factory, getting his rump roast down from where it’s tied up over a pool of piranha. The solution lies in fiddling with the temperature controls on the tank and paying close attention to what happens when you do so. Very rarely do you actually ‘use’ a collected item on something. Puzzles involving timing and memory (from the clues you’ve gathered) are the norm, such as planting a device on someone when they look away or remembering the combination for a dial.
While less traditional for an adventure game, this approach makes you feel more like a spy living an on-the-edge lifestyle. Although you cannot fail your mission, and you get a second shot at everything that doesn’t quite work out the first time, the atmosphere builds tension while still retaining a lighthearted feel. Talking to someone adds their face to your inventory, allowing Spy Fox to question people about that person specifically and discover what they might be hiding from you. You’re collecting details, sneaking around and learning information from everyone that surrounds you. It’s a classic spy experience that’ll live up to children’s imaginations.
The universe isn’t as serious as that of 007’s, however. Although there are a few cheeky nods to any adults that happen to be listening in (or playing themselves under the pretense of checking it out first, and I guarantee some will), most of the jokes consist of groan-worthy puns from Spy Fox himself. These cheesy lines will amuse the kids who are playing it, and they are backed up by visual gags that come from interacting with the environment, like a pelican in the island square who constantly changes his tattoo or seeing what lurks behind and within all the nooks and crannies. There are a lot of non-essential rewards for clicking everything, and you’re often shown a humourous animation rather than hear a line of descriptive dialogue that you might get in a standard adult adventure, an approach that makes the game world feel visually alive through both the characters and their surroundings.Continued on the next page...