Friday 10 August 2012

Skunny: Back to the Forest

Oh god. Skunny: Back to the Forest, a 1993 DOS platform game by Copysoft. They still charge money for this. And yes, it does star more squirrels. And no, I'm not doing this on purpose.

Back to the Forest is a game I love to hate. So many things are wrong about this package, but yet rather than toss it aside and leaving it for dead, I keep returning in the hopes that things have improved in my absence. In reality, the reverse is true - to my six-year-old self, Back to the Forest was once a game worth owning. Now I'm on the fence as to whether it should even exist.

BttF is the third or fourth game in the Skunny series and the pinnacle of their creative success. Though I can't be certain of the release order (they released six Skunny games in 1993 to appease the masses), it's believed that this is Copysoft's first attempt at a platformer, perhaps even their first game ever, nobody is entirely sure. This is the game meant to define Skunny the Squirrel - he's shot down aliens on the moon and participated in the first gulf war, but now it's time to jump about a bit and show his face to the world.

And what a piece of garbage this game truly is. Before we begin, let's discuss the legal situation with Skunny the Squirrel - none of these games are kind to your wallets, and shareware versions only offer a measly two levels of play before whining about registration and order forms. At the time, this took people like me completely by surprise - shareware in our minds was much like Commander Keen or Duke Nukem - an entire volume of free gameplay with double-digit levels and hours of entertainment. Not in Skunny's world. Skunny demands you pay up. USD $5 in 2012, even though these days you're forced to acquaint yourself with DOSBox to give it a go.

At the time, things were more costly, and on top of this, you had no idea what you were buying. The demos are too short to suggest what lies ahead and they're simply not good enough to provoke impulse purchases. Never did Copysoft mention that there was only one music track in the entire game (no joke) and that the level graphics would rarely differ. What about the fact there are only ten levels in Back to the Forest in total, and that Skunny's playable girlfriend is just as useless as he is? You're not paying for anything "new", just more of the same - this was always poor value for money.

So what are the key problems? Well, Skunny moves too fast. Jumping is awkward and levels are designed to screw you over. You want to move quickly across the screen - it's an exhilarating experience, but doing so will have you killed because like so many other Sonic-inspired platformers, Skunny can't defend himself most of the time. You need platforming technique in order to succeed, yet the game is driven by strict time limits and is therefore governed on moments of panic. You watch the seconds pass you by as you stand on a painfully slow moving platform, and inevitably take a risk - you run to the right and jump, and then you die. And then the game patronises you.

But the thing that makes Skunny: Back to the Forest memorable is that when you do succeed, you're granted super powers, allowing you to take revenge on the game through to the sounds of explosions. I've never seen anything like this neither before nor since - flying over any ground tile causes it to turn into bonus points, and this is amazing. Much of this game relies on you ruining Copysoft's work - it's a fantastic risk-versus-reward feature, it's just a shame you have to cause yourself mental harm to get to this point.

But of course, level "destruction" aside, Back to the Forest is a disgrace to gaming. Yet perhaps surprisingly, it's a charming disgrace - I have no love for Skunny the Squirrel and his stupid ugly American "jock" outfit, but it's so refreshing to hear him scream in agony when he falls down a pit. It's like the game knows it sucks, hiding its flaws under a banner of ironic comedy. The game is by no means unplayable, but rather, it was coded by people who knowingly couldn't grasp the laws of physics, and it's the fact they put a price tag on their failure which annoys me. There are much worse platformers out there, but many, many more which fare better.

BttF was followed by a plethora of odd sequels - Skunny: Save Our Pizzas sacrificed high speed action in favour of stupidly hard platforming unsuitable for the target audience, and Wild West went one step further to hide the shame by equipping Skunny with firearms. The series also stepped into Mario Kart clone territory with the surprisingly decent Skunny Kart, and finally had a last dtich effort to grab attention with Skunny: Special Edition, a complete overhaul once again failing to make a dent in the industry.

Back to the Forest isn't a game that can be easily hated. It's clear that it tries, and its outdated mechanics are integral to the experience. I emplore you to seek out and witness this trainwreck first hand. It doesn't deserve your money, but you can spare it five minutes.

1 comment:

  1. (I keep wondering whether Skunny is a form of Skuirrel Bunny)

    Seems pretty cool with the super power.