Saturday, 17 July 2021

Vixen (Martech, 1988)

Developed by Intelligent Design
Music by Jason C. Brooke

Amstrad CPC:
Programming by Ian McArdle and D. Richards
Graphics by Malcolm J. Smith and Mark Eason

Atari ST:
Programming by Ian McArdle and Jonathan Howell
Graphics by Malcolm J. Smith and Mark Eason

Commodore 64 & IBM-PC compatibles:
Programming by Nicholas A. Jones
Graphics by Malcolm J. Smith and Mark Eason

Commodore Amiga:
Programming by Ian McArdle, Jonathan Howell and D. Richards
Graphics by Malcolm J. Smith and Mark Eason

Sinclair ZX Spectrum:
Programming by Ian McArdle and D. Richards
Graphics by Malcolm J. Smith

Also released as "She-Fox" in Germany.



Due to a request, I started looking into more run 'n' gun -type games, and didn't really find much to write about, unless you went for the REALLY big ones. I decided that since Contra in all its versions has been so well documented and compared elsewhere, I'll try to find a lesser-known game with enough versions to make it interesting. A childhood favourite of mine, and an unimportant curiosity elsewhere, by the name of Vixen popped into my head, which I decided to take a closer look at, since I hadn't played it in over 20 years or so.

Vixen has nothing to do with the 1980's all-female glam metal band by the same name, although it might as well have. The girl in the cover art, Corinne Russell, certainly looks the part to some degree, and she used to be a glamour model and dancer in the 1980's - she even performed in AC/DC's video for "You Shook Me All Night Long", so she had some rock credentials. With Maria Whittaker having appeared on the cover of Barbarian the Ultimate Warrior in 1987, and Samantha Fox and Sabrina getting their own games in 1986 and 1988 respectively, the usage of scantily clad female pop culture persons was becoming a new norm. With Vixen, though, Intelligent Design created their own specific sort of superheroine.

The hooplah didn't last very long with this werefox, though, and I'm convinced Vixen wouldn't be half as well-known had it not been for the rampant piracy at the time. The current scores at our favourite haunts tell the story perhaps with much more efficiency than I ever could bother, so unless you're in for an exercise in mediocrity... the current score at CPC-Power is 11 out of 20, and the review at CPC Game Reviews has a 6 out of 10; the rating at Lemon64 is 5.3 from 38 votes; the old archived World of Spectrum site had a score of 6.53 from 21 votes; at Atarimania, the ST version has 6.2 from only 6 votes; the LemonAmiga score is a hilariously low 3.36 from 33 votes; and the DOS version has a 4.43 out of 5.0 from 7 votes at My Abandonware - couldn't find the game from Abandonia. Well, I suppose we're in for a treat...



Short version: it's a largely uninteresting Rygar-clone.

Long version:

If you know Tecmo's arcade classic Rygar - Legendary Warrior, this is basically a budget version of it. If that doesn't ring a bell, well, it's your basic single-directionally scrolling platforming shooter with level breaks. Unlike Rygar, though, Vixen uses a whip instead of a projectile weapon, and she can turn into a fox for certain periods of time after having collected the required amount of items.

That, at least, is worth pointing out, and fox wasn't even a thing in games back then. This was well before Starfox (1993) and Titus the Fox (1992), and ImageWorks' Foxx Fights Back was still on its way for a November release, while Vixen brought the first playable fox on the screen in August 1988. So this was way before foxes were considered cool.

The best thing about Vixen is the main character's animations, which were reportedly animated with the help of some sort of motion capture technology, using the Page 3 lady herself, Corinne Russell, to model for all of Vixen's movements. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of variety in level design or gameplay to make the game interesting beyond the first five minutes, but it's definitely an interesting footnote in the history of platforming action games.



I almost decided to skip this section due to the three non-tape versions of the game, but I noticed that the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions had three variants of the game included on their respective tapes. Add to that, a bunch of different releases from various publishers, and you've got a surprisingly varied range of tape loaders and loading times.

AMSTRAD CPC, original: 12 min 50 sec (side A) + 6 min 48 sec (side B)
AMSTRAD CPC, Erbe: 13 min 10 sec (side A) + 6 min 35 sec (side B)
COMMODORE 64, original: 3 min 16 sec
COMMODORE 64, Alternative: 3 min 4 sec
ZX SPECTRUM, original: 10 min 56 sec (side A) + 6 min 14 sec (side B)
ZX SPECTRUM, Erbe Serie Leyenda: 10 min 48 sec (side A) + 4 min 59 sec (side B)
ZX SPECTRUM, Erbe: 10 min 26 sec (side A) + 4 min 56 sec (side B)
ZX SPECTRUM, React: 10 min 15 sec (side A) + 4 min 34 sec (side B)

So, on the SPECTRUM tapes, each variant loads up in about 5 minutes or slightly less, and on the AMSTRAD tapes, it's well over 6 minutes each. Not very surprisingly, the C64 versions are the quickest, but then you don't get any variants. You will find out why, soon enough. It's worth noting, though, that all versions of Vixen were released on disk - tapes are in the minority this time.

Loading screens. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
Bottom row, left to right: Commodore Amiga (with emulation problems), Atari ST, IBM-PC.

Whoever was responsible for the loading screen, didn't really use much of imagination. All the loading screens use one of two variations of the cover art, either digitized from the photo or sloppily pixelated. The C64 and SPECTRUM versions use the picture that was used for one of the re-releases and the poster that was included in the original release, and the other versions use the regular cover photo as the model. Naturally, the only way you can get a good loading screen with this method is to use a machine with enough graphical capabilities to make it look alright, so the only good-looking loading screens are on the AMIGA and ATARI ST. Except, the AMIGA version uses a weird screen mode that makes it look darker than usual.



Controlling Vixen is simple enough. Assuming you're playing on a joystick, which is the default option for most versions, you run left and right by moving the joystick accordingly. You can jump either upwards or diagonally by moving the joystick into any upwards direction, and you can also crouch and move while crouching by moving the joystick into any downwards direction. Fire button uses the whip into the direction you're facing, in whatever position you happen to be in. The 8-bit versions all have options for keyboard controls. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD share the same mapping: A and Z are up and down, N and M are left and right, and Space Bar takes the role of the fire button. The C64 version uses the more Speccyish set of keys with Q, A, O, P and Space.

As you start your trek to the right, you will eventually notice large hanging marble-like containers, which always have a large fox head inside them. Whip them open and collect these fox heads to get your fox power meter up. The other things you need to whip open are the V-marked containers, which mostly contain gems, but sometimes whip upgrades, smart bombs and other items. Once you complete a level with a fox meter filled, you will turn into a fox and go through the following bonus level in that form. In fox form, you move around very much in the same manner as in human form, except you need to pick up the objects revealed from under the V-marked containers after you have walked past them, and you do that by clawing them when you're on the spot. Opening the containers happens automatically when you're a fox.

Of course, while you're doing all of this collecting stuff, you also need to watch out for various kinds of alien enemies that have no resemblance to anything off from our Earth. As you start the game, the first enemies you encounter are ground-based, but some of them can jump around. Some of them move faster, some slower, but none are wise enough not to fall into holes and die. After the first bonus level, the enemy catalogue increases by airborne enemies, which increase in variety on later levels.

In the C64, DOS, AMIGA and ST versions, you start the game with no less than 10 lives, which is quite odd, since most arcade-action games of this type would have either 3 or 5 lives to start with. I'm guessing the game's designer realized Vixen is, even at its easiest, so difficult that in order to give gamers a fighting chance, a greater number of lives would be required. Of course, rebalancing the game wasn't an option back then. For some reason, though, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions start with 5 lives.

As you will be likely to drop dead increasingly often after the first time as a fox, it's a good thing the game also introduces extra life items around that exact time, which are pickable from random V-containers. The reason why you will start dying more often after the first fox transformation is, that the enemies in subsequent levels require more hits, and some are also too small to hit with your whip, so you need to jump over some of them. Picking up a whip upgrade in the fox level is practically necessary.

The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions differ from all the other versions by having three variations on the tape/disk. When I first saw the three loadable programs, I kind of expected them to be different levels, as in, continuation of the game. But no, they are actually different difficulty levels, with the second program being the middle difficulty and the third one the hardest one. If you don't have much of previous experience with Vixen, you might not think much of the variations, but the level designs are very different for each program, and the enemies you encounter in the first level are notably more advanced compared to the ones in the first program.

If you really like this game for some reason, the two extra difficulty levels do add some value to the game, but it doesn't really fix the problem of being quite boring on the long run. Nor does it make the gameplay much better, when the scrolling is a bit sluggish and jerky on the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD, more so on the latter. Mind you, it's still not quite as bad as on the AMIGA and ST versions, considering the hardware. Perhaps for the 16-bits' advantage, your enemies move notably slower than on the two aforementioned 8-bits, which makes the 16-bits slightly easier to play in that particular sense. This sense of ease, however, has been ruined with a higher tendency to slide and drop off ledges, where you're supposed to jump from to the next platform.

The DOS version has its own specific problems. It plays pretty much exactly like the AMIGA and ST versions, so it's already horrible enough, but you get the additional problem of having to deal with code that hasn't been optimized for PC's with processors better than a specific type, so even if you try to select an old EGA-equivalent machine type from DOSbox, you're likely to get unplayably high cycles. With DOSbox, though, the EGA emulation is the way to go, but you have to lower the cycles to somewhere just under 1000 cycles to run it close to the speed of the other versions. As if that weren't enough, the keyboard controls priorities your order of pushing keys down, so if, for example, you're crouching and whipping into one direction, you can't turn the other way round while crouching and continue whipping away - you have to release all the keys in order to be able to turn the other way. The game is also very picky about what type of a joystick you would be using, so I haven't been able to play Vixen on DOS with a joystick at all, making it clearly the worst choice all around.

If you're looking for smooth playability, the C64 is your only real choice here. Not only do you get smooth and fast scrolling, but the field of view is wider than on the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, and you don't randomly slip down from ledges you're not supposed to like on the 16-bits.




I'm sure part of the reason anyone ever actually bought this game as an original was the cover art, hoping you would actually get to play as a Corinne Russell look-a-like. Well, in a way, you actually do, since reportedly, her movements were digitized and animated for the game character. But for a closer digitized look of her, you only got the loading screen, which we already dealt with earlier.

Title screens. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
Bottom row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, IBM-PC.

Well, if there's anything to be deduced from the title screen, it is that the C64 would be the only version with anything interesting of a graphical nature happening on the long run. The title screen on the C64 features a bouncing title logo, along with a bunch of alternating text and blue frames bordering the screen's outer borders. For the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, you only get solid screens with plenty of text and some pretty basic frames, and in the case of the SPECTRUM version, a blue background colour. For the 16-bits, you get a variety of similar brown signs with almost unreadable texts in the middle of odd-looking textures. The 8-bits take an easy win here.

In-game screens from the Commodore 64 version.

When you get to view the game in action, the only remotely impressive thing about it is the animations of our protagonist, since they were apparently captured from the movements of Corinne Russell herself. At least for the running bits and the other poses, it might well be the case, but I can't imagine the fox animations were made after Corinne's poses. In the C64 version, the Corinne-sprite is well-enough defined and coloured to be considered pleasant to look at.

For the backgrounds, you get a very basic black backdrop with some random stars thrown in here and there, while the ornamental foreground elements are hi-res monochrome items, such as the palm trees and the claw-like tree-structures that hold the chained marble containers. The marbles and the ground structures are the only things in the action area, which use a lower-resolution, multi-colour mode. All the enemies are monochrome, as are the V-containers. The only graphical trick you see here is a cheap parallax scrolling effect on the water at the bottom of the screen, but at least the water is animated.

Hogging more than one third of the C64 screen's height, you see the info panel, which has plenty of blue ornamental elements. I think the ones in the middle are two flying dragon-like creatures. There are five different info containers in the area: the top one shows you the number of lives, the bottom one shows you the amount of fox power, the left one is the level timer, the right one is the score counter, and the middle one shows the collected gems.

In-game screens from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version.

As you might have expected, the SPECTRUM version is monochrome all the way. On a positive note, the action is shown a bit closer to the protagonist, which makes it more fun to follow the Vixen sprites, but then all the enemies appear on the screen closer to yourself, requiring quicker reflexes. The colours are a bit problematic, particularly when you change from a human level to a fox level and see the horrible clash between the yellow and magenta ground colours. All the enemies are white, and so are you, which must be that way to keep all the moving things separated from the unmoving ones. There's a more pronounced lack of ornamental foreground elements here than on the C64, which makes the game world look very barren, apart from the occasional claw tree and the V-containers.

I like the info panel here, though - it's very colourful compared to the C64 equivalent, and the switch of places between the Fox power meter and the gem container is a nice touch. However, all the gems look exactly the same, which gives the game an even cheaper feel than you could have expected. This I find a bit odd, since the gems you pick up are differently coloured than the ones that end up on the gem panel.

In-game screens from the Amstrad CPC version.

The AMSTRAD version uses the multicolour lo-res mode all the way, which makes the game look appropriately comicbookish, but it loses much of its hi-res -based attraction while at it. Similarly to the SPECTRUM version, you get a narrower screen size, but you also get a more barren world, which makes the game feel more hostile and uninviting than perhaps necessary. The colours aren't quite as odd as on the SPECTRUM, but it's still an odd combination of unnatural colours. At least the info panel design is similar to the C64 version, but the background graphics show two very different sorts of dinosaurs, and the gems are again all of the same colour.

If the narrower screen size doesn't put you off, then perhaps the choppy and slow scrolling will. Granted, the slowness makes it easier to react to approaching enemies, but the game's monotonic nature also gets emphasized that way. The AMSTRAD is the worst in this regard of the three 8-bits, the SPECTRUM being the second worst.

In-game screens from the Atari ST version.

For the 16-bit versions, the graphics are more alive in some ways. Not only does the actual background now have a changing colouring for each level, but there are notably more foreground ornamental things to marvel at. Not that there's anything to actually marvel at, there's just more of it, and it does look more colourful and better defined than on any of the 8-bits. What's also notable about the backgrounds is, that when the timer starts getting closer to zero (something like 30 or less), the background goes darker, as if the night is falling, but that wouldn't make much sense, as when you pick up a timer bonus, the background goes back to light again. But anyway, it's a 16-bit thing.

The info panel looks closest to the one in the AMSTRAD version, only it has been stretched to give more room for the hi-res dinosaurs. The collected gems are now differently coloured, but they look otherwise similar. This look goes for all the 16-bits.

Oddly, the game scrolls as choppily on the 16-bits as it does on AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM, but at least you get a bigger variety of enemies - and more notably, enemy sizes. And I have to say, I'm not a big fan of the overall comic book style of the colouring on the 16-bits, because the high-contrast colouring makes some of the graphics a bit sharp to look at.

In-game screens from the Commodore Amiga version.

The AMIGA version looks otherwise exactly the same as the ATARI ST version, but it uses that odd screen mode, which makes everything darker than usual... except that it doesn't do that on real hardware. It's something like we saw on APB, if you remember that one. I would usually call this a lazy Atari port, but the weird thing is, the AMIGA version actually scrolls slightly faster - not enough to call it fluid, but better than the ST, at any case. If you do play Vixen on an Amiga, it does look less dark on real hardware than on emulators.

In-game screens from the IBM-PC (DOS) version.

The DOS version looks otherwise similar to the AMIGA and ST versions, but there are no background colours and variations. It's just black - in fact, the only other version with similar blackness is the AMSTRAD version. But at least you get the foreground ornamental elements and some more variations in ground colouring. The EGA palette for this game has a bit of a grey tinge to everything, so it looks a bit odd in that sense, but that kind of adds its own peculiar charm to the DOS version. And of course, while it scrolls as choppily as most other versions, at least you can turn up the clock rate in DOSbox to make it faster than you could ever wish.

High scores and Game Over screens. Left: Commodore 64. Right: Atari/Amiga/PC.
Top middle: ZX Spectrum. Low middle: Amstrad CPC.

As the final surprise, the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions don't have a high score table to put your name into. Then again, the C64 and 16-bit versions don't have a separate Game Over screen. The C64 version shows one of the most elaborate Game Over messages ever made for an 8-bit game, followed by the bit where you enter your name into the "hallowed Vixen top ten"; and then there's the separate top ten screen. Graphically, there's nothing you haven't seen before, but the amount of text is unexpected. The AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions also have unexpectedly worded Game Over messages, that just show up in a box in the middle of the screen, and then you are taken back to the title screen, which shows the high score and the latest score somewhere in the middle of the screen. The high score tables and other text screens on the 16-bits are still as unreadable as they were before you started the game.

For me, a memorable title screen is an important part of the game experience. When it works, it works, and when you can barely read anything, it doesn't. Well, it's memorable either way, but I prefer that it works. The 16-bits surely have more colours and ornamental graphics in them, but the choppy and slow scrolling makes the game feel cheaper than it should, which makes the C64 version feel like the only one they even put any effort into. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions feel a bit disabled to a similar extent, only in different ways, and the additional content doesn't help the game one bit.




Because the C64 version has been exhibiting general supremacy in this game, we might as well start with that one in this section. The title screen features an unremarkable four-chord progression with a melody that doesn't really get stuck in your mind, unless you listen to it for several minutes. This, I have to point out, is a rather odd occurence in Jason C. Brooke's catalogue of game soundtracks, as his more recognizable C64 soundtracks feature such titles as GryZor (Contra), Motos, Andy Capp, Out Run, Supertrux and Pi R Squared. Not to worry, though; the in-game tune is much more recognizable, if only because it starts off with a nice jungle-inspired drum beat, which lasts for a few bars before the melody kicks in. Although it seems like there are only three chords in the in-game tune, since that's mostly how long each level takes to complete before the song turns into something different, the melody is much better composed than in the title screen tune, so it has some certain character that makes you remember it more easily. The only other tune you hear is a small fanfare-like extract/variation on the main theme, whenever you finish a level.

Although the soundtrack is rather compact, you do get a fair amount of sound effects to go along with the music. The great thing is, the effects don't interfere with the music, so you don't even feel the need to turn either off. Not that you would even be able to. Anyway, you get to hear plenty of whip-snapping, various bloopy sounds for picking up items and killing enemies, and a couple of more "out-there" sounds, most notably the annoying laughter-like effect, which plays each time you either lose a life, pick up a smart bomb or end a level with no gems collected. All in all, not the richest soundtrack on the C64, but recognizable and well-made.

Continuing with the 8-bits, the AMSTRAD version only features music in the title screen, but it's the tune that was featured as the in-game tune on the C64. The only bit of music you hear is the little fanfare after completing a level, but that hardly counts. Because Jason C. Brooke made the soundtrack for all versions, you can't expect much of variety in terms of quality and/or arrangements. The music and sound effects featured in the AMSTRAD version are as close to their C64 counterparts as you can expect. Having no music while playing, though, makes the experience even more tedious than with music, but thankfully, the sound effects are rich in quantity and quality.

The SPECTRUM version, when played in 48k mode, doesn't offer any kinds of sounds at all. Play it on a 128k Speccy, though, and you'll hear pretty much exactly the same things as you hear in the AMSTRAD version. The familiar tune is placed in the title screen, and the only in-game music is the little fanfare. Nothing particularly interesting to report here.

Now, if we wish to make a transition of sorts to the 16-bits, the obvious choice is through the DOS version, which uses the single-channel beeper for sound output. Despite the beeper output, the DOS soundtrack is surprisingly rich and dynamic, and not just simple constant beeping as many early DOS games are. The 16-bit soundtrack consists of all the same tunes as were on the C64, but the order is now much more logical and fitting: the main theme tune, which was placed as the in-game tune, is now featured on the title screen as well as the main game sections, and the other tune, which was featured in the C64 title screen, is now used for the fox sections. Of course, with all the music and sound effects coming from a single-channel beeper, the sound effects take precedence over the music during game, and so, you will often hear more effects than music. Still, a valiant effort, and if it weren't for the higher quality sounds coming through the AY-chips, I would almost prefer the DOS soundtrack over the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions. As it is, I would place it alongside of those other two.

The ATARI ST version sounds very close to the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM 128k versions, which isn't much of a surprise considering the sound hardware - the YM2149F chip is a close relative to the AY-3-8912 chip used by the two noted 8-bits. However, like the DOS version, the ST soundtrack features all the music in best possible places, and even though you get both music and sound effects simultaneously, they don't really interfere with each other like they do in the DOS version. The sound effects are also a bit better than on either of the AY-chip machines, but they don't quite catch the unique weirdness of some of the effects on the C64 version. But since the music has been put to better use, I'm willing to give the ST version a higher spot than the C64.

Naturally, the AMIGA soundtrack is built on samples, so it sounds slightly closer to music made with more natural instruments, most particularly the jungle drum beat. The rest of the instruments sound fairly close to what you hear on the C64, but with the usual sampled style that all Amiga music has. It's the sound effects, however, which raise the Amiga version just a tiny bit above any other version, even though the annoying laughter effect is missing - the other sampled effects make up for that omission. The only problem with the Amiga soundtrack is, that the sound effects have a tendency to override the music, which is one of the main reasons to even load up the game, but I'm going to give it the top spot regardless of it.

On a final note, it is possible to toggle music (and leave sound effects on) during play in the DOS, AMIGA and ATARI ST versions, but the manual doesn't say how. The toggle key is F10 for the DOS and ATARI ST versions, but the AMIGA version has F10 as the pause key, which threw me off a bit. Upon further experimentation, I discovered the music toggling happens by pressing SHIFT + F10, which is unnecessarily difficult, when there are so many other single keys to choose from. Oh well.




Somehow, it feels like Vixen was tailored for the Commodore 64: the scrolling is unparalleled there; the feel of gameplay is as good as it gets; and the soundtrack has all the elements on the C64, which got sort of perfected on the ST and Amiga. While it's just about as interesting and playable to call it mediocre, the C64 version is where the game feels like it might deserve some cult classic status.

Playability 4, Graphics 4, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 11
2. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 10
3. ATARI ST: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 9
4. AMSTRAD CPC / ZX SPECTRUM 128k: Playability 3, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
5. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
5. ZX SPECTRUM 48k: Playability 3, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5

But don't let these scores tell you something that you would relatively easily decide for yourselves by playing the game on each of the machines. In case you're not willing to go through the same discomfort as I did, this video here should tell you enough.

That's it for now, and probably for the rest of the month, as I'm still a bit too busy with other things. There should be at least one more video coming up on FRGCB's YouTube channel before the end of the month, but whether it's gonna be a new Let's Play or a Nostalgia Trip episode, remains to be seen. At any rate, more comparisons will be coming up early next month, so until then, take care and keep on retrogaming!

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