Spy Fox in Dry Cereal

Spy Fox in Dry Cereal - Android, iPad, iPhone, Linux, Macintosh, Wii, Windows (1997)

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Spy Fox

James Bond has left an undeniable mark on gaming history. Bond and Bond-inspired titles like Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark helped develop stealth and first person shooter games, while the abysmal James Pond series tried to build an entire platformer franchise out of a couple horrible puns.

For Humongous Entertainment, the Spy Fox series allowed the kid-focused developer to aim for a slighter older audience of kids aged 5-10, in the process creating perhaps their silliest franchise. Focusing on the secret operation of SPY Corps Agent Fox, known to just about everyone as Spy Fox, the series brings a silly vintage spy movie approach to a goofy world of talking animal characters.

The older demographic means Spy Fox’s missions often feature more action and higher stakes than the average Humongous title. Spy Fox takes on a villain in each game, foiling their villainous plots through traditional point-and-click puzzle-solving.

The first game starts with its villain, a diminutive goat named William the Kid, announcing his plan to deprive the world of all bovine dairy products in a plot to take over the entire [dairy] world. Spy Fox is then introduced on an airplane. When  a shifty flight attendant bringing in-flight meals convinces him to choose “The Greek Plate”, the meal proves to be a transmission from SPY Corps headquarters, and Agent Monkey Penny alerts Agent Fox that the offices of Amalgamated Moo Juice Inc. have been ransacked, and that the world’s supplies of dairy products will soon run out. The only clue left on the scene is a pile of low-grade Feta cheese.

Agent Fox’s mission begins with the assignment to find the missing CEO Hugh Heffer Udderly III. The feta cheese samples have been traced to the Greek Isle of Acidophilus below, so Spy Fox springs into action, falling through his plane and towards the isle.

Besides the typical inventory puzzles of Humongous Entertainment games, Spy Fox also deepens the range of interactions that can be made between the player and the world. One section in Spy Fox’s inventory is reserved for spy gadgets, which generally only have one or two uses in context-specific situations. Another section holds his notes, in which he can use to ask NPCs about other characters of things of interest. The inventory is accessed only by bringing the cursor to the bottom of the screen.

The result is a more complex approach to the point-and-click genre than previous Humongous titles, with more verbs that the player can use to communicate with the game world. In order to offset the higher stakes storylines, Spy Fox in Dry Cereal doubles as a comedy in the style of Get Smart, with a nasal voiced, snarky hero who refuses to be bothered by just about any situation.

The characters and world of Spy Fox are rendered in a flat, clipart-esque style with strong but playful outlines. While animation is still fairly choppy, the sense of style gives the game a distinct look, and the environments are realized with some nice details, like the rippling water on the docks, or the silhouettes of birds that can be seen flying by in the distance. The later section of the game delights in the retro designs of supervillain hideouts. The game also has fun with its world of animal creatures, like having the SPY corp tracking bug be an actual insect, or having another informant, a giraffe, hide inside a thin, twisted drainpipe. Spy Fox himself is an angular and highly stylized character with short legs, a long torso a large nose and a white bow-tied tuxedo whose eyes often gaze slightly into the foreground, narrating the events around him as if he’s aware of the player’s presence behind the screen, but doesn’t want to address or acknowledge them directly.

As an avatar, Spy Fox does a lot to relieve the inherent tension of a high-stakes spy plot, letting the audience know at times that it’s all one big gag. The character is incapable of getting hurt in any meaningful way, so even when situations get dangerous, there are few cases where the player is significantly penalized for making the wrong choice.

Spy Fox becomes playable in “Dry Cereal” after jumping out of his moving plane, and calmly noting that he left his parachute in his other tuxedo. The player then is shown several spy pens, which when pressed will transform into gadgets that the spy may use to cushion his landing.

Some of these gadgets will be duds, like a safe, which Spy Fox notes doesn’t seem like a safe choice, or a military tank, to which Spy Fox will say, “Tanks, but no tanks.” The pens are randomized, and there’s no penalty for picking the wrong one. Eventually the player picks the right one, be it a fishing rod he can use to swing down from a helicopter, or a whoopie cushion that can somehow cushion his fall, and the spy will descend unscathed to the sleepy Greek isle of Acidophilus, the game’s main setting.

Upon landing, the player is alerted to the game’s other iteration upon the Humongous Entertainment format, the addition of the SPY Watch, an interface that allows the player to save and load games, play a mini game, and communicate with other agents of SPYcorp for hints, although outside of plot points those hints are largely rote ones.

After a short puzzle that consists of just calling a number in a phone booth, Spy Fox is transported to the SPY Corps underground Mobile Command Center, where he meets up with Agent Monkey Penny and acquires his first gadget, a laser toothbrush that can cut through metal, as well as money to buy whatever goods he might need later on.

What follows is sort of a tutorial mission, introducing the functionality of gadgets and the game’s general approach to problem-solving. Spy Fox must find Mr. Udderly, and the Feta factory down by the docks seems suspicious. He heads down there, finding a steel door in his way.

After using the laser toothbrush to break through the steel door of the Feta factory, Spy Fox finds Mr. Udderly hanging, tied up, over a pool of piranhas. The player must find a way to save him. The piranha pool has temperature control buttons. By making the pool colder, the player eventually freezes it, thus allowing Udderly to be released without harm onto the frozen pool.

Taken back to the Mobile Command Center, Udderly gives a warped re-telling of his kidnapping, with his words playing against visuals that suggest a less flattering truth. In the middle of a day largely spent sharpening pencils, two goons of the evil William the Kid with boots covered in feta cheese emerged from beneath the ground, stuffing Udderly into a bag. They took Udderly to Kid’s fortress, where Udderly learned details of the villain’s plans.

Kid’s plan of world (or at least dairy) domination is run by a front company, Nectar of the Goat, or NOG. Kid plans to kidnap all dairy cows, which he apparently already has done, then he will use a “Milky Weapon of Destruction” to flood the US Capitol with milk, at which point he’ll frame the dairy cows for the crime, allowing goats to take over the dairy world. These plans are more than a little incoherent, but being a kids comedy spy game, it’s not too important. What is important is that Spy Fox infiltrates the fortress and disables the weapon.

Udderly also stole the plans that reveal the item that turns off the weapon, but in order to conceal them, he swallowed the code. At this point, the player is introduced to the SPY Vending Machine, the means through which the player acquires gadgets. By taking out the X-Ray Gum gadget, the player can find out which of three possible items the player will need to shut down the weapon.

Like other Humongous games from the mid-90s on, Spy Fox features multiple “paths” on each playthrough. The first main goal of the game is entering Kid’s fortress, and there are two methods that this can play out at random. There are then three different items that may be needed to shut down the Milky Weapon of Destruction. The short section after Spy Fox disarms the weapon can also go one of two ways. All of these paths bring small changes to the landscapes and inhabitants of the world, encouraging replayability and making up for the game’s shorter length. Some gadgets and items are only needed to be used in certain playthroughs, like the booby-trapped nickel that is needed to detain guards in one section of the fortress.

If there’s an issue with this system, it’s that players lack the ability to know which path they’ll get at the start, which means they’ll likely have to replay at least parts of the game in order to see new content. Some of the paths are also more difficult than others, with more challenging and complex puzzles. It can be fun to replay the game and see small details different, but just as boring to have to sit through identical content in order to get to the new stuff.

The game’s humor comes from a mix of cultural referencing and puns. It definitely seems to be aimed at parents as well as children in that way. Informant Walter Wireless is a puny bug that speaks in a Walter Cronkite impression, for example, and when Spy Fox first contacts the Mobile Command Center, he says, “Penny, I’ve got your number,” a reference to a Night Ranger song.

On the other hand, the game also loves to make puns about goats and cows, as well as delights in absurd spy movie tropes, be it the piranha pool or the way the gadget-inventing Professor Quack eats the blueprints of every gadget after explaining the device’s function, always commenting on the taste of the particular blueprint.

The world of the game is significantly less friendly than that of other Humongous games. The owner of the town concession stand shows clear disdain for Spy Fox, as does the weasel guarding an exclusive boat party. One of the first NPCs the player meets is a short bird with an animated chest tattoo. Spy Fox’s cool demeanor helps diffuse this. He rarely drops his confident smirk, even when conditions seem dangerous and those around him are less than eager to help.

The puzzles are definitely more difficult than the younger-skewing Humongous Entertainment games, and many have to be done within tight time frames. In order to get onto the Deck Party on the S.S. Deadweight, which is required in either path to get into Kid’s fortress, the player must distract the concession stand owner while using a gadget to copy his invitation aboard the ship within a short time frame. In one path, the player must click the correct pathway for Spy Fox’s car to take towards Kid’s fortress before the car drives on its own down another path. In another, Spy Fox must attach a fishing line to a guard’s belt while he isn’t looking. The game expects a level of familiarity with point-and-click games, or at least the other ones by its developer, and that means players must act fast.

The game’s soundtrack is strong, although marred by a low bit-rate that means much of the music is tinny, and can have some noise. This is less of a hang-up when considering the tinny computer speakers of the time, but played with headphones the flaws become evident. Still, the composition quality is strong; short jazzy and Mediterranean-influenced tracks bring character to the island of Acidophilus, which helps given the generally low amount of NPCs.

One of the game’s best puzzles actually doubles as a lesson in music. The game’s closest thing to a Bond Girl, the duplicitous deck party host Russian Blue, has connections to William the Kid, and Spy Fox needs to leave a tracking bug on her in order to find the fortress. In order to do so, he needs to dance with her, but she only dances to the tango. Spy Fox must swipe a piece of the sheet music the band aboard the ship is playing and trade that sheet with the organist at the local cantina, who is playing tango. Both the waltz and tango songs have recordings with arrangements for the deck band and the cantina band. Switching the tango sheet music into the ship bandleader’s music stand drives the shady cat to immediately tango with Spy Fox, giving the player the chance to bug her bag.

The game features two minigames. The first is playable from clicking on the “Fun” button on Spy Fox’s SPY watch. The game is called Happy Fun Sub, and it’s a surprisingly difficult arcade side-scrolling shooter. The player switches between submarine, boat and aircraft forms to advance over a series of levels. The main issue here is the controls. The game is mouse controlled and the submarine moves pretty sluggishly. It can shoot submarine sandwiches as a weapon, but they’re rather slow moving while threats often come on very quickly. It’s hard to tell what is scenery, and what will kill the player. All in all, it’s a cumbersome game.

Consequently, it seems unlikely that most players will spend much time with the game even though it does some interesting things, like forcing the player to go above ground to avoid underwater rock formations. It’s also hard to tell what in the game is an obstacle, and what isn’t, making for an overall frustrating experience. According to The Cutting Room Floor, Happy Fun Sub seems to have suffered from cuts during Dry Cereal’s development, with proposed power-ups and a how-to-play section cut from the final game.

The other minigame is integrated into the cantina, and is necessary in one of the two paths to William the Kid’s fortress, but thankfully, it’s much less difficult. It’s a one-on-one game of Go Fish with the conniving Mr. Bigpig. Parodying the high-stakes games of Baccarat found in Bond movies, the Go Fish game is silly, but also well-done. It rewards players who listen and strategize, even if the card game itself is a fairly simple one. As the player gets closer to beating Bigpig, his facial expression transforms from a confident grin into a desperate, sweating frown. Bigpig himself is one of the most fun characters in the game, seemingly being played with a Sydney Greenstreet impression. The go fish game is accessible in both paths to the fortress, although only necessary in one.

Once the player finally enters Kid’s fortress, and then manages to shut down the Milky Weapon of Destruction, the game isn’t quite over yet. Kid has a Plan B, flooding the pen of his dairy cows with milk. Following another puzzle with two possible “paths”, Spy Fox drains the flooded stables and Kid escapes in his getaway blimp. If the player clicks on a truck on-screen before Kid escapes, Spy Fox jumps into it and gives chase. After another timed prompt, Spy Fox either loses Kid again or makes it onto the blimp. If Kid gets away, the player gets a “bad” ending of sorts, where Spy Fox is given “The Little Daddy Congressional Cookie of Justice” from a Clinton-esque President.

If Spy Fox does make it onto Kid’s blimp, the game’s final section begins: a series of puzzles that end with Spy Fox using a toaster to launch Kid from his blimp directly into a”evil villain jail”, after which Spy Fox receives the Big Daddy Congressional Cookie of Justice.

“I’ve got my cookie. Has anyone got milk?” Spy Fox replies.

All in all, a single playthrough of Spy Fox in Dry Cereal should take about an hour, although it may take longer if players struggle with the puzzles, which aren’t always obvious. Still, the game does a pretty good job of telegraphing the answers to its puzzles, for the most part. The “White Water” path to the fortress, which involves navigating with latitude and longitude and a puzzle involving wires is pretty difficult, but is also creative and interesting. The game tends to give first-time players the easier path anyway.

Like all Humongous games, Spy Fox in Dry Cereal is fully voice acted, and for the most part, it’s well done, featuring many of the same actors as other Humongous games. Bob Zenk’s performance as Spy Fox is especially good, nasally and snarky and often funny. Zenk isn’t the only person to perform the role however.

In the UK, Spy Fox was instead portrayed by Andrew Wale, as the entire game features its own British dub. This dub was also accidentally released in the US in 2001. Wale’s take on Spy Fox is more suave and Bond-like compared to Zenk’s portrayal. This change also makes some small changes to the script, like replacing the US Capitol Building with the UK Parliament, and replacing the Clinton-like President from the end of the game with a Prime Minister character. When the game was reissued on Steam by Night Dive Studios in 2014, the British dub was initially the only version available, but owners of the game can now switch between the two dubs in the Steam properties menu.

Besides the original Windows and Macintosh CD-Rom releases, Dry Cereal has been a favorite of reissues, even as the rights to it have switched between owners. In 2008, the game received a Wii port by budget studio Mistic Software. The port unfortunately has a lot of issues. Running on an apparently unauthorized version of ScummVM, the port is sped up and has its audio pitched up, which messes up timing for jokes and cuts off some audio cues, as well as making the game’s time sensitive puzzles much more difficult. It also renders Happy Fun Sub nearly unplayable through the control and speed changes. Past that, it’s largely the same game, but with the Wii remote taking the place of the mouse.

The game received an iOS port in 2012 from Nimbus Games. Android and Linux ports followed in 2014. The Android port unfortunately seems to also suffer from the same sped-up voices and gameplay as the Wii port, and the touch-based interface makes accessing spy gadgets very difficult. The current version on the app store appears to be a ScummVM port by Tommo Inc.

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