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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (332)

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Tomba! 5/5
Odallus: The Dark Call 4/5
Dragon Quest Builders 4/5
Call of Juarez: Bound i... 3/5
Drakkhen 3.5/5
Unravel 3.5/5
Zero-K 2/5
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes... 4.5/5
AereA 1/5
Arcanum: of Steamworks ... 3/5
The Yawhg 3.5/5
Dungeon Defenders II 4/5
Spelunky 0.5/5
Hard Reset Redux 2.5/5
Girls and Dungeons 4/5
Time Tenshi 2 3.5/5
Time Tenshi 2.5/5
We Are the Dwarves 1/5
Shadow Warrior 3.5/5
Torment: Tides of Numen... 4.5/5
Hammerwatch 1.5/5
Metro Redux 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 3/5
Diluvion 3/5
Seiken Densetsu 3 ( Sec... 2.5/5

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Tomba!   PlayStation 

Indie Before Indie Was Cool    5/5 stars

Way back in 1997, I was a subscriber to the “PlayStation Underground.” Prior to Internet media blowing up, Sony tried to modernize the videogame fan magazine by mailing out a monthly PlayStation format disc to subscribers, containing a variety of articles, videos, and – most importantly – playable demos. It was in an issue of this experimental digital magazine that I first experienced the magic of “Tomba!” a Japanese 2D Platformer with tons of depth during an era in which clunky, ugly 3D Platformers were the order of the day. I had been OD-ing on RPGs in the PlayStation era, and was desperately thirsty for a 2D Platformer, a genre which had seemingly gone extinct, as a change of pace. When I played that demo of “Tomba!” in the “PlayStation Underground,” it wasn’t like giving a drink of water to a man dying of thirst in the desert, no it was like giving a drink of the finest, artisanal, botanically-infused Uber-wasser to a man dying of thirst in the desert. After taking a taste of “Tomba!” I found it impossible to want to play anything else, which made the wait for its official North American release incredibly painful.

Unfortunately, the developer of this amazing title, an Indie-developer-before-Indie-developers-were-a-thing, called Whoopee Camp, located in Osaka, Japan, relied on Sony to publish, distribute, and advertise their games, and Sony dropped the ball, causing Whoopee Camp to go bankrupt shortly after publishing the second ‘Tomba!’ game. It was a truly undeserved bankruptcy, as “Tomba!” was a truly amazing game, blending 2D Platforming with 2D and 3D assets, unique movement mechanics, and gobs of influence from other genres, including both RPGs and ‘Metroidvania’ style Action/Adventure titles. Upon re-playing this gem in RetroArch 20 years after the fact, the loss of Whoopee Camp’s further contributions to gaming only become more apparent.

Presentation
At a time when everyone was trying to copy Nintendo and produce super-low-poly-count 3D Platformers with blurry textures, jaggies out the wazoo, and horrifyingly short draw-distances, Whoopee Camp instead chose to blend the old with the new, in a more gradual evolution of game design. Much of the environment in “Tomba!” is sculpted from polygons. Many of these are flat planes with textures slapped over them to substitute for sprites, while others form more elaborate structures like buildings, mountains, caves, etc. On the other hand, the characters in “Tomba!” are entirely 2D sprite-based assets, created in the same pseudo-3D style seen in games like “Donkey Kong Country” and “Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.” The environments are also typically two layers deep, with both a navigable foreground and background. As a result, “Tomba!” always looked a lot cleaner than other fully-3D games, with plenty of animation and gobs of cartoony charm. “Tomba!” is also a decidedly unrealistic-looking game, with distinctly anime-inspired character designs and a number of anime/CG cutscenes.

Audio wise, “Tomba!” is competently well-done. There is very little voice-acting to speak of, but what there is is far better than the typical 5th Generation voice work. The soundtrack is a catchy mix tropical MIDI tunes with lots of steel drum. Even the sound effects are great, with the grunts and groan emitted by enemies, the titular hero Tomba’s combat shouts, and even the nice, meaty slap of his hands on a grab-able surface.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with “Tomba!” it’s a game from a time when console games were complete and properly bug-tested. It never crashes or misbehaves, though the load times on the original hardware can be a bit annoying. Playing the game in RetroArch is a dreamy experience, as the ability to upscale the internal resolution completely eliminates jaggies on the polygonal parts of the game, while bilinear smoothing makes the sprite-based parts of the game look incredibly sharp. It also helps that the load times are drastically shorter in an emulator.

Story
The titular Tomba is a wild boy with spiky, bright pink hair who lives in the woods, hunting boars and eating fruit in a simple pastoral life. One day, a group of strange, pink, anthropomorphic pigs appears in the woods, ambushing Tomba and stealing his only link to civilization and his past: a gold bracelet given to him by his grandpa.

Upon coming to his senses after the brutal attack, Tomba sets out in pursuit of these pigs in an attempt to recover the bracelet, only to learn that the pigs, who work for masters known as the Seven Evil Pigs, have been running riot all across the land, hoarding gold, and casting curses to make the environment more pig-friendly.

Tomba steps up to the task set before him by an elderly wise-man, and sets out to seal the powers of the Seven Evil Pigs inside seven specially-crafted Evil Pig Bags in order to restore the world to its natural state. Along the way, our ever-helpful hero meets a wide variety of colorful characters in distress and must solve a large number of minor dilemmas ranging from mundane to ridiculous.

“Tomba!” is not a serious game, by any means. It’s damn near a full-blown comedy, with plenty of pratfalls and ridiculous scenarios. Even the fact that Tomba must seal the Evil Pigs in Evil Pig Bags, which look like coin purses, seems to be a riff on the old chestnut of ‘making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.’ The translation is very well done, without a drop of Engrish anywhere to be found. Really, the only downside to “Tomba!’s plot and narrative is the fact that the backstory of the Seven Evil Pigs feels a bit contrived. How did they rise to power? How long have they been running riot? Who made the Evil Pig Bags? Much of this is expanded upon in the sequel, however, so there’s no reason to really get worked up about plot holes.

In the end, “Tomba!” is still a fairly short game, clocking in at under 10 hours, even for a 100% completionist run. But, honestly, it’s better to have a short game that’s really, really good all the way through than to have a long game that suffers from padding and pacing issues.

Gameplay
I didn’t realize it when I first played it back in 1998, but “Tomba!” is a ‘Metroidvania’ game. While at first it looks like a simple platformer where the objective is to travel from left to right, the game quickly begins to branch out, dumping Events upon the player, which is just another name for ‘Quests’ in any other game. The player will eventually guide Tomba through half a dozen different regions of the world, killing enemies, finding permanent power-ups, unlocking new paths, and backtracking through various shortcuts.

Out of the box, Tomba’s capabilities are fairly basic, yet also unique. He can run side-to side and jump, like any platforming hero, but instead of just stomping enemies or hitting them with a weapon, Tomba attacks enemies by grabbing them and biting them. This bite is essentially a wrestling hold, and Tomba can then throw a bitten enemy either left, right, or downward. He also has access to a ranged weapon attack that can stun enemies in order to make them easier targets for biting. As Tomba bites enemies of various colors, he also gains levels in three different elemental affinities, which don’t really come into play until much later with specific power-ups. Another skill Tomba has out of the box is the ability to climb walls and swing from protruding branches. Interestingly, Tomba can climb any smooth surface, whether it’s to his left or right on his own plane, or behind him in the background.

Due to its unique blend of 2D and 3D assets, “Tomba!” features two navigable planes in nearly every environment (similar to the 2-plane gameplay in certain SNK Fighting games). At certain points where the background plane and foreground plane interact, Tomba can switch between them, adding significant density to the amount of interactive stuff on any given screen.

The main way “Tomba!” incorporates RPG elements in in the AP system. Adventure Points, as they are called, are awarded to the player for killing enemies, finding one-off pickups in the game world, and by successfully completing Events. Some things in the game require Tomba to have a certain amount of AP, but the amount given out during normal play is so generous that grinding is never necessary.

Boss battles are also rather unique in “Tomba!.” Instead of following the ancient paradigm of pattern memorization while wearing down an overly-long health meter, or the modern Nintendo paradigm of bopping an enemy’s weak point 3 times, “Tomba!” fully embraces its in-world mythology of the Evil Pig Bags. Every boss in the game is one of the Evil Pigs, and the confrontation takes place in a special arena. During the battle, the Evil Pig Bag in Tomba’s inventory enlarges and occupies a specific space in the boss arena, where it moves in set pattern (either spinning, side-to-side, or up-and-down). It’s the player’s job to have Tomba bite the Evil Pig (as he bites every enemy), then chuck the pig into the bag’s opening. Thus, any given boss battle can become a one-shot kill… or it can drag on for far longer than necessary if the player has a hard time lining up their throws with the bag’s opening.

If “Tomba!” has a downside, it would have to be the fact that it includes an arcane and obsolete Lives System, side-by-side with a save system and generous dispersal of save points. Tomba starts with a handful of extra lives, but can find more scattered throughout the game, and earns more at certain AP thresholds. However, if the player runs out of lives, instead of being greeted by a ‘Continue?’ screen, they are greeted with a Game Over and a prompt to reload their last save (where they probably still have no extra lives). I honestly never found this system to be a problem, as both times I played through “Tomba!” I ended up with over 40 1-ups in reserve. However, I also was aware of this system, so if I died stupidly or meaninglessly shortly after saving, I’d just reload my save and try again.

Overall
“Tomba!” with its combination of 2D and 3D assets and gameplay, liberal borrowing from the RPG and ‘Metroidvania’ genres, and cartoony whimsicality, is truly one of the best games of the 5th Generation, and an amazing addition to the original PlayStation’s library. It’s a damn shame the developer, Whoopee Camp, is defunct… but the fact that they have an active Twitter account makes me wonder if, just maybe, this incredible series might rise again.

Presentation: 5/5
Story: 5/5
Gameplay: 5/5
Overall (not an average): 5/5

 

 


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