Nostalgia colors much of what I do in life. The PS1 remains my favorite system, and Pearl Jam, Bush, and Nirvana are still filling up my playlists. That makes it a little strange to go back and play PS1 games, because I usually either love them with their rose colored hue, or I just laugh at the handful of polygons, awful controls and long load times that plague many PS1 games. Tomba!, however, is different.
Tomba! (exclamation point-induced excitement comes free with the title) is an interesting game because it comes tinted with a bit of nostalgia even though I’ve never played it. Let me explain. There’s a special place in my heart for 2.5D sidescrollers. I loved Klonoa and Pandemonium on the PS1 and would gladly play any game similar to either of those. Tomba! has that 2.5D feel, and is the type of older game I actively seek out. With the convenience and relatively low cost of PS1 games released on the PSN, the classics are easier than ever to get a hold of.
Tomba! is quite unlike any other game I’ve played, on the PS1 or otherwise. It’s hard to pin down and clearly define due to the mixture of genre elements that make up the title. At first glance it seems to be a 2.5D platformer in the vein of the aforementioned PS1 classics. Soon after starting though, you get a sense of what else the game consists of. Within minutes, you are taking on and completing quests, and finding hubs where the camera switches to an overhead view and filled with townspeople to talk to. It even has some dungeon sections with treasure chests and loot to find. When did this RPG crash into my platformer? That is where Tomba! sits; in the center of a genre element Venn diagram. This mix gives Tomba! a unique identity and a refreshing feel that I wish I could have experienced in 1998 when it came out.
Tomba! starts with a pair of colorful CG intro videos to introduce you to its world. The story is as ludicrous as the garish color palette, but both serve to set up an almost Saturday morning cartoon-style feel to the game. Tomba is a cavemanboy (caveboy?) who is out jumping on normal pigs one day when seven evil space pigs descend and start wreaking havoc. The evil space porcine minions overrun the land, start mutating the trees into what looks like cotton candy and steal a bunch of gold and Tomba’s grandfather’s bracelet in the process. As Tomba, you must recover the bracelet while stopping the seven evil space pigs along the way (and all without the use of a single Angry Bird).
Since there is no finger flicking bird flinging here, the controls in Tomba! need to be precise to support the platforming. They are more than up to the task. This precision isn’t surprising considering the previous works of Tokuro Fujiwara, the creator of this game. He also created the Ghosts n’ Goblins series and produced Mega Man, which also employed tight platforming and precision controls. Incidentally, the GnG series is one of my all-time favorites. The controls should not be undersold though, because movement and jumping are very responsive. This is critical in making Tomba! the success it is.
The 2.5D gameplay is given an interesting twist due to the presence of multiple layers of the environment. Most of the platforming environments have front and back planes that you can traverse, as you would in the world of LittleBigPlanet. The transitions between these planes are a bit of a rough spot though, because it isn’t always easy to move back and forth. Instead, you have to find specific places to cross over. Having multiple planes is mostly a good thing in that it adds to the unique exploration aspect of the game (that one might cynically call too much backtracking), increases the density of items and events and adds to the game’s quirky charm. It does all of these things, but just know that it can be occasionally awkward.
While you are traversing the multilevel, multicolor areas in Tomba!, the main thing you will be doing, aside from platforming, is collecting items. These vary wildly in nature and are often required components of the myriad quests that you need to complete.
Thoroughness is the name of the game in Tomba! In order to find all of the items, you need to jump on top of every animal you see and cut down every marshmallow looking plant and blade of grass in your way. There are so many nooks and crannies in this game where items are stashed, that to find them all in a bid to complete all 130 events (quests), you really need to be thorough and prepare for extensive backtracking.
Some of these items do more than just fulfill event requirements. My favorite part of playing through this game is the way that your ability to move and interact with the environment changes as you progress. Simple alterations like new pants early on give you the ability to run faster and jump farther. Later on though, you gain new abilities like animal leaps, the use of an umbrella to glide and even a grappling hook that all change the types of platforming maneuvers you can make. This allows you to reach new areas and new nooks when you have to revisit earlier locales. These upgrades add a lot to the nonlinear progression through the game. It’s a little hard to keep all the areas straight that you want to reach but currently can’t, but that niggling issue is minor compared to the way these movement upgrades open the game up.
As a product of its time, some of the flaws that Tomba! has were shared by many games on the PS1. Saving your game is a bit of an issue because you cannot do so any time you want. It’s an even larger initial stumbling block because the game never really spells out where you can save. You can store your progress as often as you want, but only at signposts. They are reasonably well spaced out, so saving never becomes a real drag on your ability to proceed such as in, say, Crash Bandicoot, which has an awfully obtuse requirement. Here, saving is more of an issue you just need to be aware of and work around. It is a little annoying, but certainly more than adequate for a PS1 game.
Another common issue of PS1 games that crops up in Tomba! is the difficulty. It really isn’t a hard game per se, it’s just an unforgiving one. With a few hits per life and a limited number of lives, you really have to work the save system in order to replay sections to get through them without losing a life, or else you can quickly find yourself on the verge of a game over without an easy way to climb out of that hole. It’s partially tied in with the save system, and directly a result of the design philosophy of platformers of this time, but that doesn’t make it less frustrating when a few missed button presses set you back a life causing you to reload your last save. It’s a big part of the game, but it’s only a small issue.
Overall, Tomba! Is a very unique experience. What a treasure it is that we live at a point in gaming history where gems like this one can be found and downloaded easily, conveniently and cheaply. Games like this are the reason I love retro gaming. Much has changed in the years since Tomba! was released, yet the flair, vision and execution of this game has not faded. If you enjoy games of the PS1 era, do yourself a favor and grab Tomba! and give it a whirl.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.