Genius is never recognized in its time. Van Gogh died a pauper, the Dreamcast lasted eighteen months on the market, and Tomba! has largely been forgotten by gamers. It sold moderately well upon release, at least well enough to get a sequel, but the developer Whoopee Camp went out of business shortly after making Tomba! 2: The Evil Swine Return. Thankfully Monkey Paw Games, the guys that brought other classics like Alundra, Arc the Lad and Chou Aniki to PSN, have revived this PS1 hidden gem for new fans and those of us that have been waiting fourteen years to play it again. But does it hold up? Read on to find out.
As I said, despite receiving almost universal critical acclaim at the time, Tomba! didn’t impress numbers-wise. And that’s pretty understandable. In 1998 gamers wanted polygons over pixels and Sony had only fairly recently lifted their ‘no 2D’ rule on the PlayStation. Even though the sidescrolling gameplay is tons of fun, it’s not really what players were looking for at the time. Plus the game is about a pink haired caveman who seems to be sexually assaulting pigs.
Tomba!, created by producer of the Mega Man series and creator of Ghosts ‘n Goblins Tokuro Fujiwara, chronicles the quest of our titular hero to reclaim his grandfather’s lost bracelet from the Evil Pigs. Along the way he befriends creatures like dwarves, a funky monkey named Charles and the 1,000 year old man. To reach his goal, Tomba must defeat enemies using weapons such as a boomerang and a mace then leaping onto their backs, biting them and whipping them into a wall or off a cliff. In addition to the combat, Tomba! co-opts many traits of the adventure game and RPG genres that make up the real meat of the gameplay. NPCs will give Tomba quests that could be fulfilled right away, or much later in the game, many of them being optional.
To answer the main question of this column; yes, Tomba! absolutely holds up. The platforming is solid without feeling too flighty or slippery and there are always things to do that keep me moving rather than the general platformer conventions of hopping and bopping. There are a few quibbles that drag down the gameplay, but nothing major that would sour my enjoyment of the game.
The controls can be a bit unforgiving. Tomba’s healthbar isn’t huge and can dwindle very quickly depending on the sticky situation you’ve gotten yourself into. At one point I had nearly 20 lives and they were gone within the hour. And even the game’s main combat mechanic of jumping on enemies can go terribly wrong if you don’t land on them in just the right specific way. This on top of frequent ‘WHERE AM I SUPPOSED TO GO!?’ syndrome can make some sections of Tomba! incredibly frustrating. But hey it is made by the guy who gave us Ghosts 'n Goblins and the original Mega Man games. So he probably just doesn’t give a good goddamn how hard you think it is. Even at its most difficult, the great things about the game will drive you forward.
What I love most about this PSOne Classic is the overall weirdness of it. To reiterate, you play a pink haired caveboy who hurls pigs to their doom across a colorful landscape. In one part I met a whole town of people who had been turned to mice by the Evil Pigs. Their solution was to cover up their hideous new forms with huge hats with eye holes cut in them like that guy from Fat Albert. Then I helped a monkey find his pants that he lost during a windstorm. That is awesome. All of this psychedelic weirdness is beautifully rendered in 2.5D graphics. The character sprites are pixels running around in a polygonal landscape and the gameplay is split up by 2D animated cutscenes. The sequel still played in 2D but was fully rendered in 3D and I think it lost something in the aesthetic that made Tomba! feel visually unique. The whole game feels like you’re playing a Miyazaki film, both in style and whimsy.
Tomba! is still a ton of fun and well worth the $10 price tag on PSN. It’s way better than getting the game on Ebay. Disc copies are going between 30 and 60 bucks. If you love Tomba! already it’s still the great game you remember and looks great on an HDTV. And if you’re totally new to the series, you won’t regret picking this up now. If you do like it be sure to let Monkey Paw know at their official Twitter.
What hidden gems would you like to see hit PSN/WiiVC/XBLA? Let us know on Twitter and maybe your prayers will be answered!