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Mini-Review: Tomba

TombaSony PlayStation enthusiasts love to speak of a little side-scrolling platformer game developed by now-defunct studio Whoopee Camp called Tomba for the original PS1 console.  It's one of those games that developed a niche following, but never set the world on fire.  It faded into memory, but the Internet has elevated it into legendary status, and used copies of the game frequently sell for high prices based on the online mystique.  Nevertheless, the game has remained an obscure title outside of the ardent gaming community.  MonkeyPaw Games has brought the game back for the mainstream to take another crack at it via the PlayStation Network, bringing Tomba into the world of PS1 Classics playable on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable (and, one would eventually hope, the PlayStation Vita).  Tomba comes home now for $9.99, but that can be a steep price for an obscure adventure from yesterday.  It's not unexpected to ask what Tomba is all about and if it's a worthwhile investment.  Thanks to a review copy courtesy of MonkeyPaw, I've had the opportunity to look into the matter and am happy to say that Tomba does live up to its reputation.

Tomba comes to us from that odd era of 1998 when side-scrolling platformer games were largely unwelcome on Sony's original flagship game console.  As such, it's strangely refreshing to play a game from that time period that revels in being a 2D platformer.  Tomba casts players as the eponymous pink-haired wild man in a quest to complete a series of missions against the evil Koma Pigs that have stolen some of his property.  Along the way he'll pounce, climb, and swing his way through a series of environments designed both to delight and frustrate.  Tomba is clearly showing its roots as a classic platformer of the 16-bit generation, but also adds a few then-new tricks such as the inclusion of full motion video segments that progress the plot (and show off FMV in general) as well as the ability for Tomba to move into the background layer of a given level in order to progress in additional directions.  This layer transition is another opportunity for Whoopee to show off, as the entire screen zooms in as Tomba makes the switch to give the impression that he's moving closer to that far off layer.  It's a fun trick that was probably more impressive fifteen years ago. 

TombaReally, much of Tomba was probably more impressive fifteen years ago, as much of what it uses to really go out of its way to wow audiences has roots in the time period that brought us Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, and Donkey Kong 64: the off-beat humor, the lack of definite Point A to Point B goals in favor of collecting items and assisting other characters, and the detailed animated cinematics were all breathtaking at the time, but today are just more tools in a game's toolbox.  That's not to say that they're not fun mechanics, but they're not as revolutionary today as they were then.  Tomba shows its age (the seemingly long time it takes to save one's game to the PS3's virtual memory cards is more proof of that), but if played with some patience for the game's ongoing need to show off now-familiar tricks, it's a fun little blast back to a period where these kinds of games seemed to be going extinct in favor of 3D experiences and shaded polygons.  Tomba has some of the best sprites you'll see in a PS1 title, and all of the characters (particularly Tomba and his antagonist swine) are all cleverly animated.

Despite feeling a bit dated now, there's a lot to enjoy in Tomba for fans of the platforming genre.  There's plenty to do and lots to explore, but like many platformers, it has its brutally frustrating portions that had me walking away for a while before trying again another day (Tomba comes to us from Tokuro Fuijiwara, known for his creation of the Ghosts’n Goblins series, so of course it's frustrating!).  Tomba is no cakewalk and will take some dedication in order to see all that it has to offer, but it's a fun ride and definitely worth the time.  Platformer fans should check it out, as should anyone else wondering what all of the Internet's fuss has been about for all these years.  It's definitely something special.