Toonstruck

a Reeeview item by J Nash (Tuesday May 11th, 2010)

JN says...JN saysFor PC Gamer. The best part of reviewing games is alerting people to the surprise of an unexpectedly splendid one, especially when the only reason you’ve nabbed it is that everyone else turned it down with a wriggly shudder.
 
The briefly mentioned Spycraft, for example, applied rippling biceps to bend FMV into the shape of a game (though the publisher hated my correctly impressed mark of 79% because they’d been conditioned by idiot magazines that a game automatically gets 30% for successfully existing, a system persisting until most mags switched to scores out of 10, tore up the cosy arrangement and fiercely began marking at 4) and everything written about Toonstruck up to the point the CDs were poured into my lap centred on the unrecoupably colossal budget (a reported $10m, or nearly enough nowadays to pay for half a game about someone in the military crouching in a pantry), the production troubles and star C Lloyd’s starry antics. Funnily enough I didn’t know about any of this until afterwards and just wanted it because CARTOONS — obviously I had better things to do than read PC game mags, or had knocked myself unconscious trying to fasten a collar or something — but gentleman editor Jonathan Davies did not exactly have to diminish a queue of potential reviewers in a flurry of aikido before allocating the game to me while accidentally breaking my wrist.
 
The bit about not seeing the ending of the game remains true. Carefully I retained my save disks and, a couple of months later, PCG rang to say the boxed copy had arrived. (Foolishly, I didn’t think to keep the game and, as only about 12 copies were sold in the world, haven’t seen it since.) I scampered over with lingering excitement and dusty floppies. Every one of the rubbish PCs crashed on the installation screen. Goodnight everybody!

Publisher: Virgin
Developer: Burst

Stand back, musketeers. They shall sample my blade.

Merrie

Toonstruck has perhaps the worst beginning it is possible to have. By watching the intro, you learn that you are an artist toiling on a spasmingly awful show called Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun and that you have been ordered to celebrate its tenth anniversary by designing overnight a new supplementary cast. Yearningly your gaze falls upon your wrinkled model sheet of Flux Wildly, a character with whom you were going to revitalise cartoons, except somehow you became stuck in this dispiriting job. Unexpectedly you are sucked into a television. Ushered into the presence of the appallingly cheery king of Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Land, you are advised that a villain seeks to subvert its cute citizens with a demonising ray before moving on to the rest of the world, and that twelve objects are sought to counter the device’s effects. There are names like Count Nefarious, Bricabrac, Cutopia, Zanydu and the Malevolands. Do you laugh, kick the king’s stupid round head off, find Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun and wallop her with a huge mallet for ten years of suffering, then escape with Flux and have a really good time? No. You nicely agree to help.

Sob.

Of course, before the game’s end you’ve blown people up, swapped unbelievable puns, dressed as a giant fly, eluded henchmen by hiding behind a door three times, dropped an anvil on someone, vandalised about forty percent of everything, played a Hamelin organ and walloped things with huge mallets. But I didn’t know this and for quite a time laboured miserably under the impression that the game I’d been looking forward to like one big eye was going to resemble that Screwy Squirrel cartoon which starts with a lovely squirly dancing through lovely countryside introducing his lovely friends and then Screwy Squirrel kindly takes him behind a tree and beats him noisily, except without Screwy Squirrel.

I beseech you, then, readers, that when you leave the king and make your way to the laboratory where the lovely amnesiac engineer explains how to fix the lovely Cutifier, you do not switch off your horrible PC and dance a pokey jig upon the CDs. For Toonstruck is excellent.

You may remember that in reviewing Spycraft I called it, “excitingly complete.” Embarking upon the inescapably ruinous FMV path it had surprisingly escaped and, by concentrating on making its games fit the idea, had begat a super mission in which you penetrated disguises by analysing security tapes, electronically reconstructed assassination scenes and exposed alibis using doctored evidence. Toonstruck, which erects a lawn chair in the point-and-click arbour where so many earnest young chaps have gently died fat hopeless old drunkards during croquet, is similarly innovative. It is, in fact, incredibly clever. You will undoubtedly as I did be wandering around C(hhhhhh)utopia knowing you need the gizmo to fix the milking machine to make butter for the bakers’ bread to bribe the arcade owner to win the wine to give to the wolf to get the stamp to authenticate the voucher to redeem the costume to give the scarecrow to get the cloak to give the squirrel to get the nuts to feed the elephant to get to the next country, except we’re both so wrong it’s great. Y’see, I’ve spent so long playing awful games like The Gene Machine or anything by Sierra (they’re ALL TERRIBLE. What are you, stupid or something, or what?) that when something intelligent comes along it stumps me completely.

For example, you have to reach Flux’s town before you can solve some puzzles in the first. I’ve become so conditioned to discrete parts or episodes or whatever that this had me baffled for ages as I tried to find everything in one place. Or there’s Flux himself, who acts as your sidekick. The sidekick in (say) The Gene Machine was useful exactly twice in the entire game, whereas Flux has complementary abilities, so you’ll be making him press buttons where you couldn’t, scamper to places you’re too big to reach, tease answers where your questions failed and, in one marvellous scene, co-ordinate an attack so you both confound your victim. (There’s a lot of timing your movements in Toonstruck to avoid detection while preparing a trap or whatever. It works brilliantly, adding suspense to your task and making it all the more satisfying when you pull it off.) Or the way that there are clues to every solution, some obvious and others ingeniously subtle, such as the moment when I was preparing for bed at half-past three in the morning having admitted defeat in the villain’s castle, only suddenly to realise that the technique I needed to employ had been explained off-handedly right at the beginning of the game. I love set-ups. And obviously carried on playing.

“But J Nash,” you quiz keenly in the traditional manner, “in that case I’d’ve wearily tried every object I had.” And well you may, although it would have done you no good (except in that particular case it would have succeeded, but it’s hellishly difficult trying to give general examples so the surprises aren’t spoiled, so damn your eyes and blast your meddling) because Toonstruck is shrewdly different. As well as the usual object A + object B = object C puzzles, there are some enjoyably tricky logic problems (pay attention to those clues, eh?), a couple of competitions where you have to strike a button at precisely the right moment, a radio quiz using a telephone that works in colours and a handful of moments where you’re empty-handed and have to do something entirely new like distressing a computer by shuffling around on a carpet to build up a static charge. Toonstruck kept me continuously alert, and every solution was greeted by shaking hands with myself and guffawing satisfiedly. Not once did I frame my face with the fanned fingers of disbelief. Even when the game wheels out the Elder Puzzles, it rings entertaining changes. (There’s a sliding-tile one, but it’s inside the safe. And there is indeed a round of Simon, except you poke a giant head in the eyes and parp its nose.) There are some cracking red herrings. And there are details like the icon for talking to someone being a block of progressively busted ice, and ten million save positions, and your magnifying glass cursor actually magnifying things, and in-jokes everywhere.

There are no empty locations to make you walk further.

The script is a curious mixture of funny, funny lines and ones so bad you want to trip them so they fall off cliffs. (Bottom (or “butt”) jokes are scruffy. Stop it.) There is, inexplicably, a smattering of swearing. And it’s not entirely innocent (though in a comical fashion). The graphics, as you’d expect, are first-class and hugely amusing, although peculiarly the full-blown cartoon sequences are at best only above-average. The sound and music, disappointingly, are from a stock library (Hanna-Barbera’s, methinks) so although they’re authentic cartoon noises, it’s all a bit cheap and doesn’t quite fit. But they’ve hired proper voice people, and there are a few scenes where the music changes appropriately (when you’re edging towards a prize, for instance, it excitedly ascends half-octaves the closer you get). The atmosphere is spiffily convincing.

I finished Toonstruck it in three evenings (but then I always seem to with these things. Perhaps I am great. It’s not exactly gigantic, but it’s stuffed) and had the most fun with an adventure since I played Flight of the Amazon Queen. And considerably more so, because Toonstruck maintains its pace up to the end, with a smashing plot twist just before you change CDs at the halfway point, and a thrilling but funny resolution. I’d imagine. (The review copy doesn’t have the cartoon sequence ending, which I discovered by beating it fairly and squarely and having it crash. Cheers then.) It’s the first game I’ve seen to go beyond Monkey Island while remembering to be enjoyable to play, and I can only hope it inspires others to do the same. Always fair, always entertaining, always fiendish, jolly challenging and about cartoons, Toonstruck is excellent. I am so pleased.

VERDICT
“Be” in a cartoon. That makes you think. And laugh. And like adventures again.
90%

THE HILARIOUS STUDY SCENE JN says...JN saysA box I particularly liked. (This was in the era when reviews were quaintly expected to include tippy asides. And opinions supported by facts, hobely ho-de-ho.) DO NOT highlight the obliterated text unless you want the bit spoiled. By application of tiring effort, only the tops of tall letters were left visible above the thick printed blocks, each doctored frame then covered again by the graphic of a spreadeagled cartoon hand. I do this kind of thing to art bods all through the picture.
It would be massively unsporting to give away any of the set pieces. But I am obliged by law to add explanatory asides. By cunning use of some big hands, all parties are satisfied.
1. (Pic of study, unobscured.) Christopher Lloyd enters the expensively tasteful study. Pleasingly, the ceiling fan beats in time with the stately music. He spots some loot.
2. (Big cartoon hand blocks most of view.) Climbing on the bookcase, he brings it crashing down, destroying some antiques. The loot, however, ends up on the fan.
3. (Hand again.) Pulling a switch makes the fan explode. It ruins a painting. The loot, via a flytrap, lands on the donkey.
4. (And once more.) Climbing on a chair, he knocks down the donkey. It smashes more antiques, and the chair breaks the last. Of them. He breaks the vase and finds the loot. Ha ha!

See also: The Gene Machine