Republished on Wednesday, 3rd December 2014: We're bringing this review back from the archives to celebrate the PSone's big 20th Anniversary this week. The original text follows.
Originally published on Monday, 12th November 2012: While many retro enthusiasts will grumble endlessly about how digital downloads are going to mark the end of video game collecting as we know it, there’s one massive plus point that they seem to conveniently ignore: by removing the reliance on physical media, it means that more people can experience the classics of yesteryear.
Tomba! (Tombi! in Europe and Ore! Tomba in its native Japan) is one such example of this process. Released in the West in 1998 to widespread critical acclaim but dismal sales (the perfect situation for future rarity), copies of the game now change hands for large amounts of money on the modern-day second-hand market. Although this is a boon for eagle-eyed retro hoarders, it means that very few people possess deep enough pockets to appreciate the game’s finer qualities - until now, that is. MonkeyPaw Games has kindly purchased the rights to Tomba! and unleashed it onto the PlayStation Network, allowing an entire generation to find out why this title commands such a high fee on eBay.
The creation of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts designer Tokuro Fujiwara, Tomba! is a 2.5D platformer with a pink-haired caveboy as its lead character. Released on the 32-bit PlayStation at a time when 2D was rapidly going out of fashion, the game’s old-school ethos is perhaps what caused it to post less-than-impressive commercial results, but ironically the very same oddball appearance should ensure that it finds an audience on PSN - Tomba! showcases the kind of off-the-wall wackiness that today’s generation of iOS developers would die for.
Although the platforming action is relatively straightforward, Tomba! has a somewhat free-form structure which feels just as unique as it did back in ‘98. There are no levels as such, but instead you move through one massive, 2.5D over-world and often have to backtrack to push the game forward. Missions are doled out as you go, requiring you to perform a variety of tasks such as locating items or characters. This lack of traditional structure engenders an intense focus on exploration, and this adds immeasurably to the game’s core appeal.
However, the constant urge to strike out and discover something new also leads to one of the game’s biggest faults: lack of direction. It’s often too easy to get lost or disorientated, and the vague mission objectives mean you often walk right past something which requires your immediate attention. As you begin to understand how Tomba! is stitched together this becomes less of a problem, but inside the first few hours you’ll hit more than a few frustrating dead ends.
Another minor concern is the unruly manner in which our bare-chested protagonist controls. Tomba himself is a responsive fellow, but his jumps are unnervingly floaty, even by 16-bit platforming standards. Again - as is the case with the occasionally opaque objectives - you’ll learn to adapt to this arrangement, but it’s a barrier to entry which could potentially make it difficult for newcomers to warm to the game.
Aside from the floaty jumping, Tomba does everything else with ease; he clings to surfaces like a prehistoric acrobat and can dispatch enemy pigs by leaping on their backs and then hurling them in the desired direction. Mastering all of his abilities takes time and effort, but is ultimately an enjoyable experience - as is the case with any truly pleasurable 2D platforming title.
As we've already touched upon, the game’s deliciously deranged presentation has aged much better than you might expect. Sprites are flat 2D affairs, but the backgrounds are presented in 3D. Although Tomba is rooted to a single plane of movement, he can occasionally leap in and out of the environment, finding new pathways to explore. Initially this set-up can prove somewhat confusing, as it’s sometimes hard to see exactly where you are in relation to objects and other characters, but it makes the game feel larger in scope.
Developer Whoopee Camp would go on to create a sequel to Tomba! and then sadly fall on hard times, a fact which makes the two Tomba! titles the company’s lasting legacy. It’s possibly a little too much to call this first game a solid gold classic in the same vein as Mario or Sonic, but it’s nevertheless one of the PlayStation’s most interesting and enduring hidden gems. Initially awkward and befuddling, Tomba! quickly opens up into a truly captivating and challenging escapade. For the modest asking price on PSN, it’s very much recommended to fans of the genre, or those of you who merely want to know what the legendary Tokuro Fujiwara did after leaving Capcom.