So what’s wrong with Tomba?
Tomba (technically Tomba!, but I don’t feel like driving the grammar part of my brain nuts[er]) is a 1998 release for the Playstation 1. Hot on the heels of Symphony of the Night, Tomba is one of those precious few 2-D action games for the system that was responsible for more polygons than you can shake a poorly rendered hand at. What’s more, Tomba is not only a metroidvania, but it is also a 2-D game on the Playstation wherein the developers actually tried. This isn’t some upgraded “last gen” experience or a faux-retro adventure that doesn’t quite understand what’s appealing about retro in the first place; no, this is much more like Skullmonkeys, a game with new advances applied to old conventions, and gorgeous PSX graphics may stand side by side with simple “press X to jump” gameplay. It’s the best of both worlds! A bold new world for the genre everyone loved on the old generations! All hail the conquering Tomba!
Except… Tomba sold about twelve copies. There was a follow-up, but it basically bankrupt the company. From a strictly sales perspective, Tomba was a colossal failure on par with the Hindenburg. I mean, I guess no one distinctly died (unless you count a pile of pink creatures), but, still, not exactly a fun time for anybody on the development side.
So… why? Tomba was lauded by critics, and this was less than a year after the release of SoTN, one of the most praised (and purchased) games in the Playstation library. Tomba didn’t have to be the next Final Fantasy 7, but it could have at least conquered an echelon that allowed its producers to subsist on sweet Tomba ports for the next decade or so. Tomba is a delightful romp featuring a shirtless dude hopping through magical islands, so it should have at least done better than Adventure Island!
So what went wrong? Well, it might have something to do with first impressions.
First of all, to judge a book by its cover, Tomba is a hard sell. In a time when videogames were either getting solemn (Final Fantasy 7 was clearly a serious story for our serious times) or radical (Tony Hawk is wiggedy wiggedy whack), Tomba arrived on the scene with a hero wearing ragged short shorts and sporting bright, pink hair. And what else is going on on that disc cover? We’ve got a pair of pigs, and one of them is doing the ol’ “bug eyes” look at Tomba. And there’s a clock tower in the background that resembles the iconic WB water tower. What’s the final verdict there? Tomba is evoking memories of old cartoons, and, more recently (at the time), Animaniacs. That was something you simply couldn’t do in 1998. You could be staid with realistic polygon people (or as “realistic” as possible), or you could be anime as hell (and thus foreign and interesting), but you couldn’t be cartoony. That’s for babies, Tomba! Nobody cares about your opening sequence being an elegant bit of animation, it would be right at home on Saturday morning cartoons, and that’s juvenile. We’re into adult games now. Take your cartoon pigs elsewhere.
But even once you get past the cartoons, things don’t exactly improve. Tomba is a metroidvania platformer, and that comes with its own set of problems. There’s a reason the typical metroidvania features a weaponry-based protagonist. Consider Super Metroid: over the course of that adventure, Samus acquires a breadth of weapons and items that perform many different tasks. The ice beam can freeze enemies, but it also allows for using those icy monsters as platforms. The space jump offers Samus unsurpassed mobility and the ability to reach nearly any area. Missiles open doors and blast bosses to smithereens. But when you think of the final sequence of that game, the final battle against Mother Brain and the escape immediately after, are you really using any tools that aren’t presented within the first moments of the game? It might be a little higher, but Samus jumps almost exactly the same whether she’s first landed on Crateria or she’s fleeing Tourian. The speed booster might move things along a little faster, but hold A (screw you, default control scheme) to run fast along the path is right there in the original space station escape. And, whether it’s the hyper beam or Samus’s original peashooter, aim and fire in regards to flying jellyfish is exactly the same from beginning to end. Samus’s repertoire grows as the game progresses, but she’s always drawing on an unchanged base of natural skills.
Unfortunately, when you base a metroidvania around a platforming style hero, things are a little more difficult. Tomba starts with his default run speed, his default jumping ability, and his default spikey ball whip. All of these defaults suck. All of these defaults are supposed to suck. Like any great metroidvania star, Tomba starts out kind of terrible in comparison to his eventual kickass final form. However, this means that the player’s first impression of Tomba is that he sucks as badly as his initial abilities. Tomba will eventually gain a weapon that is not only effective, but also a grappling hook. Tomba will eventually run at top speed, complete with an amazing dash. Tomba will eventually gain a jump that doesn’t steer like a freight train. Tomba will eventually become a great hero… but for that first level, you’re likely going to get smacked around by a couple of pigs that are barely even mobile. Samus or your average Belmont start their adventures “weak”, but they’re still fun to control. Tomba has to take time to get there, and makes a very poor first impression for it. (And it’s no coincidence that both Symphony of the Night and Shadow Complex start with a sequence that effectively says, “Hey, look how awesome you are going to get”.)
Which segues nicely into the other Tomba problem: RPG elements. Tomba was slightly ahead of the Final Fantasy 7 hype train (from which there was no getting off), and incorporated a number of features you’d traditionally associate with JRPGs. There are towns. There is a complete inventory system. There’s even “leveling” of a sort (or maybe it works more like money? But to open treasure chests?). There are a number of JRPG-like bits to Tomba… and it all seems completely perfunctory. Yes, Tomba acquires upgrades, but he has no more need to “equip” new items than Samus Aran. Yes, Tomba encounters friendly towns, but he has no more need to interact with “people” for clues than Alucard. These JRPG bits make Tomba a more complicated game, but they ultimately detract from the experience. It takes a surprisingly long time to open the menu, select your item, and then use whatever doodad you need to use to clear the latest obstacle, when, come on, just give Tomba the space jump and let the little guy have fun. Again, this isn’t game breaking in any way, it’s simply an unnecessary waste of time, and nobody wants to waste time when Xenogears is also readily available.
And that’s Tomba in a nutshell. It’s a great game! There’s a great presentation here, and it feels like another game smuggled away from the alternate universe where 2-D Playstation games were granted the budgets and care of their 3-D brethren. But Tomba makes a lousy first impression, and its vaguely Looney Tunes-esque aesthetics couldn’t succeed anywhere in 1998 past Space Jam. Tomba is a great game that everyone should play, but it’s easy to see why it was a failure in its time.
Tomba, I’m sorry, but sometimes the pigs win.
FGC #312 Tomba!
- System: Playstation 1. Again, Whoopee Camp pretty much stopped existing after Tomba 2, so we were denied what would have been an excellent 3DS port (hey, Spyro wound up on the GBA, after all).
- Number of players: One Tomba. Ever notice that a lot of Playstation games are one player? Was there a particular reason for that? Other than the “everybody wants to be a JRPG” thing?
- What’s in a name: Tomba is known as Tombi in Europe. This is presumably because “tomba” is slang for a woman’s genitals in England. Okay, that might not be true, but that’s the reason I don’t trust fanny packs.
- Favorite Upgrade: Tomba does not get enough respect for being one of the great umbrella-wielders of the videogame world. Kirby gets all the praise.
- Did you know? In Japan, Tomba has a complete theme song with lyrics. For the American localization, like many games, the lyrics were dropped, but an instrumental version of the theme plays on. In Europe, Tombi’s intro is scored by… the theme to BBC kids’ show No Sweat. This is… odd.
- Would I play again: Probably not. You should play Tomba at least once, but it’s also a relic of its time. You could do worse to spend eight hours or so on this adventure, but that’s about all it will ever need.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… C the Contra Adventure for the Playstation! Wow, now it’s time for the other side of Playstation “2-D” games. Please look forward to it!
I bought one of those twelve copies of Tomba! back when it was new, but of course I never lost interest in the cute cartoony stuff like so many others did when things went all dark and serious in more and more games. I’ve said as much before, but a big reason I’ve felt apathetic towards much of the AAA landscape is because of how White Man With Gun replaced cartoon mascot characters as the primary game store shelf liner. Outside of the Nintendo rack and toys-to-life shelves, anyway.
I’m guessing that like many old games I used to enjoy Tomba! will disappoint when I get around to replaying it (Even when it was new I thought the quest system was pretty obtuse), but I’m sure I’ll replay it nonetheless.
This one broke my heart when I revisited it after buying it on psn. Limited lives, no continues, and a save system do not mix! I have a save near the end where I’m stuck trying to get across a nasty platforming challenge with no spare lives. If I die, my only option is to reload my save all the way back at the beginning of it and I just don’t have the patience to keep beating my head against that. Bummer.