FMV adventures: “Toonstruck” (PC)

FMV games have been accused of being very light on puzzles and often featuring bad acting and weak plots, but Burst Studios’ cartoon adventure game Toonstruck proves everyone very wrong, especially with Christopher (Back to the Future‘s Doc Brown) Lloyd in the lead role.

Toonstruck (PC)
(USA 1996, developer: Burst Studios (now defunct), publishers: Virgin Interactive Entertainment (now defunct)/Interplay, platform: PC)

Cartoon animator Drew Blanc is transported into his own cartoon world where the evil Count Nefarious wants to turn everything nice and cute into the opposite with his Malevolator machine, so it’s up to Drew and his sidekick Flux Wildly, another one of his creations before he became successful with the tame Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Show, to help King Hugh of Cutopia build a Cutifier machine.

Get a real life cartoon
The premise of putting a real-life actor into an animated cartoon world isn’t new, as it has already been used in movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?!, Cool World or the less known and more bonkers Evil Toons, but for games it’s refreshing to see it in action and with a storyline that sets itself apart from both cinema and other adventure games. The plot isn’t simply an excuse for jokes, slapstick and weird characters, as it offers enough twists and unexpected turns of events to keep the player engaged throughout the game’s rather long playtime of around eight hours. The anarchic humor isn’t child-friendly, though, as it doesn’t shy away from cartoon violence and even some sexual innuendos in addition to more disturbing scenes, although it never takes itself too seriously. So anyone who loves Disney will be quite shocked at times, but anyone who knows Warner Bros or other older cartoons will appreciate the humor on display that isn’t only characterized by funny animations but also by the very witty writing.

Get lost in many crazy worlds
Drew and Flux are a brilliant team and the way how they bounce back and forth their one-liners is as enjoyable as listening to each individual character they meet. Even if these cartoon characters might not have the cult status of a Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, they’re still very memorable due to their unique personalities. For example, there’s a leaf of clover barman who changes his accent between Irish and Scottish, then there’s a bulldog gym teacher who speaks like a certain Austrian movie action star. A scarecrow with a love for stylish clothes who calls himself a carecrow, a duo of singing frog bakers who mourn the loss of their third companion, and of course Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun, a bunny that is so full of itself that nothing can beat its cuteness or arrogance. These are only a few examples of the illustrious cast found in the world of Cutopia and Zanydu, the latter of which featuring the crazier populace. But there are the Malevoleands, too, the realm of Nefarious, where one meets shadier characters like the Big Bad Wolf in a suit or a big female monster as a bouncer outside a bowling alley, everyone with their own little quirks.

Find strange things and combine them
All in all, it’s a lovely and big world to get lost in, with so many places to visit and characters to speak to that there’s always something to do. One can actually be overwhelmed by the opportunities, but despite some puzzles that can be solved in any order, the game isn’t without structure. Finding all the objects for the cutifier will take up most of the playtime, and as these can be found anywhere, it’s a good excuse to go everywhere, speak with everyone and try everything. Fortunately, there aren’t any dead ends, but getting stuck at times can still happen, as sometimes there’s a clear lack of clues. However, if one understands the logic of the cartoon world and what some characters are in need of, the puzzles aren’t so difficult. They’re fun and quite imaginative, e.g. finding 12 objects for the cutifier that are the opposites of the Malevolator and have something to do with English expressions.

Try some mini-games
There are still less stellar examples of puzzle design, like an unnecessary sliding puzzle to open a safe and the tedious dialing of color buttons on a phone. The phone quiz one has to do also requires a fair bit of observation, and even if it makes sense to use colors as buttons, combining two to create new ones as well, this isn’t a lot of fun. It’s really too bad that these rather conventional filler puzzles have made it into the game, as the other solutions to puzzles are often inventive. Unfortunately there are also some mini-games that can only be beaten by luck and fast reflexes, like a beat-em-up arcade game or a flush-fish-down-a-toilet-and-stop-the-water-flow-for-getting-another-fish game. These fit in the cartoon world, but are more frustrating to play.

Traveling from one place to the other is also made very easy by clicking on the right mouse button to immediately leave a screen and later also by using a portable teleportation hole, so that backtracking doesn’t become much of a problem, either. It should also be noted that the second part of the game is much less open and also suffers from more obscure puzzles, which is a shame, because there are still enough original ideas to keep the player going if the difficulty weren’t suddenly increased by an annoying Simon Says memory game with a clown’s face or pulling books in the correct order, to name a few not so great examples.

Look crazy
Old FMV games usually suffer from compression artifacts and other video problems, and while this is certainly true for the live action scenes and also character model of Christopher Lloyd, it isn’t for the cartoon sequences. Of course these aren’t as crystal clear as today’s HD remasters, but the quality is still surprisingly good. The animation work is just as impressive in cutscenes as well as in-game, with very fluid movements of each character. Despite Drew’s often repetitive animations and low-res pixel presentation, the way Lloyd interacts with the cartoon world is great. While there are certainly scenes in which the acting isn’t quite as good as it could be and one notices a discrepancy between real-life actor and animated characters or objects, this is to be expected, as the same also holds true for movies which use the same technique. Watching Drew hold a cartoon hammer or being hit by something cartoony, duck or run away never gets old, either, so the symbiosis between FMV and animation works great. It goes without saying that the backgrounds are just as lovely drawn as every single character him-, her- or itself, so that the illusion of being in a cartoon world is always perfect.

Sound crazy
The voice acting is of a very high quality as well, featuring Tim (It‘s clown Pennywise) Curry, but also others who do a tremendous job of bringing each character alive. There simply isn’t anyone who doesn’t sound awesome, and hearing the mad laughter of the oh-so-cute Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun will probably haunt some people for the rest of their lives. But it’s not only the voices or the cartoon sounds that makes the game a joy to play, because the music is also amazing. Ranging from mad tunes that could be out of a Saturday morning cartoon to classical well-known music and orchestral set-pieces in addition other genres, it’s a varied soundtrack that accompanies both the high-production cut-scenes and in-game gameplay.

Simply play this game
Toonstruck is one of those rare adventure games that uses FMV to great effect and also provides a substantial amount of fun puzzles with a storyline and characters that are memorable and unique. Despite a few difficulty spikes due to mini-games, logic puzzles, a lack of hints, and a much more confusing and less engaging second half, this is simply a mind-blowing title that remains just as great to play today as when it was released. Hopefully, the planned sequel that has been craved for by many fans will still materialize, and if it does it will be very difficult to surpass this almost perfect example of adventure gaming.

Score: 9/10

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GOG release: “Caveblazers”

Deadpan Games‘ and The Yogscast‘s roguelike platformer Caveblazers blasts its way to GOG.

There are so many roguelikes and pixel platformer games out there that it’s easy to overlook some of them, as is the case with Caveblazers that clearly draws inspiration from Spelunky or Rogue Legacy, but still offers a lot of cave exploring and nasties slaying fun.

In a recently discovered cave with treasure of unimaginable power, one takes on the role of an adventurer who isn’t alone on his quest, though, as AI companions can help with fighting enemies and surviving underground. Boss fights are also common, while procedurally generated levels are obviously a mainstay in the genre. Permanent death is an indication that this isn’t a game for the easily frustrated, but with combat being fast and furious, with many customization options and an RPG-like inventory, this will offer varied enough gameplay, even if graphics and sound won’t win any prizes in an indie pixel art beauty contest.

Caveblazers was released last year on Steam and is now available DRM-free on GOG with a 50% launch discount that will last until June 20, 2 PM UTC. The Arena Mode DLC can also be bought separately, offering new challenges that can even be bested with a friend in local co-op.

Official website

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Classic platformers: “Disney’s The Lion King” (PC)

Westwood Studios and Virgin Interactive Entertainment deliver a hardcore platforming experience with Disney’s The Lion King.

Disney’s The Lion King (PC)
(USA 1994, developer: Westwood Studios (defunct), publishers: Virgin Interactive Entertainment (defunct)/Disney, platforms: PC-DOS, Sega Master System, Sega MegaDrive, Game Gear, NES, Super NES, Game Boy)

Lion Simba grows up to take back his African kingdom from the claws of his uncle Scar who was responsible for the death of Simba’s father.

Classic retelling of a story
The Lion King is one of the most loved Disney movies, just right after or before Aladdin, although it has the advantage of offering a story that isn’t instantly recognizable from another culture’s tale. The journey of Simba and his development from a small cub into a big lion opens up all sorts of narrative possibilities and, except for the humorous part, is a more mature tale, concerning itself with revenge and redemption. Of course the game only shows short stages of Simba’s life, but it does a pretty good job of introducing each with stills from the movie.

The circle of life
What sets the game apart from Disney’s Aladdin or The Jungle Book is that one doesn’t always play the same-looking character. Starting as a small lion who can barely growl, but can jump on or roll over smaller enemies, one then plays as a full-grown lion who can intimate and stun his enemies by a louder growl and use his claws to defeat them, although he isn’t as fast in movement. These different abilities make for more varied gameplay, as they’re also used for solving a few puzzles, e.g. clawing one’s way through thorns or rolling through obstacles. While the small Simba sections rely more on platforming, with bonus levels not deviating much from that formula, the big Simba stages are much more about combat, although jumping and holding on to very small ledges doesn’t change.

The circle of death
The levels re-enact some set-pieces of the movies, like a 3D section in which one has to run away and evade a stampede. But they also take some liberties with the license, e.g. a level in which one has to ride on ostriches, swing from one animal’s tail to another or roar at apes so that they turn in different directions and throw Simba around like a pinball. While all these ideas are great and make for some memorable and often fun scenes, one aspect that almost deprives the game of any joy is the extremely high difficulty. There are so many unfair passages that it becomes nearly impossible to complete the game, even with cheat codes, as instant death becomes common, resulting from not jumping/ducking soon enough from the ostrich to evade a tree trunk, missing a ledge to grab or constantly falling into water and gaps due to wonky controls. Even on the lowest difficulty, the health meter drains as fast as some unavoidable dangers rain down on Simba, e.g. stones from above that can’t be seen or escaped from. It’s one thing to challenge the player, but it’s quite another to bring him or her to the point of simply giving up entirely. Having no savegames or level codes doesn’t make this any better, either.

Animation on the small screen
The presentation makes one almost forget how unforgiving the game is, with some great-looking backgrounds, character sprites, and fluid animations that perfectly capture the original movie’s fun and drama. The original soundtrack tunes also add to the atmosphere, and even if the voice acting is only partly used in cut-scenes for one or more lines, it’s another nice touch to complete the cinematic atmosphere package.

A game for those who persevere
Disney’s The Lion King should be an easy game to love, but as it’s not an easy game to play, one soon realizes that it’s nowhere near as enjoyable as it could be. It might look and sound the part, but with so many difficulty spikes, even the most hardcore platform gamers will despair at times. This is really a shame, because the different abilities of Simba in his two life stages and some fun level design ideas would have made a really good game if it were more accessible and less unfair.

Score: 7/10

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Classic platformers: “Disney’s The Jungle Book” (PC)

Eurocom and Virgin Interactive Entertainment showcase their programming skills in the fun platformer adaptation of Disney’s The Jungle Book.

Disney’s The Jungle Book (PC)
(UK 1994, developer: Virgin Games (defunct), publishers: Virgin Interactive Entertainment (defunct)/Disney, platforms: PC-DOS, Sega Master System, Sega MegaDrive, Game Gear, NES, Super NES, Game Boy)

The orphaned boy Mowgli is raised by wolves and has to survive in the jungle as well as the oncoming attack of man-eating tiger Sher-Khan.

A short tale of the jungle
Just like Disney’s Aladdin before it, the game relies on a bit of knowledge of the movie it’s based on to get the most fun out of it. There are cutscenes that progress the story, but they only serve to explain why one is in a new location without adding much to characters or plot. As less time is spent on individual characters, one won’t feel much attachment to them, as everything feels rather rushed and sometimes disconnected, which also has to do with level design that isn’t as exciting as the set-pieces the movie is known for.

The bare necessities of gameplay
As the usual goal of each stage is to find a certain number of gems before meeting one of the characters, like Baloo the Bear or Bagheera the Panther, gameplay becomes very repetitive. The only motivation to find more than the required gems is to unlock bonus stages, but even these don’t add a lot of variety to a game that is clearly catered to kids. This isn’t a bad thing, though, because with three difficulties to choose from and much fewer difficult passages, it’s a title that is more accessible. Jumping on enemies is just as effective as throwing bananas at them in quick succession to get rid of them, except for special occasions when a bit more strategy is required.

Not as cute and easy as it looks
However, it’s not a complete cakewalk, because as with other old-school platformers that only have a playtime of around 2 hours, savegames or level codes are absent, so one has to play through it in one sitting. If it weren’t for some very unfair boss fights that suddenly rear their ugly heads in the latter part of the game, this would have been manageable. But as controls aren’t always responsive and some platforming segments aren’t so easy, it still remains a frustrating experience at times. Fortunately, in the lower difficulties one doesn’t lose as much life energy and even receives a compass that guides the player to find gems and exits, which can be quite useful in one level in which one has to travel through huts that connect different parts of the stage. Still, if one only chooses the easy way out, one won’t see the real ending of the game, as completing it at least on the normal difficulty is required.

Animation looks and sounds
Despite not having the most varied level design and change in backgrounds, these still look rather nice with some good pixel art. But the real star is Mowgli himself, as his animations are a joy to watch when he swings from vine to vine, ducks, prances around and even gets hit. Enemies also have some fun moves, turning a standard platformer into a good-looking, even if not high-res animated movie to play. Music is almost what one would expect from a Disney licensed game: catchy with the original songs, but not of the highest recording quality.

Not the classic of a classic, but a good game
Disney’s The Jungle Book is a much more forgiving platformer than most others, but it’s hardly an easy game, as it has enough difficulty spikes to make younger gamers and even more seasoned players give up at times. A bit more variety in levels would also have been nice, with fewer unfair boss battles. As it is, the game is great for those who love the movie, as it looks and sounds pretty good, but it’s not the must-play title it could be.

Score: 7.5/10

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Classic platformers: “Disney’s Aladdin” (PC)

Virgin Games’ classic Disney’s Aladdin proves that platformers aren’t only for kids and that movie licenses don’t mean bad games.

Disney’s Aladdin (PC)
(UK 1993, developer: Virgin Games (defunct), publishers: Virgin Games (defunct)/Disney, platforms: PC-DOS, Sega MegaDrive, Amiga, NES, Super NES, Game Boy, Game Boy Color)

Street boy Aladdin and his pet monkey Abu are tasked to find a magic lamp for the Sultan’s evil advisor Jafar, but the boy soon learns about his wicked plan and tries to rescue Princess Jasmin with the help of a genie.

The short version of a magic animation
As the game is based on the original Disney movie, it obviously has the advantage of already having character and plot development in place one is or should already be familiar with. The emphasis is on “should”, as the game is clearly aimed at those who know the fun and memorable story. It doesn’t take too long that the plot jumps from one set-piece to another. Despite not spending much time on individual characters or locations, the cutscenes do a good job of explaining enough to set the scene, so one shouldn’t expect additional or surprising turns or twists. It might be a highly abbreviated version of the animated movie and comes rather quickly to its finale, but it still recreates the feeling of playing the movie quite well.

Platforming fun
Recapturing movie magic in cut-scenes also carries over to the levels themselves, including bonus sections in which one plays as Abu to catch gems and avoid things tumbling down on him. Each stage is distinct in its presentation and immediately recognizable for fans of the movie. Of course some parts are longer and take liberty with the license, like elaborate sections in the dungeon, desert, or palace of the Sultan, complete with fighting skeletons, snakes, and jumping over flamingos. But overall the levels stay true to the original and only add things that wouldn’t be out of place in a deleted scene of the movie. So one escapes the Cave of Wonders on the magic carpet while avoiding lava and stone obstacles, while fighting against Jafar’s guards on the streets of Agrabah in a non-violent cartoon way adds to the immersion, too. Even if the gameplay doesn’t change much from the running, jumping, slashing and also throwing apples as weapons template, one rarely feels bored during levels or stuck too long, mostly because they’re usually short enough to get through.

Platforming frustration
This doesn’t mean that it’s easy to get through the game, as it can become extremely frustrating at times. Despite being able to choose between three difficulty modes, buy extra lives with gems from a traveling trader or win them during a roulette mini-game after collecting enough genie symbols, one is faced with many trial and error passages that are simply unfair. Being able to look down or up to avoid the more obvious dangers like traps or gaps to fall into is highly recommended, but as the controls aren’t as responsive as one would like, it’s often not the fault of the player, but of the game itself. Having no savegames or level codes is even more annoying, because one has to complete the game in one playthrough (or use secret cheat codes). A few buggy segments during boss fights and slow jumping mechanics further add to the frustration.

Looking and sounding almost like a dream
The presentation is still great thanks to very fluid and humorous animations, which can be seen when guards lose their trousers or when Aladdin jumps on camels whose eyes open wide and they spit on enemies. But it’s not only the character designs that evoke the feeling of playing an animated movie, as the backgrounds are also lovingly drawn. The resolution might not be the best, and one’s score, time, lives, etc. take up too much screen space, but the art design still remains great. This is also true for the very catchy soundtrack that uses the music and songs of the original movie. It’s no surprise that they work amazingly well, although the low audio quality is disappointing.

A licensed game that works
Disney’s Aladdin was and still is one of the best animated movies with memorable characters, songs, and a timeless art style. The game is still enjoyable to play and one of the better examples of bringing something from the big to the small screen. However, despite looking and sounding nice and offering good level design, it’s a very difficult game that requires a lot of patience and even more luck to complete. The PC version isn’t as refined as the MegaDrive version it’s based on with worse graphics, sounds, and controls, but as a digital download that is cheaper to get it’s definitely a good alternative.

Score: 8/10

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