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.
(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.
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.
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.
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