For some time, Tomba! was considered one of the finest games that most people would never play. It was a game that most had heard of, but only a few lucky ones had played firsthand.
Released way back in ’98 on the Playstation 1, Tomba! (Or Tombi! here in the UK) did not sell stunningly well, despite strong reviews. Although a sequel was secured, developers Whoopee Camp unfortunately went out of business shortly after Tomba 2 was released. As a result, production of Tomba! halted, and it was prematurely retired to the gaming annals, remembered fondly by the fans that it gathered in its relatively short stint on our shelves.
In the time since the demise of Whoopee Camp, Tomba! amassed a dedicated cult following, becoming something of a legend. Indeed, it was rather difficult to find a forum thread about games that should be remade without Tomba’s name making an appearance. Due to a volatile mixture of nostalgia and high demand, it became a notoriously difficult game to track down. For years, fans were at the mercy of eBay sellers, who essentially had potential buyers over a barrel, charging anywhere between £60 and £100 for a copy of the coveted disc. Even old demo discs featuring a sample of Tomba! were put on sale.
But now, once and for all, fans can stop searching for cheap knock-offs of the classic, they can get some sleep after a decade of lurking in forums petitioning a re-release, and we can all finally stick it to oppressive eBay sellers, because Sony has delivered; for at last, Tomba! can be purchased on the PSN.
Now that I’ve suitably hyped it up, I should get the ball rolling by explaining the premise of the game. You play as the eponymous Tomba; a pink haired, half naked wild man who bites first and asks questions later. The adventure begins as he sets out in search of his stolen bracelet that once belonged to his grandfather. Who stole the bracelet? A gang of seven evil sorcerer pigs of course. On top of that, the evil pigs have changed the world into a dark and dangerous place, and only by defeating them can you restore it to its former glory. How do you defeat the seven evil pigs? By stuffing them into the mystical Evil Pig Bags, obviously.
If that wasn’t insane enough, Tomba’s entire inventory is stored in his stomach, he attacks his enemies by jumping on them and biting them, and one of his best friends is a monkey named Charles. At one point, Charles gives you a parasol in exchange for finding his lost trousers.
I swear I’m not high.
The first thing that you will probably notice about Tomba! is the peculiar design. The game outwardly appears to be a 2D side scroller, presenting the player with a world split into multiple areas, populated with 2D sprites. However, the areas are actually 2.5D, and separated into different ‘planes’ (e.g. foreground and background). As a result, the player is frequently allowed to jump in and out of these planes, revealing whole new dimensions to each area. There are exceptions, and particular ‘hub’ levels, e.g. villages, allow you to run round in 3D conversing with the locals. This unique design lends itself very well to the genre of Tomba!, which is first and foremost an adventure platformer. With this in mind, you’ll find yourself doing a lot of jumping, swinging, climbing and, more often than not, dying. Despite looking like a game aimed squarely at children, the platforming has a lot to offer in terms of challenge, and you’ll find yourself plummeting down holes many more times that you’d like to admit. Thankfully this never becomes too frustrating, as there are save points littered regularly throughout the world.
Although Tomba’s primary goal is to find his grandfathers bracelet, it does not take long before you find yourself knee deep in quests. For any who are fans of RPGs, the questing is distinctly familiar; as you traverse the land, you’ll accumulate jobs from various NPCs, and these can largely be carried out at your leisure. However, these will often see you re-treading old ground, something that is both a pleasure (the beautifully characteristic environments are always fun to revisit), and a burden (the loading screens between areas can begin to drag). That aside, the game always provides shortcuts to minimise travel, and frequently quests will appear that you cannot complete until much later in the game; even at the very start you’ll come across chests or doors that won’t be relevant for quite a while.
Despite the sheer number of guests that you will eventually gather, almost none of them are the same, and even less of them feel like a chore to carry out; indeed, you are always well rewarded for your time with new weapons, power-ups or items. Players also receive varying amounts of ‘AP’ for completing quests, and you’ll later find some parts of the game that require a certain amount of AP before you can continue. It is extraordinarily satisfying to solve a puzzle that then unlocks the key to solving several others, and it becomes worryingly easy to lose hours to the, “I’ll just do one more...” mentality.
In terms of graphics and design, Tomba! is still great. Of course, it looks rather dated now, but its visual aspects are utterly unforgettable. The areas are brilliantly colourful and diverse. No two parts of the game feel recycled or copied, and the art, from the picturesque backdrops to the quirky landscapes, will always keep you interested. The character design is similarly fantastic, presenting the player with dozens of distinct, characteristic personalities to talk to. This is largely down to the quality of the dialogue between characters, and once again, it’s a chance for the game to prove that it’s not solely aimed at kids. The script is often amusing, and it doesn’t hesitate to throw in jokes that are slightly more adult in nature.
Finally, an honourable mention must go to the soundtrack. In my time, I’ve never come across music that is as ridiculously catchy as the tunes used in Tomba!. Each area has its own unique style of music that will burrow deep into your brain and refuse to leave. Like the level design, each piece exactly reflects the charming, brightly coloured nature of the adventure. It is a testament to the music that I could still remember most of the score no less than ten years after last playing the game.
I have very few complaints to make about Tomba!, although there are a few issues. As I mentioned, the loading screens are all too frequent, lasting just long enough to become irritating, and the controls can feel a little bit imprecise and floaty from time to time. For the most part the controls are solid; he attacks where you want him to attack and he clings to ledges without issue, but it's the jumping in particular that suffers. Certain areas also become very tricky to navigate without being able to move the camera; you are (in one area) required to drop off ledges without being able to see what awaits you. On a first playthrough, players may also struggle to get to grips with the way in which the areas all connect; the world is filled with shortcuts that take a bit of getting used to. Other than that, the only other issue is perhaps the boss fights, which are interesting but initially it is not made apparent how you are supposed to win.
To conclude, Tomba! is a delight to play; it is simultaneously amusing, refreshing, and unabashedly whimsical despite its age. If nothing else, it proves that the quality of a game need not necessarily be based on graphics or massive production costs. A nostalgic blast from the past for those who’ve played it, and a jovial adventure that’ll keep on surprising those who haven’t. Forget the eBay sellers and head to the PSN for a copy; at around £6.50, it’s a game that you owe it to yourself to try out.