Toonstruck is one of those unlucky games that didn’t quite make it. Despite receiving generally positive reviews on its release in 1996, sales were disappointing (I bought it!), scuppering plans for a sequel.
Some of Toonstruck’s wounds were self-inflicted. The cover art, (featuring a more-than-creepy clown whose relevance to the game is not immediately apparent) put some people off, as did the fact it tried something a little different graphically, featuring a digitised Christopher Lloyd in the lead role, alongside more traditional adventure game characters. Sadly, whilst Lloyd does his best, the technology at the time simply wasn’t up it. Lloyd looks decidedly blurry and you get the impression that he is floundering at times, with nothing “real” to act against. Some people who saw Toonstruck were put off by this crude digitisation and never looked any further.
Amongst Toonstruck’s non-self-inflicted wounds were the fact that it came out in 1996, just as everyone was becoming obsessed by 3D and viewing point and click adventures as “old fashioned”. It also suffered from the curse of Monkey Island (not the actual game of that title, which wasn’t released until the following year) but the fact that ANY 90s point and click adventure was measured against the Monkey Island stick and generally found wanting.
So, I’ll stick my neck out in support of Toonstruck. I bought the game on its release, and I bought it again on GOG recently. Then and now, it’s a cracking adventure and DESERVES to be mentioned in the same breath as both the Monkey Island and Broken Sword series. Indeed, in some regards, I’d go as far as to say it’s more fun to play than the Monkey Island games (HERESY!)
We now interrupt this review for a brief explanation of the plot. Toonstruck casts you in the role of cartoonist Drew Blanc (Lloyd) who is struggling to come up with new adventures for his sickeningly cute creation, Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun. Blanc falls asleep and is drawn into Fluffy’s world, which is being threatened by the evil Count Nefarious. Can Drew defeat Nefarious, save Cutopia and get himself back home?
Having run through the plot and seen where Toonstruck didn’t quite make the grade, we now return you to your scheduled review. Let’s start by taking a closer look at the good stuff and see if I can’t convince you that I’m not a raving, lunatic clown but do actually know what I’m talking about.
Graphics first. Dodgy digitisation aside, Toonstruck looked fabulous. It’s a real cliché, I know but with its brightly coloured, detailed backgrounds and quirky, larger-than-life characters, it really was like playing in a cartoon. There are lots of games over the years that have made this claim, but Toonstruck was one of the first that actually came through on this promise. The locations are highly imaginative, whilst firmly rooted in reality, they look fabulous and capture that “Loony Tunes” aesthetic (which was clearly what they were aiming for).
Sound, too, was a revelation. Only a few years before, gamers had still been used to fairly limited music and effects, yet here was Toonstruck with full voice acting for dialogue and different pieces of CD quality music for pretty much every location. Of course, such things are commonplace now, but I remember that back in 96 this and Broken Sword (what a great year for adventure games 96 was!), it just blew me away.
Taking inspiration from its cartoon roots, Toonstruck is also funny. Very funny. In keeping with the game, it has a wonderfully surreal sense of humour, laced with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Some of the situations are wonderfully ludicrous and the humour that arises from them equally amusing. Whilst the voice acting is variable, there are some truly stand-out moments – Tim Curry’s suitably menacing Nefarious, his insane, creepy jester (the clown from the box cover) and Jim the Dog, whose voice bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Austrian actor and former Governor… Engaging in conversation with these characters to discover clues is a joy, not a chore.
Of course, the bedrock of any great adventure game is the puzzles and game design and it’s here that I shall produce the evidence for my heretical claim that Toonstruck is, in some ways, better than Monkey Island.
I loved Monkey Island and still do, but it could be, shall we say, a touch obtuse? Some of the puzzles were fiendishly difficult and solutions often involved doing stuff that would never occur to anyone in their right mind. Trying to find a solution often boiled down to combining every item in your inventory with everything on screen to see if anything happened, or making increasingly unlikely combinations of inventory items and then trying to work out just what the hell you had created and what you were now meant to do with it. I can remember frequently feeling frustrated and stuck and having to turn to the then infant internet to work out what on earth I was meant to do. Puzzles often left me with a sense of mild disappointment and a sense that, even when I’d solved them, I didn’t quite know why or how.
Toonstruck is different. That’s not to say it’s easy – it still presents a considerable challenge, even for seasoned adventurers. However, once you have got your head around the cartoon-world setting (it helps if you watched a lot of cartoons as a kid!) you start to understand that there is a certain logic to the world in which you find yourself. Once you suss that, you can really get into the head of the designers and the puzzles and objects start to make a lot more sense. I remember that when I first completed the game, I never once had to rely on the internet for hints or tips – I worked everything out myself. That’s not to say that I breezed through the game or didn’t get stuck (or didn’t occasionally resort to trying everything in my inventory with everything else), but the fact I found the solutions for myself felt far more satisfying than Monkey Island.
Like most good adventure games, Toonstruck puzzles are well-balanced. Each time you solve a little mini-puzzle and make a bit of progress, you give yourself a mental pat on the back and get a little rush of pleasure. Toonstruck seems to have more, smaller puzzles (rather than fewer, more complex ones) so you get that pleasure rush more often. Even when you are a bit stuck, you still feel that that Eureka breakthrough moment will come at any time and that keeps you playing.
Toonstruck deserves to be better known. If there are any adventure game fans who’ve never played it – shame on you! Get over to GOG and buy it now (and no, I’m not on any kind of commission!) If you played it back in 1996, you probably already have fond memories of it – and let me reassure you, it’s just as good 21 years later and deserves your attention again.