Let’s talk about confusing games for a minute. Ever played one? You know, those kinds of games that seem to rely on you having an intimate first-hand knowledge of everything the designers were trying to do with the game while they were designing it? Or maybe having to go through endless parts of a game that are barely described or hinted at as to how to finish them? Sure you have. Everyone has. These types of games were almost common in the late era of Atari the 2600 (Indiana Jones, D&D, etc), and have been giving gamers headaches ever since. Tomba here just happens to be one of those games. It’s a bright, colorful, confusing mess of epic sidescrolling proportions. All wrapped up in a hasty Japanese translation that does nothing but make things worse. Oh Tomba, you had so much going for you. Just minus anything that made it so people could actually finish much of the game. Bummer.
So what the fuck is this shit exactly? Well, you play as Tomba. He’s this weird half-naked caveman dude that never talks. He just sorta jumps around on stuff, throws said stuff at other stuff, enjoys putting baby birds into his mouth, and is apparently the only person on his island that can accomplish menial tasks for everyone and everything. The plot, if one can call it that, has to do with giant sorcerer pigs that are taking over their island by sucking out the life of everything and turning stuff into pink balls. Yeah. Tomba quickly finds out from some old elder guy that it is of course now his task to take on these sorcerers in the only way he knows how: by doing everyone’s stupid quests. What? You expected anything less?
But before we get into why Tomba is so confusing, let’s take a look at what it does right. First off, the game looks great. It’s bright, uses great colors, and an awesome combination of 2D and 3D to bring Tomba’s crazy island world alive. There’s so much going on sometimes that it’s almost too much to take in. The worst case scenario for this is when you can’t tell where the hell you’re supposed to go because there’s so much scenery on screen that it’s hard to figure out. But hey, at least it looks awesome while you’re searching for that one area where you can walk up into the screen. Besides the graphics, Tomba controls like a champ. Making him jump around all over the place is easy, and feels great doing so. Sometimes making the more precise jumps can be rough, but thankfully Tomba never focused too much on crazy platforming. So how could Tomba possibly go wrong when it has great graphics and awesome gameplay in spades? Now we’re getting to the part where I tell you why all the stuff I just mentioned above doesn’t really matter, because the rest of the game is a giant confusing pile.
Tomba, at its core, is an adventure game. Sure you jump around, but the way you progress through Tomba is by doing various quests that you find around the world. This would be an awesome idea, if only it weren’t for Tomba’s fatal flaw: it is WAY too obscure about how and why you need to finish the quests it’s giving you. The best case scenario will be getting quests by talking to people, which isn’t too bad most of the time since they actually give you some text clues to go along with the quest. Other times though, the quest will pop up out of nowhere, and you’ll have no clue what you did to even trigger it. Even worse, what you need to do to finish the quest, or where to go to find what you need, or even WHAT you need is barely hinted at, if at all. Often times you will just stumble across things that you need for a quest, but the game gives you no indication what quest out of the dozen or so you have at one time those items belong to. This is compounded by the fact that if you DO get those items, and know what they’re for, you still have to be able to remember where to take the items to to finish the quest. And trust me, navigating Tomba’s labyrinthine world is bad enough when you do know where you’re going. Let alone trying to backtrack to some random thing that gave you a quest that may or may not be the right place. Oh, and it’s even better when you finally do get to that person, and they wanted you to take the quest item somewhere else instead. Sometimes you will actually finish a quest and be baffled at what you even did to do so while you were backtracking to get to some other quest that had nothing to do with anything. See what I mean about confusing? This is about the point you just want to tell Tomba to go F himself in the A.
The sad thing in all of this is that Tomba could have been great. There was potential here to totally revolutionize the Metroidvania style of gameplay with an awesome questing system on top of really great gameplay. But this is what happens when you place too much hope in the player’s ability to understand the game you’re trying to make, without giving them so much as the barest essentials to do so with. And that’s basically Tomba in a nutshell: a great idea that was just executed in a way that makes its goals far too obscure for the player to solve without endless backtracking. I guess you COULD say it was ahead of its time, as modern games have shown this type of game works very well when people that aren’t insane design them. It’s just unfortunate Tomba couldn’t live up to how awesome it could have been. Even if he does have that cool hot pink hair.
Wanna see some of the craziness yourself? Here’s a full playthrough of Tomba:
Jeremy is a quiet, steadily mortified man hailing from Indianapolis.
Contact him this way: firstname.lastname@example.org (hint: it’s email)