Looking for a colorful, exciting, and adorable romp in a world under threat from evil pigs? Then get in your future-man time machine, go back to 1999 and grab a fresh copy of Tomba! 2: The Evil Swine Return, available for $49.99 on Sony’s cutting edge Playstation™! Or if you have a problem with time-travel for ethical reasons (ugh), I guess you could pick up a copy on the Playstation Network.
I recently found my copy of the game in a box of things from my old bedroom. The memorable characters, gorgeous locations, huge amount of weapons, as well as a very high-skill ceiling has cemented Tomba! 2 as one of the my childhood favorites. While the adult me can see the flaws - and there are quite a few - the core of the game remains just as endearing and exciting as it was back then.
The story starts at Tomba’s house. Tomba gets a mysterious letter telling him that his 'friend' Tabby has vanished. The game says she’s his friend, but even the evil pigs know they're banging. So does the instruction booklet. Tomba sets out into the world with his tiny blue floating magic friend (?) Zippo, helping people with their tasks - some minor, some relatively huge - and working his way towards his missing lady. Tomba and Zippo quickly discover that a bunch of evil pigs, the very same pigs that have kidnapped Tabby, have been casting naughty spells over different parts of the continent, disrupting people’s lives and generally being assholes.
There’s a lot to love about this game. The movement system is generally quite fluid, encouraging players to move quickly and athletically. There’s room for a pretty high skill-ceiling for players who enjoy being fast and effective: attacking with the game's ranged weapons doesn’t slow the character down, meaning that you can jump n’ shoot to your heart’s content. The way Tomba slides when he changes direction also feels very satisfying, with the character's slight inertia, the solid animations, and the (surprisingly good) dirt-skid sound effect adding a lot of personality to his character.
The game was clearly developed for children. The theming alone tells us this - from the bright and happy tropical seaside, to the snowy wonderland of Kujara Ranch, to Circus Village. The music is sweet, and absolutely the sort of thing children can listen to all day long. I say children, because while some of the melodies are genuinely good, there are a lot of them that my adult ears never want to hear again - and unless I've suppressed the traumatic memories, I don't recall my younger ears being bothered at all.
Visually, the game is sweet as heck. I mean look at this cutie.
And this scene.
And this pig.
Okay, he's not much to look at. But when he turns around and tries to attack you by jumping at you butt-first, it’s adorable.
In terms of how the game plays, Tomba! 2 is a mixed bag. The platforming is inherently a little tricky, the character being a bit too floaty and the controls occasionally being slightly counter-intuitive. The learning curve is pretty steep, with players being given hazardous jumping challenges very early in the game. The curve is made steeper by the addition of costumes that alter the character's physical abilities - something that likewise occurs far too early. The player is given ‘bird clothes’ by a cliff-side fisherman. The fisherman suggests that the clothes will make Tomba's life easier. Instead, the player has to learn how to move under a completely different set of physical laws. A massively increased hang-time is added to every jump, and air control is made more sluggish. The hang-time of each jump decays very quickly, meaning that after about a half-second, the player starts to fall at the normal rate. This isn't explained at all beforehand, and as Tomba is given this costume while in the middle of one of the most difficult and least-forgiving platforming sections of the first third of the game, the player is almost inevitably going to have an awful experience in getting to grips with these new mechanics. This is definitely one of the less-polished sections.
Another issue related to jumping in Tomba! 2 is the difficulty in landing on things for non-platforming purposes. Being a rough-and-tumble caveman, Tomba likes to interact with things by pouncing on them. It’s how he dispatches enemies after they’ve been dazed, it’s how he opens treasure chests, and it’s how he picks up quest items like golden crabs. The problem lies in the amount of precision the player needs to have in order to be successful in landing on things like this. While the interaction-box for enemies is relatively large and poses no problem, the interaction-box for smaller items that the player needs to pick up seems to be unfairly tiny. There was a moment early in the game where I was tasked with catching golden crabs. I tried to jump on one and, despite Tombi's character model being directly over top of the crab sprite, I didn't manage to 'catch' it. The crab then damaged me, knocking me backwards into the water and giving me a game-over. When I attempted this again later, I landed on it with no problem - the difference in relative positioning being, at most, a virtual inch or two. By simply giving some leeway and relying less on pin-point accuracy, this entire section of the game could feel much more fair and enjoyable.
Tomba! 2 is still a joy to play, the frustrations listed above (as well as many others) mitigated by beautiful environments, a multitude of side-activities, and a whole lot of little details that hint at secrets and mysteries that the player might uncover if they play a little longer. There are so many things to talk about here - good and bad - that there’s definitely room for another article or three. We could discuss the thematically-conflicting location of ‘Coal Mining Town’, the janky top-down controls, the weird appeal of magic pig bags, or the nuanced state-changes of characters in response to their interactions with the environments. But for now, let me leave you with this - the most catchiest, most irritating, most brain-destroying video game music you will ever hear. Until next time.