Platform: Playstation 1
There are two different names for this game, Tomba! was the USA release title, while for some reason it was Tombi! in Europe. The names do have different textures to them, with Tomba feeling more like an action based name like a caveman primitive, and Tombi sounding a more appealing and cute. It's a well known fact that American and European box art for games have differed quite significantly over the years, with American box art having a more masculine edge to them, with action being the focus of the art, whereas European art tends to reflect a more creative aspect, focusing on a more obscure and contemplative angle of the design. Box art and game title names aside though, I'll be referring to the game by its American name Tomba! for the duration of the review.
Tomba! is a very stylish platformer, albeit a very strange one [it came from minds in Japan] and of what I remember of the PS1 library at that point in time, this would have been that Era's Katamari Damacy of the day, or at least for us Western and European audiences. Inspired partially by Manga visually, and conceptualising the crazy idea of a small boy in shorts with pink hair that jumps on pigs whilst sinking his teeth into them, before forward flipping in the air and tossing them away, you could say that Tomba! is very special and one of a kind. You would also be right in doing so, this was certainly the wackiest game I remember playing back in the day, and nothing else really stands out as being stranger to my recollection. I can only think of LSD, but that was released in Japan and not over here in Europe.
Evil Pigs have taken over the land! Worse yet, Tomba needs to recover something that was stolen from him by the pigs as well! Along the way Tomba helps a few villagers and friends who have a bunch of side quests to give him, whether you complete them all or not is up to you, but you'll have to fulfil a good portion of them to gain enough Adventure Points to progress through to the next area. With your trusty Blackjack [spike ball on the end of a chain] you begin nice and simple with being able to run left and right along the screen, hurling your blackjack towards enemies [stunning them] and being able to jump onto enemies and hurling them towards objects or more enemies. You're also able to change between the different layers of the environment much like Little Big Planet. At certain points you can switch between the foreground and background, discovering hidden pathways and items.
There are plenty of items to find and acquire, some hard to obtain, others you'll simply stumble across. What makes the game fun however is not only the retro platforming, but the puzzles. These can be simple as environmental puzzles [using a bell in a certain place, or letting free a tornado to clear a mist], or they can be platforming puzzles, where you must tackle jumps and climbs in a certain order, finding the right way up that's both safe and quickest. There's plenty of item collection missions, fetch missions, and hidden object missions to be completed. Each one has its own narrative, which keeps things interesting and gives each area a theme or narrative of some kind.
Combat is fairly forgiving, for those that take their time and use patience, you'll find the combat easy enough to grasp and avoid most attacks. For the impatient platforming gamers who prefer a speed run approach, you'll have your work cut out for you here. Though the game is easy enough to beat, trying to rush through will only end badly for most, unless you are the most adept of acrobats in this game, avoiding all of the enemies is no easy feat, especially later on in the game. Simple gameplay that anyone can pickup and play, there's nothing technical at work here. Puzzles being the biggest head scratching moment, otherwise you aren't pushed too hard in terms of difficulty.
The music is one of the most memorable things about the game as well as the art style. It's a subtle blend of regular western cartoons and manga style. The soundtrack is cheerful and vibrant, with the theme tune being mainly steel drums and xylophones, it's certainly unique and welcoming. There's use of 3D environments [even though the game plays from left to right in 2D between two layers], but the game is primarily 2D in terms of characters and objects. Tomba! pulls it off however, and gives something very peculiar for the eyes to feast on. Usually a game will commit to 3D and only use sprites for say: misc items; chests | boxes; props. Tomba! utilises 2D sprites for pretty much anything that isn't the environment work though, and it works beautifully.
All of the locations presented throughout are imaginative and diverse, with not one location being a rehash or redesign of another, each is unique and stands on its own. There are some truly weird and wonderful places in Tomba!, and even years on I've yet to see a platformer be as imaginative with it's design as Tomba! had been.
Tomba! is another masterclass in design for video games, it's no surprise then that this game [like most well designed games form this era] comes from a Japanese Developer once again. Tokuro Fujiwara [Ghosts and Goblins] was the designer behind this game, and you can see by the Tomba's run cycle animation with arms and legs flailing in arches, that this emulates the run animation of the protagonist from the G'a'G game. It's safe to assume then that this game was heavily inspired by his earlier work on G'a'G. A highly original platform bursting with charm and a tight challenge that is forgiving yet testing. Tomba! is able to implement fun and interesting puzzles that don't tease the mind too much and cause frustration, but are challenging and distracting enough that they change the pace of the game to avoid too much of the same gameplay.
If pushed to mention a similar game that matches or beats Tomba!, I'd be hard pushed to think of one without having a good, long look online at lists of platformers over the past 10 years. It's that unique a game in terms of visuals and charm, that it pretty much stands at the pinnacle of 2D platformers on the Playstation. Off the top of my head now, the only game I could think of that is as creative or as interesting as this is Abe's Odyssey | Exodus which is its only rival I reckon. A truly imaginative game with great, simple platforming. Tight controls, and the movement can take a while to master but you'll be rewarded with being able to pull off some great acrobatic feats. Gamers enjoy doing speed runs of this game, I would recommend getting it if you plan on pushing yourself for the fastest times or trying to 100% the game. The game itself however isn't the greatest of challenges out there. The puzzles won't stretch your mind too much, maybe one or two will require you to ask a friend or consult a guide, but only because the solution is a little obscure or not very well connected with the affordances of the objects.