Tokuro Fujiwara was one of Capcom's most respected (and feared) employees. A graduate of Osaka Designers' College, Fujiwara was recruited by Capcom as a designer and is credited as the creator of the Ghosts 'n Goblins franchise, as well as producing several Mega Man titles. After working at Capcom for thirteen years, he left the company to form his own studio, Whoopee Camp, to which the only contributions to the gaming world were the two Tomba games. After that, they went bankrupt.
This is a unfortunate turn of events, since the Tomba games are remarkably creative titles, blending a platformer with RPG elements. The player takes control of the titular Tomba, a pink haired feral child arguably based on "kijimuna", small wood sprites in Japanese mythology with crazy hair and a playful streak. They live in trees and are excellent fishermen, facts which are referenced in the opening cutscene. The name was changed to Tombi! in European countries, probably because "tomba" is Italian for "grave", which would change the feel of the game somewhat.
Tomba lives "on a certain continent which for some reason has never been marked on any map". In the beginning of the game, Tomba's golden bracelet is stolen by a tribe of humanoid pigs called "The Evil Swine". Since the bracelet is the only remaining memory of his grandfather, who had raised him from birth, Tomba sets out to hunt down the tribe of pigs and get back what is rightfully his.
Fairly early into the adventure, Tomba learns that the reason the pigs collect gold is that it fuels their magic, and that their seven leaders have cast a curse over the continent. The only way to break the curse is to find a pig bag, which is hidden in each of the cursed lands, and use it to capture the evil pig. So basically, Tomba enters a cursed area, finds the evil pig bag, hunts for the portal to the evil pig's lair, and then captures him. This frees the area from its curse and opens up new parts of the game.
Tomba! is a 2.5D platformer - the characters are sprites, but the backgrounds are polygonal. At certain points, you can climb up or leap off walls, switching to another horizontal plane, though these locations are not always clearly marked. Tomba carries a weapon, which at the beginning can merely stun enemies, so his main method of attack is to jump onto something, bite their necks, bounce around a bit and then throw them around. It takes a little while to adjust to the controls, especially since Tomba arches his back during his jumping animation, and it feels a little floaty compared to other 2D platformers. There are also a handful of towns, which changes the view to an overhead perspective, allowing him to explore more freely.
The big difference between this game and other RPG/platform hybrids lies in the event system. These are missions of various difficulties that appear by either finding them in the levels or getting them directly from NPCs. The events range from specific tasks like "Save seven dwarfs" to the more esoteric "Where did that barrel I put in the river go?". Sometimes, the players only have the name of the event itself as a clue. Most of the time, clearing an event gives some kind of item or new quest, but some of them, such as the aforementioned barrel quest, are seemingly there to compel players into seeking everything the game has to offer. Unfortunately, the quest system is rather confusing. Although the game keeps track of completed quests, it doesn't log any currently active quests, nor is there any in-game map of the levels, so it leads to lots of aimless running around.
The game is fairly open, allowing the player to explore the areas freely, although some are closed until a certain evil pig has been defeated or a certain event cleared. In other words, it's basically a Metroidvania. Altoghter, there are 130 events in the game. Normally, mandatory events are fairly easy to figure out, with plenty of hints from NPCs and in the environment itself. The game offers no tutorial, although none is really needed needed. The only form of help arrives early in the game when the player needs to get rid of some fog covering a forest. The game says to find something windy, and to the player's surprise, a farmer living in a nearby village mentions having recently ordered a portable tornado from a mail-order survivor kit. Open the mailbox and the fog blows away. And with that, the player can continue on with the game.
Some events are just weird, like the guard standing on top of the stormy mountains. He can only say the word "funga" and does not allow anyone to pass. In the jungle area, more like him are encountered, but as enemies this time. In the jungle something called a "funga-drum" is found in a random chest. Give the guard the drum and he moves, giving the player access to his treasure of...molasses? Nothing about any of this is explained, but the molasses can be given to a witch in the first town, who's making a potion. This bizarre event with the guard is not necessary to complete the game, but since the witch gives the player one of the best weapons in the game, the player should probably complete it anyway.
There is also a really bizarre quest involving a thief's treasure. The player talks to him, and he says his treasure is in the chest behind him. He then immediately says he lost it and leaves. The player opens the chest, finds his treasure and the event is completed, mere seconds after it started. Naturally, the treasure is used for absolutely nothing whatsoever.
Clearing these events, even if they give no other reward, yield Adventure Points. These can be used to open AP boxes, which in turn grant new items. These items are everything from clothes that raise the player's stats, to a variety of weapons. Very few of them are straight upgrades, rather offering a different way to play the game. In the end, the clothes and the weapon the player has from the beginning offer the most utility, unless the levels or an event forces the player to use a certain item. The best weapon is a combination of the default Black Star and the grappling hook, allowing the player to swing on ceilings and walls. Adventure Points can also be used to have the player's fortune told by two fortune-tellers, but the only thing it's good for is getting extremely vague clues on which areas contains pig bags.
The overworld map is quite large, but by using something called charity wings, Tomba can warp to any area previously visited. After solving certain events, the player will obtain Baron, a dog that flies with its giant ears and allows Tomba to warp around free of charge.
There's also an experience system in place. When you defeat enemies of different color types, the player gains a level in that color. When the player gets to level ten, they can collect one of three hidden crystals which give them elemental powers. However, the powers are so limited that there's no reason whatsoever to grind enough to get them. Unfortunately, collecting them constitutes the solution to three events. However, there is an event that gives the player fish food which can be put in random ponds to lure out a fish that levels them up automatically, saving a lot of grinding.
The game keeps track of lives, but the game is fairly easy and the player is able to stack up about twenty extra livesby the end of the game. The player can also save whenever they wish by going to the signpost at the entrance of each area, making the life system unnecessary. The sequel wisely does away with this system altogether.
Unfortunately, the boss battles are kind of a pain. In order to defeat them, you need to toss the boss into the pig bag, which ends the fight immediately. The problem is that the pig bag spins and floats all around the screen. You can't control the direction which you throw enemies, which means that lining up the pig and the bag is almost a matter of luck, especially when the screen is inundated with projectiles. This causes the fights to drag on much longer than they need to.
There is quite a number of charming NPCs. One of the first ones you meet is Charles, a talking monkey dressed like a kid, who is somehow more civilized than Tomba. Throughout the game, you meet a line of increasingly old men, ranging from a 100-year old man, all the way up a 1,000,000 year old man, who gives background information about the evil pigs. Much is made of Tomba's ridiculous hair and shorts. He stores all his items, even living things, in his belly and throws them up on command. As one point you need to learn the language of the Dwarfs. To do this, you mount them and bite their skulls, which they seem only mildly irritated by! In the final area there's a small room where the defeated evil pigs are turned to stone and placed on pedestals, which is quite creepy. The music and sound effects range all the way from funny and upbeat to low key and mysterious, and it does a good job at giving the player a sense of wonder and provokes a willingness to explore the game world.
The levels are eclectically themed, including a lava cave, a haunted house, a city dedicated to technology, and a level floating on a lake of what is obviously wine. A drink for grown-ups, the game calls it. One area is filled with weird flowers and a variety of colored mushrooms. The "upper" mushroom will cause the flowers, and the platforms they hold, to rise up, while Tomba cackles maniacally. The "downer" mushroom will make them everything sad, lowering the platforms, and causing Tomba to wail. An amusing dig at Super Mario Bros., if anything.
Though never confirmed, it's fairly clear to anyone who has a more than passing knowledge of anime that Tomba's world is inspired by various old-school anime, especially ones from the late 70s/the early 80s. For starters, the islands are similar to the setting in Akira Toriyama's Dr. Slump, a mostly rural, insular landscape full of little villages, where humans, humanoid animals, talking animals, fantasy and mythical creatures all coexist together. The game has in common with Toriyama's early work also some scatological tones. Compare Dr. Slump's poop and fart jokes with Tomba's butt-shaped "flowers" that release gas when jumped upon. The Koma Pigs and their snout-shaped symbol could also be inspired by another famous "mascot" of sorts: Odate Buta, the mechanical little pig from Tatsunoko Production's Yatterman. The robotic pig in a vest is based on the imaginary proverb "even a pig can climb a tree if flattered enough" appeared in the cockpit of the "bad" guys' robots, usually mocking them before the defeat.
Tomba! has a few animated cutscenes, some of them quite striking, such as a giant tower in the shape of a flower that rises up from the ground. This tower was probably also meant to be a dungeon or something similar, considering it has its own music track, but just consists of a single room. The graphics are very lovely and quite detailed, with several backgrounds layers. Tomba is expressively animated, but the NPCs are a bit stale looking, with a grand total of two animation sprites (mouth open, mouth closed). The intro cutscene has different music in the three regional versions. The Japanese version uses a vocal song called "Paradise" by Tokyo Q Channel. The American version uses the same song but cuts out the vocals. The European version uses the song "No Sweat!" by a band called North & South, which was featured in a British children's television show around the time Tomba! was released.
The game does feel unfinished in few areas. It's not an issue that gets in the way, but if the player looks at the event log, there's a large gap, which hints at cut content. There is also what looks like a village on the world map that cannot be entered. The game is quite long, but it's both frustrating and confusing seeing cut content being openly shown in the game like that.
Despite its high points, as well as being heavily promoted through a number of demo discs, Tomba! sold poorly. It's best experienced as an enjoyably kooky platformer with a somewhat tedious method of finding and fighting bosses. But beyond these small issues, this game is very well worth it.
Tomba! 2: The Evil Swine Return / Tombi! 2 / Tomba! The Wild Adventures (トンバ!ザ・ワイルドアドベンチャー) - PlayStation, PSN (1998)
The sequel to Tomba!, subtitled The Evil Swine Returns, improves on a few important points. Most strikingly, the sprites have been replaced with 3D polygonal models. The camera is more dynamic, so it looks like a 3D platformer, even though it still controls on a 2D plane, except in towns. It looks messier than the original, but for a PS1 game it's pretty decent, maintaining the same silly aesthetics of the original. Unfortunately, the frame rate has been downgraded from the 60 FPS of the original to 30 FPS, and the controls aren't quite as responsive, but it's still serviceable.
The story this time concerns Tomba being visited by a fairy called Zippo, urging Tomba to help his hitherto unseen girlfriend Tabby from the evil pigs. Zippo helps Tomba out by giving him clues and generally point out what to do in every single situation. However, like Zelda's Navi, this kind of character isn't really needed, as it sucks all of the fun of figuring out things yourself, and is somewhat insulting to the intelligence of the player.
Tomba! 2 is a lot more linear than the first, with areas opened up one after another. This is both a bad and a good thing, depending on the player's preferences. A good way to play this game is to simply go through the areas, and follow the story until the player reaches to the end. Then, explore each area again, getting the sidequests and finding the portals to the evil pig's realm. Since the game is much more straightforward, the map is gone.
The events have become a bit more self-explanatory and less obtuse, including some minigames such as a mine-cart ride, a giant chicken washing minigame and mouse riding game. There are also no more events that can be lost forever and require the players to start over to get them, which is very welcome. The AP boxes no longer contain individual items, but rather gold pig snouts which are all used for a single quest late in the game. Something like that ruins the sense of surprise and diminishes the fun of the game greatly.
You can move between levels using an underground mine, which is opened up as soon as a certain pig is defeated. While it's better than using the charity wing or Baron the dog from the previous game, it's still cumbersome, as the mine is quite labyrinthine, with sprawling, identical looking environments. However, at some point you can find magical feathers, which make teleportation instantaneous. The menu is also more organized. Items are marked depending on what they are for, they can read descriptions and what has been said about them. The quest log also details which quests have been accepted, and which have been completed.
The basic mechanics are the same, though borrowing a concept from the later Super Mario Bros. games, Tomba can equip himself with costumes. The flying squirrel costume will allow him to glide, and the swimming pig costume allows him to more easily swim. There are also a number of pig costumes so you can converse with friendly pigs. The boss battles have been slightly redesigned. The arenas are circular, with the pig bag sitting in the center. It's fairly easy to grab the boss and through them into the bag, though this time it takes multiple tosses before they're defeated.
The level themes are just as weird as before. There are fire mountains, strangely right next to frozen tundra. But there's also a circus hedged in between a forest and a mysterious water template. There's quite a bit of nice world building, with a number of magical towers. They are quite hard to find, and requires helping adventurers to give the players clues about the towers, finding two parts of a spell for each tower and then chanting in front of the hidden entrance. Inside is a very hard level that gives the player a reward for completing it. The atmosphere in these towers are pretty great, especially the music, which is both tense and mysterious, almost a bit oppressive.
The North American and Japanese versions have voice acting, which is pretty amateurish. The worst of them is Charles the monkey, whose grating jabbers makes his asinine quests extremely irritating. In the original game he was a mischievous character that taught Tomba some neat tricks. In this game, he's nothing but a simpleton that needs to be rescued several times. A good example is early in the game where the players find him starving. However, he will not accept regular bananas or any other food, he only wants baked bananas. The obvious clues would be that Charles would eat any kind of food, but instead, he desires baked bananas. It's a throwback to the first game where Charles wanted banana juice instead of regular bananas, but at least his life wasn't in mortal peril then.
This game is a bit darker in tone than the last one. The evil pig ghost, who was quite lame in the last game, is now a rotting pig-zombie, who now has the ability to summon ghosts ghosts. There's also a benevolent tribe of pigs that stands in opposition to the evil pig, which feels strangely nuanced for a game like this. The end of the game is actually rather scary. The replacement for the four old men from the last game is Kainen, an old man who is quite mysterious and is hinted to have dark powers of his own, but this is never elaborated upon. Presumably they were saving it for a sequel, which we sadly never got to see. If the last game was left unfinished gameplay-wise, this game is very much unfinished story wise, and it's a shame that the developer could not make a third game to explain it all.
You can also import save data from the first Tomba!, which unlocks a couple of events and characters from the first game. It'ss nothing special, but makes the game a little longer and is required for 100% completion. The events are longer and quite a bit harder, especially the search for the three hidden towers and the special weapons found therein.
Strangely, the Japanese introduction video is different than the North American/European version. Both use some of the same footage but is edited differently, and has different songs. Tomba! 2 is available on the North American PSN, but unfortunately due to emulation issues, it's actually the Japanese language version. It's rather difficult to play, since you need to understand the quests to really play the game, and a few minigames are all but impossible. It also won't read the save game file from the North American version of the original Tomba!, so that content is locked. The physical CD will still work on a PlayStation 3, albeit with some audio glitches. The European version on the EU PSN is in English.
Ultimately, Tomba! 2 has a lot of things going for it - the quest structure makes more sense, and it's much less confusing in general - but the linear structure and arguably worse graphics make it feel like a step back from the first game.