Mini Review: Tombi (Playstation)

Mini Reviews: I played it…I just don’t have a lot to say about it.

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Nobody is more disappointed than me to be writing a Mini Review of Tombi (Tomba to you fine American folks) rather than a full-fat verdict. But after finally playing this game (after a looooooooong wait), I felt so “meh” towards it that I’m struggling to work out what to say.

It’s imperative to understand that my interest in this game goes all the way back to the late 90’s when my Dad surprised us all by coming home one day with a Playstation under his arm. Included in the box was the latest version of the legendary ‘Demo 1’ disc and one of the games previewed on there was Tombi. I think I played the Tombi demo more than any of the full games that we had for the Playstation. I just couldn’t get enough of the comical, extremely exaggerated visuals, vibrant colours, dangerously addictive music and the game world itself, which seemed to be packed with places to explore and secrets to uncover.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get the full game but I frequently returned to the demo for my Tombi fix. Eventually I grew up (in physical age at least…the jury’s still out on my mental maturity) and acquired a disposable income as well as a keen interest in retro gaming. I still wasn’t able to buy a copy of Tombi however, because it turned out that the game was quite rare. You couldn’t find it on the pre-owned racks in physical shops and ebayers wanted big money for this OMG L@@K!!!! MEGA RARE VINTAGE PS1 SONY GAME – something that hasn’t changed when used copies still sell for anywhere between £100-£150 on ebay.

Thankfully, the game was made available in 2012 for a much more sensible price on Sony’s Playstation Network (£6.49 at the time of writing), something that surprised me when I (wrongly) assumed that it would be a niche game lost to the mists of time, or swallowed up in a licensing/rights hell. Even so, I was tardy at downloading Tombi and didn’t get around to it until this year.

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So…that’s eight years after it was re-released and a whopping twenty-three years since the game was originally published. It’s fair to say that my anticipation was sky-high, and I was genuinely excited as I watched the progress of the download on my Vita.

They do warn against meeting your heroes however and I’m afraid that I may have fallen foul of this slice of philosophy given how I put a healthy wedge of hours into Tombi but haven’t touched it again since.

Now don’t get me wrong: the game still absolutely oozes with charm and, being a 2D game, it has aged very well compared to all those (then) cutting-edge 3D Playstation games that look rougher than a badger’s arse in 2020. I’m still head-over-heels for the game’s visual style, music and playful humour. I also appreciate the game’s non-linear structure. You will collect loads of items on your adventure, for example, and have to go back to previous areas to complete quests or access new places. There’s a vague Metroidvania feel to things with new areas linking up to older ones in unexpected ways.

And, while Tombi is a 2D platformer, you are able to traverse both the foreground and background. There are also areas that rotate and allow you to explore all four sides of a structure. It’s a creative and clever game that tries to do something different and shake up the 2D platform formula.

Unfortunately, the charm and nice ideas only carried Tombi so far and I rapidly tired of the game, much to my disappointment. Perhaps I expected too much, or had waited far too long. Maybe I had built the game up in my head to be something that it was never going to live up to. More likely, it was the deciphering of cryptic clues to make progress. The difficulty ramps up very quickly too, demanding uber-precision from the player. A challenge is no bad thing in a game (it’s entirely necessary) but when it saps the enjoyment out of the experience, then all the aesthetic charm in the universe can’t compensate for getting pissed off at cheap deaths, being expected to make super-precise jumps and having to constantly re-load my save to try again. I wanted to enjoy the game for all the positive, happy things that I previously mentioned, but ultimately found that I couldn’t be bothered to continue with it.

Will I be selecting Tombi from my Vita’s home screen again? Well, never say never. There is that small voice in the back of my head suggesting that I may have thrown the towel in prematurely rather than rising to the challenge. That said, Tombi is – and always has been – all about the art direction and creativity for me and I’d really rather not spoil those things by persisting with unsatisfying, often frustrating platforming mechanics.

Review – Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy [Playstation 4]

DSC_0395Earlier this year, I played, completed and reviewed the rather wonderful Spyro Reignited Trilogy. The remastered collection of one of my favourite series’ of games wasn’t perfect (largely due to unwelcome glitches) but it made me smile no end and really, that’s what gaming is all about. It wasn’t the first modern remaster of a beloved Playstation platforming series though; that accolade goes to the Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy – the commercial success of which can likely be thanked for Spyro’s adventures receiving a makeover. I actually received both collections for Christmas last year but made a beeline for Spyro as those games were my favourites. Now, I’ve had the chance to unwrap, play and complete Crash’s remasters so here is my review of the N Sane Trilogy.

A sympathetic makeover

In my review of the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, I had this to say about the overall makeover of the original games:

My overall feeling is that Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a totally authentic and – more importantly – sympathetic remake. Everything from the level layouts to the word-for-word script is as I remember it. The individuality between games has also been retained i.e. the designs of the treasure chests, the shapes of the gems and the extra life systems. Immediately, there is nothing on a basic level to offend the traditionalists who demand the most minimal of changes…

The same is true here for Crash. Everything is as you remember – it just looks a hell of a lot better. The beauty of the original Crash Bandicoot and Spyro games is that, while their worlds were crafted from (then) cutting-edge polygons and 3D tech, it was done in a cartoon-like, exaggerated style. So while those games are clearly aged when viewed through a modern filter, they are still perfectly acceptable today. Pop the original discs into your Playstation or download the digital versions from the Playstation store and you won’t be offended by horrible textures or laughable “realism” because those original games were inadvertently future-proofed by not chasing realism. The visuals are still sharp, the games still move smoothly and the music remains timeless.

With that in mind, I was sceptical about what the remasters could achieve. After all, there are plenty of other Playstation games that I think would absolutely benefit from ground-up remasters because the originals are just difficult to deal with after several decades of videogame evolution and refinement. Crash on the other hand didn’t really need much in my opinion. That said, the N Sane Trilogy manages to impress regardless. We have realistic textures now, much more dynamic special effects and nice, detailed touches such as Crash actually having proper fur. All of this is achieved without taking away any of the original games’ cartoon appeal.

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It’s as you remember, just furrier and, er…plantier. Wumpa fruit looking good enough to eat though!

Audio-wise, the music has been updated too but again, it’s very subtle, a testament to how good the original soundtrack was. I think I prefer the original but only because I’ve played the Playstation originals so much that I miss some of the minute details (the more pronounced clanking sounds in the sewer levels for example). Overall though, it’s an on-point mix that I can’t grumble about.

As with Spyro, the individual games and level layouts themselves remain utterly unchanged which pleased this crusty veteran gamer. There were only a few small additions that I noticed. You can now switch between Crash and his sister Coco for example. I didn’t detect any difference between the two Bandicoots but it’s a nice surface-level update. Coco was, after all, only originally playable in specific levels in Crash Warped. You also receive useful hints on the loading screens to point you in the direction of the bonus gems and secrets. Some may call this “dumbing down” but many of the secrets in the Crash games were pretty obtuse and even I couldn’t remember how to reach some of the coloured gems.

“A smashing blast from the past!”

One thing that the N Sane Trilogy successfully reminded me of was how challenging the first game in the series was. This is where it all began and so Crash’s reportoire of abilities is restricted to just jumping and spinning, severely minimising the amount of tricks that the player can use to negotiate the levels. This is proper old-school platforming that demands pin-point accuracy, respect for hazards and practiced timing. A lot of so-called “hardcore” gamers like to scoff at the 32-bit Playstation era and proffer the elitist opinion that this was where games got too easy and while I cannot argue with the crushing brutality of the preceeding 8 and 16-bit eras, Crash’s debut is no walk in the park and Activision did nothing to soften the punches with this remaster.

The later castle-themed levels for example play out in a 2D style and feature a gauntlet of moving platforms, staircases that collapse into ramps (requiring perfect timing) and moving enemies that must be used as platforms. Then there is the natural hazard of the into-the-screen, forward-facing platforming that often makes it difficult to safely land Crash when jumping between platforms. Yes, you have Crash’s shadow as guidance but even then, it can be challenging to guage the relative height of other platforms. This is a recurring quirk of the Crash Bandicoot games that never really goes away throughout the series and is something that you simply have to get used to.

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You will learn to hate those stairs. [Source – Youtube]
Going for the 100% completion is also much harder here than in the sequels. To earn the bonus clear gem, you must destroy all crates within a level. This much is common between all three games. What makes this objective harder in the first Crash game however is that you must perform this feat without dying even once. You need that perfect run which can require multiple restarts as well as trial-and-error mastering of a level. I had expected Activision to nix this for the remasters but they didn’t, much to their credit. It provokes frustration and sweaty-handed, tense gaming on the more challenging levels but that challenge is what we all want from our games, right? My main nemesis when going for the 100% completion was the “Fumbling in the dark” level which must have taken me three-quarters of an hour of constant re-tries to nail. That feeling upon finally hitting that perfect run though? Priceless.

Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back is my favourite of the trilogy and this has always been so. The game remained challenging and laden with secrets but lost that brutal edge that the original game sported. For example, you can now collect the clear gem for smashing all crates without worrying about dying in the process. Crash also has some new moves such as the belly flop, crouch-jump and the uber-useful slide. Sliding then jumping allows Crash to fly further forwards for those trickier leaps of faith. You can also slide, jump then spin, a combo that requires lightning-fast inputs but launches Crash even further.

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Being able to play as Coco is a nice addition, even if she doesn’t bring any unique abilities to the game. [Source – Youtube]
Crash 2 is the perfect balance. The player will be challenged to achieve the 100% but it is nowhere near as demanding to do as the first game. Crash’s new moves give him enhanced mobility, the music is possibly the best of the series and the game saw the debut of memorable level designs such as the jetpack segments and riding the adorable polar bear.

For many gamers though, Crash Bandicoot Warped is their favourite. The game follows a similar hub-world structure to Crash 2 but this time, the levels center on real-world themes including medievil/fantasy, the Great Wall of China and Egyptian tombs. Underwater levels make their debut as do jet ski and aeroplane missions. The overall sense I get from Warped is that the traditional platforming challenge is traded off to a degree in favour of visually impressive set pieces. Here again, we have parallels with the evolution of the Spyro franchise which gradually reduced the difficulty in favour of side-missions and unique mini-games.

That’s not to say that Warped is a weak sequel – far fom it. It is undeniably the easiest of the trilogy to beat however. This is largely down to the fact that Crash gained even more special abilities and by the time you have them all, Crash is operating in Super Saiyan territory. If you had all of these abilities in the first two games for example, there would be no challenge at all. There is now an enhanced belly-flop that can destroy nearby crates with a shockwave. You can also keep pressing the spin button to fly a great distance through the air, dramatically reducing the threat posed by pits and ground-based hazards.

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Crash has the moves in Warped. [Source]
The number one offender however is the Fruit Bazooka. Once you have this, the game becomes a cakewalk. Crash can stand still and take aim at distant enemies with this weapon and eliminate all threats without ever having to get near them. Crates can be shot for easy collection as can TNT and nitro crates, removing those hazards from Crash’s path as well. Did I mention that the ammo is also unlimited? This weapon is just absolute overkill in my opinion and I still don’t know why Naughty Dog thought it was a good idea in the first place. Granted, the Fruit Bazooka is a welcome friend when you are chasing the 100% but it also feels like you are cheesing the game.

Warped is nonetheless a great game and was a great way for Naughty Dog to sign off from the franchise (CTR not withstanding) back in the day. The set pieces and variety in gameplay keep things interesting and at the end of the day, it is fun which is what matters.

Conclusions

Like the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, these Crash Bandicoot remasters are a warm, welcoming nostalgia trip. They will raise a smile and take your mind back to the late 90’s, a time where life was – possibly – simpler and the future was teeming with possibilities. Gaming was simpler back then too but despite the aged formula, the Crash Bandicoot series has stood the test of time. Clever platforming design, an unmistakable visual direction and loveable characters are the key. The N Sane Trilogy brings it all back for gamers old and new without stepping on Naughty Dog’s toes and altering their work. In short, this is the perfect example of an ideal remaster.

Review – Spyro Reignited Trilogy [Playstation 4]

spyro-2I’ve been gaming for a hell of a long time now and so you’d be forgiven for thinking that some of my viewpoints on modern gaming are somewhat cynical and the unfortunate victim(s) of rose-tinted vision. For example, I am about as interested in remakes and remasters as I am in that scene in Terminator Genisys where Emilia Clarke gets naked but the smart troll-ish 12-rated camera work denies you a glimpse of the goodness. Either I have no enthusiasm for retreading old ground in HD-o-Vision or I get all old-man grumpy and ignorantly presume that the developer will remix everything too much.

However, that has all changed very recently and my attitude towards a remake has softened a little. The game responsible for this shift is Spyro Reignited Trilogy, a full remastering of one of my favourite videogame series’ of all-time (pre-Enter The Dragonfly of course). Younger readers or newer gamers might not understand the big deal but I had the originals on release and still regularly play through all three most years. I adore these games and no amount of mowing down hookers in GTA (after purchasing their wares of course) has succeeded in dulling my enthusiasm for whimsical fantasy worlds and cutesy characters.

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The games look amazing now, all without any alterations to level layout or loss of the original charm [image: forgetoday.com]
As you might imagine then, I was gravely worried about what Activision and Toys For Bob might do to my childhood memories when Reignited was first announced but I needn’t have been concerned because the boys ‘n girls at ‘Bob did good and managed the near-impossible task of impressing this old-school gamer with a remake of all things. It isn’t all good news but the positives definitely outweigh the crappy stuff so I’ll talk about why this is such a great remake first and foremost.

My overall feeling is that Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a totally authentic and – more importantly – sympathetic remake. Everything from the level layouts to the word-for-word script is as I remember it. The individuality between games has also been retained i.e. the designs of the treasure chests, the shapes of the gems and the extra life systems. Immediately, there is nothing on a basic level to offend the traditionalists who demand the most minimal of changes and this is nice because Toys For Bob could have easily decided to bring each game in line and go for a uniform approach. The only big alteration to the trilogy as a whole is that the sideways roll feature that was originally canned for the sequels has been carried over to Gateway to Glimmer and Year of the Dragon for the remakes. This is actually a welcome change because many fans bemoaned the way that Insomniac took the roll away back when these games were first released. Now though, you can showboat to your heart’s content while avoiding enemy attacks.

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One for the ‘Furries’ out there. Bianca looks a lot foxier this time which ironic since she’s a rabbit [image: Youtube.com]
Then there is the all-important music, originally composed by Stuart Copeland of The Police and adored by fans ever since. The soundtrack of the first game in particular is especially good since each level has a distinct sound influenced by the theme of its home (or ‘hub’) world but the same set of instruments used throughout results in a very cohesive OST. The mix in Reignited is extremely gentle and in all honesty, it didn’t need to be dramatic anyway; the original OST was fantastic as it was and in some respects was ahead of the games themselves and what the technology of the time allowed them to do visually and technically. So it sounds very similar to the original tracks but with a bit of added depth in places. There is an interesting ‘dynamic’ effect too which alters the tone of the music when underground or in tunnels/caves. Stand stationary for a few seconds and the tone will shift to a more ambient, trippy chilled-out zen-like sound that I really enjoyed. You can switch the dynamic mode off and also revert to the original soundtrack if you wish so everybody should be satisfied.

All of that important preservation work acknowledged, we come to the new stuff. Most obvious are the brand-new visuals which really are beautiful. The dragon worlds and Avalar now look utterly sumptuous with so much more detail than was possible before. Obviously we cannot say for certain but this is perhaps what Insomniac would have wanted their games to look like if the technology had been available at the time. On the Playstation, they had to make do with simple colour schemes and basic textures to simulate the real things and define a level’s identity. Not so in Reignited. Flat greens are now proper grass with long blades that sway in the breeze, water looks good enough to drink and the smudgy, minimalistic backdrops now have some detail. It really was a joy to take my time exploring the familiar while absorbing the new.

Some levels in the sequels look like they have been revamped more than others but that’s down to their original designs. After all, some (especially in Year of the Dragon) felt a little uninspired back in the day and a retread of previously-utilised themes.

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The revamp is dramatic yet respectful [image: silconera.com]
The dragons have all been given unique, detailed looks and personalities too which is a massive upgrade over the original designs. Some of these look a bit too comical and over-the-top to me but otherwise it is a nice injection of variety and individuality which wasn’t present before. As mentioned earlier, the dragons still retain their original speech so it’s a nice little compromise between old and new in my opinion. Overall on the graphics front, I felt that Reignited had an almost Pixar-esque quality to its aesthetics and all three games were just so enjoyable to play through for that reason alone, let alone any others.

Obviously the only issue with these remakes being so authentic and true to the originals was that I absolutely caned them and literally had to impose play time limits on myself in order to refrain from completing them too quickly! The original trilogy was released between 1998 and 2000 and I’ve been playing them on and off via my original PS1 discs or the digital versions from the Playstation Store ever since so I know all of the secrets and solutions. Handily, Toys For Bob did attempt to add a little extra longevity with ‘Skill Points’. Skill Points first appeared in Spyro 2 and rewarded the player with an extra life for completing bonus tasks such as flaming all of a specific object within a level or beating a boss while taking no damage.

Similar challenges await in Reignited but this time around, many of the ‘flame all of X object’ Skill Point requirements have been replaced by new targets for variety’s sake. These include burning hidden objects (some of which are genuinely difficult to find) in the first game, completing three perfect laps of the supercharge circuit in Spyro 2‘s Fracture Hills level and beating the course records for the skateboard parks in the third game. Each game features two pages worth of challenges and these are worth doing to unlock the concept artwork which I quite liked the look of. There are trophies too of course and I assume that the Reignited Trilogy will be a relatively easy platinum. I achieved around 80% trophy completion without trying for example.

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Speedways look awesome and provide a nice challenge as usual but the controls feel a little off to me [image: gamepressure.com]
So as a remake of a fan-favourite set of games, Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a resounding success that managed to make me feel rather moist in a sexy way. Perfection is an impossible destination to reach however and so I must now – regrettably – lower the tone and talk about some of the what I didn’t like as well as what nobody will like.

The first collection of criticisms will probably only be relevant to those of us who played the original games and it’s to do with controlling Spyro and some of the hit detection. To me, Spyro felt more difficult to control at charging speed with slower rotation and a less compliant turning circle as opposed to the super-sharp handling in the OG games. Flames don’t seem quite as wide-reaching as before (feels like you have to be just a touch closer to actually make contact) and – most frustratingly – the gliding felt “off”.

It’s difficult to describe properly but I noticed that many of the glides between platforms were now more strict. I wouldn’t have thought twice about these glides in the original games but now it’s almost as if they are only just possible and on the very edge of Spyro’s capability. It’s almost as if he loses altitude that much faster and it’s only really a big issue in the first game which wasn’t equipped with the hover ability that afforded Spyro a little extra reach in the sequels. I experienced many annoying deaths in this way but I will admit that a lot of this was probably down to my instinctive behaviour (learned from years of memory-mapping the originals) being challenged by the remakes. I’m not sure if newcomers or those who didn’t play their PS1 copies into oblivion over the last two decades will feel the same but I thought it was worth noting.

Flight in the ‘speedway’ levels also felt a bit weird and not as tight as before. There were many times when cornering or making a sharp turn that Spyro felt like he was drifting wide or ‘sliding’ in the air like a racecar would when drifting around a corner, causing me to miscalculate and miss a target. Again, it’s no disaster and just took a little getting used to but even so, I’m not sure that understeer and a loss of traction is possible in mid-air…

There are a few other niggles with fiddly controls in some of the third game’s many unique missions/mini-games, some of which used custom mechanics and viewpoints. Skateboarding is one of the biggest culprits with the occasional bizarre collision detection and the game failing to register some of the more complex tricks. The other example that immediately springs to mind are the hideous controls for the speedboat in Seashell Shore which seem to continuously change depending on which way the boat is facing.

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Excuse the language but fuck the controls of this boat. Seriously. [image: gamepressure.com]
The game has also fallen foul of the need to be a little more politically sensitive in order to achieve a family-friendly age rating to slap on the box cover. The enemies in Twilight Harbour no longer resemble guerrilla fighters for example and their machineguns have been exchanged for comical paint guns; their grenades for explosive barrels. Guns were also taken away from the enemies in Spyro 2‘s Scorch level and replaced with catapults. Lastly, the fairies and various female characters are a lot less busty and sexualised this time around, particularly noticeable in the third game’s Desert Ruins level where the Lara Croft-imitating character of ‘Tara’ no longer has the titantic breasts to match her inspiration.

These alterations are not really “negative” changes that should affect your feelings towards Reignited but they stood out to me personally as a staunch anti-Political Correctness kind of guy. Other little differences that I wasn’t so excited about were Hunter’s new voice actor and a tiny portion of the updated soundtrack for Year of the Dragon. A few tracks sound very different (not bad just less recognisable vs the majority of Reignited‘s mixes) and I feel that Bamboo Terrace – one of my favourites – loses something without the chilled chanting in the background.

These are trivial moans that won’t apply to everybody. The universal gripes that should unite all players are the glitches however. It’s worth mentioning that I was lucky and managed to complete all three games without any major issues but looking around online, many have complained about game-breaking problems that render levels impossible to complete amongst other horror stories. Personally, I encountered some dodgy collision detection and occasional (but dramatic) framerate drops as well as a glitch at Lost Fleet’s skateboard race where crossing the line didn’t trigger the next lap (I had to keep trying and eventually I overcame it).

The blame for all of these technical issues can be levelled squarely at Activision and their insistence that the game be on store shelves in time for Christmas, pushing Toys For Bob hard in the process. They had already intended for Reignited to be released in September 2018 before pushing the date back, don’t forget. It’s the same reason that Spyro 2 and 3 don’t even ship on the physical disc and have to be downloaded as a 20GB+ “update”. My internet is perfectly fine for regular web browsing but too slow for fat-ass downloads like this and so I had almost completed the first Spyro before the rest of it had finished downloading in the background (it took FOUR DAYS). Worse still, there are (at the time of writing) no patches or word on forthcoming fixes for the bugs in this game.

All of which is a massive shame because Spyro Reignited Trilogy did pretty much everything right for me and was the first game in a long time that I couldn’t pull myself away from. To have such a good thing slightly spoilt by bugs and a game disc that may as well be a download code on a piece of paper is like enjoying a particularly tasty sandwich only for a seagull to swoop down and snatch the last mouthful. Shame on Activision and their pushy policy but much kudos to Toys For Bob for reviving a much-loved series in such an accomplished manner.