Run It Back is a retrospective series that I originally started on my Medium profile. The goal of it is to shine a spotlight on older individual games and franchises that I believe deserve a second look. Whether it results from a game hitting at the wrong time and getting overshadowed by its contemporaries, or simply not getting the recognition it deserved, I take pleasure in the effort of pulling out a forgotten game or series, wiping off the dust, and conducting a thorough contemporary analysis.
Tomba! is an unusual game with an interesting heritage. Originally hitting the PlayStation in 1997, it was developed by former Capcom developer Tokuro Fujiwara. If that name sounds familiar, Fujiwara is the mind behind Ghosts ‘n Goblins, an infamously difficult, yet altogether charming platformer developed during his time at Capcom. He left Capcom to found Whoopee Camp in 1996, after assisting at a production level on Resident Evil.
Whoopee Camp was not long for this world, ushering only Tomba! and its sequel Tomba! 2: The Evil Swine Return through their doors and into the PlayStation ecosystem. Long-time Capcom composer Harumi Fujita, who handled the soundtracks and sound design for countless classic titles, such as Bionic Commando, Strider, Mega Man 3, Gargoyle’s Quest, and many others, followed Fujiwara. She composed the soundtrack for Tomba! upon joining the team at Whoopee Camp.
Tomba! is actually a fairly innovative title. For instance, it was a Metroidvania before Castlevania: Symphony of the Night even came out. If justice existed in this cruel world, maybe we’d be calling the genre a “Tombtroid,” or perhaps a “Metomba,” if you’re feeling it. Nevertheless, Tomba! was unique for its time, and really still is. I have yet to see anything, beyond its sequel, try to recapture the completely distinctive style of this game.
Developers present the game as an open-world side-scroller with some light RPG elements thrown in. There are instances where Tomba can climb into the background or foreground to enter a new area, while some areas even zoom the perspective out to something bordering on isometric. So there are a few ways that the game shifts your expectation away from being just a strict side-stroller. There are also signposts scattered across the lands that explain the game’s mechanics and some of them serve as save points.
You might wonder, “Okay, so the game has some interesting quirks and mechanics. Where’s the boring part?” Well, it’s not the combat, I can tell you that for sure.
Tomba has a bizarre array of weapons and abilities at his disposal. He has a technique where he jumps onto his enemies and throws them. This technique can also be used to move objects when not fighting. He can even gain access to spiked flails and boomerangs, which I think we can all agree are very cool weapons.
Tomba! features a quest system as well. In the game, quests are called “events” although they function similarly to typical RPG quests. Individuals task you with going out into the world to recover an item or rescue someone, after which you collect your reward. The quest-giver’s thanks typically come as a resource called “Adventure Points.” You accumulate Adventure Points to gain entry to more events and to open various chests across the map. You can complete the 130 total events in any order with no requirement, and you can pick them up and complete them at any time. There is also an inventory system to manage, as Tomba is out in the world picking up event objectives.
A pink-haired feral child wears his deceased grandfather’s gold bracelet and, when confronted by endless hordes of evil pigs, known as Koma Pigs, they steal his bracelet and terrorize the archipelago where Tomba lives. The Koma Pigs are collecting gold to give power to their Seven Evil Pig leaders. The Dwarf Elder asks Tomba to find "Pig Bags" to locate the Seven Evil Pigs. Tomba's job is to take down the pig leaders and weaken the Koma Pig army.
Now that I write this all out, the plot of Tomba! feels like a fever dream and I’ve certainly never heard of anything like this before. It is said that there are only seven total stories in all of fiction and that everything is derivative of at least one of those seven core archetypal stories. I’m not sure that the author of the book where that concept originated has ever played Tomba!, but he might add an eighth archetype after playing it.
Tomba! holds an important place in my heart because it connects to my childhood in an interesting way, and is the cornerstone of a major swath of my gaming habits for close to two decades.
When I was a child, right around the time that the PlayStation 2 was launching in the United States, my older brother and I rented a PlayStation 2 console from our local Blockbuster along with the incredible fighting game, Dead or Alive 2: Hardcore. We had grown up as Nintendo fans and were stepping out of our comfort zone by changing ecosystems to the Sony scene. We rented a PlayStation 2 console a few times over several months in 2000-2001 to create a game plan for our Christmas lists.
One game I rented was Tomba! 2 and I was immediately smitten. I couldn't get enough of the game and I promptly added it to my wish list. I believe I asked for Tomba! 2 for my birthday in 2000, before we even owned a PlayStation for me to play it on. It was that good and I just had to have it.
I asked for it again for Christmas of 2000, then my birthday in 2001, and that Christmas as well. I remember my older sister and mom went shopping at our local mall and had to break the news that they could not find Tomba! 2 anywhere and asked if I had another request. I thought they were playing a prank on me and that it would be there come Christmas morning, so I did not give her another suggestion.
Then Christmas Day 2001 rolls around. We opened the PlayStation 2 console, which was expected, but still deeply exciting. I believe we got SpyHunter and maybe one other game I cannot remember. Then I opened my game. I saw the spiky hair, the somewhat “wild boy” look of the main character and knew it wasn’t Tomba! 2, but my interest was piqued. My sister picked up Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy for me.
To make a long story short, I fell head over heels in love with Jak and Daxter and the rest of the PlayStation 2 library. That love carried over to the PlayStation 3, my favorite Sony console, which further instilled my love of the brand and the ecosystem. I was all in on Sony with the PlayStation 3. That appreciation led to me getting my PlayStation 4 as well, which I think has one of the greatest libraries of any console ever.
Even though I stepped away from Sony here and there, my love for it remains. This enjoyment for the games offered and exploring different games through the console all sprouted from Tomba!
A Remaster on the Horizon?
If you’ve never given Tomba! a shot and do not find yourself even slightly intrigued by this wonderfully bizarre game, along with its sequel, then I’m honestly unsure of how else to convince you. If you’re a fan of video games and/or enjoy delving into the captivating history of our hobby, I believe it’s worth your while to explore one of the most distinct and peculiar titles from the PlayStation lineup.
There is actually some good news surrounding playing Tomba! in the modern era. A new and improved version of the game will be released on PS5, PS4, Switch, and PC. The game will include contributions from Tokuro Fujiwara and a new soundtrack by Harumi Fujita. The release date is yet to be announced.
This great news, in my perspective, comes with a downside: this remaster will take place through the publishing of Limited Run Games. The company faced intense public scrutiny earlier this year when a seven-year-old controversial tweet from Limited Run Games' community manager resurfaced and the embroiled company ultimately dismissed their employee, following pressure from social media. This action drew both praise and ire from many. The company also continues to face criticism for their bizarre shipping policies, occasionally resulting in delays of up to a year for ordered goods to arrive, and lack of transparency in production. I mention all of this not to impose a specific view or pass judgment, but to offer background information of the company that will be supporting this release.
Regardless of Limited Run Games' involvement, I cannot deny that I am excited to see my sweet, pink-haired, feral child getting another chance to shine in the modern era. That's what Run It Back is all about.
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