Retro game review: 'Toonstruck' (1996)
Toonstruck is a 1996 third-person point-and-click adventure game, still available on modern PCs! It's a celebration of cartoon humor, and you can tell a lot of love and effort went into making it. Toony animal side-characters are everywhere.
Originally conceived of in 1993 as a children's game, a decision was made to gear it towards adults instead. Officially it's rated 'T' (Teens) for "Comic mischief, Mild animated violence" - but there is some very adult humor you won't see coming. Virgin Interactive, who made the game, spent over $8 million on it. Some of this was wasted due to changing the engine during development. Otherwise they were able to pay well for its programming, animation and dialog, with (mostly) little executive interference.
The main character of Toonstruck is a burnt-out artist named Drew Blanc, played by Christopher Lloyd, who's been stuck animating The Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Show for ten years. When his boss (played by Ben Stein) demands even more rabbits, so he can keep milking the franchise as Fluffy & Friends, Drew despairs - only to find himself accidentally sucked into a cartoon world. His only hope of escape relies on completing a quest to help the locals.
I love the cartoon world that's been created! On the one side there's "Cutopia", land of all the happy and sugary-sweet characters. On the opposite side are the "Malevolands", for the dark and dangerous. Between the two is the island of "Zanydu", a chaotic-neutral zone for the wacky and comedically violent toons. Zanydu is also the home of Drew's cartoon sidekick and friend, Flux Wildly.
Flux is a great companion - he's got just the right level of snark, humor, and toon sensibility. I'm not quite sure what he is - kind of a short purple thing with glasses. Similar to one of the game mechanics in Sam & Max Hit the Road, Drew can pick up Flux and use him to help solve puzzles. Flux is voiced by Dan Castellaneta - in fact, the whole cast of Toonstruck is stellar, filled with the talent of Jim Cummings, Rob Paulsen, Frank Welker, Tress MacNeille, and many others, including Tim Curry as Count Nefarious, evil ruler of the Malevolands. Some of them are really hamming up their performances, it's great! The writers really gave them good lines.
For sound, you've got a combination of classical music, production music, and original orchestral work, plus familiar sound effects. For the game's visual design, well, it's wonderfully toony. I mean, just look at these two locations:
In terms of puzzles, I'd say this is a decent mid-level point-and-click adventure. Not for beginners, but not as potentially frustrating as other games of its type. Occasionally you might not know what to do next. There's lateral thinking required, and some pixel-hunting to locate small areas on the screen that you can interact with. Still worth playing!
Downsides to this game: If you're a non-English speaker, one puzzle requires an understanding of English expressions. There's a side-character who's a gay stereotype that was disappointingly typical in 1996; not too bad (relatively), but it hasn't aged well. Also, there are number of cutscenes in the game that are very long. The beginning of the game is particularly full of lengthy conversations when you're meeting people for the first time.
I mentioned there wasn't much interference in the game's development. Unfortunately, towards the end of its production, it was decided to remove the end sections of the game. The intention was to save them for a sequel that was never made. The first two-thirds of Toonstruck are really strong. Its last third is a remnant of what they'd intended; the designers had to find a way to work in an early ending. Consequently, several of the final puzzles feel haphazard, and lack a cohesive feeling. Generally though, the game as a whole is strong, and the ending works.
There are a couple of pop culture references. Flux Wildly's name is an obvious homage to Christopher Lloyd's role in the 1985 film Back to the Future. Ben Stein's cameo... well, he'd been doing that for ten years, ever since Ferris Bueller's Day Off in 1986. By the time the game came out, it felt a bit old. Another character in the game is a parody of "Hans and Franz" from Saturday Night Live, which in turn was a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger. That particular SNL sketch had run its course from 1987 to 1992, so it felt very dated by 1996. Then there's "Wacme", a business that provides painfully comedic products, a tribute to Acme in the Wile E. Coyote & Road Runner cartoons. That kind of cartoon stuff never goes out of style.
As for furriness, there are lots of cartoon animals! Plus a couple of cartoon humans, monsters, and other things. Within furry fandom, the most popular character from the game is probably Miss Fortune, an anthropomorphic cat who works for Count Nefarious as his top assistant and personal fortune-teller.
It's also worth noting the approach the game took to its user interface. When CD-ROM discs came on the market in the early 1990s, computer games suddenly had more storage space at their disposal, and experimented with FMV (full-motion video) adventure games from about 1993-1996. Some, like The 7th Guest and Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon were first-person, saving video for conversational cutscenes. Others, like Phantasmagoria, Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within and The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Rose Tattoo, were third-person, and used videos of actors superimposed onto computer- or photographically-generated environments.
Toonstruck was different because it superimposed Christopher Lloyd onto a cartoon environment, inspired by 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Lloyd's acting and facial expressions really add to the enjoyment of the game! The developers simplified the controls so that the left mouse button pretty much does everything, and right-clicking provides extra description.
Commercially, the game did not perform well, partially due to marketing. Interest in adventure games was quickly losing momentum in the late 1990s, and has never fully recovered. Toonstruck remains a gem, all the same. If you look up any "Top List of Classic Adventure Games", it's almost always included! It's a personal favorite of mine, for its excellent visual design, performances, and humor. If you like cartoony things, I highly recommend it. (Full disclosure: I bought a sugar bowl from one of the animators at a garage sale. Seriously.)
Best of all, it's still possible to play Toonstruck! (If you have the original CD-ROM discs, don't use them, due to modern computer speeds.) ScummVM's developers have fixed it for modern PCs, and you can buy it through Good Old Games or Steam. If you want to fiddle with the engine's interface, check the ScummVM documentation; and if you get stuck on any of the puzzles, the UHS guide for the game provides hints gradually.