So I have this thing. I love it when cartoons and humans interact. I mean, love it. It makes me feel a depth of happiness I can't explain. To understand the extent to which this reaches, I need say only this: I enjoyed watching Space Jam. No matter how bad the script, the jokes, the direction, I still enjoyed seeing Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan playing basketball together. And I won't apologise for it. From Bedknobs And Broomsticks to Loony Toons: Back In Action, if cartoon and human worlds cross over, I'm sold. Which brings us to Toonstruck.
In looking back at some of the best (and worst) adventure games of the eighties and nineties, it's too easy to remain within the archives of LucasArts and Sierra. Perhaps Westwood's Bladerunner gets quickly remembered, Cecil's Broken Sword games, and someone will recall Adventure Soft's Simon The Sorcerer games. But what about The Legend of Kyrania series, also from Westwood? Access's Tex Murphy games? Microids' Syberia? And what about Burst Studio's Toonstruck? Why isn't everyone talking about it? It's absolutely bloody brilliant.
Christopher Lloyd had some experience working with cartoons, when he played the terrifying Judge Doom in 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Eight years later he's on the opposite side, playing the agonisingly named Drew Blanc, a real world cartoonist stuck working on the ghastly, cutesy Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Show.
Called in by his boss, played superbly by the dry, laconic Ben Stein, he's told he has to work all night to new bunny characters to the programme, to spice it up. Blocked, he's unable to find the enthusiasm. On the wall in Blanc's office is his favourite creation, the never realised Flux Wildly, a purple creature with green eyes, the cartoon he wishes his career could have been about.
At a certain point during the night things get weird. Blanc finds himself falling through a vortex into his television, which takes him into a cartoon world (as often happens to cartoonists). He immediately meets Flux himself, and is introduced to the king of the land he's in, Cutopia. There are three lands in this world, the isn't-everything-just-lovely Cutopia, its opposite grim and dark Malevolands, and between the two Flux's hometown, Zanydu, home to lunatics.
The evil ruler of the Malevolands, Count Nefarious (voiced to perfection by the ever mellifluous Tim Curry) has built a device called a Malevolator, which zaps all that is good and pure and turns it evil. So Drew and Flux set out to collect all the components needed to create a Cutifier to reverse the damage.
The first thing that stands out here is the talent. Christopher Lloyd, you know, Dr. Emmett Brown, as your player character. He's always shown as film, scan-line FMV, projected onto the 2D, hand-drawn cartoon world. And this is literally hand-drawn, then scanned in. His interaction with the world is animated around his actions, letting him hold cartoon objects, or more frequently get hit on the head with them.
Then as mentioned, Tim Curry camping it up as the animated Nefarious, delighting in his evil lines. Plus, oh, it's only Dan Castellaneta, voice of Homer Simpson, as Flux. (Unrecognisably, it should be said - the man has range.) Plus the rest of the voice cast, playing the enormous number of cartoon inhabitants of the world, are all of an extraordinarily high quality. In fact, I'm struggling to think of any game I've played that has voice acting as good as this.
The voices are matched by the animation. The whole game feels like a tribute to classic cartooning, drawing from a range of sources. A mixture of Chuck Jones and John Kricfalusi, by way of a demented Disney, it may not have the detail of the greats, but it possesses the passion.
Extended cut-scene sequences often play out as tributes to Loony Tunes classics. If something goes through a wall, it of course leaves a them-shaped hole behind. Running to bowl naturally offers a Flintstones "diddly-diddly-dee" sound as tiptoes scuttle. Run off the edge of a cliff and there's going to be a few seconds before gravity kicks in. They're important rules the game understands.
Of course, an adventure is nothing without its puzzles, and here too Toonstruck shines. There are some extremely dodgy ones, and I'll confess to turning to a walkthrough on a couple of occasions, but otherwise there's a really splendid sense of application of inventory items in interesting ways - the core ingredient of great nineties adventures.
What makes it most satisfying here is that there's no attempt to hide the shopping list. The Malevolator has 12 items that make it work, things like polish, needles, stripes and salt. You are tasked to find each item's opposite counterpart. It's a dubious use of "opposite", more the "thing that goes with it". But it means you've got 11 things (sugar to replace spice is provided for you) to search the three areas for. Rather splendidly, it never tells you exactly what they are, leaving you to figure out that it's the bowling pins that will replace the needles in the malevolator's design.
It's beautifully balanced. Often adventures can either leave you with about two locations to explore at a time, removing any sense of freedom. Or they have a vast open space to explore and the resulting agoraphobia that leaves you not wanting to head anywhere. Here the world expands as you solve puzzles, access to the Malevolands only available once you've figured out how to get past a wolf beset by malapropisms.
The one catch is quite how painfully slowly the characters move. Wantonly missing is the option to double-click on an exit to jump straight there, and often you have to trudge quite some distances to complete tasks. Later in the game you can use a portable hole to more quickly get from each of the three town centres, but it still remains a laborious process.
I also enjoyed quite how many stalwarts of cartoons it didn't shy away from. At one point the heroes are even being boiled in a cooking pot. It's something of a surprise that there's not a sequence in which you're trying to escape from quicksand. The game just gets cartoons, understands why they're special, and revels in this. It can't be understated how much Toonstruck shines with this.
Things get peculiarly adult in places. While most of the comedy is classic cartoon violence, and banter between Drew and Flux, every now and then it gets a bit peculiar. For instance, when the lovely idyllic farmyard barn (containing a rather frighteningly milk-obsessed cow, and elderly donkey) is replaced by an S&M chamber, the cow strapped to the wall being whipped by the sheep, shrieking out cries of pleasure, the donkey mysteriously missing and somehow some glue being manufactured. Um, children, it's time to go outside to play now. There's also a rather awkward moment when Flux cries out, "I just figured he was a total retard." Er, no thanks.
But all of this is not to mention that it's about human/cartoon interaction! Oh, happy me. I can't explain it, I can't quite capture what it is about it, but I can assure you that possibly nothing could make me happier than waking up to find that I'm in a cartoon land with cartoon lore. Or that a cartoon character has joined me in my world. Either way, ideally with the ability to travel back and forth between the two. It would be best. The game captures that, Drew accepting of his situation, although determined to get home again.
Rather sadly, there was supposed to be a sequel to Toonstruck that never happened. It's already an extremely long game, but a deal of material was cut from it intended to be used in a follow-up. The ending reflects this, the final extensive cut-scene tying up the story neatly, but also setting things up for a follow-up. But Toonstruck did not sell well. It was 1996, and the adventure bubble had violently popped. Despite a sleek interface, fantastic writing and performances, and being a genuinely good game, Toonstruck didn't succeed, and so the sequel was shelved.
More sadly, getting it working is pretty damned hard. I had to use a combination of Dosbox, alchemy, special copy-and-pasted code in frightening files, and animal sacrifices. It really doesn't like anything from XP onward (although at least with XP instead of 7 you can use Virtual Machine without Microsoft trying to charge you a million pounds). Even then I was forced to use someone else's save games to get past one puzzle that was rendered impossible by processors no longer running at 200MHz.
It's a real tragedy that no-one at the defunct Burst Games, nor the defunct Virgin Games, has ever allowed it to work with ScummVM. Although it's very possible that no one knows who actually owns it at this point to give such permission. Go Team Copyright!
It's just so bursting with character. The gorgeously camp Carecrow, the snooty footman (he's a foot, you see, which as Flux points out means a butler must look even more strange), the bulldog running a gym, and so many other brilliantly realised, animated and voiced inhabitants. You could argue that Christopher Lloyd over-acts a little. I think it works well. His only failing is a lack of energy in his voice as he delivers some lines. But otherwise there's so little to dislike.
It's a classic that stands up against LucasArts, and it's madness that it's not widely recognised as such.