Nearly 30 years after its release in 1996, Toonstruck deserves an objective review. Even if you aren’t into adventure games, or weren’t even born when the game was released, the story behind the game’s troubled release, the unreleased “sequel”, and its cult status are a hell of an interesting story.
Toonstruck is a point-and-click adventure game, a genre which enjoyed significant popularity with PC gamers in the late ’80s and early ’90s with titles such as Monkey Island (1990) and Full Throttle (1995).
The success of the genre prompted Virgin Interactive Entertainment to create Toonstruck with their internal development studio Burst.
The game follows Drew Blanc (Christopher Lloyd), a downtrodden cartoonist who gets sucked into a cartoon world, which he’s promptly charged with saving. The mix of live-action and animation was in a similar vein to Who Framed Rodger Rabbit (1988), which also starred Christopher Lloyd.
Virgin pulled out all the stops with a budget of over $8 million, which is well over $14 million today when adjusting for inflation. To put that into context, the Lucas Arts title Full Throttle (which was released at a similar time) had a budget of $1.5 million, and that was considered to be a lot.
So why was it so expensive?
The stellar cast probably wasn’t cheap. Christopher Lloyd’s animated sidekick throughout this adventure is a purple bespectacled rascal voiced by Dan Castellaneta, who’s perhaps most famous for voicing Homer Simpson. Fellow Simpsons cast member Tress MacNeille handles a handful of other characters, including the infamous Marge/Mistress Marge. Did I mention Tim Curry takes up the mantle of the evil Count Nefarious?
Additionally, in each of the game’s 50+ backgrounds are hand painted, there are numerous fully animated cut scenes, and all of the characters within the game were created using traditional cell animation.
Lastly, putting Christopher Lloyd into the cartoon world involved filming him performing countless actions against a blue screen.
There had never been anything like it – so the game was a smash hit, right? No – it sold around 150,000, which would sound great to many small developers, but not in this case.
Why did Toonstruck fail?
While Virgin may have pulled out all the stops to begin with, at some point, the well ran dry. The game was supposed to have a third act:
According to Richard Hare (Lead Designer) – “once Drew escaped from Nefarious’s castle, he and Flux were supposed to ride a “Train of Thought” (remember the train tracks area in Zanydu?) up to an island in the sky. Here, Drew explores his own fears and fantasies within a carnival setting (there was a Wild West shootout, an encounter with Drew’s artist idol, Van Gogh, and a visit to a maniacal dentist). Finally, Drew needs to kick-start his imagination/creativity (represented by a huge lighthouse) and defeat both Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun and Nefarious in the process.”
This third act was being developed at the same time as the rest of the game, but when the whole game was ¾ complete, the money ran out and the team were told to cut the third act and ship the game.
The team obliged. An alternative ending was shot that left the door open for the third act to be used as part of a sequel.
According to members of the development team, there was no budget left to market the game. Releasing a game in the 90s was a different animal compared to releasing a game today. In addition to having to manufacture and globally ship a physical product (as opposed to releasing it on a platform like Steam), simply shipping the game wasn’t enough. Field of dreams was a lie! There was no ubiquitous internet, no social networks, no Twitch, and if something went viral, you would spend a couple of days in bed.
The meagre marketing budget that Toonstruck was given was not put to good use. Although the game has some edgy humour, its audience was far broader than the one to which it was marketed.
Take a look at this magazine ad.
The marketing leaned hard on the game’s edgier characters and tried to appeal to…weird adults?
The release of Toonstruck was also ill-timed. In 1996, 3D games were experiencing a boom, and while 3D games from that era certainly haven’t stood the test of time compared to their 2D peers, they were new and exciting.
A cult classic
It’s important to note that the game was well-received by critics, and the few people that did get their hands on the game would evolve into the title’s cult-classic fanbase.
Over the years, there have been numerous calls to release the sequel (formally the original game’s third act) and remaster the game for a modern audience.
But what if things were different? What if the game had earmarked enough money for marketing? What if that marketing understood the audience for the game? What if it was released a couple of years earlier?
Would it have been a success? Would we have subsequently got that third act and more in the form of Toonstruck 2? Would we then have gotten a terrible best-forgotten 3D instalment? Would we then have got an HD remaster of the first 2? Following a long hiatus, would the fourth game have returned to its roots with the original creators at the helm?
Let’s explore that with an objective review – which is what I said I was going to do about 900 words ago. Sorry, the background is essential.
The review – for real this time.
Point-and-click games are known for being frustrating. That’s not always a bad thing; figuring out a difficult puzzle after an hour can feel extremely rewarding. The evolution of the point-and-click game has been about finding that sweet spot where puzzles are challenging without being infuriating. Someone new to the genre would likely be perturbed by Monkey Island’s nine ways in which you could try and interact with things, but at the time, that mechanism was a breath of fresh air from previous adventure games that required you to type in what you wanted to do and hope that your wording and spelling matched something the developer had programmed.
Toonstruck tries to strike this balance by simplifying its mechanics. There are only two ways to interact with characters and the environment – clicking on it or using an object on it.
You seldom need to pixel hunt to find an object that can be picked up on and interacted with in a scene. This has been a major frustration with other titles in the genre.
One of the most interesting mechanics is the ability to select your sidekick, Flux and get him to interact with something. Sadly, this mechanic is woefully underused. Only four puzzles require the use of Flux, and three of these occur within the first hour of gameplay. Thankfully, having the wise-cracking Flux along for the ride makes the first act more enjoyable.
There is a fast-travel feature for travelling between the three main zones of the first act, but this doesn’t actually save that much time, especially as unlocking it requires solving one of the game’s more challenging puzzles. The game requires a healthy dose of backtracking, especially when returning to areas to see if there’s something you missed or to try a different way of solving a puzzle. This back-and-forth is all part of the point-and-click genre, but The Curse of Monkey Island (1997) mitigated the frustration by allowing you to double-click your destination within a scene to go straight there without waking to it.
Such a quality-of-life improvement was very much appreciated, and I hope that we see something similar in the HD remaster of Toonstruck. I’ve been corrected; this feature is in Toonstruck, you just right click on the destination.
Overall, operating the game is a little bit clunky by today’s standards.
To 50+ hand-painted environments are excellent, not just in terms of their creativity and detail but also just how memorable they are. When I picked the game up on Steam in 2016 (20 years after its release), I was surprised by how vividly the environments had remained in my mind.
The environments are immersive as they change throughout your journey through Cutopia, Zanydu, and the Malevolands.
This immersion isn’t solely the achievements of the visual artists. The sound design is the perfect companion. From the jaunty fiddle in the Irish/Scottish pub to the menacing drone of the Tuba in malevoloated parts of Cutopia, the environments build a world that makes you want to explore it.
Within the environments, you’ll find a gamut of colourful characters. All the characters are traditionally animated, and many of them are as memorable as the game environments. They have a lot to say, and in most cases listening to them isn’t a chore.
While she was one of the more controversial characters (for the time), nobody who played in 1996 is likely to forget Mistress Marge. The same probably can’t be said for Ray.
Dialogue is picture based. You have an ice cube icon (the frozen water, not the rapper) which melts as the character runs out of things to say. Additionally, there are sometimes icons for specific icons or objects so that you can ask about them.
While this simplification is in a similar vein to the simplified interactivity options, in this case, I would have preferred more options for inconsequential dialogue, which allows you to shape the character.
The first two character interactions in the game involve you talking to one character to solve a problem with another. Sadly, this is the only example of dialogue with one character changing what another says or does. Toonstruck is an ambitious game, but as with utilising Flux in quests, this was another ambition that didn’t get used enough.
If you’ve ever had to resort to a walkthrough after pulling your hair out, you can sometimes kick yourself if the solution is something you felt you should have been able to figure out. The opposite emotion is annoyance because the solution is so illogical that you would never have figured it out, and you resent the developers for the time you spent trying.
As mentioned, Toonstruck shouldn’t give you too much trouble when it comes to finding objects to pick up or interact with. Solving puzzles is, on the whole, fairly logical, and there are usually a bunch of subtle and not-so-subtle hints contained within the dialogue and the environments. For example, it may seem a bit of a stretch to work out that you can escape from prison by generating static electricity walking around, were it not for the fact that the characters mention that the cell is carpeted three times in about 30 seconds. Similarly, working out that an unconscious mouse can be resuscitated with the smell of fertilizer is helped along by the big green vapour trails rising from the barrel.
Despite trying to help you along, you will inevitably find attempting to combine a rubber glove with a plunger for reasons only known to you. It’s the game’s core logic puzzle that will likely cause you to try the most illogical things. You see, you’re tasked with collecting 11 items which correspond with items on the Malevolator blueprint. Sugar has already been successfully paired with Spice. You find some stars to pair with Stripes, etc, etc, you get the picture. The problem is that 10 of these 11 items have absolutely no use in the game outside of this core puzzle. Therefore, the majority of your inventory is filled with things that (unbeknownst to you) are redundant until you reach the end of the first act. The result of this is that if you do get stuck and find yourself desperately trying to combine and use things to solve a puzzle, a bunch of those things may as well not be there.
The second part of the game (originally this required you to insert CD 2) takes place entirely in the castle of Count Nefarious. This act has a much darker tone, and that makes the absence of your sidekick, Flux, more overt. Going stag doesn’t prevent Drew from delivering one-liners into the ether and the second act, though.
The castle also has some of the game’s cleverer puzzles.
In essence, Toonstruck is about a man with creator’s block who needs a win. When Drew gets sucked into the cartoon world he acclimates pretty quickly, and so do you. As a result, you forget the main story arc as you focus on saving Cutopia at your own pace. The narrative in the toon world is about as viscus as your typical Saturday morning cartoon, thickened significantly by the characters you deal with and the amount of time you spend there.
Viewed as a whole, even though the game has a play time of around 10 hours (or 58 minutes if you want to suck the joy out of it), which is very normal for the genre, and didn’t feel like a recent amputee, reuniting Drew and Flux in that missing third act would have given the game more balanced than ending after Drew’s solo roam around the dark castle.
It’s not hard to see why fans of the game are still plugging away for that missing act.
This review might seem overly critical of Toonstruck, given the website on which it’s published, but it’s important to be objective. It’s also worthy of note that this is a review of the game now. After 30 years, the game holds up surprisingly well.
So, would Toonstruck have been a household name if things were done differently with the timing and the marketing? It certainly could have done a lot better, but if you dig a little deeper into the numbers, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the game made a good return on its investment. For perspective, The Curse of Monkey Island (aka Monkey Island 3), which was released a year later, pulled down similar sales figures off a budget of under $1.5 million. It’s a good comparison because Curse also has excellent production value and impressively immersive environments and characters. Curse would continue to be marketed and go on to sell many more copies globally over the years (and to this day) and is often cited as the best instalment in the franchise.
If you’re talking about the best point-and-click games ever made, I believe Toonstruck deserves a place in that conversation, too.
Toonstruck will always have a place in history because of the story behind the game and the small but enthused fanbase that grew up around it. If you’re a fan of adventure games, it’s still an easy recommendation all these years later. Head over to Steam or GOG and pick it up.
If you have any thoughts on this review, please head over to the comments section.