Tonic Trouble (Nintendo 64) review
"It’s rare for me to be offended by bad character design, but Tonic Trouble’s protagonist makes me want to shoot somebody. "
It’s rare for me to be offended by bad character design, but Tonic Trouble’s protagonist makes me want to shoot somebody.
In a game where the central speaking role is a newspaper with eyeballs and most of your enemies are disgruntled vegetables, I suppose it’s too much to expect any creativity in the visual department, but Tonic Trouble’s main character is an interesting case. His name is Ed, and I’m told he was created by the same fellow responsible for Rayman, which isn’t surprising. With no arms or legs, he is essentially a collection of body parts floating through the air by means of some unseen force. He’s also purple, shapeless, and (barring the two or so voice samples that sound vaguely masculine) sexless insofar that they had to throw a bowtie onto his figure to give him a discernable gender. (This last fact is made unsettling when one considers that Ed doesn’t have a neck.) He would certainly qualify as a poor Rayman rip-off if he weren’t designed by the same man, and if Ubisoft weren’t responsible for creating both games. Instead, he’s just a wannabe.
My dissatisfaction with Ed as a character deserves mention because his very presence in Tonic Trouble makes the game an emasculating experience, almost as if I could feel my genitals being slowly absorbed into my pelvis as I played. Controlling such a pathetic character is the kind of act that lowers one’s self-esteem; this is the kind of game that you hide when your friends come over so they won’t think less of you. Ed is one of the lamest character creations of all time and Tonic Trouble is a worse game because of it. But fear not, dear readers! I can afford to be superficial, because Tonic Trouble sucks for other reasons, too. Like its main character, the game is a hollow imitation of something much better, and seems to have no concept of how utterly incompetent it is.
Let’s be superficial for a moment more, though, and examine Tonic Trouble’s plot. While traveling past Earth, Ed decides to tidy up his spaceship. He sees an insect, goes nuts, drinks a tonic, acts smug for a second, and then vomits. (This scene is hilarious for how inexplicable it is.) He accidentally drops the can of tonic down a hatch that releases it into space, where it travels millions of miles and reaches Earth in a matter of seconds, because apparently that’s how outer space works. Once the can hits the ground, it somehow infects nearly every living creature (and, for that matter, inanimate object) on the planet, turning them rabid and murderous and such. And a punk-metal viking named Grögh got his hands on the tonic and now threatens to take over the world, a development that’s treated with about as much urgency as if a punk-metal viking really did threaten to take over the world.
As if it weren’t immediately obvious (before you’re even playing) that the people who made Tonic Trouble had no idea what they’re doing, your first order of business is to get to the bottom of an icy mountain in a completely superfluous and unnecessary sledding mini-game. It’s the kind of thing that usually finds its way into most 3D platformers at some point or another, typically toward the end when the designers have begun running out of ideas.
Ed soon finds himself in the employ of Doc, a “wacky” scientist who is actually a physical manifestation of this game’s platformer clichés: He’s got the means to stop Grögh, but he needs you to gather the materials he needs to build his contraptions, conveniently giving you something to collect while you’re out there doing all that platforming. Doc also has a daughter, Suzy, and a blossoming romance between her and Ed is hinted at. I don’t think the writers realized how disturbing the prospect of Ed mating and reproducing actually is.
The Doc is perhaps the most relevant character in Tonic Trouble because his personality seems to mirror the mindset of the game’s designers. They apparently thought “random” was a reasonable substitute for “quirky and imaginative.” Even putting aside Ed’s encounters with a rogue robotic suitcase (named – get this – Robosuitcase), a prominent example of Ubisoft’s seemingly drug-induced state of mind comes early on, when the aforementioned talking newspaper warns you that the Doc’s toasters have gone berserk. His toasters have gone berserk? His toasters have gone berserk. Spending a couple of minutes floating over a pool of lava and trying to remain aboard a moving platform while dodging burning toast is indeed the kind of scenario that has me questioning my purpose in life.
But I fear I may have made the game sound interesting, so allow me to elaborate: It isn’t. The game was technically released before Rayman 2: The Great Escape was, and a fair reviewer would see this as a reasonable excuse not to compare the two, but damned if I won’t anyway, since that’s obviously the game Tonic Trouble wants to be. Even with a suitably exaggerated visual style and a sprightly soundtrack (note that I do not describe it as “catchy” or “good”), the level design barely resonates as anything more than hopelessly bland and unimaginative. “Here are some platforms,” the game seems to be saying, as if inspiring the mere act of jumping endlessly is the only prerequisite for creating a worthwhile platformer. Ed is occasionally given some new abilities, but Ubisoft couldn’t elevate their usage to anything more than a set of momentary gimmicks meant to keep players from falling asleep at the controller.
Tonic Trouble doesn’t control well anyway, which is a big deal in any genre but is especially important for a 3D platformer, in which precision is of utmost importance. The camera is uncooperative in the few moments when you’ve actually got any semblance of direct control over it, and a frustrating delay between the physical motion of the analog stick and Ed’s movement on-screen makes the platforming itself sticky and unresponsive. (If Ed were capable of speaking, this is where he’d say, “Yeah, I’ll move in that direction when I get around to it.”) Nothing is guaranteed in Tonic Trouble, you see. When Ed must reach a ledge that is a little too high, he’ll either (a) grab onto it and pull himself up, (b) do a Luigi-esque running-in-air motion that may send him in an unprecedented direction, or (c) forget what he was doing and fall back to the ground. Shimmying along said ledges is equally risky, as Ed can apparently only keep up the action until his hands get tired.
After all of this, I suppose it’s unfair to expect Ed to excel in combat. For at least the opening portion of the game, Ed is incapable of attacking, which means you’ve got to rely on the enemies killing themselves, and I wish I were joking. Once Ed gets a weapon, he adds “Waaaaaah!” to his very short list of voice samples, and to be completely sarcastic, this never gets old. But most of Ed’s machismo is obtained by eating the Doc’s magical popcorn, all obtained from dispensers that have the Nestle Crunch logo on them, which MAKES NO SENSE. It’s in these instances that he transforms into Super Ed, and yeah, that’s actually what he calls himself. In this state, he’s able to work up the energy to slap things, and he can also bend open metal bars that previously blocked his path. This action doesn’t actually offer much more space to move in between the bars, but afterwards, Ed can simply clip through them. So, hey, whatever works.
Only in the final battle does Ed compensate for his utter lameness up until that point, when he jams a glass shard into Grögh’s eyeball and smothers him with a plastic bag. Except even that part sucked, because I made it up.
You know what? The N64 doesn’t really have much of anything, but I’ll give it credit for offering up plenty of genuinely great 3D platformers. Tonic Trouble would be awful on any console, but perhaps elsewhere, it wouldn’t look so outnumbered. If you’re gonna go through the trouble of dusting off that N64 just to experience the subtle joys of a good old collect-a-thon, you might as well play one of the thousand or so that are better than this.
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