Tonic Trouble

The first thing most people learn when they find out about Tonic Trouble is its production history: Ubisoft wanted to find out how Rayman-style gameplay would work if given a third dimension, so they made this game as a sort of safe experiment. That way, they could prepare themselves for a real 3D Rayman game without potentially tarnishing the series’ reputation. It’s not a hard angle to read into the game (the protagonist already bears a striking resemblance to Rayman), but just introducing the game like this is enough to make a part of me feel guilty. Not only have I devalued the game by tying it to this other, largely irrelevant title, but by framing Tonic Trouble as Ubisoft’s experiment for Rayman 2, I suggest that the game has no inherent value of its own.

However, another part of me realizes the fallacies at play fueling that guilt in the first place. This line of thought assumes that approaching the game like this overwrites whatever inherent worth the game already had, even though it’s equally possible that this new angle might help us access that worth at all. So that’s how I’m going to look at the game throughout the rest of the review. Looking at it through that lens – as a game that’s dipping its toes into unfamiliar waters – it’s easy to see that nothing it does is outright revolutionary. You could easily mistake Tonic Trouble for another 3D platformer, and I wouldn’t fault you for doing so. At the same time, though, it deviates from the genre’s traditions just enough to give it a unique identity and to highlight alternatives for the maturing 3D platformer genre.

Tonic Trouble (U) (V1.1)  snap0020The gameplay presents plenty of opportunities to see this dual nature in action. Like a lot of platformers at the time, Tonic Trouble presents you with challenges centered on navigating a 3D world in novel ways. You’ll hop on floating platforms, collect whatever doodads the game tells you to collect, employ all sorts of comical abilities to advance, and whack any enemies standing between you and the evil Grögh (more on that last part later). What makes Tonic Trouble stand out from the crowd is the mindset it applies to these conventions. Back in the mid to late 90s (when Tonic Trouble was made), there was a certain ethos surrounding 3D in games. Developers felt that anything was possible now that they’d broken free of the restrictions that 2D games had previously imposed upon them, so it would only make sense that newer games would emphasize this new freedom.

In enter games like Super Mario 64 and Spyro the Dragon. These proto-open world games present the game with expansive spaces, free of whatever pressures existed before. While these worlds functioned well as technical demonstrations of their consoles’ respective power, they also emphasized the player’s ability to act on these areas as they pleased. Players were no longer limited to the one narrow path games gave them to advance; they had a greater ability to resist and create their own paths, as anybody who’s collected a star outside their prescribed mission in Super Mario 64 can attest. Such was the spirit of the age.

It’s a spirit that Tonic Trouble unknowingly resists. That doesn’t mean the game is more structured than its contemporaries (who gave players that ability to resist?); just that it’s structured very differently from them. Because the game is working from a 2D tradition that many other games had abandoned, it accentuates what made those games so memorable: their methodical pacing, and the expectation that you navigate whatever challenges the game offers you. When applied to the 3D worlds Tonic Trouble offers you, it feels like the game’s giving you a slight push into embracing what’s being offered instead of assuming you’ll have the enthusiasm necessary to embrace it on your own. That’s certainly a smart strategy to take regarding the main character’s abilities, whose unfolding nature (think Metroidvania) forms the backbone to the game. Combine all this with the patience that early 3D games afforded their players, and you get a mellow experience that few of the game’s peers achieved. What’s more, Tonic Trouble achieves most of this from a truly 3D perspective, unlike the essentially 2D gameplay that Crash Bandicoot, the nearest equivalent, offered. (Keep in mind that Sonic Adventure was just a few weeks away from release.)

Tonic Trouble (U) (V1.1)  snap0044I should clarify that the game’s departure from 3D platforming isn’t a complete one, as it has its fair share of uneven compromises. For example, rather than presenting you with each level as soon as you complete them, Tonic Trouble borrows Super Mario 64’s hub world concept and lets you walk directly to each new level (albeit in a very tightly confined order). This works well enough for the game’s purposes. What doesn’t work so well is the sudden shift to collection the game takes toward the end. Asking the player to collect a certain amount of something in a game usually amounts to asking them to explore their surroundings and scour them for every last something they need. On its own, this is fine.

Yet problems pop up when we remember that Tonic Trouble was built for navigation, not exploration. How can the levels hope to accommodate these new demands when they weren’t built with them in mind? Putting aside how abrupt the shift feels anyway, collecting all these objects will either feel trivial because the levels can’t hide them that well, or frustrating because they do nothing to draw our attention to them, either. I get the sense the game ends this way out of a desire to fit in, because it’s certainly not the first game to include such an ending. Rare games were notorious for this kind of design (see: Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini, Diddy Kong Racing). In any case, it’s as unwelcome here as it is in other games.

Normally, this would be where I end the review, but there’s one more thing I want to talk about: how the game characterizes its main character, Ed. Although he’s an average person like a lot of video game heroes, the game critiques that aspect of his character instead of celebrating him for it. Our story begins when spaceship worker Ed encounters a can of magic soda while cleaning up the ship. Not realizing the soda’s destructive, he accidentally lets it spill onto the Earth and contaminate the land. In addition, his actions also enable Grögh, the Lost Vikings-looking antagonist, to amass an army of poisoned vegetables to take over the world.

Tonic Trouble (U) (V1.1)  snap0023Even from this description, we can glean what separates Ed from a lot of other heroes. It’s his own clumsiness that sets the game into action, but more importantly, nothing about Ed indicates that he has the ability to fix these problems. At least Mario and Spyro have some level of competency that enables them to be heroes; Ed possesses no such qualities. In fact, the first level goes out of its way to communicate just how unfit he is to clean up his own mess: he’s immediately thrust into an unfamiliar situation, lacking both the skill necessary to navigate these challenges and the time needed to learn how. All he can do is hope things work out in his favor. The game, then, becomes about Ed accepting his inadequacy as a hero. Not even mitigating or overcoming that inadequacy, either, but accepting it. On one level, he’s not as important to story as you’d think. It’s Doc and his countless inventions that drive the story forward, not the actions Ed takes.

And on another level, the actions he is allowed to take only further highlight what an average and forgettable guy he is. As ironic as it might sound, Ed’s abilities are nothing short of fanciful: he can glide through the air, transform into other characters, gain super strength for short bursts, and do so much more. What makes them mundane, though, is that they all come from technology that Doc gives Ed over the course of the game, meaning they don’t reflect anything about Ed’s character. We can’t even interpret his accumulation of abilities as reflecting any sort of personal development, because he’s receiving these tools because they’re part of the job that’s been thrust upon him, not because he’s proven he’s ready to wield them. Presumably, anybody could use these inventions with the right training. So not even during gameplay is there anything unique about Ed as a hero. Sad though it may be, but Tonic Trouble is much better off with that sadness. It makes the game richer, adding a certain level of character that a lot of its peers lacked.

Or at least it would if the game more strongly emphasized this aspect of Ed’s character. Instead, the game leans more heavily into a Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic. (An odd decision, considering the strong Disney influences that permeated the original Rayman.) I don’t want to fault it for choosing to represent itself this way, since it’s good at what it does. The angular designs, expressive characters, and off-beat color choices give the game a wacky, comical energy that would feel right at home following Angry Beavers. And speaking of the characters, their reckless gesticulations do a fantastic job of communicating their personalities. Granted, Tonic Trouble was far from the only game to adopt this art style. In fact, its only contribution to a genre that already includes games like Tempo and Earthworm Jim is that it represents this visual style reasonably well in a 3D space. Given what Tonic Trouble set out to do, though, that’s not an accomplishment we should dismiss.

If I were to judge the game by how I’ve described it thus far, I’d say it’s a game that could never completely break away from its own genre’s conventions. That’s to be expected; Ubisoft developed this game to explore the 3D platforming genre, not reinvent it. Despite all that, I still find myself interested in the ways that Tonic Trouble does break from that tradition. By showing what a natural evolution from 2D to 3D might have looked like, for example, the game’s able to question an evolution most people would have originally taken as natural. It highlights an alternative to the genre: one centered on carefully structured challenge and specific demands of the player, rather than the more open, player-centric design that typifies many other platformers. I’m still not sure if I’ve done the game justice and treated it as an end in itself, but I find myself satisfied with it nonetheless.

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