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by Kurt Kalata - May 5, 2010

Toonstruck - DOS (1996)

American Cover

American Alternate Cover

European Cover

Drew Blanc is miserable. Despite being an immensely talented animator working on one of the most popular cartoons of its time, he's overworked, unchallenged, unsatisfied. He wants nothing more than to turn his own personal creation, Flux Wildly, into a superstar, but instead he's stuck working on a disgustingly adorable bit of saccharine that would make Hello Kitty puke. (Cartoons are only for kids, you see.) Drew's fortune takes a wild turn when he falls asleep and is sucked into Cutopia, the world of his own design. The cartoon world is under attack by the neighboring country of Malevolands, led by the dark COunt Nefarious. He has a device called the Malevator, which can turn anything cute and cuddly into something dark and nightmarish. It's up to Drew, accompanied by Flux, now taking on a life of his own, to stop the Count and bring peace back to the land.

It's very clear that Burst Studios, the developer of Toonstruck, so very desperately wanted it to be an interactive version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, although conceptually it has more in common with Ralph Bakshi's Cool World, a considerably more obscure (and substantially worse) film. Here, Christopher Lloyd plays Drew, who remains the only live action character in the world of Cutopia, while the rest of the world is rendered completely as a brightly colored hand drawn cartoon. There are numerous full motion video sequences as well, integrating Lloyd with the bizarre fantasy world. It's never as convincing as Roger Rabbit, but it's functional.

As is apparent, Burst Studios clearly had an affection for Chuck Jones-era Warner Bros, although other influences from the wide world of animation shine through. When the short, bearded, surly clerk puts on a tutu and launches a bowling ball down the alley with his butt, it's hard not to be reminded of John Kricfalusi, and the overtly violent cat-and-dog duo, who run their own store and demonstrate their goods on each other, heavily channel Matt Groening's Itchy and Scratchy, although that in turn was a satire of Tom and Jerry. The art style is varied yet unique, clearly recalling the golden era of animation while still maintaining its own sense of style. Much of the artwork was provided by Canadian animation studio Nelvana, in conjunction with the lesser known Phillipine studio Rainbow Animation.

Toonstruck's adventure is broken up into two acts. In the first, you need to collect roughly a dozen items to create an item called a Cutifier to counter the effects of the Malevalator. The rub is, you don't technically know what the items are - you DO know all of the ingredients for the Malevator, though, so you need to find items that are the "opposite", or rather, items that accompany them in some way. The first one is a gimme as an example: Sugar goes with Spice. Some are quite obvious - the Arrow goes with a Bow - while a few others are a bit more punny.

The game makes no bones about this being one gigantic, multi-tiered fetch quest, which might bring up nightmares of the first Discworld game, with its gigantic world, expansive inventory, and nauseatingly difficult puzzles. Superficially Toonstruck shares the same structure, but after a bit of exploration, your goals eventually become apparent, even if it's not entirely clear how to approach them. The journey initially begins in Cutopia, and quickly spreads into the neighboring kingdom of Zanydu, which is governed by insane wackos and Looney Tunes-style logic. After uncovering a few items you're also allowed into the depressingly dark Malevolands, which is a stark contrast to either of the other two worlds. The game world is quite large and expansive, although quick travelling, enabled by right clicking on an exit, makes navigation relatively painless. In true cartoon style, you also get a portable hole which can be used to transport over the map, amongst other uses.

Once assembled, Drew and Flux are captured by Count Nefarious, with Drew breaking out of the cell and escaping on his own. The second half of the game is substantially darker, being that most of the wackier characters from the first half are missing, but it's a traditional, structured experience, and some of the better puzzles. The heightened reality and twisted logic makes some of the more fiendish puzzles forgivable, especially since some of the better ones rely on slapstick - in other words, devising the most fiendishly painful ways to punish your opponents. When distracting the guards in Nefarious' castle, you need to flood the sink and turn down the heat, turning the bathroom into an impromptu skating rink, causing your would-be assailants to break out into a figure skating dance before harmlessly flying out the window. The other squadron is bested through a pile of Thanksgiving turkeys and creative use of dynamite.

The developers clearly had a passion for the project, as evidenced not only through its visual design, but through its astoundingly talented ("gold-throated", as the back of the box states) voice cast. Dan Castellaneta (Homer from The Simpsons) takes up the role as Flux, and Tim Curry does his best sinister evil guy act as Count Nefarious, while Fluffy Bun Bun is voiced by Tress MacNeille, who has played dozens of recognizable characters (including The Simpsons) but here largely channels her work as Dot from Animaniacs. Corey Burton, Jim Cummings, Rob Paulsen, Dom DeLuise, Jeff Bennett, April Winchell David Ogden Stiers and Frank Welker, all some of the best voice actors of the modern era, provide voices for the few dozens other characters, with Ben Stein joining Christopher Lloyd in the live action scenes as his corporate drone boss. Drew Blanc, other than being a somewhat stupid pun, is also a reference to Mel Blanc, the voice of practically every major Looney Tunes character. The rest of the sound design is just as inspired. The music is a mixture of classical music, cheerfully piped into every scene, and the sound effects are all delightfully accurate. There's a huge understanding of what made classic Looney Tunes so classic, and Toonstruck does a remarkable job of emulating its tropes and its atmosphere.

Artistically Toonstruck is right on the mark, but it's really the inhabitants of the three worlds that make the journey as memorable as it is. You'll meet a not-quite-menacing chap named B. B. Wolf, who may have well been drawn by Tex Avery, who speaks with in an overtly suave manner despite constantly speaking in malapropisms and wearing one extremely sad toupee. There's a slightly flamboyant scarecrow - or should we say, Carecrow - with a finely tuned sense for fashion, and a diminutive Austrian bulldog with an obsession for pumping himself - and you - up. Fluffy Bun Bun herself is a bipolar disaster, smiling and cooing one minute, bawling obsessively the next. On the Cutopian side, the castle is patrolled by an extremely cheery pair of armadillos, whose love of song and dance overshadows their competence as guards, while a legion of easily outwitted crocodiles serves as the army of the Malevolands. Throughout the later sections of the game, you'll tracked by a trio of vaguely Three Stooges-esque goons, whose abilities as tough guys are marred by their own infighting. Alas, the guard dog that talks like Ross Perot is a reference that hasn't exactly aged well.

The one scene that Virgin's PR folks always used to show that this game totally wasn't for kids! is the one where a genial group of barnyard animals is turned to the dark side by the Malevalator. Sure, the resident cow had a bit of a creepy affection for the milking machine, but that's nothing compared to her "evil" state, where she's pinned to the wall in full leather bondage gear, complete with pierced udders, and begs for punishment at the hands of a dominatrix sheep. It's a bit too engineered to be truly shocking, but some of the more ridiculous dialogue provides some amusement.

Some of the situations and inventions are gloriously weird. The train to Zanydu is run by an elephant, which sits on top of the tram. Pulling the lever one way will drop a peanut, causing him to run in one direction, in turn transporting you across the chasm. Pulling the lever the other way will drop a mouse, causing the elephant to run backwards, and thus operating in reverse. One puzzle involves exchanging a fish by dropping it into an overtly complicated toilet. There are plenty of references to common animation tropes, as you need to intentionally find some way to knock Drew out and pick up the resulting stars that swirl over his head.

But for all of the clever characters and amusing situations that you'll find yourself getting messed up with, and all of the gorgeously drawn characters and strange puzzles and outstanding voice acting, it's pretty disappointing that most of the writing just isn't terribly good. There's an awful lot of dialogue, but rather than enhancing the mood, it brings the pace to a screeching halt. It's never insufferable, it's just rarely any funny, at least compared to a good Lucasarts or Sierra game. It's actually the second half of the game which shines in this regard. While darker, it doesn't have many secondary characters, and thus far less yammering.

A good portion of the blame can be shifted on Drew himself, who, as a straight man, is more a pill than anything. Christopher Lloyd is an amazingly talented actor, with his roles in Taxi and Back to the Future being some of the most memorable in the past several decades, but he delivers his lines with a curious lack of enthusiasm. It's also never entirely clear why Drew is so invested in saving Cutopia. Sure, he wants to escape, but he hates Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun and all of her friends. And for all of the dramatic weight that the introduction places behind Flux in being a truly amazing breakout character, like his creator, he's also pretty boring. The developers clearly fashion him as being Max to Drew's Sam, following him around, making aside comments and occasionally being used for puzzles, but he's never given any really good lines.

There's also the annoying fact that the game just isn't finished. Toonstruck was meant to encompass four CDs, but that was cut in half fairly late in development. Despite creating many of the art assets, Virgin, the publisher, just figured that they'd put those to use in the sequel. Alas, Toonstruck flopped big time at retail - perhaps too many people thought it was one of the many awful full motion video games cluttering the market at the time, rather than the legitimate adventure game that it was - and any plans for a sequel were completely squashed. As such, the game doesn't really have much of an ending. There's something of a cliffhanger and a promise of more adventures to come, but so much is alluded to during the course of the game that never amounts to anything. Heck, you never even get to really face Nefarious. Plus, there's a recurring danger of Drew becoming a cartoon himself, which apparently means he's trapped in the animation world forever, but other than flirting with the concept during a prolonged run-in with a psychotically dangerous clown, it's never really explored. One of the artists has put up some concept artwork, which shows Drew visiting an Old West style setting, and apparently Drew was meant to meet Vincent Van Gogh, his idol. It's disappointing that it ends with so much dangling, although it's still of relatively reasonable length.

Even though Toonstruck can't quite shake its feeling of incompleteness, it's still functions, however crippled, as a standalone game. Animation fans are obviously going to be in heaven, and while it's not quite an unquestionable classic, it's still a gorgeous looking game with a lot of spirit and imagination, and one that deserved a better fate.

Toonstruck (IBM PC)

Toonstruck (IBM PC)

Toonstruck (IBM PC)

Toonstruck (IBM PC)

Toonstruck (IBM PC)

Toonstruck (IBM PC)

Toonstruck (IBM PC)

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