Toonstruck flashback review
Re-released digitally nearly two decades after its initial launch, the 1996 point-and-click classic Toonstruck broke game conventions at the time by catapulting Drew Blanc, a fictional illustrator, into a whacky Looney Tunes-style world. The cast is immediately recognizable, made up of big-name talent highlighted by Christopher Lloyd as the protagonist. The performances are exceptional, delivering witty dialogue that will keep you laughing throughout the entire tale. Add to that the excellent zany artwork and cartoon animation blended with FMV, and you have a gem of a game that remains one of best adventures ever made.
As Toonstruck takes off, we see artist Drew Blanc (Lloyd) asleep on the job and running late for a meeting with his boss (played by Ben Stein), the head of a TV animation company. The studio has created a successful children’s cartoon called “The Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Show” but Drew despises it and is feeling overworked and overstressed. To make matters worse, he is suffering artist’s block (as his name would imply) and isn’t sleeping properly, often falling asleep on the job. The burnt-out Blanc makes it to his meeting late, only to be rebuked and asked to design a whole cast of new critters for the show by the following morning. This is the final straw for Drew who, whether by reason of madness or some supernatural force, finds himself sucked into a partially cute, entirely deranged cartoon world.
Before Drew can even comprehend his predicament, he is saved in the nick of time from a flying machine that is blasting everything with evil energy. Our hero’s unlikely saviour is Flux Wildly (not to be confused with the flux capacitor), a toon familiar to Drew who, it turns out, created Flux years ago as part of his bygone dream to design a cartoon series of his own. Flux takes Drew to the King of Cutopia (David Ogden Stiers), who promises to help Drew get back to his world if he and Flux first locate the materials for a machine that will restore “cuteness” to his realm. The King explains that Cutopia is at risk following raids by Count Nefarious (Tim Curry), a diabolical villain with ambitions to corrupt the Tooniverse who is using a flying contraption called the “malevelator” to wreak havoc by turning loveable toons and quaint landscapes into vicious, demented adaptations.
As Drew and Flux set off on their quest for a set of undefined items – you have very little idea what you are looking for at first – they travel through the sickeningly cute land of Cutopia with its picturesque fields and cobblestone streets; the gloomy Malevolands and its criminal underbelly of hungry wolves and cross-dressing ten-pin bowling champions; and Flux’s homeland of Zanydu, a bizarre, colourful place where megaton weights randomly fall from the sky and where citizens pass time by visiting a high-tech leisure facility dedicated to the recreational pursuit of flushing fish down a glorified toilet.
Considering the cast, it should come as no surprise that Toonstruck’s characters are superbly crafted and portrayed. I often found myself relating to Drew, who faces the very real threat of losing his job if he doesn’t ‘wake up’, ‘get home’ or do whatever it is he needs to do in exactly the right order to return to his own world in time to meet his looming deadline. Despite this pressure, Drew is far less stressed in the Tooniverse, and as we get to know him more we find he is an easy-going, oftentimes mischievous fellow, making for hilarious interactions with the other inhabitants of the cartoon world. Lloyd’s comic timing is particularly praiseworthy, and his lines are consistently funny. A good example is when Drew tries to convince a salesperson from the cheap gimmick company WACME that he has previously purchased a whole bunch of indescribable 'stuff' – presumably the toons would remember a real human as a previous customer and Drew is at a loss to explain even one of the ridiculous contraptions that the company could possibly have sold him.
Drew’s accomplice (and personal creation) Flux joins him throughout most of the adventure, and as the comic relief sidekick it is perhaps fitting that he is voiced by Dan Castellaneta, who as the voice of Homer Simpson is certainly one of the most renowned actors in cartoon history. Flux is a short, purple dragon-like blob sporting a cool pair of sunglasses that he never removes and whose unhinged spontaneity is kept in check by Drew’s good nature. He is funniest when comically suggesting impolite and occasionally violent means of solving problems, or when underhandedly ridiculing perfectly decent characters for no good reason. The differences in views and temperament between the down-to-earth, real-life Blanc and the kooky, offensive cartoon Flux yield an amusing dynamic that kept me laughing as much through my recent replay of Toonstruck as it did in the ‘90s.
Aside from the protagonists, there is also a large cast of minor roles that are equally colourful and instrumental to the plot. Take, for instance, the clover-shaped, cheese-bodied, half-Irish, half-Scottish Barman of the local tavern (voiced by Rob Paulsen), whose accent reflects his mixed heritage by alternating between dialects during conversation. Others include the perpetually annoying, self-centred Fluffy Bunny (Tress MacNeille) and a megalomaniacal Robot Maker (Jeff Bennett) who dreams of designing an army of killer robots to usurp Count Nefarious and take over the world.
As the story progresses and you get to experience more of the Malevolands and less of Cutopia, the more stark raving mad, less well-meaning characters emerge. Some in this certifiable basket case of toons are reasonably disturbing and their dialogue may not be suitable for very young audiences. Though there is no profanity, at one point a series of characters are malevolated by Nefarious, changing them from kind, helpful animals into disturbed BDSM practitioners with whips and a wheel of torture. An old horse has also mysteriously disappeared and been replaced with a machine that produces glue – though the implications are not clearly explained. Certain themes expressed at this juncture are quite adult, and could be surprising for anyone initially taken in by the game’s innocent cartoon appearance. There is even an imprisoned clown late in the game who, as a result of being tortured and lobotomized by Nefarious, has become a sadistic lunatic who inflates balloon animals just to pop them in menacing, violent ways. His comments are sometimes funny, but in reality are very sad.
Toonstruck’s other main claim to greatness is its use of animation, created using a mix of illustration and live-action video technologies to achieve a seamless, believable combination of cartoon and reality, not unlike Who Framed Roger Rabbit. At the very beginning of the game, Drew, his boss and his workplace are all presented using standard film recording methods. As you progress into the cartoon dimension, however, the whole world is hand-drawn and animated with only one exception: the protagonist himself. Even some cutscenes involve a combination of illustrated animation and FMV. Examples of this are when Drew first meets the King of Cutopia, and later when he finds himself face to face with Nefarious after waking up in a cartoon dungeon cell. These ideas were, to the best of my knowledge, new to the adventure genre in 1996 and looked excellent for the time. Incredibly, although there has been great improvement in video technology over the last two decades, Toonstruck’s animated cinematics involving Lloyd still look great today.
The digital re-release is a fairly stock-standard reboot of the ‘96 version. It is not a re-mastered version of the game, but nor does it claim to be. Very little is different, therefore, from the original CD-ROM edition, which is by no means a bad thing – after all, why fix something that isn’t broken? Perhaps the only notable change to the formula is the use of ScummVM to run the new version. This works relatively fine, although I noticed that no information about the use of ScummVM hotkeys (I purchased through Steam) was provided, meaning that saving and loading could be a problem if you have not had much experience with ScummVM before. (For the sake of those players, press F5 to save and F6 to load.)
In terms of in-game controls, Toonstruck uses a single mouse-click to perform most interactions. The actions that can be taken depend on the particular hotspot and are indicated by changes to the cursor. The inventory can be opened by clicking a ‘bottomless’ bag icon to the lower left of the screen, and acquired objects can be combined with each other or used within the environment. Usually Drew can talk to characters by clicking on them, which is indicated by a set of chattering teeth, though one exception is when you try to interact with Drew’s ever-present companion Flux, who adds an extra dimension to solving puzzles. When you click on Flux, the cursor changes to a symbol of his face, meaning he can be used in the same way as other items. Particular puzzles can only be solved using Flux, mainly due to the fact that he is smaller and able to access areas that Drew cannot.
Matching the skill of its animation and screenwriting, Toonstruck is a masterpiece of puzzles and solutions, and an excellent example of inventory-based, non-linear puzzle design. Many problems are extremely inventive and must have required a great deal of abstract thought to create. Such obstacles include constructing a decoy squirrel to lure a real one away from his stash of nuts, and solving a puzzle using a book of unsolvable puzzles. The problems also vary greatly in difficulty, and all things considered do a very good job of balancing the challenge by making sure they are never unreasonably frustrating and that they gradually get more complex as you progress.
Typically the less challenging brainteasers involve obvious physical item uses, such as cooking something on a fire, while those that are more so require some understanding of Looney Tunes-style reasoning to solve. One case of the latter is when you need to find a way to move an elephant hooked up to a contraption in order to ferry Drew and Flux across the sea, but my personal favourite is when you need to find ‘stars’. It took me several hours of searching for them before the solution finally hit me. This sort of puzzle represents the kind of outside-of-the-box thinking that I enjoy most in point-and-clicks, and few have created as many of this type as Toonstruck. Having noted this, odd logic isn’t overused throughout the game, and several subtle hints are nested throughout so that those with less understanding of cartoon themes won’t be disadvantaged.
The use of audio reinforces the distinct Saturday morning vibe by relying on familiar comical impersonations of mallets, crashes and other madcap sound effects. The music, too, evokes an almost instant sense of classic animation, all made up of familiar public domain tracks that have been used in cartoons for generations. A different tune plays depending on the current screen, like Flux’s hometown of Zanydu, which is accompanied by the perpetual looping of Laurie Johnson’s “Happy Go Lively”. Packed with brass band and piano riffs, it is whimsical enough to be interesting the first few times and perfectly expresses the insanity of the place by endlessly repeating until the player leaves the area. Another example is the use of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” in a Cutopian castle, a song that has featured consistently in animated media, perhaps most notably in one of Disney’s earliest animated musical features, Fantasia. Most scores remain the same throughout the game, but there are occasional changes that occur when revisiting scenes that have been malevolated, such as a pleasant lofty trumpet tune being replaced by an ominous string piece.
In terms of game time, I estimate that it originally took me over a week of on-and-off playing to finish. I strongly encouraged (forced) a friend to play Toonstruck recently and it took her 22 hours to complete. This second time around, my own playthrough lasted just over 10 hours, which is still longer than many modern adventures. This is a substantial game, and one that is pure value every step of the way. It is one of the funniest adventures I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing, and my replay of the re-release has been a welcome nostalgic journey every bit as enjoyable now is it was so long ago. Its puzzles are challenging, creative and nicely designed. The music conveys a whacky cartoon atmosphere that complements every other aspect of the world, including its impressively distinctive art and blended animation style. The story is captivating as well, and at the expense of repeating myself, genuinely hilarious.
Over the years, many fans have lamented the lack of a long-promised sequel that never came to pass. Unused animations and unplayable scenes of Drew Blanc on a Wild West street or alongside a cartoon Van Gogh can still be located online. Some are even shown in the Toonstruck trailer, but sadly we will likely never know what these scenes meant for the story, or indeed what Burst ultimately anticipated for the comic duo. Although it is now unlikely to receive an encore, fortunately the game remains complete in its own right, with an ending that is surprisingly bittersweet considering its off-the-wall story. Some have expressed dissatisfaction over Toonstruck’s final scenes, but I personally have always been left feeling that the tale of Drew Blanc offers a thoughtful perspective on real-world stress and of an artist’s escape into the medium and madness.
For twenty years I’ve wished, somewhat wistfully, that like Drew Blanc I might again venture into this remarkable, beautiful world, and that dream has at least partially been realised by Toonstruck’s downloadable re-release. When all is said and done, it is one of those rare titles that anyone interested in point-and-clicks and/or cartoons simply must experience. So whether rekindling fond memories or playing for the first time, set some time aside (and plenty of it) for Toonstruck. Its eye-popping art, brain-busting puzzles, and above all its whacky characters make for an excellent adventure and a stupendous barrel of laughs not to be missed.