Toonstruck (or, A Case Study in the Death of Adventure Games)

17 Jun

Some time ago, in the midst of a private email discussion about the general arc of adventure-game history, one of my readers offered up a bold claim: he said that the best single year to be a player of point-and-click graphic adventures was 1996. This rings decidedly counterintuitive, given that 1996 was also the year during which the genre first slid into a precipitous commercial decline that would not even begin to level out for a decade or more. But you know what? Looking at the lineup of games released that year, I found it difficult to argue with him. These were games of high hopes, soaring ambitions, and big budgets. The genre has never seen such a lineup since. How poignant and strange, I thought to myself. Then I thought about it some more, and I decided that it wasn’t really so strange at all.

For when we cast our glance back over entertainment history, we find that it’s not unusual for a strain of creative expression to peak in terms of sophistication and ambition some time after it has passed its zenith of raw popularity. Wings won the first ever best-picture Oscar two years after The Jazz Singer had numbered the days of soundless cinema; Duke Ellington’s big band blew up a storm at Newport two years after “Rock Around the Clock” and “That’s All Right” had heralded the end of jazz music at the top of the hit parade. The same sort of thing has happened on multiple occasions in gaming. I would argue, for example, that more great text adventures were commercially published after 1984, the year that interactive fiction plateaued and prepared for the down slide, than before that point. And then, of course, we have the graphic adventures of 1996 — the year after the release of Phantasmagoria, the last million-selling adventure game to earn such sales numbers entirely on its own intrinsic appeal, without riding the coattails of an earlier game for which it was a sequel or any other pre-existing mass-media sensation.

There are two reasons why this phenomenon occurs. One is that the people who decide what projects to green-light always have a tendency to look backward at least as much as forward; new market paradigms are always hard to get one’s head around. The other becomes increasingly prevalent as projects grow more complex, and the window of time between the day they are begun and the day they are completed grows longer as a result. A lot can happen in the world of media in the span of two years or more — not coincidentally, the type of time span that more and more game-development projects were starting to fill by the mid-1990s. Toonstruck, our subject for today, is a classic example of what can happen when the world in which a game is conceived is dramatically different from the one to which it is finally born.

Let us turn the clock back to late 1993, the moment of Toonstruck‘s genesis. At that time, the conventional wisdom inside the established games industry about gaming’s necessary future hewed almost exclusively to what we might call the Sierra vision, because it was articulated so volubly and persuasively by that major publisher’s founder and president Ken Williams. It claimed that the rich multimedia affordances of CD-ROM would inevitably lead to a merger of interactivity with cinema. Popular movie stars would soon be vying to appear in interactive movies which would boast the same production values and storytelling depth as traditional movies, but which would play out on computer instead of movie-theater or television screens, with the course of the story in the hands of the ones sitting behind the screens. This mooted merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood — often abbreviated as “Siliwood” — would require development budgets exponentially larger than those the industry had been accustomed to, but the end results would reach an exponentially wider audience.

The games publisher Virgin Interactive, a part of Richard Branson’s sprawling media and travel empire, was every bit as invested in this prophecy as Sierra was. Its Los Angeles-based American arm was the straw that stirred the drink, under the guidance of a Brit named Martin Alper, who had been working to integrate games into a broader media zeitgeist for many years; he had first made a name for himself in his homeland as the co-founder of the budget label Mastertronic, whose games embraced pop-culture icons from Michael Jackson to Clumsy Colin (the mascot of a popular brand of chips), and were sold as often from supermarkets as from software stores. Earlier in 1993, his arm of Virgin had published The 7th Guest, an interactive horror flick which struck many as a better prototype for the Sierra vision than anything Sierra themselves had yet released; it had garnered enormous sales and adoring press notices from the taste-makers of mainstream media as well as those inside the computer-gaming ghetto. Now, Alper was ready to take things to the next level.

He turned for ideas to another Brit who had recently joined him in Los Angeles: a man named David Bishop, who had already worked as a journalist, designer, manager, and producer over the course of his decade in the industry. Bishop proposed an interactive counterpart of sorts to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the hit 1988 movie which had wowed audiences with the novel feat of inserting cartoon characters into a live-action world. Bishop’s game would do the opposite: insert real actors into a cartoon world. He urged Alper to pull out all the stops in order to make something that would be every bit as gobsmacking as Roger Rabbit had been in its day.

So far, so good. But who should take on the task of turning Bishop’s idea into a reality? The 7th Guest had been created by a then-tiny developer known as Trilobyte, itself a partnership between a frustrated filmmaker and a programming whiz. Taking the press releases that labeled them the avatars of the next generation of entertainment at face value, the two had now left the Virgin fold, signing a contract with a splashy new player in the multimedia sweepstakes called Media Vision. Someone else would have to make the game called Toonstruck.

In a telling statement of just how committed they already were to their interactive cartoon, Virgin USA, who had only acted as a publisher to this point, decided to dive into the development business. In October of 1993, Martin Alper put two of his most trusted producers, Neil Young and Chris Yates, in charge of a new, wholly owned development studio called Burst, formed just to make Toonstruck. The two were given a virtually blank check to do so. Make it amazing was their only directive.

So, Young and Yates went across town to Hollywood. There they hired Nelvana, an animation house that had been making cartoons of every description for over twenty years. And they hired as well a gaggle of voice-acting talent that was worthy of a big-budget Disney feature. There were Tim Curry, star of the camp classic Rocky Horror Picture Show; Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson (“D’oh!”); David Ogden-Stiers, who had played the blue-blooded snob Charles Emerson Winchester III on M*A*S*H; Dom Deluise of The Cannonball Run and All Dogs Go to Heaven fame; plus many other less recognizable names who were nevertheless among the most talented and sought-after voices in cartoon production, the sort that any latch-key kid worth her salt had listened to for countless hours by the time she became a teenager. In hiring the star of the show — the actor destined to actually appear onscreen, inserted into the cartoon world — Burst pulled off their greatest coup of all: they secured the signature of none other than Christopher Lloyd, a veteran character actor best known as the hippie burnout Jim from the beloved sitcom Taxi, the mad scientist Doc Brown from the Back to the Future films… and Judge Doom, the villain from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Playing in a game that would be the technological opposite of that film’s inserting of cartoon characters into the real world, Lloyd would become his old character’s psychological opposite, the hero rather than the villain. Sure, it was stunt casting — but how much more perfect could it get?

What happened next is impossible to explain in any detail. The fact is that Burst was and has remained something of a black box. What is clear, however, is that Toonstruck‘s designers-in-the-trenches Richard Hare and Jennifer McWilliams took their brief to pull out all the stops and to spare no expense in doing so as literally as everyone else at the studio, concocting a crazily ambitious script. “We were full of ideas, so we designed and designed and designed,” says McWilliams, “with a great deal of emphasis on what would be cool and interesting and funny, and not so much focus on what would actually be achievable within a set schedule and budget. [Virgin] for the most part stepped aside and let us do our thing.”

Their colleagues storyboarded their ever-expanding design document and turned it into hours and hours of quality cartoon animation — animation which was intended to meet or exceed the bar set by a first-string Disney feature film. As they did so, the deadlines flew by unheeded. Originally earmarked with the eternal optimism of game developers and Chicago Cubs fans for the 1994 Christmas season, the project slipped into 1995, then 1996. Virgin trotted it out at trade show after trade show, making ever more sweeping claims about its eventual amazingness at each one, until it became an in-joke among the gaming journalists who dutifully inserted a few lines about it into each successive “coming soon” preview. By 1996, the bill for Toonstruck was approaching a staggering $8 million, enough to make it the second most expensive computer game to date. And yet it was still far from completion.

It seems clear that the project was poorly managed from the start. Take, for example, all that vaunted high-quality animation. Burst’s decision to make the cartoon of Toonstruck first, then figure out how to make use of it in an interactive context later was hardly the most cost-effective way of doing things. It made little sense to aim to compete with Disney on a level playing field when the limitations of the consumer-computing hardware of the time meant that the final product would have to be squashed down to a resolution of 640 X 400, with a palette of just 256 shades, for display on a dinky 15-inch monitor screen.

There are also hints of other sorts of dysfunction inside Burst, and between Burst and its parent company. One Virgin insider who chose to remain anonymous alluded vaguely in 1998 to the way that “internal politics made the situation worse. Some of the project leaders didn’t get on with other senior staff, and some people had friendships to protect. So there was finger-pointing and back-slapping going on at the same time.”

During the three years that Toonstruck spent in development, the Sierra vision of gaming’s necessary future was challenged by a new one. In December of 1993, id Software, a tiny renegade company operating outside the traditional boundaries of the industry by selling its creations largely through the shareware model, released a little game called DOOM, which featured exclusively computer-generated 3D environments, gobs of bloody action, and, to paraphrase a famous statement by its chief programmer John Carmack, no more story than your typical porn movie. Not long after, a studio called Blizzard Entertainment debuted a fantasy strategy game called Warcraft which played like an action game, in hectic real time; not the first of its type, it was nevertheless the one that really caught gamers’ imaginations, especially after Blizzard perfected the concept with 1995’s Warcraft II. With these games and others like them selling at least as well as the hottest adventures, the industry’s One True Way Forward had become a proverbial fork in the road. Publishers could continue to plow money into interactive movies in the hope of cracking into the mainstream of mass entertainment, or they could double down on their longstanding customer demographic of young white males by offering them yet more fast-paced mayhem. Already by 1995, the fact that games of the latter stripe tended to cost far less than those of the former was enough to seal the deal in the minds of many publishers.

Virgin Interactive was given especial food for thought that year when they wound up publishing Trilobyte’s next game after all. Media Vision, the publisher Trilobyte had signed with, had imploded amidst government investigations of securities fraud and other financial crimes, and an opportunistic Virgin had swooped into the bankruptcy auction and made off with the contract for The 11th Hour, the sequel to The 7th Guest. It seemed like quite a clever heist at the time — but it began to seem somewhat less so when The 11th Hour under-performed relative to expectations. Both reviewers and ordinary gamers stated clearly that they were already becoming bored of Trilobyte’s rote mixing of B-movie cinematics with hoary set-piece puzzles that mostly stemmed from well before the computer age — tired of the way that the movie and the gameplay in a Trilobyte creation had virtually nothing to do with one another.

Then, as I noted at the beginning of this article, 1996 brought with it an unprecedentedly large lineup of ambitious, earnest, and expensive games of the Siliwood stripe, with some of them at least much more thoughtfully designed than anything Trilobyte had ever come up with. Nonetheless, as the year went by an alarming fact was more and more in evidence: this year’s crop of multimedia extravaganzas was not producing any towering hits to rival the likes of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective in 1992, The 7th Guest in 1993, Myst in 1994, or Phantasmagoria in 1995. Arguably the best year in history to be a player of graphic adventures, 1996 was also the year that broke the genre. Almost all of the big-budget adventure releases still to come from American publishers would owe their existence to corporate inertia, being projects that executives found easier to complete and hope for a miracle than to cancel outright and then try to explain the massive write-off to their shareholders — even if outright cancellation would have been better for their companies’ bottom lines. In short, by the beginning of 1997 only dreamers doubted that the real future of the gaming mainstream lay with the lineages of DOOM and Warcraft.

Before we rush to condemn the philistines who preferred such games to their higher-toned counterparts, we must acknowledge that their preferences had to do with more than sheer bloody-mindedness. First-person shooters and real-time-strategy games could be a heck of a lot of fun, and lent themselves very well to playing with others, whether gathered together in one room or, increasingly, over the Internet. The generally solitary pursuit of adventure gaming had no answer for this sort of boisterous bonding experience. And there was also an economic factor: an adventure was a once-and-done endeavor that might last a week or two at best, after which you had no recourse but to go out and buy another one. You could, on the other hand, spend literally years playing the likes of DOOM and Warcraft with your mates.

Then there is one final harsh reality to be faced: the fact is that the Sierra vision never came close to living up to its billing for the player. These games were never remotely like waking up in the starring role of a Hollywood film. Boosters like Ken Williams were thrilled to talk about interactive movies in the abstract, but these same people were notably vague about how their interactivity was actually supposed to work. They invested massively in Hollywood acting talent, in orchestral soundtracks, and in the best computer artists money could buy, while leaving the interactivity — the very thing that ostensibly set their creations apart — to muddle through on its own, one way or another.

Inevitably, then, the interactivity ended up taking the form of static puzzles, the bedrock of adventure games since the days when they had been presented all in text. The puzzle paradigm persisted into this brave new era simply because no one could proffer any other ideas about what the player should be doing that were both more compelling and technologically achievable. I hasten to add that some players really, genuinely love puzzles, love few things more than to work through an intricate web of them in order to make something happen; I include myself among this group. When puzzles are done right, they’re as satisfying and creatively valid as any other type of gameplay.

But here’s the rub: most people — perhaps even most gamers — really don’t like solving puzzles all that much at all. (These people are of course no better or worse than those who do — just different.) For the average Joe or Jane, playing one of these new-fangled interactive movies was like watching a conventional movie filmed on an ultra-low-budget, usually with terrible acting. And then, for the pièce de résistance, you were expected to solve a bunch of boring puzzles for the privilege of witnessing the underwhelming next scene. Who on earth wanted to do this after a hard day at the office?

All of which is to say that the stellar sales of Consulting Detective, The 7th Guest, Myst, and Phantasmagora were not quite the public validations of the concept of interactive movies that the industry chose to read them as. The reasons for these titles’ success were orthogonal to their merits as games, whatever the latter might have been. People bought them as technology demonstrations, to show off the new computers they had just purchased and to test out the CD-ROM drives they had just installed. They gawked at them for a while and then, satiated, planted themselves back in front of their televisions to spend their evenings as they always had. This was not, needless to say, a sustainable model for a mainstream gaming genre. By 1996, the days when the mere presence of human actors walking and/or talking on a computer monitor could wow even the technologically unsophisticated were fast waning. That left as customers only the comparatively tiny hardcore of buyers who had always played adventure games. They were thrilled by the diverse and sumptuous smorgasbord that was suddenly set before them — but the industry’s executives, looking at the latest sales numbers, most assuredly were not. Just like that, the era of Siliwood passed into history. One can only hope that all of the hardcore adventure fans enjoyed it while it lasted.

Toonstruck was, as you may have guessed, among the most prominent of the adventures that were released to disappointing results in 1996. That event happened at the very end of the year, and only thanks to a Virgin management team who decided in the summer that enough was enough. “The powers that be in management had to step in and give us a dose of reality,” says Jennifer McWilliams. “We then needed to come up with an ending that could credibly wrap the game up halfway through, with a cliffhanger that would, ideally, introduce part two. I think we did well considering the constraints we were under, but still, it was not what we originally envisioned.” Another, anonymous team member has described what happened more bluntly: “The team was told to ‘cut it or can it’ — it either had to be shipped real soon, or not at all.”

The former option was chosen, and thus Toonstruck shipped just before Christmas, on two discs that between them bore only about one third of the total amount of animation created for the game, and that in a severely degraded form. Greeted with reviews that ran the gamut from raves to pans, it wound up selling about 150,000 copies. For a normal game with a normal budget, such numbers would be just about acceptable; if the 100,000-copy threshold was no longer the mark of an outright hit in the computer-games industry of 1996, selling that many copies and then half again that many more wasn’t too bad either. Unfortunately, all of the usual quantifiers got thrown out for a game that had cost over $8 million to make. One Virgin employee later mused wryly how Toonstruck had been intended to “blow the public away. The only thing that got blown was vast amounts of cash, and the public stayed away.”

Bleeding red ink from the failure of Toonstruck and a number of other games, Virgin’s American arm was ordered by the parent company in London to downsize their budgets and ambitions drastically. After creating a few less expensive but equally commercially disappointing games, Burst Studios was sold in 1998 to Electronic Arts, who renamed it EA Pacific and shifted its focus to 3D real-time strategy — a sign of the times if ever there was one.

Such is one tale of Toonstruck, a game which could only have appeared in its own very specific time and place. But, you might be wondering, how does this relic of a fizzled vision of gaming’s future play?

Toonstruck‘s opening movie is not a cartoon. We instead meet Christopher Lloyd for the first time in the real world, in the role of Drew Blanc (get it?), a cartoonist suffering from writer’s block. He’s called into the office of his impatient boss Sam Schmaltz, who’s played by Ben Stein, an actor of, shall we say, limited range, but one who remains readily recognizable to an entire generation for playing every kid’s nightmare of a boring teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Wonder Years.

We learn that Drew is unhappy with his current assignment as the illustrator of The Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Show, a piece of cartoon pablum with as much edge as a melting stick of butter. He rather wants to do something with his creation Flux Wildly, a hyperactive creature of uncertain taxonomy and chaotic disposition. Schmaltz, however, quickly lives up to his name; he’s having none of it. A deflated Drew resigns himself to an all-nighter in the studio to make up the time he’s wasted daydreaming about the likes of Flux. But in the course of that night, he is somehow drawn into his television — right into a cartoon.

There the bewildered Drew meets none other than Flux Wildly himself, finding him every bit as charmingly unhinged as he’d always imagined him to be. He learns that the cartoon world in which he finds himself is divided into three regions: Cutopia, where the fluffy bun bun bunnies and their ilk live; Zanydu, which anarchists like Flux call home; and Malevoland, where true evil lurks. Trouble is, Count Nefarious of Malevoland has gotten tired of the current balance of power, and has started making bombing raids on the other two regions in his Malevolator, using its ray of evil to turn them as dark and twisted as his homeland. King Hugh of Cutopia promises Drew that, if he first saves them all by collecting the parts necessary to build a Cutifier — the antidote to the Malevolator — he will send Drew back to his own world.

All of that is laid out in the opening movie, after which the plot gears are more or less shifted into neutral while you commence wandering around solving puzzles. And it’s here that the game presents its most welcome surprise: unlike so many other multimedia productions of this era that were sold primarily on the basis of their audiovisuals, this game’s puzzle design is clever, complex, and carefully crafted. I have no knowledge of precisely how this game was tested and balanced, but I have to assume these things were done, and done well. It’s not an easy game by any means — there are dozens and dozens of puzzles here, layered on top of one another in a veritable tangle of dependencies — but it’s never an unfair one. In the best tradition of LucasArts, there are no deaths or dead ends. If you are willing to observe the environment with a meticulous eye, experiment patiently, and enter into the cartoon logic of a world where holes are portable and five minutes on a weight bench can transform your physique, you might just be able to solve this one without hints.

The puzzles manage the neat trick of being whimsical without ever abandoning logic entirely. Take, for example, the overarching meta-puzzle you’re attempting to solve as you wander through the lands. Assembling the Cutifier requires combining matched pairs of objects, such as sugar and spice (that’s a freebie the game gives you to introduce the concept). Other objects waiting for their partners include a dagger, some stripes, a heart, some whistles, some polish, etc. If possible combinations have started leaping to mind already, you might really enjoy this game. If they haven’t, on the other hand, you might not, or you might have fallen afoul of the exception to the rule of its general solubility: it requires a thoroughgoing knowledge of idiomatic English, of the sort that only native speakers or those who have been steeped in the language for many years are likely to possess.

While you’re working out its gnarly puzzle structure, Toonstruck is doing its level best to keep you amused in other ways. Players who are only familiar with Christopher Lloyd from his scenery-chewing portrayals in Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit may be surprised at his relatively low-key performance here; more often than not, he’s acting as the straight man for his wise-cracking sidekick Flux Wildly and other gleefully over-the-top cartoon personalities. In truth, Lloyd was (and is) a more multi-faceted and flexible actor than his popular image might suggest, having decades of experience in film, television, and theater productions of all types behind him. His performance here, in what must have been extremely trying circumstances — he was, after all, constantly expected to say his lines to characters who weren’t actually there — feels impressively natural.

Drew Blanc’s friendship with Flux Wildly is the emotional heart of the story. Their relationship can’t help but bring to mind the much-loved LucasArts adventuring duo Sam and Max. Once again, we have here a subdued humanoid straight man paired with a less anthropomorphic pal who comes complete with a predilection for violence. Once again the latter keeps things lively with his antics and his constant patter. And once again you the player can use him like an inventory item from time to time on the problems you encounter, sometimes with productive and often with amusing results. Flux Wildly may just be my favorite thing in the game. I just wish he was around through the whole game; more on that momentarily.

Although Flux is a lot of fun, the writing in general is a bit of a mixed bag. As, for that matter, were contemporary reviews of the writing. Computer Gaming World found Toonstruck “hilarious”: “With humor that ranges from cutesy to risqué, Toonstruck keeps the laughter coming nonstop.” Next Generation, on the other hand, wrote that “the designers have tried desperately hard to make the game zany, wacky, crazy, twisted, madcap, and side-splittingly hilarious — but it just isn’t. The dialog, slapstick humor, and relentless ‘comedy’ situations are tired. You’ve seen most of these jokes done better 40 years ago.”

In a way, both takes are correct. Toonstruck is sometimes genuinely clever and funny, but just as often feels like it’s trying way too hard. There are reports that the intended audience for the game drifted over its three years in development, that it was originally planned as a kid-friendly game and only slowly moved in a more adult direction. This may explain some of the jarring tonal shifts inside its world. At times, the writing doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, veering wildly from the light and frothy to that depressingly common species of videogame humor that mistakes transgression for wit. The most telling example is also the one scene that absolutely no one who has ever played this game, or for that matter merely watched it being played, can possibly forget, even if she wants to.

While exploring the land of Cutopia, you come upon a sweet, matronly dairy cow and her two BFFs, a cute and fuzzy sheep and a tired old horse. Some time later, Count Nefarious arrives to zap their farm with his Malevolator. Next time you visit, you find that the horse has been turned into glue. Meanwhile the cow is spread-eagled on a “Wheel-O-Luv,” her udders dangling pendulously in a way that looks downright pornographic, cackling with masochistic delight while the leather-clad sheep gives her her delicious punishment. Words fail me… this is something you have to see for yourself.

Here and in a few other places, Toonstruck is just off, weird in a way that is not just unfunny or immature but that actually leaves you feeling vaguely uncomfortable. It demonstrates that, for all Virgin Interactive’s mainstream ambitions, they were still a long way from mustering the thematic, aesthetic, and writerly unity that goes into a slick piece of mass-market entertainment.

Toonstruck is at its best when it is neither trying to trangress for the sake of it nor to please the mass market, but rather when it’s delicately skewering a certain stripe of sickly sweet, creatively bankrupt, lowest-common denominator children’s programming that was all over television during the 1980s and 1990s. Think of The Care Bears, a program that was drawn by some of the same Nelvana animators who worked on Toonstruck; they must surely have enjoyed ripping their mawkish past to shreds here. Or, even better, think of Barney the hideous purple dinosaur, dawdling through excruciating songs with ripped-off melodies and cloying lyrics that sound like they were made up on the spot. Few media creations have ever been as easy to hate as him, as the erstwhile popularity of the Usenet newsgroup alt.Barney.dinosaur.die.die.die will attest.

Being created by so many insiders to the cartoon racket, Toonstruck is well placed to capture the very adult cynicism that oozes from such productions, engineered as they were mainly to sell plush toys to co-dependent children. It does so not least through King Hugh of Cutopia himself, who turns out to be — spoiler alert! — not quite the heroic exemplar of inclusiveness he’s billed as. Meanwhile Flux Wildly and his friends from Zanydu stand for a different breed of cartoons, ones which demonstrate a measure of respect for their young audience.

There does eventually come a point in Toonstruck, more than a few hours in, when you’ve unraveled the web of puzzles and assembled all twelve matched pairs that are required for the Cutifier. By now you feel like you’ve played a pretty complete game, and are expecting the end credits to start rolling soon. Instead the game pulls its next big trick on you: everything goes to hell in a hand basket and you find yourself in Count Nefarious’s dungeon, about to begin a second act whose presence was heretofore hinted at only by the presence of a second, as-yet unused CD in the game’s (real or virtual) box.

Most players agree that this unexpected second act is, for all the generosity demonstrated by the mere fact of its existence, considerably less enjoyable than the first. Your buddy Flux Wildly is gone, the environment darker and more constrained, and your necessary path through the plot more linear. It feels austere and lonely in contrast to what has come before — and not in a good way. Although the puzzle design remains solid enough, I imagine that this is the point where many players begin to succumb to the temptations of hints and walkthroughs. And it’s hard to blame them; the second act is the very definition of an anticlimax — almost a dramatic non sequitur in the way it throws the game out of its natural rhythm.

But a real ending — or at least a form of ending — does finally arrive. Drew Blanc defeats Count Nefarious and is returned to his own world. All seems well — until Flux Wildly contacts him again in the denouement to tell him that Nefarious really isn’t done away with just yet. Incredibly, this was once intended to mark the beginning of a third act, of four in total, all in the service of a parable about the creative process that the game we have only hints at. Laboring under their managers’ ultimatum to ship or else, the developers had to fall back on the forlorn hope of a surprise, sequel-justifying hit in the face of the marketplace headwinds that were blowing against the game. Jennifer McWilliams:

Toonstruck was meant to be a funny story about defeating some really weird bad guys, as it was when released, but originally it was also about defeating one’s own creative demons. It was a tribute to creative folks of all types, and was meant to offer encouragement to any of them that had lost their way. So, the second part of the game had Drew venturing into his own psyche, facing his fears (like a psychotically overeager dentist), living out his fantasies (like meeting his hero, Vincent van Gogh), and eventually finding a way to restore his creative spark.

It does sound intriguing on one level, but it also sounds like much, much too much for a game that already feels rather overstuffed. If the full conception had been brought to fruition, Toonstruck would have been absolutely massive, in the running for the biggest graphic adventure ever made. But whether its characters and puzzle mechanics could have supported the weight of so much content is another question. It seems that all or most of the animation necessary for acts three and four was created — more fruits of that $8 million budget — and this has occasionally led fans to dream of a hugely belated sequel. Yet it is highly doubtful whether any of the animation still exists, or for that matter whether the economics of using it make any more sense now than they did in the mid-1990s. Once all but completely forgotten, Toonstruck has enjoyed a revival of interest since it was put up for sale on digital storefronts some years ago. But only a small one: it would be a stretch to label it even a cult classic.

What we’re left with instead, then, is a fascinating exemplar of a bygone age; the fact that this game could only have appeared in the mid-1990s is a big part of its charm. Then, too, there’s a refreshing can-do spirit about it. Tasked with making something amazing, its creators did their honest best to achieve just that, on multiple levels. If the end result is imperfect in some fairly obvious ways, it never fails to be playable, which is more than can be said for many of its peers. Indeed, it remains well worth playing today for anyone who shivers with anticipation at the prospect of a pile of convoluted, deviously interconnected puzzles. Ditto for anyone who just wants to know what kind of game $8 million would buy you back in 1996.

(Sources: Starlog of May 1984 and August 1993; Computer Gaming World of January 1997; Electronic Entertainment of December 1995; Next Generation of January 1997, February 1997, and April 1998; PC Zone of August 1995, August 1996, and June 1998; Questbusters 117; Retro Gamer 174.

Toonstruck is available for digital purchase on


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68 Responses to Toonstruck (or, A Case Study in the Death of Adventure Games)

  1. Gordon Cameron

    June 17, 2022 at 4:24 pm

    >Before we rush to condemn the philistines who preferred such games to their higher-toned counterparts, we must acknowledge that their preferences had to do with more than sheer bloody-mindedness. First-person shooters and real-time-strategy games could be a heck of a lot of fun, and lent themselves very well to playing with others, whether gathered together in one room or, increasingly, over the Internet.

    Speaking as one of said philistines (though I’m not sure where the CRPG, my favorite genre, which was still trundling along before the late-90s boosts of Fallout and Baldur’s Gate, fits on this spectrum), I would offer another consideration: adventure games rely heavily on the use of puzzles, and some of us just don’t find puzzles very much fun. When sprinkled in judiciously, as is often the case with CRPGs or even shooters (e.g. Half-Life), they can add interest and variety; but to me, when they are the backbone of the interactive gameplay, they quickly become frustrating.

  2. Gordon Cameron

    June 17, 2022 at 4:28 pm

    >some of us just don’t find puzzles very much fun.

    Ah, you addressed that very point a couple of paragraphs down. That’s what I get for replying before reading the whole piece.

  3. Marco

    June 17, 2022 at 4:52 pm

    Great to see 1996 finally, having been the person who sent that email!

    I played Toonstruck a few years ago and have been meaning to give it a second go. I think this a very fair write-up: there are moments of brilliance (I remember some nifty puzzle work with water on the floor in Nefarious’s Castle) but also some oddly off moments. The development context is clearly part of the explanation, but there is as well that strange rule that you can get away with more in cartoons than in any other visual style. It’s an adventure game staple that there’s an irritating character like a receptionist blocking your path. In every other game you have to devise some complex but harmless distraction (I’m looking at you, Broken Sword). Toonstruck goes “no, let’s just murder them”.

    All that material that was cut at the last minute is rather poignant. You may be right that it would never have worked anyway, but I’ve seen intriguing stills of Drew Blank in scenes like a Wild West town, so can’t help wondering.

  4. Kaj Sotala

    June 17, 2022 at 6:33 pm

    Interestingly, the whole “Wheel-O-Luv” thing never struck me as bad. Yes, it was kinda weird and uncomfortable, but given that the bad guys had just turned Cutopia into a dystopia, I always figured that a slightly creepy and uncomfortable vibe was intended? I thought it worked well.

  5. Jim Nelson

    June 17, 2022 at 7:10 pm

    I just can’t agree with the sentiment that Myst’s success was the result of people buying it for “technology demonstrations, to show off the new computers they had just purchased and to test out the CD-ROM drives they had just installed. They gawked at them for a while and then, satiated, planted themselves back in front of their televisions.”

    The second and third installments of Myst may not have surpassed the first in terms of unit sales—how many games could?—but they each sold over a million copies. (As you said, selling 100,000 copies would be respectable, if not an “outright hit.”) By the time they were released, CD-ROM multimedia was old hat. Something else was driving their sales. Even if they don’t represent a long-term sustainable model for video games, the series struck a cultural vein.

    • Andrew Plotkin

      June 17, 2022 at 9:23 pm

      I’m pretty sure that the success of Myst was *largely* as a tech demo or ambient “wander around, fail to solve puzzles” environment. And then the success of Riven was largely due to the success of Myst.

      Everybody who loved dense puzzle games bought them and played them, but that’s not ten million people. That was a niche audience that couldn’t possibly sustain expectations of multi-million-selling games. The majority of sales were it’s-famous-for-being-famous.

      The boom of 90s copycats (Zork Nemesis, Obsidian, dozens of others) sold much worse than Myst and Riven. You can argue Riven was the best of that era (I might) but you can’t argue it was *ten times* better than all the others.

      (Indeed, Myst 3’s sales were a small fraction of Riven’s.) (Not getting into the weird saga where Myst 3 and 4 were contracted out to other studios…)

      • Jim Nelson

        June 20, 2022 at 4:03 pm

        I readily acknowledge the original Myst’s eye-popping sales volume was due to its wow factor for new/upgraded multimedia PCs. That’s why my comment focused on the staying power of its sequels.

        “That was a niche audience that couldn’t possibly sustain expectations.” Right. That’s why I said the Myst titles “don’t represent a long-term sustainable model for video games.” But it’s not my overall point, either.

        “You can argue Riven was the best of that era (I might) but you can’t argue it was *ten times* better than all the others.” I assume you’re using the generic “you” here, as I’m not arguing that. The sequels’ sales numbers and longevity only tell me the first wasn’t a pure fluke, which is more to my point.

    • Derek

      June 17, 2022 at 10:00 pm

      And the Myst series continued well into the 2000s, only hitting the financial wall in 2005.I don’t doubt that Myst’s cultural impact was lesser than its sales numbers would suggest, but I think the Antiquarian’s characterization is a bit exaggerated.

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 18, 2022 at 7:58 am

      I hesitate to belabor this topic too much, since I think it was already pretty thoroughly hashed out in the Myst article proper, but the evidence strikes me as pretty clear. The Miller brothers themselves have often joked how the vast majority of people who bought Myst never got off the first island. Its success was a fluke; it showed what could be done with a modern multimedia PC just when the industry had need of such a demonstration. And then, as Andrew put it so well, it was famous for being famous, the go-to stocking suffer with every purchase of a new system, and its sales just snowballed. This was the only “cultural vein” it struck; I don’t see its austere landscapes or fractured worlds popping up anywhere else in mainstream 1990s pop culture, outside other games that were vastly less successful. DOOM spawned hits like Dark Forces, Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, and eventually Half-Life, and a whole subculture of gaming that is still going strong; the only hits Myst spawned were its own sequels.

      Speaking of which: Riven was a hit, yes, but it sold almost precisely one order of magnitude worse than its predecessor. Partly its sales were a tribute to branding and inertia, partly to its marketing as the *next* essential modern tech demo (it remains to this day a stunning game to look at), and partly due to players who really, genuinely engaged with and liked Myst as a game and wanted more of the same. (Yes, such people did exist…) We see the exact same thing play out with The 11th Hour, which sold reasonably well in the abstract, but about one order of magnitude worse than The 7th Guest. (Imagine if, say, one of the numbered Ultimas had sold ten times worse than its predecessor. It would have been considered a disaster…)

      I feel a bit bad to have to make this argument because it seems inevitably to become a belittling of Myst, and that’s not my intention at all. As games, Myst and Riven are very good, not only beautiful (which is a feat in itself) but carefully thought-through and rigorously designed; the perception of them in many quarters of gaming culture as illogical and insoluble and somehow made in bad faith is extremely unfair (and probably another result of the fact that so few people who played them really tried to *play* them, if you take my meaning). They can and should be appreciated on their own merits. It’s just that those merits are, as I wrote in the article, orthogonal to their commercial success. They’re niche titles that sold like blockbusters through a fluke of time and place. More power to the Miller brothers; it’s great to be good, but it’s even better to be lucky and good.

      • Richard Wells

        June 18, 2022 at 9:07 pm

        I think hidden object games are descendants of Myst and hidden object games are very successful. Those have the same standing in front of a static image while manipulating objects to get clues as mood music plays design. The puzzles are much simpler though. Myst took the puzzles to the limit of acceptable duration. Many of the Myst clones became an exercise in frustration as the player has to set something and then spend the next hour finding out what the result was before returning to try a different setting and repeating the process.

    • Poddy

      June 20, 2022 at 12:57 pm

      I was a kid when Myst came out, in a family of early tech adopters. Myst was in my house because it was the Big Thing – definitely not because my dad wanted to play it. My uncles came to whistle over it and wax nostalgic over the days when Pong was state of the art. Myst was not the Blake Stone/Wolfenstein3D/Rise of the Triad type stuff that my dad thought of as GAMES. In fact, I remember all of us taking a crack at wandering around Myst, and it never occurred to me that it was a game, something intended to be processed to a resolution then stopped, for much this reason – a problem I had a lot as a kid.
      But anecdotally, I can also tell you that I was in a very posh private Catholic school where most students had high-tech PCs and a copy of Myst at home – and there were, in fact, a couple of pockets of girls trading notes over it for a couple of years and feverishly discussing rooms they’d managed to be in and things they’d seen. My school had bought some copies with their new library computers, possibly by mistake because students were not allowed to play games on school machines, and they sat behind various CD-ROM encyclopedias. Myst was AROUND, and was even sold in office supply stores. So from experience, I completely buy it as an expensive toy, that few treated as a game.

  6. Alex Smith

    June 17, 2022 at 7:58 pm

    “he had first made a name for himself in his homeland as the founder of the budget label Mastertronic”

    He would more properly be termed a co-founder, as Frank Herman, Terry Medway, and Alan Sharam were his partners in the venture and equally critical to the company’s success. The whole thing was Herman’s idea in the first place.

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 18, 2022 at 8:02 am


  7. mycophobia

    June 17, 2022 at 9:12 pm

    “Instead the game pulls it’s next big trick on you”


    Sorry for just pointing out grammar/spelling stuff when I comment, I rarely have anything insightful to add. I do like your articles a lot though.

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 18, 2022 at 8:03 am


  8. Peter Olausson

    June 17, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    A dagger, some stripes, a heart … No, can’t say possible combinations have started leaping to my mind. What are they?

    • Andrew Plotkin

      June 17, 2022 at 9:25 pm

      Off the top of my head, it must have been “cloak and dagger”, “stars and stripes”, “bells and whistles”, “spit and polish”. Maybe “heart and soul” but there are other possibilities there.

      Very much a _Nord and Bert_ style puzzle.

      • Jimmy Maher

        June 18, 2022 at 8:04 am

        Five for five. Congratulations!

  9. Glorkvorn

    June 18, 2022 at 4:44 am

    I feel like there was this idea from that time- the late 80s/early 90s- of a certain type of computer game. One where the computer can auto-generate a fully immersive environment and respond perfectly to all your commands, even very unexpected ones. Two specific examples are the holodeck in Star Trek, and the Fantasy Game in Ender’s Game.

    There’s a Star Trek episode where they’re doing Sherlock Holmes mysteries in the holodeck, and it’s too easy because they already know the answers. So they tell the computer: “generate an original mystery, with a genius level opponent as the villain”. And the computer… does that, with no problems. Then they play through the mystery, with the computer understanding and reacting perfectly to everything they do, generating new original content the whole time.

    That would be amazing! And I feel like that’s what these early 90s adventure games wanted to be. But they can’t- a computer can’t generate new stories that way, or react to open ended human commands. At least not at that time, maybe we’re getting there now with modern AI, but it’s still pretty spotty. The closest thing we have to that is tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, where a human acts as the “computer”, and most of the action takes place in your imagination. but a real computer is still just a big abacus for crunching numbers. So you’re left with a story that’s almost all pre-written, and the player having no real control over the story, except maybe what order events happen in, and a lot of irritating breaks while you try things that don’t work and don’t give any meaningful response.

    Sometimes it can be funny, when the games are self aware about it. I think that’s why the wacky comedy adventure games tend to do best- at least they incorporate the absurdity of having the player do nonsensical actions. But the adventure games that try to be serious just seem like they would have been much better off as movies, without all the interruptions from the player.

    I think games like DOOM and Warcraft are more successful because they’re actually suited to the medium of computers. In both of those, the player really does have meaningful choices. You can go anywhere, shoot anywhere, move your units wherever you want, and the computer will respond appropriately. Granted you’re still stuck just killing everything, but there’s an infinite number of ways to kill things! The computer automates all the tedious dice-rolling and statistics tracking that you’d have in a tabletop game, and provides the perfect interface for interacting with its world. They wouldn’t work in any other format (at least not without changing a lot), whereas I could easily imagine turning adventure games into a movie or book, as long as you take out the puzzles.

    • Gordon Cameron

      June 18, 2022 at 6:23 pm

      Yeah, I think this also relates to why RPGs (and other genres) have tended to be combat focused. Combat is something that a computer can model pretty well and, as you say, there can be many permutations within the rules.

      Any kind of storytelling is much, much harder to generate in any dynamic way. The two solutions usually hit upon are a) linear storytelling, or b) branching-path storytelling. These are both excellent adjuncts to gameplay but aren’t really gameplay in their own right (maybe the latter is, a bit, but for my money it’s not particularly engaging gameplay). And you always get that feeling that you are in the hands of a top-down storyteller. This isn’t necessarily a bad feeling (it’s why we watch movies and read novels, etc.) but it sometimes clashes against the ‘do anything, go anywhere, empower-the-player’ appeal of so many games.

  10. Lisa H.

    June 18, 2022 at 5:18 am

    This mooted merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood — often abbreviated as “Siliwood”

    Granted I was only around 15 years old, so I may not have been paying attention in the right places (like, we took Sierra’s InterAction magazine and I think that was about it other than what I might peruse in a software store), but I can’t remember ever hearing this term used at the time. It sounds so incredibly marketroidy.

    an adventure was a once-and-done endeavor that might last a week or two at best

    …you solve adventures incredibly fast, then! Just as a random example off the top of my head, I finally got into Monkey Island about 9 months ago, and have encountered plenty of stories of people being unable to solve Monkey Island 2 (particularly, but also 1 and 3) for months on end back in the 90s.

    I’m probably unusual in that I don’t consider adventure games “one and done”: the majority that I’ve completed, I replay again and again. But even aside from that, wasn’t the whole thing of the times to try to make them as long as possible, even if it came to putting arbitrary obstacles in the way of the player in the name of extending the hours you got for your bucks? Ads would boast of tens of hours at the least, which is only “a week or two” if you’re doing it all day, every day like a full-time job.

    [Lloyd’s] performance here, in what must have been extremely trying circumstances — he was, after all, constantly expected to say his lines to characters who weren’t actually there —

    Completely unlike what he had to do in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, eh? ;)

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 18, 2022 at 8:14 am

      The term “Siliwood” was quite common inside the industry, but perhaps somewhat less so among gamers. You’ll find it, for example, all over the early issues of Game Developer magazine.

      Yes, adventures can be replayed in the same way that one might reread a good book, but most people only do that after a span of years. I don’t think it’s a possibility that affected buying habits in the moment; when buying a shiny new game, you were thinking of the next month’s entertainment, not what you might be returning to five years in the future. ;)

      The state of “stuckness” and the way it extended playing time is a whole other discussion, and in fact another reason why many people turned away from adventure games. You could spend an evening alone, beating your head fruitlessly against a puzzle that was keeping you from progressing — or you could spend it with your friends, actively *playing* a game. For many people, the choice was obvious.

    • Lisa H.

      January 10, 2023 at 9:21 pm

      So I recently played through this over my winter break. It’s kind of too bad what this article has to say about its reach exceeding its grasp and it having to be cut off to even get out the door, because I think there was some potential there. If one can stomach being doused in 1990s American cartoon wackiness at every turn, it’s not a bad game. It’s a lot more restrained in its use of FMV than some contemporaries I can think of. (It looked to me like they recorded Christopher Lloyd doing a sort of “movement inventory” that they could then assemble in various ways, something like making an artificial voice by recording a real voice doing a phonetic inventory.) The puzzle design was mostly almost modern in how forgiving it was. I did not get into any “dead man walking” situations and could always backtrack if I had missed something. I ran into a couple of “magic pixel” situations where I did not see an interactable object (oh, for a hotspot revealer) and really got steamed over one puzzle where I had the correct solution, but the game was neither taking an implied action nor at least allowing me to combine two items in inventory to get a hint that I was on the right track, and I thus spent a lot of time looking for an otherwise logical-seeming object that did not exist before I gave up and looked at a walkthrough. But other than the “classic” puzzles that I could have done without (you know the type – sliding tiles, a bookshelf that’s a logic puzzle to work out what order to pull the books in, a dreadfully long round of Simon), there were only a couple of points where I got stuck and couldn’t solve it on my own. That’s probably painfully easy by many people’s standards! But anyway, it was certainly good enough in writing and acting (the voice acting of course includes many well known talents and is quite high quality) to keep my interest. Certainly worth the $0 I paid for it, since I got it on that day in 2019 when they were giving it away for free, heh.

  11. Daniel Wolf

    June 18, 2022 at 5:58 am

    “Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the hit 1988 movie which had wowed audiences with the novel feat of inserting cartoon characters into a live-action world” — Actually, this was far from a novel feat by 1988. Other movies had done it before, as in the penguin scene in Mary Poppins (1964). I believe the novelty of Who Framed Roger Rabbit was more in the sheer scale and realism of its animations.

    “… all in the service of a parable about the creative process that the game we have only hints at.” — Something isn’t quite right with this sentence.

    “… it requires a thoroughgoing knowledge of idiomatic English, of the sort that only native speakers or those who have been steeped in the language for many years are likely to possess. (This may help to explain why Toonstruck, a commercial disappointment in its homeland, was an absolute bomb in Europe.)” — Actually, I don’t think this reasoning holds. I played Toonstruck in German back in the day, and they’d gone to great lengths to localize the puns, actually changing all the images on the malevolator. For instance, in the English version, there’s an image of needles, prompting you to insert bowling pins (pins and needles). In the German version, there’s an image of a child instead. When you insert those same pins, you get the German idiom “child and pins” (Kind und Kegel), which Leo tells me translates to “bag and baggage”. Not all the pairs are as intuitive as they are in English, but I remember finding them quite logical back then.

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 18, 2022 at 8:18 am

      The sentence in question was as intended. ;) But that’s great to hear about the localizations. I hope they’re available in the modern digital-download versions.

    • Mayhaym

      June 18, 2022 at 4:03 pm

      Well, Germany and France were pretty big markets (and have always been militant in preserving their languages) so you did get localisations/translations there. But Scandinavia for instance usually didn’t (as far as I know), and for me – living in Iceland – it was never going to happen, so these embedded English-isms would have been very hit or miss.

    • Lee Hauser

      June 19, 2022 at 7:08 pm

      I think the real attraction of Roger Rabbit, other than the quantity of Toonage on display, was the coming together of the biggest Toon universes, Disney and Warner Brothers, on the same screen. As children of the 1950s, the very idea that these two beloved, yet completely separate, worlds could exist was an incredible concept. The fact that it was done so well was mind-boggling.

    • Jack Brounstein

      June 22, 2022 at 1:19 am

      It’s true that Mary Poppins (and Anchors Aweigh before it) mixed live action and animation, but there was very little interaction between the worlds–it’s pretty clear that the penguins were drawn in around Dick van Dyke’s dance, and so forth. Roger Rabbit, on the other hand, went to incredible lengths to present the characters as sharing an environment, so Bob Hoskins will seamlessly hand a glass to Roger, Jessica will grab someone by the cheeks, or one of those very penguins will waddle by holding a non-animated tray of food. (This also extended to simulating realistic lighting on the toons, essential for the shadowy noir atmosphere.)
      It’s not for nothing that the movie was recognized as an incredible technical achievement at the time.

  12. Patrick Ingram

    June 18, 2022 at 6:07 am

    Odd coincidence that this came out the same year as Stay Tooned, another Roger Rabbit-type adventure.

  13. Alex L.

    June 18, 2022 at 7:58 am

    Since I was obsessed with adventures in the early to mid-nineties as a kid, Toon Struck was a game I always wanted to play when I first saw it in a magazine. I never saw it in a shop around me though. As I grew older and the genre was on its way out, I steered away from adventures and moved over to RPGs of different kinds. I found it amazing that I actually could develop my character while still enjoying a great story with interesting dialogues. When adventures became popular again, I tried one or two of them, but I never enjoyed them as much as I did when I was young. Compared to the joy of character-development in RPGs, adventures now seemed pretty one-sided to me and I didn´t take the time to explore the genre any further.

    Speaking about interactive movies, Final Fantasy 7 on the playstation back in the day was the first game that introduced me to the genre. While it sure lacked the interactivity of adventure games, I never felt passive or bored. I played some other games in the same style and never had the urge to turn them off since the character development was so intriguing to me. So, no matter how interactive a game is, it´s not interesting for me when skill development is not possible.

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 18, 2022 at 8:23 am

      I think I’m actually going to play Final Fantasy VII. It will be my first ever encounter with a Japanese CRPG. Should be interesting, if nothing else…

      But to your broader point: yes, I do think a lot of what adventure games were trying to do migrated into CRPGs, in a way that many people found more satisfying, using a more simulation-oriented approach in place of set-piece puzzles — albeit at a cost to the *types* of stories and settings that games could engage with. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the CRPG drought ended just as the adventure drought began.

      • Keith Palmer

        June 18, 2022 at 11:51 am

        Your mentioning you might play Final Fantasy VII has me thinking of Matt Alt’s recent book Pure Invention, the introduction to which begins with that game and proposes its release marked the moment when “Japanese pop culture” really started being sold and accepted in a much less modified (or less “disguised as something else”) form in America. With that said, the book ranges far further than just that game, so I can suppose I can’t just promote it as one of your primary sources.

        • Jimmy Maher

          June 19, 2022 at 1:23 pm

          I’ve made a note of the book for when the time comes. Thanks!

        • Vulpes

          June 19, 2022 at 9:01 pm

          I haven’t read his argument, so I can’t speak as to whether he’s right or not, but personally I would have said that if any game marks that transition it would be Pokémon.

          • Keith Palmer

            June 21, 2022 at 10:45 am

            Alt does make a big deal of Pokemon as well later in the book, and for greater length than he covered Final Fantasy VII in the introduction. Conceivably the introduction could be seen as “trying to invoke visual effect.” As I said, as much interest as I took in Pure Invention I’m not quite sure it can be treated as “a single source to explain everything here…”

      • Gordon Cameron

        June 18, 2022 at 6:33 pm

        While it’s true that e.g. SSI was floundering by the early ’90s, I’m wondering if there was much of a CRPG drought from the consumer’s point of view. Even as Ultima committed seppuku in 1994, you have Elder Scrolls beginning with Arena (and Daggerfall two years later). Might & Magic was still trundling along (World of Xeen is ’94). There was Darklands in ’92 and Betrayal at Krondor in ’93. SSI’s ‘last gasp,’ from a consumer perspective, constituted some strong games; they were there to be bought and played, even if users didn’t bother to do so. Ill-fated projects like Battlespire and Stonekeep were releasing at this time as well. Diablo comes out in ’96 (granted, there was plenty of debate over whether it counted as an RPG at all). Blink and you’re up to ’97 and Fallout.

        I guess compared to the flood of CRPGs coming out in the mid to late 80s it was rather slim pickings. ‘Drought’ might be a relative term. The thing that gets me is how quickly it all happened. Two or three years hardly seems like any time at all to me, now. But then, the ‘great video game crash’ didn’t last more than ~3 years either.

        • Jimmy Maher

          June 18, 2022 at 8:09 pm

          It was definitely remarked at the time. You can find comments scattered throughout the gaming magazines of the mid-1990s: “There aren’t too many games of this type being made anymore,” etc.

          While some CRPGs were of course being made, they were a pretty underwhelming lot. The late SSI games tended to be half-realized and/or plagued by bugs. World of Xeen was a compilation, not an original game; there were no new Might and Magic CRPGs for five years while New World Computing switched their focus to the Heroes strategy series. Arena and Daggerfall both received mixed reviews and were not huge sellers (they would likely be entirely forgotten today were it not for Morrowind’s coming along years later). Ditto Battlespire and Stonekeep (which are pretty much forgotten). Meanwhile Ultima became a platformer and Wizardry became an adventure game.

          Diablo was actually slated for release in early January 1997, although there are reports that it reached some store shelves between Christmas and New Years. Still, it’s best considered a 1997 title. It and to a slightly less extent Fallout were the games that revived the genre in 1997, followed by Baldur’s Gate and Might and Magic VI in 1998. It’s very reasonable to speak of a four-year period when fewer CRPGs were being made and those that were were attracting relatively few sales and little attention in the gaming press.

  14. Sam

    June 18, 2022 at 8:37 am

    I still find it incredible that the official name of the movie is “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” without a question mark. But yah, I do remember that movie and how excited everyone got about “WOAH, people and animation together? Crazy!”.

    Thanks for this write-up and, uh, that weird BDSM cow video :)

    • DDG Ahab

      June 18, 2022 at 10:42 am

      I am reminded, perhaps not coincidentally, of Peter Jackson’s early “masterpiece” Meet the Feebles.

  15. Alex L.

    June 18, 2022 at 11:23 am

    @ Jimmy Maher: If you are really going to try FF7, it would be interesting to read about your (first) impressions. The last time I played it, I was not impressed anymore.

  16. Vulpes

    June 18, 2022 at 8:43 pm

    I understand what you mean when you say that 1996 marked the beginning of the end for adventure games, but I always find it odd that few adventure game fans are willing to acknowledge how much of the spirit of those games lived on in action-adventure titles. Sure, lots of them leaned heavily on the action end of things, but, to use one example, many of the Zelda games are realio, trulio adventure games, with inventory puzzles and everything. Sure, they have combat, but so do lots of adventure games in one form or another, and many of Zelda’s enemies are basically puzzles anyway. You can’t tell me that defeating a well-armored giant lizard by feeding it a bomb wouldn’t be right at home in an Infocom game.

    So if you’re open to playing console games like Final Fantasy VII, I’d like to encourage you to also consider playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. After all, for a long time those two games were seen as rivals of sorts. Plus afterwards you can play the sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, which, in addition to being a great adventure game, has tons of atmosphere and thematic weight, plus a central mechanic that can be seen as a dramatic evolution of the dynamic world in Infocom’s Deadline.

    I’ve been reading your blog, off and on, for a while now, and as I was always a console gamer as a child I’ve always been mildly disappointed that you don’t give the consoles much attention. Of course, I’ve read your reasons, and I totally respect your right to define your own interests. I hope you can forgive these suggestions, but I was so intrigued to hear you say you plan on playing Final Fantasy VII that I felt I had to make them.

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 19, 2022 at 8:24 am

      We’ll see. My hedge in the case of Final Fantasy VII is that it did get a Windows release back in the day…

      • Vulpes

        June 19, 2022 at 9:06 pm

        Be careful with that line of thinking, you might find yourself playing one of the truly heinous home computer ports of Street Fighter II.

        • Jimmy Maher

          June 20, 2022 at 4:38 am

          There’s little danger of that. Not the sort of game I tend to find interesting. ;)

      • gamerindreams

        August 30, 2022 at 8:40 pm

        Come on Jimmy! Even Chet on the CRPGAddict plays console RPGs now…I would love to see a writeup on how it changed platforms starting from Nintendo and finally ending up on the Playstation! I think you’ve covered the western gaming industry so well – why not a peek at the eastern one?

      • Jason

        July 27, 2023 at 9:31 am

        I actually remember the Windows version of Final Fantasy VII being better than the PS1 version since it ran at 640×480 instead of the PlayStation’s resolution, which I believe was 320×240. If you play this version of the game, it’s worth noting that it originally shipped with a 4 MB SoundFont that provided for greatly improved music on compatible sound cards. The FFVII soundtrack – which is one of the game’s best features – sounds horrible on General MIDI. I’m sure there’s probably some way to make SoundFonts work with modern sound cards.

        • Ross

          July 27, 2023 at 3:37 pm

          I’m not sure how you configure it in windows, but I think most modern computers are almost always emulating midi in software, so soundfonts are pretty straightforward. I know in Linux you edit the timidity conf file to change the font.

    • Jesse Fuchs

      June 26, 2022 at 4:24 pm

      As a Mac-owning mostly-console gamer in his teens/20s in the 90s, I think there are some core differences between the somatics of consoles and computers at the period—lean-forward vs. lean-back just as much as mouse & keyboard vs. the Nintendo 64’s Jim Woodring creature of a controller—which make the puzzles feel much different in Zelda than in a point-and-click, even if the puzzles are isomorphic. Right now, I’m playing a Diablo game (II) for the first time, on Switch, and it’s interesting how much less like an MMO it feels than like a very simple beat ’em up with a weirdly byzantine cooldown powers system, just because of the context and controller.

      Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t like to see him look at consoles, especially as things get more and more blurred throughout the 90s. In fact, I would happily donate an extra $50 to the Patreon if Jimmy wrote a compare-and-contrast of Majora’s Mask and The Last Express—preferably, with a focus on how cartridge-and-controller vs. CD-and-mouse affordances affect their post-Deadline approach to the clockwork mystery subgenre. In purely selfish terms alone, it would easily be worth it to be able to use that in a reading packet the next time I have to teach about narrative game design, never my strong suit.

      • Jesse Fuchs

        June 26, 2022 at 4:25 pm

        $75, if there’s also a multi-paragraph digression on how cool Tomi Pierce was.

      • Vulpes

        June 27, 2022 at 3:05 pm

        The puzzles in Zelda do “feel” different than in a traditional point-and-click, but in many ways I think it’s to Zelda’s advantage. In a typical point and click, the actual items don’t actually have any impact on how you use them—you just select them and press the use button or whatever. There doesn’t need to be any relationship between the item and the problem it’s solving, as many poorly-designed puzzles can attest. Whereas the way items work in Zelda is closer to “actually” using the item—for example, correctly solving a puzzle involving the boomerang requires you understand the flight path it will follow and throwing it at the right place. I think this keeps the developers (more) honest—since the items work in a semi-mechanical way, they can’t make solutions be arbitrary combinations of items.

        • Ross

          June 27, 2022 at 6:02 pm

          I would say that a big and mostly positive shift with the decline of “pure” adventure in favor of the encorporation of adventure elements into other genres is that the “set piece” puzzles common in late adventure games evolved into physics puzzles that had to play by the same rules as the rest of the game.

  17. Alex L.

    June 19, 2022 at 6:02 am

    Fallout is worth mentioning for sure when you want to speak about a good working combination of both the adventure and the roleplaying mechanics. While I never played such a complex title before, the adventure mechanics that became apparent in the vast dialogue options and in the different possibilities you could solve a quest felt so familiar that the game never seemed too confusing to me.

  18. Alex L.

    June 19, 2022 at 12:08 pm

    @ Vulpes: I can possibly see your point, but as someone who grew up playing on consoles as well as on the computer, in my point of view it´s quite safe to say that it is not possible to mix up these plattforms when talking about the genres of RPG or Adventure. Speaking from a historical point of view, while there may be some similarities between them, the games are just too different to compare in general when it comes to gameplay or world settings.

    Personally I think it´s a good thing that Mr. Maher keeps his focus when talking about games. By the way, buying and playing the windows release of FF7 for the first time remains one of my most magical gaming experience ever. I was a fanboy in a second. By the way, I hope my postings don´t read too weird, writing in english is really hard for me.

    • Vulpes

      June 19, 2022 at 5:16 pm

      I wouldn’t presume to tell Jimmy what he has to cover, and it’s entirely reasonable for him to concentrate on games on personal computers instead of consoles (at least for now—the distinction becomes less and less meaningful as time goes on). But I would argue that there are certain console games that, even in this era, were influential enough on gaming as a whole that they shouldn’t be ignored. I believe that Ocarina of Time is such a game. Of course, it’s his prerogative to decide if he agrees.

    • Captain Rufus

      June 24, 2022 at 6:08 am

      I have to be honest in that both then and now I make no distinction of platform. A good game is good period. It’s just sometimes the platform lets something like Fallout 2 exist while most Playstation and Saturn rpgs were mostly linear slogs. But the Playstation had the Kings Field series which while much slower, were far better and more polished than what Ultima Underworlds and the Elder Scrolls of the time managed.

  19. Alex L.

    June 19, 2022 at 5:40 pm

    Reading about the influence of Zelda and of course Final Fantasy on the gaming industry as a whole, I can agree on this point. But to get really back to the topic: I now remember that I watched the ending of Toonstruck on YT. It felt totally unsatisfying to me since you spend so much time and still didn´t reach your (final) goal. Basically, you don´t get a real reward.

  20. Jaina

    June 25, 2022 at 2:50 pm

    The sequel adventure ideas remind me pretty strongly of psychonauts, and would be very interesting to see

  21. Jesse Fuchs

    June 26, 2022 at 5:01 pm

    I have owned Toonstruck since [checks GOG order history] June 14, 2019, when they were giving it away for free for a day and people on Twitter were saying nice things about it, but I never actually opened it up. I didn’t really play point-and-click games in the 90s, as I was much more of a console gamer by that point. But I have enjoyed a lot of VR escape room/puzzle games over the pandemic, so I feel more primed to check it out now.

    Anyway, one thought I wanted to follow up on as a pattern is…well, I don’t have a good term for it, but the observation that the peak of a genre often occurs when it’s also a Dead Man Walking. I can think of several examples from the 80s/early 90s, some bigger than others:

    • As Jimmy alludes, if you had to pick a peak year for Infocom games on purely aesthetic grounds, you’d probably go with 1986, i.e. the year after Cornerstone’s failure single-handedly (if perhaps only prematurely, since it’s hard to know how they’d have pivoted in a post-commercial text adventure world) destroyed the company’s future.

    • Best year for Atari games is arguably 1983—certainly in terms of Activision’s lineup, that’s what I’d go with, with Keystone Kapers and Space Shuttle as exemplars. Although really, if you want to be impressed by an Activision game, you’d go with 1984’s Pitfall II, featuring the only use of the DPC chip, adaptive music, and, as far as I can tell, the first pure use of “there’s no lives, dying just sends you back to the last checkpoint”.

    • Jimmy’s written extremely well about 1987 being both the pinnacle of the Commodore 64’s dominance of the console interregnum—California Games, Pirates!, and Pool of Radiance—and the start of its very rapid overshadowing by Nintendo’s cost, convenience, and Mario/Zelda knockout combo. Although in the UK, you still keep getting first-tier Commodore games until the early 90s, when the Amiga and Super NES start to gain enough ground.

    • Similarly, the largest (768K!) non-Japan-only NES cartridge is 1993’s Kirby’s Adventure, which is two years after the SNES comes out and is a sequel to a Game Boy game, made by a designer who at that point had been working with the 6502 chip for over a decade. Similarly, probably the most impressive Apple II games are Ultima V and Prince of Persia, both made by people who know those systems so backwards and forwards that they’re arguably irrationally unwilling to move on and would rather just have other folks port them to the versions lots of people will actually buy.

    I think that last bit gets at the paradox—even in the case of Infocom, it’s partly a matter of them finally going over to ZIL+ and 128K with Trinity and AMFV, but probably more about people getting comfortable enough with the format that you can have old hands like Leibling and Meretzky thinking bigger, along with a second sub-generation of folks with fresh angles like Moriarity and Briggs. When you look at “retro” programming contests, of course, it’s clear that there’s always more room to explore with these systems—but it does hit different when it’s a mainstream commercial product, instead of a hobbyist subculture.

    • Jesse Fuchs

      June 26, 2022 at 5:10 pm

      P.S. I didn’t list Cinemaware’s two most impressive games being It Came From The Desert (1989) and Wings (1990) solely because Jimmy mentioned Wings (1927) at the beginning of the article, and my incredibly powerful brain apparently decided that this made it redundant.

    • Sarah Summers

      August 20, 2022 at 4:34 pm

      “ Similarly, probably the most impressive Apple II games are Ultima V and Prince of Persia, both made by people who know those systems so backwards and forwards that they’re arguably irrationally unwilling to move on and would rather just have other folks port them to the versions lots of people will actually buy.”

      I think your premise is right on, but I would push a little deeper into the Apple II catalogue for the examples. Origin had a long tail of *incredibly* impressive Apple II games towards the end that, as you say, represented a totally irrational clinging to a dead platform.

      I would cite games like Space Rogue (solid fill 3D space battles!), Knights of Legend (elaborate blow-by-blow combat with a complicated GUI that took hours for a single skirmish) and Windwalker (full-screen real-time martial arts combat inside a huge RPG!).

      All these games did things that the platform should not have been capable of, but they made it work (albeit at frame rates that are totally unacceptable by today’s standards). They were all amazing games. The sheer scope of Knights of Legend has to be seen to be believed. The manual is a small phone book of maps, weapons details, cultural artifacts, etc. All of these games would have been million-sellers five years earlier. However coming out when they did, they are perfect examples of Jimmy’s point about the best things coming out after the death of the platform/medium (and your point about technical experts clinging irrationally to a platform they know and like).

  22. Jesse Fuchs

    June 26, 2022 at 5:12 pm

    (Also, feel free to replace the word “genre” with “platform” in Paragraph 2 if it annoys you— if you think for too long about platform studies, the two can start to really blur.)

  23. Tim Kaiser

    June 27, 2022 at 5:12 am

    The idea that Myst and 7th Guest and Sherlock Holmes were only successful because they were the new technology still rings true today. In recent years we have had new technologies like 3D movies/TV, motion controls for video games, music video games with plastic controllers and things like that which initially were successful and sold well and then later people got tired of them as the appeal of the gimmick wore off and then sales dropped off and they all stopped getting made. Just like Jimmy’s comment, this isn’t to belittle all those things but it’s the reality of what happened in the market.

  24. Bobby Impollonia

    June 29, 2022 at 9:40 pm

    The (terrible) movie Cool World was released in 1992 and is a mix of live action and animation in which an artist is pulled into the cartoon world of characters he created. It also is “off, weird in a way that is not just unfunny or immature but that actually leaves you feeling vaguely uncomfortable”, as you say about this.

    Coincidence? Obviously, most of the similarities are because both are imitating Roger Rabbit, but was this game also influenced by Cool World?

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 30, 2022 at 4:51 am

      I’m afraid I don’t know the movie, but I’ve never seen it mentioned by anyone involved with Toonstruck. My guess would be that it was just a coincidence…

    • vykromond

      August 24, 2023 at 5:23 pm

      Was thinking about Cool World the whole time through the article as well. It was a notable bomb but definitely far from a megahit the way Roger Rabbit was so coincidence is definitely possible. Timing does line up though- Cool World was 1992 and sounds like they concepted Toonstruck in 93. Additionally, I believe the Cool World marketing campaign hit local news in LA quite a bit because they put a cardboard cutout of toonified Kim Basinger in the Hollywood sign and people got mad; the principals for Toonstruck would have been in LA at the time. Possible the influence was indirect/subliminal.

  25. Jeff Nyman

    October 23, 2022 at 7:33 pm

    Great article on an interesting game!

    “But here’s the rub: most people — perhaps even most gamers — really don’t like solving puzzles all that much at all.”

    I would probably argue that’s not true at all but with the caveat that you have to define “puzzle” broadly in games. For example, consider “Impossible Mission” by Epyx (to pick just one example). It was basically a platformer. But you had to figure out which furniture had passcodes and then where those passcodes had relevance. Then you had to collect a series of passcodes to get into Elvin’s stronghold at the end. Compare/contrast that with another game like “Countdown to Shutdown.” Compare/contrast that with a game like, say, “Infiltrator.”

    Puzzles? Perhaps not. But certainly puzzle-like behavior, including navigation. Even remembering your path through levels in games, like “DOOM” or “Wolfenstein 3D,” could be seen as a form of layout puzzle to be solved.

    What people rejected with these graphical adventures was, as you note, the static puzzles. And this is largely why text adventures were rejected as a whole, I believe. They were really nothing but puzzles; even the ones that tried to be more focused on the literary.

    There’s a reason why Sierra was able to thread that needle for awhile with their parser-based AGI/SCI games that eventually morphed into pure point-and-click. There’s a reason why “Maniac Mansion” and “Monkey Island” did so well even though they too were basically really just about puzzles.

    “…who’s played by Ben Stein, an actor of, shall we say, limited range…”

    No, we should not say. :) The calling of history is not one of mean-spiritedness or humor at someone’s expense. If we’re going to level this charge at Stein, Christopher Lloyd could probably be seen in the same light as he most often played quirky, off-beat characters. From an acting standpoint, Stein is known as a character actor and had chosen to specialize in a particular type of such acting. He honed an image as much as Lloyd did.

    “Being created by so many insiders to the cartoon racket, Toonstruck is well placed to capture the very adult cynicism that oozes from such productions,…”

    Agreed! And I think this is one of the areas, historically, where “Toonstruck” didn’t step all that well. Think of “Shrek” for example. When that came out it managed to be funny as its own thing but with aspects of both overt and covert digs at Disney. But never anything one could take too much offense at necessarily.

    “Toonstruck” had a chance, with said insiders, to do something similar and I’ve always felt they really missed the mark on that. Maybe. It’s also not the direction they should have been going, most likely, unless they had the target audience firmly set, which as you note, they seem to have vacillated on.

    “it would be a stretch to label it even a cult classic.”

    Agreed. And this has always been, I feel, one of the sadder aspects of this game. I think it should have been able to reach that status but it never has. It makes you wonder what the case would have been if they went with a more “Day of the Tentacle” approach to the animation — no real actors at all but relatively quality animation and thus budget could have perhaps been allocated differently.

    “whether its characters and puzzle mechanics could have supported the weight of so much content is another question”

    Very much so! And I often think this is a fascinating question for why adventure games never really became “epic” in that sense, in terms of stories. The mechanics of adventure games, particularly text adventures, often couldn’t support that “weight.”

    Even now I find this interesting in games that reach and reach hard, regardless of context. Consider, as a very recent example, “Elden Ring.” A lot of players — even those enthusiastic for the game — wonder how much a Dark Souls mechanic and style really sits well with open world concepts. In film circles, consider how people still respond to something like “Phantasm” that tried to overlay its horror aspects with something much more psychological with people questioning if that “weight” could be supported by what was (allegedly) a horror film.

    “Toonstruck” was, without doubt, ambitious. But sometimes being ambitious can be the thing that actually kills you if that ambition is not honed and framed well. I think the comments from McWilliams indicate that such honing and framing simply didn’t exist or, at the very, were fluid enough to prevent a cohesive vision that could be delivered in a way that would foster enough interest that would, in turn, demand more from this intriguing game.

  26. bert

    December 21, 2022 at 7:01 am

    Zelenhgorm Land of the Blue Moon , i really enjoyed that one.

    Such a shame we didn’t get the full run ,forever stuck on episode one.

  27. greaterscott

    January 10, 2023 at 4:10 pm

    “Ditto for anyone who just wants to know what kind of game $8 million would buy you back in 1996” – exactly. It’s definitely worth a playthrough, even before Toonstruck 2 and the remaster of the original become a reality, because of the production value that went into it at such a weird time for games. It’s something of a phenomenon – a unique piece of gaming history.


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