I remember while growing up in the 1990s that, just as the sitcoms of the decade were rife with allusions to the 1960s, someday I’d be part of a culture aching for the heyday of the 1990s in due course. Cut to the 2020s, and here we are — nostalgia for the nineties is everywhere. Given so many of the best adventure games were created in that decade, the nostalgia is even richer.
Case in point? Toonstruck, developed by Burst Studios and released in 1996. This fantastic cult classic adventure game is concise, compact and clever in all the right ways, all while packing the intense wackiness of nineties animation into a game that stands in 2021 as a fascinating snapshot of its native era.
It’s not until you dive into an experience like this that you realise just how much has changed in media since the nineties. For better or for worse is a matter of opinion, but Toonstruck is a testament to the optimism and ambition of the multimedia decade — the grinning determination of creatives learning just how far they could go with these newfangled ‘computer’ thingies.
The hapless yet sarcastic protagonist of Toonstruck is Drew Blanc, a real-world human and animator who gets sucked into the toon world for reasons unknown during a bout of late-night working. Casting Christopher Lloyd as Blanc is a stroke of genius — he’s one of those beloved actors who comes as close as possible to a cartoon human being as one could imagine, yet also portrays Drew with a sardonic world-weariness befitting a scruffy, overworked artist.
Landing in the middle of a conflict between good and evil, Drew is greeted by his very own animated creation, Flux Wildly. Flux, voiced by Dan Castellaneta, recognises his creator and is delighted to see him, and seemingly doesn’t let something as piffling as being a fictional creation of the human who has just manifested before him get in the way of a smashing adventure game journey.
Drew’s connection to Flux is especially meaningful, because Drew has been trying for a long time to get Flux featured more prominently in the dour animation studio he works for. Said studio, overworking Drew to create more animated fluffy bunnies, is fixated on only doing what works. Cute, cuddly nonsense all round, much to Drew’s chagrin.
There’s no time to dwell on the specifics though. Drew and Flux are at ground zero of an invasion on Cutopia!
The world of Toonstruck is a world where a clash between aesthetics and ideals is boiling over. Cutopia, the toon landscape Drew falls into from the human world, is all about cuddly kindness and adorable characters. Flux Wildly, Drew’s creation and incumbent sidekick, is from Zanydu — a realm of practical jokes, hyperviolent hijinks and all-round Nickelodeon-style humour.
Meanwhile, the Malevolands are home to sinister toons and dark, grim architecture — as well as Count Nefarious, voiced wonderfully by Tim Curry. Nefarious is soaring around the cartoon world in a machine of his own design, beaming things to transform them from cute and cuddly in Cutopia into twisted, gnarled and sordid new forms.
Cutopia is retaliating by creating a Cutifier machine, and it’s here they entreat Drew and Flux for help. The two outsiders are forced to navigate a world of twee loveliness to find the components for this machine, eventually branching out to reach the hysterical nation of Zanydu and, of course, the dark reaches of the Malevolands themselves.
Revisiting Toonstruck in 2021, the game is surprisingly compact. This isn’t to its detriment — in fact, in a world of bloated AAA open-world checklists of games, the ease of navigating Toonstruck is one of its most surprisingly pleasing strengths.
Of course, the writing, art, sound design and humour all form plenty of compelling reasons all their own too. Top animation voice talent can be heard throughout the game, and the whole thing is so gloriously nineties that it’s impossible to feel anything but warm fuzzies as you navigate the game.
Puzzles lean hard on cartoon logic, so keeping that in mind as you play the game will help you solve conundrums. Drew has no issue with theft, pranks and cheekiness to get his way, and he’s ably helped — although not always altogether willingly — by Flux Wildly. Because Flux is a toon, he can do a lot of things Drew can’t, although our human hero is also granted a modicum of comedic invulnerability by the unique physics that govern the Toonstruck world.
Something we became aware of going back through the game during the late months of this summer was just how proactive the villains are in Toonstruck. Nefarious keeps a trio of henchmen at his beck and call to try and prevent Drew and Flux from succeeding in their mission, and these henchmen are gloriously peculiar in that bumbling classic cartoon way.
That said, the occasional ambush or cutaway to mark the villain’s plans make the storyline of Toonstruck pacy and rich in a sense of heightened stakes. Occasionally, you need to react in the moment to avoid detection or overcome the villains as they take advantage of their abilities to be wherever you are, and thinking on your feet is a welcome mix-up to the more headscratching or pattern-recognising ways most Toonstruck puzzles play out.
The game benefits from fantastic variety in its puzzle style in general, from distracting foes and tricking swindlers who are trying to take advantage of you, to testing your attention to detail or reaction times against…. elaborate Zanydu toilets.
A satisfying, soothing and genuinely hilarious 10 hours of adventure gaming was enjoyed with Toonstruck in summer 2021. Throughout, we revisited not only the animation style and active voice talent of the 1990s, but also the ambition and sense of experimentation that came with the multimedia era — the idea that we can suddenly scan real people into computers, make cartoons into interactive adventures, and just keep pushing the envelope in directions we just don’t do nowadays.
Toonstruck in 2021 is nostalgic, but also punchier than you might remember — cartoon humour in the nineties was all about gross surprises and wacky violence. It’s enjoyable, experimental and eminently enterprising — highly recommended.
Our favourite setpiece? Picking up the sunglasses. Elicits a chuckle just thinking about it!