If you are familiar with tabletop role playing games, you know Dungeons & Dragons. There’s a quote I like from the late, great Terry Pratchett, regarding J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence on the world of fantasy:
J.R.R. Tolkien has become a sort of mountain, appearing in all subsequent fantasy in the way that Mt. Fuji appears so often in Japanese prints. Sometimes it’s big and up close. Sometimes it’s a shape on the horizon. Sometimes it’s not there at all, which means that the artist either has made a deliberate decision against the mountain, which is interesting in itself, or is in fact standing on Mt. Fuji.
Dungeons and Dragons is like this in the world of tabletop gaming. If you’re making a TTRPG, you need to know where you stand on being compared to D&D. Will you try to differentiate yourself with interesting mechanics, a new setting, or will you try to learn from the game that invented tabletop roleplay? Like painting a scene of Japan without Fuji, it’s hard to not have D&D in the background somewhere, making its presence be known in the way you handled stats and skills, the shape of the dice you use, or even the deep, deep roots of your game’s concept.
What do you do when you are Mt. Fuji, though? How does the mountain learn to grow and change itself when the time comes to? What influences could Dungeons and Dragons itself draw from in the late 90s, the waning days of the Second Edition and the beginning of the Third?
Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition was a turning point for the game. It was D&D’s attempt to re-capture lightning in a bottle, to relive the heady days of its 80s fame, and make a Dungeons and Dragons game that was truly worthy of the name. It was… well, it certainly was a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons, that much can be said.
Tomba! is a rare case of a ‘cult favorite’ game that I sincerely feel like had no good reason to not be popular.
It was produced and directed by Tokuro Fujiwara, already known for producing and directing games like Mega Man, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and even creating the survival horror genre with his NES game Sweet Home which was later adapted into the goddamn Resident Evil franchise. Tomba! is built wholly from the same good game design concepts, with RPG elements that innovated the platformer genre without taking up too much space. It’s funny and cute, while still having a sizeable spooky side. As far as 2D platformers go, it’s the total package.
Despite all this, Tomba! never sold enough to qualify for a Greatest Hits reprint, and copies now regularly go for over $100 on eBay. I just really don’t know why, even trying my best to approach this from an objective perspective. Games with less production value have successfully been spun off into entire TV franchises, while Tomba! languished with a single sequel and some very obscure merchandise.
Even with my history in the video game industry, the whims of the market are completely opaque to me. I don’t really feel like it’s my place to speculate on if the game was marketed well enough or what-have-you. Still, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the official promotional material was like.
Today we’re using the Wayback Machine to look at a whole 4 sites: Tomba! on the US PlayStation website, the independently hosted Tombi! site, the official Whoopee Camp site, and the very first official Tomba! site. I can’t give precise timestamps, but most of these are around the year 2000.
When’s the last time you’ve played a mascot platformer that wasn’t a Mario or a Sonic? It was probably a Crash or a Spyro if it was anything at all. The genre is dead, and I miss it very much.
Gex, at least to me personally, is the iconic failed mascot platformer. He’s everything bad about the genre: he talks way too much and thinks he’s clever, his world is made of cookie-cutter tropey levels that don’t fit together, he has way too many gameplay gimmicks, and in the grand scheme of things he’s been completely forgotten. These are all the reasons that I find Gex oddly enjoyable, as a game trilogy that just doesn’t really work and isn’t very fun.
Unlike most platformer mascots, Gex was not aiming to be the face of a single console: he was the catchphrase-spitting gecko mascot of Crystal Dynamics, a video game company founded by women in 1992. Crystal Dynamics had a broad ‘a little bit of anything’ approach to making games: they had many platformer games, an action-adventure franchise, a point-and-click, a fighting game, a racing game … you get the idea. I guess they also worked on some series named Tomb Raider.
But Gex was Crystal Dynamics’ thing. He was funny, he was memorable, and he was the face of the company, especially once the substantially more popular sequel Gex 2: Enter the Gecko was released in 1998. In that way, Gex was a fixture of the late 90s, a reminder of what things were like.
And what’s more ‘late 90s’ than a terrible website for a terrible video game?
Today I’m going to the Wayback Machine to see the Gex pages on the Crystal Dynamics website from 1998 to 1999. It’s tail time, as one might say.