Christmas is once again descending upon us like a vast and gaudy eagle, engaged in its annual Promethian punishment of pecking away at our wallets and our reserves of good cheer, so what better way to celebrate the season than with ape saliva? I know, I can't think of anything more appropriate either, so here's TAD Corporation's 1989 arcade chimp-em-up Toki!
That brickwork could do with a little repointing. Anyway, there's Toki now, bravely trying to walk upright despite the strain that his grossly oversized head is putting on his spine. He's our knuckle-dragging hero, and the reason that he's lurching around in a vertical fashion instead of giving up and finding some kind of primitive wheelbarrow to cart his enormous melon around in is that he was not always an ape. No, before the game began, Toki was just another Neanderthal with the misfortune to be romantically involved with someone from a late-eighties arcade game, and even existing in a prehistoric time cannot prevent Toki's lady love Miho from being abducted.
Away she goes, kidnapped by the sinister and difficult-to-spell wizard Vookimedlo. That's Vookimedlo on the right, the one that looks like a mantis trying to surreptitiously infiltrate the Catholic clergy. Let's give Vookimedlo a big hand, folks! Oh no, wait, he brought his own. That's sensible, really - if you just use a flying hand as a minion than you don't have to worry about it questioning your diabolical schemes or demanding dental insurance.
Toki was originally built like a brick shithouse and possesses a similar level of intelligence, charging towards the dread sorcerer's magical attack without so much as attempting to jump over it, so Toki must share some of the blame for his current monkey predicament. I can't help but wonder why Vookimedlo didn't just turn Toki in a rock or a houseplant or a fine red paste - my current theory is that Toki was hit with a de-evolution spell, regressing him to state that has evolved the larger cranial capacity of Homo sapiens but not the sense of inbuilt shame that leads to the wearing of loincloths. This is a big mistake on Vookimedlo's part, because while he can still move around Toki will struggle valiantly to rescue his beloved. You should have regressed him back to being a fish, pal.
Even if you hate moving pictures but love words, Toki has you covered with its pre-action warnings of the obstacles Toki will be facing in each stage. I really like these: they're hardly great literature, but then great literature never got me excited about seeing an ape regain his manhood. Bite me, books.
Thus begins Toki, as classic a run-n-gun arcade game as you're ever likely to find and as comfortingly familiar as the groove your arse has pressed into the sofa. Toki needs to get from one end of the stage to the other, but in his path are a host of aggressive creatures that don't quite look right, as though the game takes place not in the mists of prehistory but on an alien world where apes coincidentally also shed their fur, began walking upright and will eventually invent the McRib. Take those animals flying above Toki's gargantuan head, for example. They are definitely not birds. I mean, I'm no super bird expert person - ornithologist, that's the word I was looking for, thanks internet - but Earth-birds have wings and don't look like creepy trilobites.
To get past his many foes, Toki can use several tactics. He can avoid them, although as we shall see later that often ends up causing more problems for him down the road. In familiar videogame fashion he can jump on top of enemies to kill them. He can also do this.
Toki can spit projectiles to kill enemies, although if his facial expression is anything to go by doing so causes him considerable pain. That's a damn shame for Toki, because you're going to be spending most of the game launching a constant stream of bubbles from his poor abused mouth, especially (and extremely usefully) because you can fire them either horizontally, vertically or at a forty-five degree upwards angle. I did wonder whether these were magical projectiles, possibly a remnant of the wizardry that turned Toki into an ape, but as the game was ported to the Megadrive (amongst several other consoles) under the title Toki: Going Ape Spit, I think we have to assume that what he's firing is warm, wet wads of monkey phlegm. How delightful.
So, that's Toki - move through each stage, hopping and bopping and drenching your enemies in your deadly sputum, until you reach the boss. Top tip: the bosses can only be hurt by good deeds and kindness. No, I'm kidding, you have to flob all over them. Play Toki for thirty seconds and you'll know almost exactly what you're in for during the rest of the game, but not in a bad way.
I have revised my opinion about alien worlds. This is definitely Earth. No other planet would be stupid enough to invent American Football.
On the right of the screen shown above there's a see-saw that encapsulates Toki's approach to platform problem-solving. There's not much heavy thinking goes into planning your route, with the path to take and the jumps to make being plainly laid out before you, and the challenge is almost always being not "can you figure out where to go?" but "can you do it without dying?" Toki reminds me of Ghouls 'n' Ghosts in a lot of ways: you could happily describe them both as "platformers" and there are plenty of gaps in the landscape to jump across, but if you removed the enemies then the basic ledge-hopping action probably wouldn't hold your attention like it might in, say, a Koopa-free version of Super Mario World.
Toki also invites comparisons to Ghouls 'n' Ghosts in that it gets really bloody hard. Not as difficult as Capcom's famously sadistic arcade classic, but on the other hand at least Sir Arthur can take a hit and survive - Toki's death is immediate should he come into contact with anything more menacing than the ground beneath his feet. Maybe Vookimedlo's spell didn't just turn Toki into in ape, it turned him into a really sickly ape whose ape mother was dangerously overprotective and as such left her son with no chance of surviving in the wild. Can you make a spell that specific? I have no idea, I'm not a wizard.
Stage one's midboss is the Gate of Moornah. It's not really a gate, but I can understand why it's called a gate because there isn't a concise word for "imposing golden monkey-powered slab with powerful steam jets and spring-loading boxing glove fists". It looks menacing at first, as any machine operated by furtive apes will do, but all you have to do to beat it is time your climb up the vine on the right so that Toki isn't scalded to death and voilà, you've passed the gate.
I was not expecting the first boss proper to be a Mr. Potato Head in a suit of golden armour. Honestly, I don't know what I was expecting. Some kind of dinosaur, maybe. What are the natural predators of apes, anyway? Bigger apes? Well, this boss' main form of attack is to fire monkeys at you so maybe that was his thinking. In the world of Toki apes are the most versatile of all creatures, serving as guards, soldiers, floating brass gate operators and ammunition, unless that's all being done by two or three monkeys with exceptionally well-developed CVs.
Anyway, the boss follows a pattern straight out of Being A Videogame Boss 101, in that he fires some projectiles at you and then jumps to the other side of the screen, repeating the process until Toki either drowns in apes or manages to spit on him enough times to claim victory.
Stage two is Lake Neptune. Lake Neptune doesn't just contain sharks, it is bloody infested with them, so chances are I'm going to have to cross it by swimming rather than by fashioning a crude canoe by hollowing out a monkey.
Yup, swimming it is. Just look at Toki's face: he's normally such a cheerful sort, but the raw terror of swimming through a shark-infested lake, even with his eyes protected by goggles, means his usually jolly expression is replaced by one of steely determination. Or maybe he's upset with the stage introduction's misleading description of the lake's shark volume, because while there are some swimming around they're mostly just minding their own business. What the briefing should have said is "WARNING: Tenacious Piranhas," because unlike the sharks the piranhas will relentlessly hunt Toki down unless he methodically exterminates them, and because they're smaller and harder to hit than the sharks that's not as easy as it sounds.
This makes it particularly aggravating that the mid-boss can vomit up piranhas. Keeping live piranhas in your stomach shows admirable dedication to the cause of evil, and when combined with a shield that can block your attacks this boss can put up quite a fight. Sadly it's not an enjoyable fight, because this underwater adventure is really a side-scrolling shooter section in disguise, and you all probably know by now how much I love side-scrolling shooter sections that have been artlessly crammed into platformers. It's not terrible, I suppose, nor is it really"scrolling" because you can move Toki wherever you like, but it's still probably the weakest part of the game, surely born out of one of the game's developers insisting that room was made for the slightly overweight fish-beast they'd drawn. I can understand that, but it doesn't mean I have to enjoy it.
Here's the second boss, and I spent way too long trying to figure out whether it's whole head is one giant eyeball or if it's a mouth with an eyeball inside. "Why would you have an eye in your mouth, that seems like it's asking for trouble and a lifetime spent avoiding spicy foods," you may ask, but the boss is unconcerned by ocular damage because he can create as many eyeballs as he like, spewing them all over the screen and forcing Toki to deal with them because if left alone these semi-autonomous eyeballs quickly fill up the screen. Yes, this inbred mutant progeny of the Michelin Man's family fights a lot like the first boss, but he's more durable and his projectiles will cause you more problems if they slip through your wave of spittle. I get the feeling this will be a common thread running through Toki's boss battles.
Stage three is the Marble Zone. No, sorry, it's the Caverns of Fire. You have to have a fire stage, they're the awkward first-date silences of videogaming. As you might expect, traversing the Caverns of Fire sees Toki bounding across lakes of lava and avoiding jets of flame, because while Toki is pretty fun game to play it is not blessed with an abundance of originality in terms of level design. If the next stage isn't ice-themed I'll... well, it doesn't matter what I'd do because the chances of the next stage not being ice-themed are about the same as me finding Lord Lucan hiding in my airing cupboard.
I've compared Toki to Ghost 'n' Goblins already, and one area where that comparison is strongest is in the game's ability to catapult the player from areas of relative calm to full-on monster jamboree in mere moments. Take the area pictured above: free from deadly foes, unless you count the lava spout on the floor and there's not a lot I can do about that. Then I move half a screen to the left, and...
Bang, four monsters, one of which - the ghost at the top of the screen - literally appeared out of nowhere. I would have been in a better position had I jumped on top of that evil monkey like I intended instead of jumping over him and putting myself right in the centre of the melee, but it still stands to illustrate that the key to success in Toki is cautiously eliminating all resistance before moving on.
The relatively sedate pace is also encouraged by Toki not being the most athletic ape in the world. His jumping skills are good, but he walks around at the gentle place of an elderly rambler, and the famous agility of the simians only ever comes into play during these rare vine-swinging sections. I know Toki spent most of his life in the lumbering beef-mountain form of a professional bodybuilder and as such is not accustomed to gracefully swinging through the treetops, but a few more sections where being a spitting monkey meant a different playstyle than could be replicated by a man with a gun would have been nice.
I was just about to say that this boss burps at you, but it quite clearly does not - rather, it spews out stone letters that spell out the word "BURP". Whether this is bizarre coincidence or the boss swallowed the letters in that specific order for later regurgitation is by the by: the simple fact is that b-b-b-burp is the word. The word that will destroy you. Enough about his attacks, though, let's take a look at the boss itself. It looks completely insane, its tiny eyes pivoting in separate directions, the lumpen, tumorous flesh of its body studded with appendages that look as though they've been deep-fried in batter. This thing's name is Mogulvar, apparently, a name which must surely be an acronym for Meat Organism, Guarantees Upset Lunch Via Acid Reflux. He's certainly making my stomach churn, so let's get to the next stage.
Oh look, it's an ice stage. I was going to go for some extreme sarcasm to describe this turn of events, but I think I went to far and "sarcastic" rolled back around to "unimpressed." It's got all the usual trappings of an ice stage, like a backdrop of glittering crystals and, erm, that's it. Toki doesn't do anything to develop the winter wonderland theme barring a few ice-appropriate enemies. No slippery floors, no falling icicles, no vision-obscuring flurries of snow. Still, the inclusion of an ice level is entirely justified because it means we get these adorable penguin enemies. I say enemies, they don't really attack Toki or anything, they just have bad haircuts and waddle around in a boggle-eyed stupor like Burning Man attendees.
Toki vs. Cthulhu: The Ultimate Battle now, and this time Toki's glum expression makes sense because he's about to get a squid in the eye. A squid in the eye will kill him, regardless of what eye protection he's wearing. Toki knows this, and he has become resigned to his fate. When you compare this expression to the one he's sporting on the status picture at the bottom left of the screen, where's he's beaming with the glee only found in apes that have been given a coupon for fifty percent off bananas, you can see how far his spirits have fallen.
The main thing I took from this fight, the aspect of it that's forever seared into my meoery, is that every time you shoot the squid it makes a noise like a human dry-heaving. Thanks for that, TAD Corporation. Between the previous boss and these gagging sounds I'll be sure to play Toki next time I accidentally swallow a dangerous chemical that I need to eject from my stomach post-haste.
Fighting a mammoth made of ice has really perked Toki up, look, although I wasn't nearly so happy because this is where I started to die a lot. The mammoth's boomerang-like tusks are hard to avoid and demand your full concentration, leaving you little time to attack the boss during its vulnerable moments when it stops blocking its body with its trunk. Then it whacks you with the trunk, and you die. It's a battle that requires deep reserves of perseverance, as you would expect from an attempt to melt an ice mammoth using only the warmth of your saliva.
You know where you are? You're in the Dark Jungle, baby! You're gonna frrrryyyy... this large bird. With your spit. Somehow. I do not profess to understand the full ramifications of Vookimedlo's magical curse, but I can offer some practical advice: don't kill the birds over the spike-pits, because then you won't be able to grab the fully plucked-n-cooked birds that they turn into. If Toki wasn't so much of a wuss that he had a health bar I'm sure these roast dinners would restore all your hit points, but as it stands they give you some bonus points.
One thing that Toki sometimes does with its gameplay that I like is the idea of leaving enemies alive so that they may serve your purposes. For example, here you can see a tempting extra life floating too high to reach with a normal jump, so you have to find a way to get underneath it without killing the moth and then use that moth as a platform to bounce your way up to the prize. It's not an incredibly prevalent gameplay quirk, but it does pop up from time to time and provides a nice twist on the rest of the kill-everything-on-sight gameplay and can be pretty fun. The exception is if it leads to one of the "rabbit in a jar" power-ups that give Toki a pair of shoes, because they make him jump way higher than usual and frankly they're a goddamn liability, sending you careening to your death as you struggle to get used to the extra distance on your leaps.
Hey, it's the hand that kidnapped Toki's girlfriend and he's brought so friends to the party! His body and limbs were not invited to the party. Appendages only, plus the heart - a wonderfully designed heart, straddling a disturbing line between cartoon shape and veiny reality. If you cut out Big Bird's heart, that's what it'd look like.
One look at the screenshot tells you how the fight goes - avoid the hands and feet while shooting the heart when it's exposed - but it all comes together nicely, being challenging without getting too frustrating thanks to Toki's reliable controls. There are some occasional hitbox issues, and the game is very ungenerous when making jumping attacks because you have to land right on top of an enemy, you can't come at it from the front at all - but on the whole it's a very solidly-built game.
Upon starting the sixth and final stage, I dithered for a moment and was immediately slain by a monkey knight. Whatever happened to "ape shall not kill ape," huh? Vookimedlo - a name that's a lot more fun to say out loud than it is to keep typing out - has made his final stand in a steampunk city of metallic tubing and impractical jets of fire. That's fine, though: I can deal with the usual onslaught of enemies lurking in places that make it tricky to winkle them out.
What I couldn't deal with was the sudden introduction of these high-speed mine cart sections, where the developers decided that the player wasn't dying quite fast enough and so they sat the player on a rocket-powered sledge and launch them face-first towards spiked balls and yawning chasms. Once you've tried them a few times and gotten used to the carts' momentum propelling Toki through the air whenever he jumps from one to another it becomes somewhat more manageable... until you reach the very end of the rails and hit The Golden Pipe of Fatal Bullshit.
Let me set the scene for you. Toki is travelling at high speed towards the end of the rail, where he must jump off or die. Jump too late and he'll fall to his death: jump to early and he'll slam face first into that metal column, fall down and then die. This jump has to be made under completely different jumping physics than the rest of the game, by the way, and if you accidentally collected the high-jump shoes then it's going to be that much harder. Even if you do make it through that tiny gap, a monkey soldier is already shooting energy bolts at you. Jump up to dodge those and you're almost certain to hit either the second monkey or the bird. At this point, Toki's difficulty curve has reared up like a scorpion's tail and is repeatedly stinging you in the face, and it's a section of such (out of character for this game) joystick-snapping frustration that had I known about it in advance I might never have decided to play Toki in the first place. Can it get any worse? You bet your furry monkey balls it can. When you lose a life, you don't spawn where you died but rather back at a checkpoint earlier in the stage so you can't brute-force your way through. Then, just to cap it all off, when you run out of lives you're greeted with this screen.
That's right, whereas for the rest of the game you can continue as many times as you like, on the final stage you're limited to a mere five continues. If you run out of continues the games tells you that Miho will forever remain Vookimedlo's captive. If you see that screen after dying at The Golden Pipe of Fatal Bullshit over and over again - and there's a good chance you will - then please try to remember that videogame controllers and computer monitors are expensive and you should not try to shove one through the other, not matter how much better it will temporarily make you feel.
I got through it in the end, though. I'm still not sure how, I think I entered a zen trance for a moment, but whatever happened I finally reached Vookimedlo. Sadly the final battle isn't particularly interesting, because it's essentially the same as the previous boss but with a longer health bar and the added distraction of two buff lizard-dudes staring at you from the background the whole time. It's a tough battle, particularly when Vookimeldo's trying to poke you with his hand, and the fact that you have to fight back from the last checkpoint to try again when you mess up doesn't make it any more fun, but it wasn't nearly as brutal I thought it was going to be given the area leading up to it. Dodge some attacks, gob on an exposed internal organ, it's all in a day's work for Toki and soon he's defeated Vookimedlo, saved Miho and, most importantly, evolved back into a paragon of studly manliness.
Just look at all those hearts - there can be no doubt that Toki has fully regained his manhood. YOUR QUEST IS OVER, it says, but then it tries to trick you into shoving more money into the machine by asking whether I can repeat my glory. Nice try, TAD Corporation, but I've had enough ape juices for one day. I'm going to sit back and enjoy the credits instead.
I actually did enjoy the credits, because you get a roll-call of all the enemies and bosses and I love it when games do that. I didn't get a chance to mention Galartor earlier but yes, he is the flying, severed head of a cross between a monkey and a bat.
You also get this rather wonderful shot of the development staff dressed as characters from the game. I'm assuming Kitahara was the director, because I think he's been given the honour of dressing as that awesome penguin.
So that's Toki, also known in Japan as JuJu Densetsu, a name that just makes me think of Alice Cooper. A good game? Sure. A great game? No, not really. It's too derivative and too unambitious to be great, but for uncomplicated arcade fun with some moments of endearing weirdness thrown in it's a good way to spend an hour or so. If nothing else, you can use the burp-launching boss to supplant whatever other nightmares you've been having recently.