Author: John Legendoffzelda
When Toy Story debuted in 1995, it set an important precedent. It exclusively used computer-generated imagery to tell a remarkable and inventive story. The movie expanded the possibilities of how animation could be presented – and even how movies could be made. But with Donkey Kong Country having already introduced the possibilities of CGI in video games the year before, what chance was there of the movie having such an impact in a different medium? Not much, really. The best that a Toy Story video game could ask for at this point is that it be a good licensed title, an enjoyable companion piece to the source material. As made by Disney Interactive and Traveler’s Tales, the game is concise and varied, and ultimately it’s okay.
The original story is treated as a framing device for the action. The old-fashioned cowboy doll Woody starts a rivalry with the new sci-fi action figure Buzz Lightyear over the affection of their owner Andy. When they accidentally get separated from their owner, they brave serious danger to set things back to normal.
The story itself is bluntly reiterated through blank screens of text decorated with some screenshots of the movie like a hastily made children’s storybook. This reflects a little badly on the otherwise fine presentation value. Some additional liberties are taken to give the game more content. These include a foot race Woody and Buzz have to determine who the superior toy is and a sequence where Woody escapes the wrath of his fellow toys by riding Rex (to the developers’ credit, though, there’s a boss fight where Woody dreams of being attacked by a ghostly Buzz that halfway resembles a deleted scene from the original film).
Woody is the main playable character, and his main implement is the pull-string on his back. The string stuns enemies, knocks down small obstacles, and lets him swing across hooks. Because the sprites have clean hit boxes and the player can throw the string rapidly, throwing the string is easy to do. The same goes for swinging since the motion is quick and Woody can automatically grab onto the next hook. His jump, however, is a little too short and the horizontal arc can go too far. When that happens, the player can miss a platform they have to land on, and he’ll have to backtrack to find another platform to use as support.
In addition to the main platforming, several other gameplay challenges are present. There are two driving sections with RC the toy car: one where he winds through a maze to knock Buzz around and another where he catches up with the moving truck at the end. There’s also a Wolfenstein 3D-style section where Woody retrieves the Little Green Men inside the confines of the Claw Machine. Some auto-scrolling levels are used to stage certain events, including the aforementioned escape with Rex and Woody’s escape from Sid’s house. And there’s a stealth level in Pizza Planet where Woody and Buzz disguise themselves as food containers to keep the kids from discovering that toys can move and talk.
While these additions do contribute to the variety of gameplay styles, they don’t feel too well integrated into the game as a whole. Some of them aren’t very fun to play, for one thing. The RC levels have slippery controls, and taking too sharp of a turn will make him spin out of control. This is bothersome since he needs to keep running into batteries to maintain power. Due to the floaty jump physics, avoiding obstacles becomes kind of annoying. Try avoiding enemies in the fast auto-scrolling levels, especially when the obstacles appear from behind. You’ll see what I mean.
Furthermore, the incongruousness of these levels feels less like a promotion of variety than an attempt to divert from the main platforming which the game seems to think is a weakness. It’s the opposite that’s true, honestly. The platforming may feel slight, and those levels may not last very long due to their pace, but on their own it’s the best part of the game. That’s not to criticize this game for having more than one style. The final race to the moving truck alone is too good of a content opportunity to exclude. Yet, these styles just seem too underdeveloped for them to compare against the main content and not feel like superfluous diversions.
So, taking some design flaws into consideration, the game is okay. It looks a lot like Toy Story, at least. Taking its cues from Donkey Kong Country and using pre-rendered CGI sprites, the character models for the toys are stunning (while the toys look great, the humans in the stealth level look like pieces of construction paper). The artwork for each level uses bright and bold colors which capture the film’s hyper-stylized universe of magically talking toys well. They never become too garish to look at. Andy’s room, in a nice touch, changes to magic-hour lighting after the part where Buzz is knocked out of the window. Even the first-person level, with its samey machine walls, moves smoothly and feels immersive.
Despite not featuring much of Randy Newman’s original score, the music is fun to listen to as well. It would seem ragtime and vibraphone-centered lounge music are pretty appropriate within the action.
Toy Story the movie will be played with and remembered for a long time. Toy Story the video game will likely remain on a pop-cultural shelf, taken down primarily by curious fans of the original. It’s a small, spruce game, enhanced by very faithful visuals and held back by under-realized gameplay switches and its own smallness. Enthusiasts should have fun with it, though, the way anyone would have fun with a reasonably good plaything.
Three out of five stars.
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