Hey kids, remember Final Fantasy VII? Probably not. It’s kind of a deep cut, I know, but I feel that it is my duty to educate you all about the lesser-known titles of yesteryear. At the time, people were expecting big things from it, to the point that an included demo disc was presumably enough to sell a completely unrelated game.
It… didn’t really work, though if anyone were to mention Tobal No. 1 these days, most would only be able to recall it as that game that came with the FFVII demo. It’s is a real shame, because I like Tobal much more, honestly. Its sequel, which never had an official release outside of Japan, is actually one of my favorite games of all time, so it’s kind of bittersweet to revisit the inferior but still undeniably charming predecessor.
As a fighting game, Tobal No. 1 isn’t really anything to write home about. (I don’t know why you’d be writing home about a video game anyway. Even a phone call would be kind of awkward, but I digress.) There are some interesting ideas involving the grapple system, but it’s pretty much a slower Virtua Fighter, featuring fighting game character tropes we’ve seen a million times at this point, like Chicken Bodybuilder, Giant Motherly Wrestler, and everyone’s favorite, Robot With Kneepads. It’s apparent pretty early on that the designer was Akira Torayama, the guy behind Dragon Ball. Granted, there aren’t a lot of characters named after food and/or undergarments, but that may just be a translation error.
Where the game really stands out is its Quest Mode. Similar to the way that Tekken eventually tried to branch out into other genres for console ports, Tobal features a full-on dungeon crawler, with randomized items, mazes, and permadeath. Considering that all of this is done with the same controls as the fighting game, it works about as well as you’d expect. There really is nothing like 3rd person platforming to get a potion that may actually kill you before getting in a fist fight with a giant rat. Part of the reason I spent so much time with the sequel is because of how much better the execution of Quest Mode is there, with actual shops and towns to visit.
It’s an incredibly strange novelty that still has some appeal after all these years. After all, the thing that initially drew me to Tobal was just how incredibly weird and half-formed everything felt. The characters are textureless, mostly fighting in subdued environments that may or may not be on other planets, but always seem to have a nice 10 x 10 grid to throw people off of. When people talk about “living worlds” in fiction, I can’t help but think about abandoned universes like the one in which Tobal takes place. What would that world look like now? How would the characters grow or change, if at all? What sort of interaction would Leotard Demon have with Teenager With Grey Hair? Is Kneepad Robot destined to wander these dungeons forever?
These are the things I think about at night.