The Joys of Toys
The more modern games get, the less likely they are to be lost and gone forever. Or, so one would think. Strange things happen in the video game industry, and companies come and go all the time. Nowhere was this sentiment more prevalent in my mind than during the Dreamcast era. Not quite old enough to be “golden age” retro, but not quite new enough to be considered current, Sega's little white box that couldn't brought us some truly fantastic games, some of which can still only be played on the console they were designed for. One of those was a humble little game about toys, destruction, and the limitless joy of a child's imagination.
Toys and Dreams
The sole US release from developer No Cliche, Toy Commander is a brilliant little game. It boils down to a vehicular combat game with tanks, helicopters, planes, trucks, and more. They all have their own unique control schemes, and work very well once you get the hang of them. It's got a slew of missions, great multiplayer, and pretty decent graphics for the time. On paper, this type of game seems like it would be a dime a dozen, but in practice, the development team succeeded in making one of the most charming games the Dreamcast had to offer.
The premise of the game revolved around under-appreciated toys rising up to take over the house. If that invokes thoughts of Pixar’s Toy Story, that’s because in that respect it’s remarkably derivative. (The protagonist's name is even Andy). The similarities end there though. There’s no plucky cowboy hero or space-faring astronaut. Heck, there aren’t even really “characters” outside of the bosses and the kid who these toys belong to. In that respect, and very much to its credit, the game leaves a lot up to the player's imagination. Are the toys actually revolting, or is it all a game in Andy's head? There really is no definitive answer, and that's half the fun.
Everything is made of the kind of stuff a kid might find laying around the house. The weapons range from pencils, to cap gun ammunition, to thumb tacks. Boxes, toy blocks, and laundry hampers line up to create the makeshift environments. The entire game’s structure is built around the different stages taking place in various rooms around Andy’s admittedly gigantic house. Fire at the knobs to turn the stovetop on, drive up makeshift ramps to attack an enemy camp on the coffee table, that kind of stuff. This could have easily resulted in a crummy game that banked entirely on its novelty factor without building an actual fun game underneath, but thankfully that’s not the case. It’s all very charming, clever, and well, awesome.
Another thing that sets this game apart is the rules of the environments. While it's all more or less based in reality, things like gravity can be altered to coincide with how a kid might play with a toy. For example, if you choose a truck as your vehicle, it will behave like a truck. If you fall off a ledge, you'll fall until you hit the floor. If you drive into a wall, you'll crash to a halt. Unless, of course, there's a ramp. Much like a kid driving his toy car up a wall, if you come across one of these ramps, your vehicle's gravitational pull will change to accommodate you driving up a wall. If you fall, gravity rights itself again, just like if said kid dropped the toy. It's another one of those things that can be difficult to wrap your head around, but once you figure out the physics, it clicks, and it adds to the overall imaginative nature of the game.
The Sounds of the Time
And then there’s the music. Oh boy, this game’s music. Toy Commander’s soundtrack is absolutely, completely, unapologetically awesome. Composed by a man named Philippe Vachey, it's some of the most enjoyable, fun, and fitting video game music of the era. It sets the tone in a way that perfectly encapsulates where gaming was in 1999. It's cool. It's energetic. It's the perfect music for the game it's in. The only gripe I have about the soundtrack is the random nature of it. Songs aren’t assigned to individual stages really. The soundtrack sort of just plays through like a playlist. So on longer missions it’s pretty nice to not have to listen to the same music over and over, but on the other hand, it would have been nice to have a more traditional sort of soundtrack adherence.
As of this writing, Toy Commander has never been rereleased on any other platforms. No Cliche started work on a PC port way back when, but the company disbanded and hasn't been heard from since. There was a sort of expansion pack for the game released in Europe called Toy Racer, and various demo discs in official Dreamcast magazines added some cool bonus levels to the game, including some Christmas themed stuff, but that's as far as it went. It stands to reason that Sega still owns the rights to this game, but it seems likely that if it hasn't turned up after all these years, it just might remain a Dreamcast exclusive forever.
Tanks for the Memories
When I think of the Dreamcast, this is almost always one of the first games that comes to mind. Leading up to its release, I remember people being pretty turned off by it because it wasn’t quite as visually appealing as some of the more flashy stuff coming to the platform. It was also a little too complex for small children, but too kiddy-looking for the edgy gamers of the early 2000’s. I was even pretty unenthused by it, but thanks to the Dreamcast being such a cool system, I made a habit of trying every game I could get my hands on, and Toy Commander turned out to be quite a surprise. Countless hours were spent doing deathmatches with my friends at the time. Most people look back at GoldenEye or Perfect Dark for that stuff, but for me, it was all Toy Commander.
If you're lucky enough to have a functioning Dreamcast, (or something that plays Dreamcast games) this game needs to be a part of your library. It's not too hard to track down, and since it barely even has its own cult following, it's not very expensive once you do. That said, once you get your hands on it, it's not hard to see why the people who like it are as passionate as they are. Especially if you get some friends together and play some 4 player matches. It's a real shame that No Cliche didn't stick around, because they were onto something special here. Either way, they made one heck of a game.