Just when I figured I'd done enough blabbering about how weird all of these Commodore 64 games seemed to my past self, up popped a title that I remember best for how it proudly advertised its surreality up front. The name on the label read "Toy Bizarre," which initially struck me as a randomly chosen word-pairing; I had no guesses as to what type of game could result from such an uncorrelated marriage of words, nor was I sure that the two even had any business standing next to one another. It was a curious pitch, at least, and I felt compelled to pop the disk into the disk drive if only to find out what it was.
The strangely melancholic stage-opening theme, my favorite element of the game, spoke to me that these events were happening late at night--that the protagonist was toiling away at his thankless job during the star-filled a.m. hours when everyone else was at home in their beds; he was the lone occupant of a factory placed in the middle of nowhere, his only company the toys that were being produced in endless numbers. He was sadly insulated from the chorus of cricket chirps that no doubt pervaded every inch of the shrouded building's exterior, the inner atmosphere defined only by the harsh sounds of balloons popping and steam hissing. The only problem was that these toys were sentient and always breaking free from their containment, unintentionally causing the worker further aggravation; among their collection, though, was the self-aware wind-up toy, a human-sized scourge that had every intention of mischievously meddling in the worker's affairs.
This was the scene I put together in my head as I played through Toy Bizarre as a child, and it turned out to be pretty close to the game's actual story, which I've been able to read 30 years later thanks to the Internet; the scans reveal that he's indeed a factory worker who's in over his head, forced to make a living at the behest of sadists who have no plans of ever explaining to him what's going on. It's actually a rather vague description, but that's fine by me, since it doesn't aim to destroy my lovingly crafted, long-enduring interpretation. I can't say the same for a lot of those other 2600 and C64 games (like Megamania and Karateka), whose manuals only shattered my mental renderings. It still hurts, I tell you.
The game, itself, is immediately accessible, which is usually the case with Mario Bros.-inspired platformers. The goal for each stage is to clear the room of those irrepressible toys, which you can do by (a) quickly acting to pop the balloons from which they'll soon spawn or by (b) jumping onto a protruding pressure switch when a toy is resting on a corresponding compressed switch, which will send it flying offscreen. You can make your job easier by switching off four of the six valves that control those balloon-producing contraptions, concentrating their activity down to a more manageable two; naturally, the game won't let you off that easy and throws a wrench into your plans in the form of that persistent human-sized wind-up toy, who can switch the valves back on in addition to killing you (he behaves much like Wrecking Crew's Spike, only more dangerous). You can send him flying off the screen in the way previously described, but he'll return to action shortly thereafter; your only real chance to get him off your back is to grab the randomly appearing "Coffee Break" icons, which temporarily halt all enemy movement and afford you the opportunity to get things under control.
Like in Mario Bros. and Wrecking Crew, the action is broken up with between-round bonus stages--"Safety Checks," as they're called here. To earn your bonus points, you'll have to switch off all of the room's valves while avoiding the meddlesome toys, which grow in number in later bonus stages; also, some of those later bonus stages have invisible platforms, which can also prove to be disastrous (I couldn't stand when 2600 games did this, and I wasn't a fan of it here). I always found it odd that the same tune would play whether you succeeded or failed; there was only this indescribably sad ditty that I came to interpret as a reflection of the worker's sense of hopeless, his fear that he might never escape this daily grind.
That was my biggest takeaway from Toy Bizarre, a brightly colored, happy-sounding game whose aesthetics were otherwise coated with sadness. Its silent atmosphere only inspired images of a remote, desolate setting, and its inexplicably wistful ditties always put me in a solemn mood. In that sense, it's a game that occupies a unique space in my memory; it wasn't one that I played very often-- since its controls were stiff and unforgiving, and it quickly grew too overwhelmingly difficult--but it resonated strongly with me based mainly on its aesthetic qualities. Sometimes I'd load it up just to listen to the tunes, which were great accompaniment if ever I was in a contemplative state.
More evidence of my obliviousness was that I never even noticed the company logo on the title screen; it belonged to Activision, whose name has a habit of showing up whenever I'm doing research on my old favorites. More specifically, Toy Bizarre was created by Mark Turmell, the man behind Fast Eddie (a 2600 favorite that has clear connections to Toy Bizarre) and legendary arcade titles like Smash TV and NBA Jam! If only I'd paid attention.
Though, as I reflect back on the industry as I once perceived it, I miss the days when I was left to my own devices to figure out where all of these games were coming from and what they were trying to tell me. That's what made the world of games seem so much more vast and wondrous. It's what made games like Toy Bizarre so much more memorable. Knowing would have been half the battle, yes, but I think I did well to fill the void with a healthy dose of imagination.
Hold on--let me load up Toy Bizarre.