I'll be honest, I'm writing about this game because I saw what it was based on and thought to myself "how is that possibly going to translate well to a videogame?" Yes, my intellectual curiosity was piqued by a decades-old computer game based on a kid's TV show, as though the rest of this site wasn't already a towering monument to my deep sadness. Anyway, here it is - Peakstar Software's 1992 Amiga game Thomas the Tank Engine.
As Thomas the Tank Engine is up there with Mickey Mouse and Spongebob in the pantheon of children's icons, I'm sure you're all familiar with the basic premise of the show (and the books it was based on). The Island of Sodor is home to a variety of sentient vehicles (mostly locomotives) with human faces who are ordered around by a fat man in a top hat. They have adventures, I suppose? I know I was an extremely avid Thomas the Tank Engine fan when I was a very small boy but I'm struggling to recall what happened in any episode besides the usual cartoon mischief. The only one that comes to mind is that an unscheduled water refill from a river once ended with Thomas having live fish in his water tank. I believe the situation was resolved when his drivers caught the fish - with actual fishing rods, no less - and then ate them. It's established that having fish in his guts caused Thomas physical pain, so god knows how weird it must have felt having people angling inside his internal organs. I know, overthinking children's media, that's something that's never been done on the internet before, but it's hard not to when Thomas is a living creature condemned to a life of slavery. Even as a kid I knew that was a bit weird.
He looks happy enough on the stage select screen, his disembodied face fair beaming with pleasure at the prospect of fulfilling the wishes of the Fat Controller by delivering a tractor to a farm.
He doesn't look so keen about taking crude oil to the refinery, though. Thomas' facial expressions are supposed to indicate the difficulty of each stage, but because this game is obviously aimed at very young children Thomas might as well have the same blank look on his mug for each one. There's no point pulling a face about it, Thomas, you're going have to make the trip to the refinery eventually, because the Fat Controller has decreed it and his rule is absolute. He famously once bricked an engine up in a tunnel just because it wouldn't go out in the rain. I put the Fat Controller's malice down to the fact that his parents were mean enough to name him Sir Topham Hatt. Cruelty begets cruelty.
So, I went into this one wondering how you could make a compelling videogame based around a character whose movement is limited to a single direction along a predetermined track, and the answer - or at least the answer supplied by this game - is that you can't. The basic aim of the game is to get Thomas from the left of the screen to the station at the right-hand side of the map, which you accomplish through thrilling left-right manipulations of the joystick. You can also reverse, and switch between tracks by moving the stick diagonally at the junctions. Changing tracks works well and with a good degree of accuracy, which is excellent news because it makes up about eighty percent of the gameplay. I know it sounds a minor thing to be pleased about, but having Thomas' ability to switch tracks be a horrible, awkward mess is exactly the kind of basic, game-shattering error I'd expect to find in a relatively low-rent Amiga game such as this.
Aside from making your way along the track, the most important thing to remember is that you have to pick up your carriage by reversing into it before taking it to your destination. Sometimes it's a passenger carriage, but not during the stage where Thomas is taking children to the seaside. The kids are dumped into the same windowless wooden wagon that you can see pictured above. That's going to make it hard for the little ones to fill in their I-Spy books.
Once you've hitched up your wagon, all you need to do it make your way along the tracks, collecting coal and buckets of water for points while trying to avoid rolling into dead ends, like I have done in the picture above. If you choose to play Thomas the Tank Engine you'll do it a lot too, because you don't get to see much of the track ahead of you. It's a good job Thomas can move in reverse as fast as he can go forward, otherwise constantly finding yourself in impassable sidings might get a touch wearisome. I'll give the developers credit there, Thomas can move a fair old clip when you're holding the fire button down to put him into high-speed mode, although moving faster than the more sedate default pace can be fraught with danger, as we shall see soon enough.
Bang, job done, Thomas has delivered the tractor to the farm. A farm that has its own train station, apparently. That must be convenient for them.
Thomas is so grateful for your help that he shows his appreciation in the only way he can: exaggerated cartoon gurning.
Look, Thomas, I'm willing to help you do your job, but you have to promise to never wink at me like that again, okay? You're creeping me out.
Now, I'm sure the gameplay of Thomas the Tank Engine sounds kinda dull to you, which is probably a side-effect of it being kinda dull. However, I have yet to reveal to you the true challenge of this game: navigating a rail network of such ramshackle construction and mind-bendingly poor design that I could almost mistake it for something I whipped up in Transport Tycoon. Whole sections of track lead nowhere, fallen trees lie across the rails and, showing complete disregard for the lives and safety of both the sentient living trains and their human engineers, the Fat Controller's plan for an efficient rail service is to have as many locomotives sharing the same stretch of track as possible. Other trains from the Thomas series speed around the tracks that you're trying to navigate, moving along seemingly random paths and causing an endless series of collisions and derailments.
None of the other engines give a damn about this constant locomotive carnage, either: it's always Thomas that crashes, Thomas that erupts in a billowing cloud of steam, Thomas who gets sent back a few screens with no appreciable damage. Yeah, crashing isn't exactly a game over scenario here, and in fact I think you can bust Thomas up as many times as you like without comeuppance. Still, it's be nice if the other engines weren't such dicks about it. Here, James the red engine has smashed his rear-end into Thomas' face and does he feel a scintilla of remorse? Just look at his smug face, he's clearly loving every second of Thomas' agony.
You're not helping either, Percy.
I spent more time than was probably advisable tying to unravel the mysteries of the other trains' AI. They zip around the tracks with no readily apparent goal other than to get in your way. They never seem to travel directly towards Thomas if they can possibly avoid it, but as the GIF above shows they're not willing to stop if you blunder into their path, either. Thomas is at the very bottom of Sodor's pecking order, and "move it or lose it" is a motto he's forced to live by. In the end, I came to the conclusion that by never using the speed-up button you could probably play through the entire game without a single crash, thanks to a combination of the other trains' reluctance to move onto the same track as you and the fact you've got more time to see where you're going. There's no rush in the world of Thomas the Tank Engine, and unlike any real railway the Island of Sodor's trains operate on a "whenever the hell you feel like it" basis. There is a time limit but it's "between sunrise and sunset." Better get this cargo delivered and be back in your shed before the sun goes down, Thomas. That's when the vampire trains come out.
I had to purposely wait around for a good ten minutes (the stages take two minutes at most to clear) before I could get a game over screen to appear. The Fat Controller is not pleased, and it's hard to read that first sentence as anything other than a threat. Off to the scrapyard for me, then.
The Fat Controller disappointment in Thomas' performance might be more understandable if the old sod hadn't let his railway fall into such a terrifyingly dangerous state of disrepair. There's a broken section of track here, for pity's sake. I'd say that not having missing pieces of track is Rule Number One of running a successful railway, but then again the Fat Controller doesn't seem to believe in timetables either, or not having different trains travelling towards each other on the same stretch of track. This is what happens when people are put in charge of public services purely because they're members of the aristocracy. Thomas needs better union representation.
On a couple of occasions I collected a bell, which transported Thomas to a bonus game. It's a straight race against three other vehicles: a locomotive I couldn't identify, Bertie the Bus and Harold the Helicopter. You might think Harold has an unfair advantage, what with him being able to fly and all, but his powers of flight are no match for my ability to rapidly tap the fire button of an Amiga joystick. Yes, of course it's a button mashing event, how else did you think it was going to work?
That red train is an embarrassment to living steam engines everywhere. A train, being beaten by a bus? Disgraceful. As a regular user of British buses, I'm amazed Bertie even managed to turn up on time for the start of the race.
I know that the congratulatory message says "You Win Thomas," but for finishing first I didn't win Thomas, I just got some points.
Bite me, Topham. I've literally got all day, and I'm not going to risk increasing my speed until you do something about the appalling state of the tracks that I'm risking my life, such as it is, just by negotiating.
Well, would you look at that. I think some work is actually being done to repair the tracks. That giant spanner isn't some esoteric railway worker's tool for fixing busted train lines, it's just something Thomas can collect for points. Of course, if he really wanted that spanner he'd have to go up and around this section and then reverse into it, because touching the broken track counts as a crash. I don't think Thomas is willing to do that. Not now that a vision of the Holy Grail has appeared to him, floating above a nearby siding.
As the stages progress the track layouts get more complicated, but the game doesn't become any more challenging - it just takes longer, as you head down a dead-end route only to have to back out of it and pick another one. I suppose there's little else to the life of a train.
As always with these games aimed squarely at the under-five crowd, I have to wonder whether it would be any fun for the target audience, and I think this one would, maybe. It's certainly more engaging than something like The Tweenies, because at least you have to pay attention to this one, but thanks to its limited gameplay even young 'uns are going to get bored of it fairly quickly. It does have a jolly enough version of the show's theme tune, and I'll confess that I quite like the graphics - they're nicely detailed and rather charming in their appropriately "model railway" aesthetic, although they could have done with a little more variety. It's slight and occasionally tedious, but if you've got a kid who's obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine - and let's be honest, they all are at some point - you could do worse than sitting them down in front of this.
After some pointless chugging and plenty of crashes brought about by my unnecessary use of the speed-up button, Thomas the Tank Engine is complete and I'm rewarded with this image. Thomas looks pleased, but all the other trains look like grizzled old lags who have just seen a naive new kid step into the prison yard. And with that cheery thought, I'll take my leave of this game.
Oh no, hang on, there's one more thing: instead of the main game, you can play a card-flipping memory-match game. You know how it works, turn over the cards and try to find the matching ones. All I got from it is that Diesel looks like Johnny Vegas.