At the same time as playing Taco Tom 2, I have been reading the Bob Mortimer autobiography, and I get the sneaking suspicion that Bob would like Taco Tom 2. There’s a kinship in the gleeful childishness; a surreal madness. Experiencing them both at the same time is enough to splutter my brain out of my ears, like the last frothy coughs of a coffee machine.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Taco Tom 2 is, and our best answer is that ‘it’s a lot of things’. It is, in something like a priority order, a puzzle game, a speed-runner’s paradise, a laid-back and meditative game, and – lastly – a freewheeling visual novel written by the cast of The Mighty Boosh. Or that’s how it feels, anyway.
We’ll go through them in order. Taco Tom 2 is, mostly, a puzzle game. It’s a puzzle game in the same way that Tetris, Yoshi’s Cookie and Klax are puzzle games, blending twitchy-controls, falling elements and a spatial awareness at speed.
You play Taco Tom, and you sit at the bottom of the game screen as you are – we imagine – hurtling at speed along a kind of highway. Taco ingredients tumble down from the top of the game screen, including lettuce, onions, cheese and what we think are peppers and meat. Your aim is to fill up Tom’s taco shell so that he has one of every ingredient – no more, no less – before a checkpoint threshold passes. If you don’t have one or more tacos filled by that time, you have to loop back and complete the section of the level again.
On the first levels, this is a simple ask. Ingredients drop in order, so you don’t have to mentally log what you have, or do not have, in your shell. Tacos fill with ease, and you can rattle through the levels. But as the mid- and end-game hits, it all gets rather complicated. Ingredients drop in random orders; sometimes they are clustered together so that pilfering only one becomes the ultimate challenge; and blocks threaten to reset all of the ingredients in your shell completely.
Understanding the ‘puzzle’ of the level is Taco Tom’s greatest achievement. There isn’t a randomness to the placement of your groceries: each level segment has a best-practice, a successful way of approaching it. Perhaps it’s best to ignore certain ingredients, or to position yourself so you can use the game’s dash system – a quick tap of LB or RB – to dance from one ingredient to the other. Taco Tom 2’s levels are deceptively clever.
Which leads us to the second thing that Taco Tom 2 is: a speed-runner’s paradise. Taco Tom 2 gives you full control over the speed of proceedings. With a touch of LT and RT, you can slow things to a crawl, or speed things up to become a slalom. At times it can feel like Guitar Hero, as you jam up the difficulty to pull off some Dragonforce-like moves. You’re rewarded for it, too: speed and accuracy are measured with end-of-level stars, and those stars mean achievements.
There’s a speed-run mode too, alongside an endurance mode, both of which give you the game’s campaign (arcade mode) but with the ultimatum of completing them quickly or without losing lives. Taco Tom 2 comes absolutely stuffed with game modes, and they each foster a different way of playing. Our favourite was ‘wacky’ mode, which applied some crazy Photoshop-like filters on every level. Trying to complete a level while you are zoomed out to the size of a pinprick is not the easiest.
But it’s not just for the speedsters. With complete control over the speed comes the option to play it at a snail’s pace. This makes Taco Tom 2 a meditative experience, and the campaign can optionally become something of a ‘story mode’. It’s very difficult to lose once the speed is dialled down this far, so you can just kick back and enjoy the story.
Which brings us to the last of all of Taco Tom’s ‘things’. At the end of each chapter, and mid-level in fact, a story plays out that would make Spike Milligan raise an eyebrow. It’s a kind of soap opera played out between Taco Tom, his girlfriend Sally, a psychotic penguin called Sidenote, a squid called Sapphire and – our favourite – a robot called Sputnik who is longing to transition into a potato so that he can be called Spudnik. A character called Gordon, who we presume is just a photo cut-out of a developer of the game, pops up in multiple roles.
It’s a complete oddball, and we’re still not sure if we would say we liked it. Characters make ridiculous life-choices that would have been edited out of a Mexican telenovela, as we travelled inside characters’ bodies, took a trip into a character’s dubious dungeon, and popped out babies in the space of seconds. It can feel a bit wilfully absurd, strange for the sake of it, but other times it can hit a note, leading us to do a full-on guffaw. A couple of double-entendres and a badly named child pushed us over that line.
Meanwhile, some stock photos refresh themselves in the background of the game. There’s often no reason behind them. Some loosely reflect the theme of the level, like nightclubs and laboratories, while others are included, presumably, because they made the developer chuckle. We suspect they are there to throw us, the players, off. When you’re strolling through a level, only to find a hard-boiled egg with a screaming man’s face on, you’d be forgiven for doing a double-take.
We’ve spent so much time explaining what Taco Tom 2 is, mainly because we’re dodging the point where we have to give an opinion. We think we liked Taco Tom 2. It’s not a game that demands effusive praise: you have to vibe with its bizarro sense of humour; you have to accept its simplistic art style that’s only a few steps on from clipart; and you have to find your own difficulty setting, choosing to speed through the levels or manage it at a crawl.
For £4.49, we liked it. There were moments when mentally logging the ingredients in the shell became more cognitively demanding than we cared for. And the spiky difficulty meant that we were reaching for the speed-setting more than we would have liked. But there’s such a momentum to Taco Tom 2, lubricated by its weirdo storytelling, that meant we were sliding to the end of the game while enjoying (almost) every moment.
We doubt we will return to the frantic puzzling of Taco Tom 2. But its story and clever approach to levels will stick with us for a long old time. Considering tacos have a habit of passing through people in a few hours, that’s something of an improvement.
You can buy Taco Tom 2 from the Xbox Store