Tony Tough and the Night of Roasted Moths is a 1999 2D adventure game, one of the few non-racing games developed in Italy that managed to find an audience even outside of its original homemarket. A point’n’click wearing its influences on its sleeves: Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island and the classic Lucasarts titles.
Set in a theme park on Halloween, nerdy private investigator Tony Tough and his dog Pantagruel will have to fight an alien to rescue the children’ stolen candies. Roasted Moths is a dialogue-heavy adventure, with a lot of witty SNL-like banter between Tony and the array of quirky characters he meets, along with typical absurdist logic in the puzzles. A well know bit of trivia about the game is that voiceover work ended up costing more than development itself, because of the crazy amount of dialogue Prograph created for the game.
I’ve been in contact with Valerio Massari, one of the two creators behind the Tony Tough character and co-creator and desiger of Roasted Moths. He exclusively uncovered its fascinating development history and everything that went down behind the curtains: hope, missed chances, friendship, betrayal. The story of Tony Tough may officially begin with its release in 1999 but, for the people involved, it began many years before.
Valerio Massari and Stefano Gualeni, the series’ creators, met as kids on the Iseo Lake, in northern Italy and spent many of their childhood years together. Their mutual love of videogames brought them to meet Skywards Software, a bunch of like minded young teenagers “working” as Amiga game developers in the southern part of the country, many kilometers away. One can imagine the difficulties of telecommuting as a teenager in the mid-90s: among them, the high costs of long distance calls and your mom screaming to hang up the phone and disconnect your 56k modem!
Stefano, who was the first to be involved with Skywards, asked Valerio if he was interested in bringing his love for comics and videogames to the team’s projects. Valerio’s first involvement was drawing some storyboards for Mikro Mortal Tennis (1996): a mash up of Sensible Soccer and Mortal Kombat fatalities in a tennis arcade game. A unique title that harkens back to simpler times, Skywards was really a bunch of friends having fun meshing up their favorite games.
Months later, another young team, also from Florence, got in contact with Skywards, bringing to the table their experience in developing PC games. Valerio tells me they were the “serious” programmers, thus both he and Stefano got involved in moving away from Amiga development – at the time on its last leg – and started to dip their feet in game design and project management.
In late 1996 the two teams, after being in contact for a while, finally decided to merge as one single entity: the Nayma studio was born. They started working on an array of different projects, the two major titles were a Puzzle Bobble clone and a 2D graphical adventure. Valerio jokingly recalls the death of the Puzzle Bobble clone “because the kid in charge found himself a girl!”, thus his decision to step in and actually start working on a computer, as opposed to just drawing.
But, it wasn’t for long.
At the start of the new year, both Stefano and Valerio decided to drop all other games and, instead, work full-time on the classic 2D adventure which, among other things, desperately needed a main protagonist. Valerio, as the comic book nerd he was, sketched up a character based on a combination of Droopy the dog and Caius Pupus (from Asterix): a private eye that was, at his core, a know-it-all nerd plagued by bad luck. For the character’s name, they directly referred to their highschool teacher, Antonio Forte, whose name, translated in English, would roughly approximate to Anthony Tough.
When I asked about the inspiration for the crazy amount of witty dialogues, Roasted Moths‘ main attraction, Valerio recalls that, along with Valerio, they just wrote what felt natural. The jokes were heavily inspired by everything he and Stefano talked and laughed about everyday, they stuck to what they knew, for Valerio also much inspiration came from comic books, since at the time he was studying as a cartoonist.
In the spring of 1998 the electronics trade show MediARTtech took place in Florence, the Nayma team hard at work to have something to show. The Tony Tough demo was hurriedly finished in a two weeks “crunch”, spent in a mountain chalet, a fun time Valerio recalls with a smile. Finally, at the fair, a bigwig from Virgin Interactive approached their booth, interested to see the game, everyone waiting for his reaction with baited breath. To everyone’s dismay, his reaction went something along the lines of “we would never release anything like this, 2d adventures are dead! It’s all 3d now! Who would want to play with such a nerdy character anyway?”.
This brought all work to a grinding halt: who in their right mind would produce and and sell a game dead on arrival?
The answer actually came from Prograph, a newfounded development studio in Belluno, northern Italy, managed by one of the older guys from the Nayma group. He signed up many of the kids from Nayma, along with Valerio and Stefano, thus work on the game began anew. Most of the team members were still teenagers who had little to no previous experience in the videogame industry, little more than a bunch of friends working together.
They decided that these two major “issues” would become their biggest strenghts: it was gonna be the best 2D adventure with a nerdy character the world had ever seen!
Tony Tough was released in Italy, finally, in 1999. Valerio recalls Roasted Moths’ final months of development with mixed feelings.
While he and Stefano hold the rights to the character, unfortunately they don’t hold any of the rights on the “Night of Roasted Moths” game. So, in a way, Prograph, while being the hero that saved it from development hell, also ended up being the first cause for the beginning of the end for the Tony Tough franchise. On the other hand, though, Valerio concludes that his vision was somehow enhanced by all the different people working on the game, the young team’ synergy helped shape the adventure, making the final product a very fun and memorable title.
By late 1999, the game was finally finished, released in stores via an agreement with Leader, one of the main publishing companies in Italy at the time. Tony sold pretty well in its home country, a success story for such a young team, but none of this translated to the young development team. Valerio stayed on board with Prograph for a couple more years, working on titles that he says are not even worth mentioning, then moved to Florence to work in IT and internet communications. Stefano followed a different path, getting a degree in architecture, his dissertation about reimagining traditional Aztec architecture.
The development team split apart very quickly and all Tony Tough’s potential as a franchise squandered, because of conflicting economical and personal interests.
Tony Tough will end up also being – years later – in Europe and the United States, going on to achieve pretty good sales, particularly in Germany where our dear detective was dubbed by the local Bart Simpson voice actor. It’s no surprise, then, that it was German publisher dTp that knocked on Prograph’s door with a serious offer: they would pay money to see a sequel to Roasted Moths.
Since we know that Valerio and Stefano held the rights on the character (not on the game), Prograph had no other choice but to call them up and ask if they would like to work on the sequel. Valerio recalls that this sounded like the chance they never had, he thought they could finally made the game themselves, without Prograph’s involvement and without external interferences. Still, talking about it now, he tells me that maybe the decision to go with Prograph was for the better: they had no great experience as programmers and had no 3D engine ready.
They signed ordinary employment contracts with Prograph and planned the sequel to act as a prequel to the events in Roasted Moths. Valerio tells me he worked closely with Stefano in drawing the first ideas and locations for a fully 3D adventure, with Tony being a young kid in a 50s small town vibe that would also make use of Gualeni’s architectural knowledge and expertise. Unfortunately, the two friends soon realised that Prograph wasn’t sticking to the agreement, thus Valerio quickly decided to stop working on the game altogether, until things changed.
Stefano, even though agreeing with his friend, kept on secretly working on the game all by himself. This, naturally, upset the balance of their relationship, since this was their character and game, thus this episode marked the end of their working partnership.
As 2004 rolls on, the end of development nowhere in sight because of economical issues, dTp decided to terminate the contract with Prograph once and for all. The publisher, instead, got directly in contact with Gualeni, asking him to assemble a team to finish the game as soon as possible. Stefano decided to involve some of the guys from Nayma (like Giovanni Bajo, who worked on the 3D engine) and also Valerio, who agreed to come back to provide minimal work on the movie sequences.
By that time, he tells me he had given up on Tony Tough 2 being even vaguely faithful to his original vision: except for the pre-production work (layout and character design), he had little creative input. A Rake’s Progress – he tells me with a sigh – is Stefano’s creation for 80% of it.
I got in touch with Stefano Gualeni on Twitter, asking him about Tony 2 and he ended up being pretty evasive, giving the impression he still prefers not to talk about the experience. One thing he told me: he also thinks the sequel didn’t end up being a good game at all.
Tony Tough 2’s development not only ruined working partnerships, but also came as the final nail in the coffin for the series, since it came out barely finished and riddled with bugs, even after it was patched. It missed both the italian and the english market, releasing only in France, Poland and Germany. Reviews weren’t also very favourable, with some people still remembering it as “one of the worst adventures of the time“. Valerio is adamant that he will never play it, remembering the experience as anything but positive.
Since then, Valerio has been working in IT and marketing in Florence, Stefano is a professor at the University of Malta but still releases games, from time to time, on his website. Prograph never released a game again.
Tony Tough in 2020
The desire to tell this story came from my unflinching desire to finally play Tony Tough 2.
I had been searching high and low for a copy for years and it was only after getting in touch with Valerio that I finally got my chance. Probably it was bound to happen like this and still I am glad I didn’t give up, because A Rake’s Progress is a seriously funny game. Not being one who is easily entertained, in 2020 where adventure games try to be funny by continuously breaking the fourth wall or stringing tired Lucasarts references, TT2 was a breath of much needed fresh air.
To be fair, the humour is a bit all over the place, from obscure pop cultural references, serious reflections on life and philosophy to jokes about homosexuality which would hardly fly today. Like when Tony comments he is not going to clean up the outside steps because “he is too heterosexual to do that”, coming from a 13 years old, sounds… fair? The humour, while similar in tone to the first game, is more off-kilter and colorful, coherently since the authors were also older. It is bound to get a laugh out of even the most refined player.
While there sure are TONS of jokes, Tony can use objects with everyone and everything and each time he has a remark, the humour also knows how to pace itself. TT 2 doesn’t try to ram a joke in EVERY SINGLE LINE (here’s looking at you Gibbous), but knows when to let the player take a breather.
Learning a lesson the hard way
As weird as it might sound for Tony Tough II where the writers themselves aren’t proud of their product, I think game writers could learn a lot from how TT2’s humour was designed. Don’t get me wrong though. This is not “the best game nobody ever played”, everything else in the design shows its lineage as a rushed and dirty development job.
Casting aside the slew of bugs plaguing it, even after a patch was released, A Rake’s Progress has a noticeable weird… well, progress. In the first few chapters you’re locked into a classroom or a hospital room and have to escape, twice. Then suddenly the player is thrust into a whole small town to explore, with barely a clue as to what to do. Exploring, of course, can be fun since the jokes are waiting to be found, even though the dialogue trees are obviously not as complex as Roasted Moths, but, unfortunately, every unnecessary action is a potential crash waiting to happen.
Also, the plot employs a Tarantino-esque narrative, going back again and again to the same day, showing the player something new each time a chapter is finished. A potentially interesting idea, except the stakes are so small that it feels like wasted time. Very little happens until the end of the game, which goes by very fast and isn’t rewarding at all. It definitely feels like an adventure game created by someone who had a very personal vision, this is obviously not a team effort.
The story, at its core, is also short and basic and doesn’t need the player to care. It outlines our main protagonist, Tony, as the paranoid he was, even at a young age, promising a “loss of innocence” tale that is way out of reach of the writers’ capability in telling such a story. It does feel like the first of a Telltale episodic series, but, alas, there’s no episode two.
Adding insult to injury, A Rake’s Progress has no english dubbing, as I anticipated, so either go with french/german voices or just turn them off entirely and rely on the fanmade english subtitles. I played it the original Italian subtitled version to experience the original writing, the French voiceovers are alright though.
Frankly, after what Valerio and Stefano told me, I expected an awful game and a horrible time. It surely wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination. I had fun revisiting Tony Tough’s world, many years after first playing Roasted Moths.
There’s a couple of weird tonal shifts towards the end, which also would contradict the events in the first game but, nevermind. The writing is proof that, at least initially, someone cared a lot about giving a prequel to Tony.
It’s a hard sell to tell my readers to give it a try, I’m perfectly aware of that, but since it is now very easy to download and try, what’s left to lose?
It breaks my heart to see all that care and love go to waste, so I can’t imagine how awful it must have been for the people directly involved in its development. A Rake’s Progress could have been a very different game if a team had worked behind it, instead of a single person perservering just because he was getting paid for it.
But the final nail in Tony’s coffin might not be in… yet!
The nerdy detective might still have a third chance, Valerio is actively working on a new adventure and has launched a website where it is also possible to download both the first and second game (with a pay-what-you-want system) along with all available subtitles. He has promised to tell me more about the project as soon as possible, so, perhaps, expect a preview sometime in the following months.