Many indie games try to imitate the feel of retro games through their gameplay, music, and visuals, and for a while, the gaming audience seemed pretty receptive to this. Unfortunately, a glut of indie developers began using “retro-inspired” as a crutch to make up for their inability to create better graphics or interesting gameplay, and the gaming audience became wary of any title that would come along making such claims. Some games were thankfully able to avoid the new stigma, usually by innovating within that retro-inspired box, but then along comes Tiny Barbarian DX, a game that absolutely revels in its retro-inspired design and actually manages to nail the better aspects of such a design approach without needing to deviate too strongly to set itself apart.
Tiny Barbarian DX’s first retro throwback comes from the fact the game barely has any plot. When you turn the game on for the first time, you find yourself playing a barbarian fighting off monstrous humanoids atop a mountain, all to sell that classic barbarian style even though the graphics have about as much detail as an old NES game’s. You are bound to lose as this is endless otherwise, and from there, the game throws you to a menu to truly start the game. Quite interestingly, Tiny Barbarian DX does not use text in any way to tell its story, with the only time words even appear during the gameplay being when it is telling you the name of its next stage. Another interesting aspect of Tiny Barbarian is that it was originally an episodic game, and while Tiny Barbarian DX packages them all together, it still has the feel of a game that is more like four separate retro titles in a series packaged together in a small collection. Each of these adventures has its own little story that it tells through very rare scenes that mostly boil down to a set-up and then a scene presenting the main villain to expect for that episode. Admittedly, most of the stories involve the barbarian you are playing as saving the barbarianess dressed in skimpy tattered furs, but it’s all too clear this game is trying to not only throw back to retro games but to high fantasy barbarian fiction as well, even if it eventually deviates and does its own thing later on.
When it comes to its retro-inspiration, Tiny Barbarian wears it loud and proud, its most obvious inspiration coming from the original Castlevania game. The tiny barbarian himself (no idea why he’s called tiny besides perhaps his sprite size) has a similar sprite design to Simon Belmont and the game throws situations and foes at you who are clearly meant to evoke memories of that old NES classic. In fact, one of the episodes ditches any sort of pretense and just decides to do its own take on Castlevania, mimicking scenes and setpieces from that game but still managing to feel separate thanks to its own takes on design. You’ll see some music allusions as well to other games like Donkey Kong, but if you don’t get any of the references, Tiny Barbarian DX thankfully holds up pretty well on its own. The barbarian you control has a very small set of skills that the game never really aims to expand. He has a sword slash combo he can mix up a little with jumping attacks and a ground pound, and… he can jump and grab onto ledges and vines. That’s the core skills of your controlled character and they never really expand, although the environment he interacts with will gradually give him new things that he approaches in a unique manner. The game throws two different kind of mounts at you that you can either ride into battle or through the skies, the Castlevania-inspired portion has the barbarian leaping between the front and back layer of levels, and the final chapter of the game really throws in a delightful shift in gameplay to set it apart. Unfortunately, we begin to see a few issues in the game design as we turn our focus to the controls and gimmicks. While the tiny barbarian is effective at facing every task before him and its pretty easy to get a good feel for the controls, the game for some reason has a few moments that expect absolute perfection. There are far too many jumps in the game that are at the maximum distance you are able to reach, and while each of these areas is presented in a pretty safe environment where failure won’t hurt you, doing the same action repeatedly is a drag no matter how little you punish failure. Levels will often have hidden things in the walls that you can break for points, health, and collectible diamonds, and these feel like the proper area to put such precise platforming challenges rather than as part of the required progression.
The flying mount is also a bit funky at times. When it is in the air it controls fine enough, but landing and taking off always felt a bit rigid. Grabbing onto things also sometimes required a bit too much of an instant reaction for something that doesn’t seem like its meant to be challenging, but the options menu does include an auto-grab option that comes highly recommended to make many sections more enjoyable. Speaking of enjoyment, Tiny Barbarian DX starts off with a pretty decent difficulty level and for the most part, the levels continue it while upping the difficulty gradually. The retro-inspired angle thankfully takes a backseat here, as there are no game overs and losing all of your quite generous health bar will only reset you to the start of the current screen you’re on. Spikes, rather than being the instant-death trap they were in many classic games, only take off a single square of health, giving you time to escape them and continue the level. Sure, you can still get instantly killed by going off-screen in auto-scrolling areas or by getting squashed by moving level geometry, but I wasn’t expecting full permissiveness and those deaths are rare enough to not be too bad. As for the basic combat, Tiny Barbarian DX is a bit weird in that it has a co-op mode for a game that is mostly about platforming prowess. Enemies can usually be dispatched with a few sword swipes or by working around whatever small defense the foe has, but the enemies are at least able of hurting you enough that they are challenges on their own rather than glorified obstacles. There will certainly be a few enemies you hate to see because of the challenges they put up, but there’s no enemy that feels truly unfair… although sometimes level design and enemy design come together in a grueling one-two punch such as one spinning tower in the Castlevania-inspired chapter.
Where the difficulty curve fails the game though is during the boss battles. Things start off promising enough, but as you get to the later levels, the game begins dipping a little too hard into the wrong kind of classic boss design, the kind where you’ll ram yourself against them over and over not because the boss is an enjoyable challenge, but because you have to hit them a whole bunch of times to whittle down their health bar but they are hitting you too often with your tiny health bar. The giant parrot boss is an easy example of the game failing at providing an interesting boss, as it mostly just takes a long time to beat rather than any level of skill. Wait for the platforms that you stand on so you can hit it to appear, hit it a few times while dodging its attacks, the platforms disappear, and repeat this process far too many times until the parrot finally goes down. It’s not like the game doesn’t have fun bosses, especially in its earlier chapters, but it decides the way to make boss fights harder is to make them longer so you have a higher chance of losing, and admittedly, most of the bosses have a “die a few times to learn the patterns” style that, while the kind checkpointing makes death a slap on the wrist, does take away some of the thrill of your battles when you might even deliberately kill yourself so you can face them with both more health and better knowledge for the next fight.
THE VERDICT: Early on, Tiny Barbarian DX shows incredible promise, proving to be one of the games that might truly embody the spirit behind a retro-inspired design. It has its own unique aspects in its platforming design and its enemy encounters, and it does a pretty good job of keeping those fresh even when it has repeated elements. Its homages to classic games are loud and clear, the game doing it as a loving throwback rather than an easy appeal to nostalgic players or as a substitute for game development skill. While it avoids the more annoying pitfalls of the past at first, Tiny Barbarian DX does seem to forget quite often what makes for a good gameplay challenge, throwing overly precise jumps and tedious boss battles at the player that drag down the experience’s otherwise decent flow with constant repetition.
And so, I give Tiny Barbarian DX for the Nintendo Switch…
A GOOD rating. The strength of the game’s easy to learn controls and the fine design found in most areas makes Tiny Barbarian DX a fun game most of the time, just with a few roadblocks that don’t really challenge your skill so much as your patience. Since your attacks are always basic it’s not like the bosses can ever challenge your mastery of them, it just boils down to attacking at the right time for the most part, and the game should have accommodated this in the design of later foes rather than trying to make the battles something they can’t be. Early impressions of the game really did make me hope it could follow through on its promise of feeling retro but still having the proper polish of a modern title, but unfortunately it decided to revive one of the worst aspects of old games when it came to certain aspects of its difficulty.
Still, if you want to pick up Tiny Barbarian DX, you’ll find a game that could very well have been a classic on older systems, but it comes with some of the same warts those old games had. Still, it’s hard not to smile at the game’s cheekier moments and the throwbacks that the game does do quite well without sacrificing its own identity.