The New Shovel Knight
Nicalis is following their re-release of Cave Story on Switch with Tiny Barbarian DX, originally released on PC in 2013. Developed by StarQuail Games, this 2D action platformer actually looks and plays a lot like Cave Story but definitely has its own personality, flare, and friggin’ adorable sprite work. In fact, Tiny Barbarian DX is not only one of the best action platformers I have played in the last decade, it is also easily one of the best games on Switch.
The player controls a no-named warrior that looks like a mini Conan The Barbarian, loin cloth and all. Using only two buttons to jump and attack, the limited moveset might seem restricting. However, thanks to thoughtful level design and even the occasional ridable beast, Tiny Barbarian DX always throws something new and exciting at the player. Small actions, like clinging to ledges or a three hit sword combo, provide just enough flavor and animation to keep gameplay spicy level after level due to the expertly crafted level design.
This Switch platformer wears its inspiration on its sleeve, taking references from classic hits such as Castlevania (hidden wall meat and map screen), Mega Man (platforming and crazy good music), and Golden Ax (melee combat and thieving gnomes). It mixes the best of these classic 8 and 16-bit games into something special and unique. Always challenging but never unfair, the difficulty and pacing is pretty much spot on. Sure, there are some difficult segments, like when eagles or bats swoop in as you are trying to make a difficult jump, but the responsive controls will never make the player blame the game. Checkpoints are also usually just a screen away, there are unlimited lives and continues, and no penalty for death so gameplay is never beyond a few minutes of frustration. There are some tricky bosses too, like the Donkey Kong-inspired boss at the end of season 2, and there will defiantly be moments of shouting four lettered words. With some perseverance, temperamental bosses and complicated stages will be bested which makes victory taste that much more sweeter.
One of the coolest elements about this 2D sidescroller is how everything begins. When the player first fires up the game, the player controls the barbarian on the top of a mountain with an endless army of bad guys coming to get you. To be clear, there is no explanation, no tutorial. The player is just thrown into the action. But since the playcontrol and concept is so easy to grasp, this is an awesome way to be introduced to this brutal mini barbarian. Then, upon the inevitable death, the player can then participate in the campaign or continue to try and earn a higher score in this “I –should-not-be-having-this-much-fun-doing-this-but-I-am” horde mode.
What threw me for a pleasant surprise was the amount of content that is in this tiny game. After playing through the first 2-3 hour campaign, saving my cave woman babe and defeating an evil sorcerer, I though the game was over. Instead, I was greeted with four more unrelated campaigns, like watching a season of your favorite TV series; each season is composed of multiple episodes. Between the entertaining horde mode and first campaign, I thought the game was already worth the price of admission. When I found out there were a ton more levels available, I honestly could not believe it. Yes, please, I will take a second helping of this quality gameplay. Give me more!
As I mentioned earlier, the player constantly faces new challenges, whether it be enemies or environmental hazards. At one point, the player will need to experiment with the timing of swinging vines Pitfall-style, run away from a giant boulder, and even commandeer big bumblebees to fly through a maze of spikes and Venus fly traps that spit acid, like Balloon Fight’s Balloon Trip mode. Combat, although limited to a single button’s swipe attack, feels so satisfying due to tiny details that the player might not notice. Swinging the sword does not stop the player’s motion; each swipe keeps the player moving forward if already moving in that direction. It might sound dumb but this little tweak is what makes combat intuitive, especially when linked to a button mashing combo attack. Even though the barbarian cannot duck, there is a sort of hidden Easter egg that serves no purpose other than to put a smile on your face – holding down while attacking makes the barbarian pose as if he is in a body building competition. This pointless, but totally awesome feature rivals that of the hug button found in the new gen version of Boy And His Blob; this feature doesn’t need to be there as it serves no purpose but I am glad it made its way into the final game.
The goal of the campaign is not just to reach Point A from Point B. Along the way, the player can try and find optional hidden gems, collect gold coins, and try to defeat as many enemies along the way without dying. Each one of these things will increase the player’s score. Score, however, serves no purpose other than earning simple bragging rights when each season is completed. There is no leveling up. No items or weapons to buy. No companions to recruit. No relationships to foster. No power-ups to gain. This is just a straightforward, classic action platformer that puts fun gameplay first and foremost. Even the health bar, interface, main menu, and UI are all straightforward and implemented well. Keep in mind, the quest is a difficult one. After completing the second campaign, the total screen said I died over 130 times but still loved every minute of it.
If a stage or campaign series is too tough, there is an optional local co-op feature. Donning a different colored loin cloth, this second barbarian has the same moveset and does not interact with his companion, meaning they cannot bump into each other, get in each other’s way, or help reach higher platforms. Like the original Contra, however, it is possible to have your partner die if they jump into the bottom of the screen if the camera moves upward. But playing with a friend is delightfully fun and helps to curb some of that higher difficulty factor. And speaking of Contra, there is boss that is essentially “borrowed” right from the classic NES title.
As you can see from the screens and trailer, a highlight of Tiny Barbarian DX is the cutesy 2D sprites and animation. With parallax scrolling and exaggerated movesets, this old school style game is basically a new, old game. Like Shovel Knight before it, the designers took the best features of old school games, learned from their mistakes, and created something unique every step of the way. The game is not only pretty to enjoy visually, the soundtrack is also so damn good. Any one of these tracks could be used in an 8-bit Mega Man game and you probably would not know the difference. My only complaint with the music would be to turn down the sound in the options menu as the default setting seems a bit loud. Also, since each stage is much longer than any Mega Man stage, the music can start to get to you an hour in, especially if a certain portion of a stage is resulting in more deaths.
After playing for hours, my only real complaint isn’t necessarily a fault of the game itself. The lack of a dpad on the Switch Joycons forces the player to use the analog stick for movement, which is fine, but sometimes can lead to accident deaths especially when needing to press Up to grab onto vines or ledges. Thoughtfully, there is an option in the menu screen for “auto grab” so the player doesn’t have to wonder if the analog stick is being held in the right direction. I recommend turning on this option before the adventure begins. It is also a bummer there is no online co-op feature, no online leaderboard functionality, and no built-in Achievement system but the game is still highly entertaining even without these features.
Tiny Barbarian DX is awesome and essentially another Shovel Knight-style modern, old school game. With tons of levels to play, optional local co-op (which can be played using one set of JoyCons), pixel perfect play control, and an included horde mode, there is a lot to love here. If you own a Switch, you owe it to yourself to buy and play this 2D action platformer. Also, side note, even the box art is exceedingly well done (created by Susumu Matushita of Maximo and Adventure Island fame, among others). This game is available digitally on the Nintendo eShop or at retail in physical cart format.
Not As Good As: young Arnold Schwarzenegger
Way Better Than: Volgarr The Viking
Also Try: Shovel Knight on Wii U with amiibo support or Power Blade on NES