One of my favorite gaming systems growing up was my Commodore 64; it was a beast of a computer that allowed me to play amazing 8-bit titles while everybody else was discovering the NES. Some of my favorite games from it were Bruce Lee and Conan the Barbarian, two side-scrolling beat-em-ups exceptional in their simplicity of purpose and solid controls. I mention these games because their DNA is firmly imprinted in Tiny Barbarian DX, which is a Steam Early Access title by Starquail Games. It attempts to recapture the sweet spot of a lost era with pre-placed enemies, precision jumping, and steep challenge, and does a pretty decent job of it in the process.
This game hearkens back to the days of walking into an arcade, watching somebody make a mad run through a game and get to a level you’ve never seen before. It is simplicity defined in its central concept. You play as the titular barbarian, tied to a tree and left for dead by cultists, who sets off to fight his way through a number of levels, enemies, and bosses. That is pretty much all there is to it as far as background goes, and that’s okay because there’s killing to be done.
Each section has specifically-placed enemies that you need to kill or avoid in order to move on. As with a game like Super Meat Boy, the key is memorizing patterns and positions and the only way to do that is to die a lot in the process. Unlike coin-gobbling arcade games however, you restart at the beginning of each section so, at most, you’re losing a minute of progress.
Combat is surprisingly robust considering how rudimentary everything appears. You have attacks that can be aimed in any direction as well as the ability to smack large projectiles back at enemies. As new enemies arrive, the need to use these attacks becomes apparent. One thing which would be helpful is if the game were to introduce these attacks in some kind of tutorial. As it is, you need to basically figure it out on your own.
There are five sections set aside for Tiny Barbarian DX, but only one is currently available. What is there is brief, but will take a few hours to beat the first time through due to its difficulty. There are achievements for being able to speedrun the game, so if that’s your bag, then you’ll get some replay value there. Along with the main game, there is also a horde mode in which you are on top of a castle and beset from all sides by enemies. Essentially, the goal is to stay alive for as long as possible. It’s really nothing special, but insubstantial to the entire experience.
One thing about this game that really didn’t impress me was with how it looked. I get that they’re going for an old arcade/8-bit vibe; it appears to be constructed from NES era Castlevania assets. Gears, platforms, and even breakable blocks containing turkey legs are everywhere. Honestly though, Tiny Barbarian DX looks rough even by that standard. The environments and character models just seem kind of rushed and could be considerably better without sacrificing any of the gameplay mechanics. In terms of level design, this game really shines which makes the boring visuals that much more noticeable. As with all Early Access games, this issue may be something that ceases to be a problem with future updates. As it is now however, it looks okay, but not terribly inspired.
As mentioned above, Tiny Barbarian DX is a Steam Early Access game which means that it is essentially still in development, yet you can purchase the game and play what’s done right now. As of now, it costs $9.99 for what’s done, plus the promise of more and better material over a period of time. I can’t say for sure what future content will be like (or if it will even come out), but what I played was easily worth $10. This is a fantastic little throwback to a simpler time when men were men, monsters were monsters, and video games required your full attention.
[+Variety of attacks] [+Excellent throwback to arcade era] [+More to come] [-Only one scenario so far] [-Uninspired visual design]