Conan the Bee Rider: Tiny Barbarian DX Review

Posted in Kulturecade by - October 30, 2017
Conan the Bee Rider: Tiny Barbarian DX Review

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been jealous of Xbox One owners for the first time in the console’s life. You can probably imagine why: a quirky little game called Cuphead, of course. The latest great streaming boon of a game that has already resulted in a bevy of YouTube-preserved tantrums, speedrunning triumphs and heartbreak, and Rule 34 artwork. As a retro-focused gamer and journalist, Cuphead is my bread and butter, and I’m desperately awaiting the day that it reaches the Mac Steam library. This frustration, however, has dissipated a little bit recently as I’ve been playing another recent release on the console that will serve as the well-deserved lightning rod for retro-inspired goodness for years to come, a pixelated platformer called Tiny Barbarian DX.

Now, before I get into the game itself, I feel obligated to remind everyone that this is a Nicalis-published title, and again, the company has knocked it out of the park with the physical release, a $30 package that is bursting at the seams inside its shrink wrap and includes another brilliant and extensive NES-inspired manual, an adorable keychain, and, of course, reversible artwork. I always feel the need to point out and commend this dedication from Nicalis on their releases because it not only ensures that I will remain a loyal customer with every release, but allows me to hold my copies of Tiny Barbarian DX and The Binding of Isaac above my head and scream at every other publisher that this is exactly what people like me want and how you will get our money every time; the bar is not being lowered anytime soon, as long as Nicalis is around, at least.

Anyway, Tiny Barbarian DX is a simple yet cutthroat example of old-school adventure-platforming, basically offering the same modernized experience of the genre that Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden made famous in the 80’s that Cuphead does for the Contra-esque run-n-gun. Boiled down to an NES controller’s worth of a control scheme, with only movement, jumping, and attack for your inputs, Tiny Barbarian DX is an infuriating example of lather, rinse, die, repeat platforming that defines the concept of “old-school difficulty” but with enough style and, as always, the ever-present glimmer of hope that you’ll learn how not to be a noob that makes you keep grinding until it’s all done and you can say, “yes, the counter says that I died 162 times (that’s one of my actual counts, by the way) in this chapter but I got it.”

Tiny Barbarian DX is one of those games that’s actually really hard to talk about because there’s nothing definitive about its design or any type of innovation to bring up other than the fact that it’s hard, but in that really good, satisfying way. Because that’s exactly what StarQuail was going for when they made it. It’s not even necessarily a “love letter to retro games” or whatever it is that people like to call it when a game goes out of its way to make sure you know what its influences are. With Tiny Barbarian, it’s all in the gameplay, and that’s why it can be easy to miss, save for the loving implementation of the “wall chicken” health power-up. It’s all about the trial-and-error process that leads you to figuring out that perfect line through a level — the enemy patterns, the way the platforms move, which route to take around an obstacle that leaves you the most comfortable on the other side.

It reminds me so much of another game that I played recently, Rayman Legends, one of my all-time favorite platformers. Both these games are designed in the same way, wherein the player has to either be enough of a wizened old veteran to make it through on reflex alone, or, like the rest of us, even the platforming fans, chip and scrape away at the right strategy until your brain and muscles sync up to make it work, and, of course, allow the player to fail as they please without kicking them back to the beginning of the game. Like Rayman Legends, Tiny Barbarian DX even makes sure to throw you curveballs, breaking up the style of gameplay by making you learn how to fly a bee or climb on vines or, of course, tackle the next big boss battle (of which there are plenty). But while I can say all these things about Rayman Legends and then also rave on about the art style, the character design, the humor, Tiny Barbarian DX doesn’t have the scope to add that much flourish outside of a really good soundtrack, which is clearly inspired by the same upbeat and busy chiptune fare as the old Mega Man titles.

If you’re a fan of the genre, you should be giving Tiny Barbarian DX a shot, not because it’s rewriting the rulebook on platforming or even because it’s the shining example of the genre’s existing tropes, because it has the best control you’ll ever feel, or because it trods some crazy, untrodden path of premise or design. You should be playing it simply because it knows what it’s doing, and how to keep you playing. It doesn’t rewrite the rulebook because it plays by the rules set by its predecessors, thereby also establishing its strongest connections to those predecessors without a tacky parade of references and in-jokes. Tiny Barbarian DX is another home run for Nicalis, Inc. on the Switch because it offers a great package, containing a great game, just one that never reaches the levels of “terrific” or “amazing” because it never shoots for them, but will please fans of the genre without question.

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He is a video game staff writer and dreamed of being a video game as a young boy. Then somebody told him that you can't really do that, so he compromised by doing a bunch of stuff related to that, playing video games, reading about video games, writing about video games, working at a video game store, and all those good nerdy things. Aside from video games, he's also a dork of all trades, with an interest in heavy metal music, wrestling, sports, and Magic the Gathering.
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