For kids that grew up in the 8- and 16-bit eras, names such as Rastan, Golden Axe and Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts are bound to pull one one's heartstrings. Taking up a warrior's sword (or lance - we see you, Arthur) and doing battle against all manner of fantastic creatures was a delight. Sadly, all of those series are now little more than faded memories. Today, however, we have Tiny Barbarian DX, a loving homage of sorts to those games of yesteryear.
Like all the games mentioned above, Tiny Barbarian's narrative is delivered through moments of actual gameplay or during brief vignettes that lead into the beginning of a new episode. The game is split into four episodes, each of which feels long enough to be its own snappy retro game; each episode is split into several areas, and each area contains a handful of rooms. Some of the areas end with a boss battle, though most don't. As you clear areas you'll be treated to a view of your progress through the episode on a Ghouls 'n' Ghosts style map, which is a neat touch. The episodes themselves each have a large end boss to defeat before moving on, enhancing the feeling that each is like a game unto itself.
The gameplay is simple, but addictive. You have an arsenal of sword attacks at your disposal which can be modified by holding a direction on the d-pad as you perform them. Beyond that you can jump, attack in the air, and that's pretty much it, save for an elbow drop that looks straight out of '80s wrestling. This is a game about running, jumping, climbing, hacking and slashing your way to victory in pursuit of the princess.
As you make your way through the episodes you'll find yourself in a varied array of environments, from catacombs to castles that follow the hack-and-slash formula, to chase sequences on the back of some kind of mythical beast and flying sections atop a giant bumblebee. While the objective seldom changes the gameplay is varied and entertaining throughout. The backdrops are gorgeous, and while you'll never have time to rest on your laurels and just enjoy the view, they make a great backdrop for the action going on around you.
Wrestling moves aren't the only thing Tiny Barbarian borrows from the '80s, it must be said. This game is hard, and we mean NES-hard. That isn't to say that it's frustrating, but rather that you shouldn't be surprised if a room takes you a few tries. Making it past a tricky room feels rewarding as opposed to the frustrating experiences other "hard" games can be known to offer. You have six pieces of health, with each enemy or hazard taking one of those pieces when they land a hit. As is standard pieces of chicken will restore a single part, while a whole bird replenishes your life entirely. Tiny Barbarian will test your mettle and require you pull off pixel-perfect jumps to avoid spikes, flying serpents, balls of fire and other fantasy genre staples. You can also hold down on the d-pad to flex your muscles, for those of you that want a laugh.
Not everything in Tiny Barbarian is exactly like those games of yore though, in fact the old-school hard game archetype has been rethought in ways that make life with the game a bit easier than they were for those of us that left our NES powered on for days, hoping not to lose our progress. Each room serves as a checkpoint, so even if you need to throw your Switch in your bag and take off you needn't worry about losing your place. You can also play in co-op mode with a friend - it doesn't alter the core gameplay in any way, but it's fun to share the experience nonetheless.
At first blush Tiny Barbarian seems to sport very simplistic pixel art graphics. The titular barbarian has no facial features or discerning attributes to speak of, making him rather like an old Atari hero, but that impression doesn't last long. Once set in motion the game reveals a level of animation and attention to detail that just would not have been possible on those old machines. Simple details like snakes slithering along the ground or how their tails rise and fall as they die, or gorgeous multi-layered backgrounds smack of conveniences that current-day hardware provides to developers.
The soundtrack is an utter delight as well. The sound clearly also benefits from the more powerful hardware available in this day and age, but Jeff Ball's efforts sound every bit as good as the stellar work done by legendary composer Manami Matsumae for Shovel Knight. They have a chiptune sound profile to them that's upbeat and backed up by midi percussion that sounds great. It's so good, in fact, that the game is almost worth playing for the soundtrack alone. There's more going on in here than a NES sound chip could handle, but nostalgia gives it that true retro feel.
Tiny Barbarian DX is an indie gem. Old-school challenge mixed with modern conveniences make for a package that's hard to put down. Checkpoints help make use of the Switch's portability and old-school difficulty makes you want to play it on your TV at home; it offers challenge and charm in spades. The gorgeous pixel art, great soundtrack and co-op are all positives in the adventure; once you pick it up you won't be able to put it down, if you're willing to pay the price.
At its budget retail price we found Tiny Barbarian DX to be a bit light on the content side, as the game can be completed in six hours or less, depending on skill levels. If you're going to pick this one up we recommend skipping the eShop download and going for the physical edition as it at least contains some cool stuff - as Nicalis is becoming known for - to add value to your purchase.