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Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 74: Tiny Barbarian

He didn't even know she was there.  Not really.  Which was a hell of a thing to admit, given what he was prepared to go through to have her.  To risk one's life for a mirage - to push the limits of strength and endurance for what might have been no more than a specter - was a stupid decision.  But a string of such decisions had made him who he was, and he was not going to change now.  He had seen her;  he had wanted her;  she had eluded him.  There was no choice to be made.  Only commitment and execution.  The Gods help whatever stood in his way.

I don't have a terribly long list of things to say about Tiny Barbarian, other than that it's charming and fun and I think you should try it.  Michael Stearns' videogame homage to the Robert E. Howard short story The Frost-Giant's Daughter plays out as a straightforward action platformer, but I think it has the right combination of gameplay variety, pleasant aesthetics and reasonable duration to stand out as being worth your attention.

Barbarians are singularly unconcerned with dressing for the weather.

If you've ever read a Conan the Barbarian story, you'll know that they aren't exactly weighed down with unnecessary plot detail, and Tiny Barbarian is well-served by having an extremely simple premise that doesn't require a lengthy explanation to get you going.  "On a frozen battlefield, a love-struck barbarian chases a mysterious woman who does not reciprocate his feelings."  There you have it.  She evades, and you pursue.  It's simple, but being a fan of the original story already, it was certainly enough to hook me in.  And let's be honest:  this is the story games have told almost from the very beginning.  "Thank you, Conan!  But your ghostly apparition is in another castle!"  Indeed.

With narrative swiftly out of the way, the game is free to focus on a small, dense set of gameplay mechanics with which to challenge your mini muscle man.  It starts off easy enough - jump over some pits, avoid some spikes - but soon, you'll be fighting your way through undead soldiers, fending off nimble wolves, leaping over archers' arrows, dodging falling obstacles and dealing with the scorn of your quarry - who, as it turns out, really doesn't want to be caught.

Really should have started by buying her dinner.

Controls are minimal and suitably tight;  arrows to move, Z to jump, X to attack.  Jump height is variable based on how long you hold down the key, which you'll need to handle deftly for some of the more challenging leaps in the game.  Your sword provides your only attack, but stringing together several hits yields combo strikes that do more damage and knock your opponents back, hopefully off a ledge or into something sharp.  I was glad for the assistance of a gamepad, especially during the notably difficult final battle (notable enough that the developer has mocked up a Nintendo Power "Counselor's Corner" segment with tips on beating it), but the difficulty level was quite reasonable for the rest of the game.  Each screen is its own checkpoint, meaning that death will never set you back too far, and every enemy has a pattern to exploit, given some trial and error.

The graphics deserve special mention as being atmospheric and very well drawn.  Your barbarian's animations are excellent, and the ambient visuals do a great job of keeping the screen interesting without making it too busy.  Enemy design is a bit spartan, but effective, and the whole thing has the look of a lost, high-quality NES title, which is pretty clearly the intent.  The music is also good, if a bit repetitive at times.  My only real aesthetic complaint is with the sound design;  very cliched "jump" and "you got a coin!" noises serve to constantly remind the player that they're playing an 8-bit-style videogame.  Given how consistently themed to fit the minimalist narrative the rest of the design is, I thought that stood out as being somewhat out of place.

It's a matter of taste, though, and at worst a minor misstep in an otherwise very solid effort;  certainly not enough to dissuade me from recommending that you play it.  A full playthrough can easily be done in under 20 minutes, though if you want all the collectibles (I didn't) I expect you'll be going through several times to find them.  Will you get the girl in the end?  If you've read the short story, you already know the answer.  If not, you'll have to find out for yourselves.

Tiny Barbarian is...

  • a great example of restrained design leading to a short but really enjoyable title.
  • great looking, even if the sound design made me raise my eyebrows a bit.
  • not terribly challenging until the end, but solidly engaging he whole way through.
  • inspired by an 80-year-old barbarian pulp fiction short story, and can't we always use more of that, really?

Tiny Barbarian is a less-than-5MB download for Windows only, and you can get it right here.

"Free And Worth Every Penny" is a column I collaborate on with Mike Bellmore at Colony of Gamers.  This piece also appears there.  If you're done with this one and want more, feel free to browse the archives.

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