Tiny Barbarian DX

A game by StarQuail Games for PC and Switch, originally released episodically in 2013, 2014, and 2017.
Tiny Barbarian DX is a game about... a tiny barbarian… specifically a barbarian based on the series of Conan the Barbarian stories written by Robert E. Howard. While the barbarian is labeled as tiny, the character himself isn’t significantly smaller than the enemies he faces – and he’s certainly much more muscular – but his size in relation to the screen is quite small. The game is a platformer with sword-based combat.

When you boot up the game, you find the barbarian at the top of a hill with an endless horde of ever-tougher enemies ascending to meet him. This sequence is actually impossible to beat – although you are free to replay it to see how long you can survive – and it acts as an introduction to the main adventure. Once you have been defeated, the title screen appears (or you can just skip straight to it) allowing you to begin the game proper.

Episode 1: The Serpent Lord
Making the Conan connection quite clear, the first level sees the barbarian strapped to a tree with buzzards moving in to pick at his flesh, and the barbarian bites one of the buzzards and shakes it in his mouth, killing it. The other buzzards fly away and the barbarian drops down out of the tree to begin his adventure. The direct Conan references don’t end there, as you will find yourself fighting a number of snakes along the way, travelling through snake-worshipping temples, dropping in on a bath house filled with barely-dressed ladies, and even fighting wizards that turn into snakes when they are defeated, hopping out of their crumpled cloaks to attack you.

The barbarian has a 3-hit sword combo with a good lateral range, and he can also sweep his sword upward to attack enemies that swoop down from above. When moving to the left or right, the third strike of the combo is a dashing thrust that pushes the enemy back a significant distance, allowing you to knock enemies off of ledges, smash them into each other, or even drop them into pits of spikes where they will take damage and be killed.

When jumping, you can perform your standard combo as well, but in this case, the third strike is a spinning attack. This is generally an impossible move to pull off in the air, as you will fall to the ground before you have time to execute three successive attacks; however, you can perform two ground-based strikes and then jump for the third strike to initiate a spinning attack. Still, it’s not a terribly easy move to execute, nor is it expressly required. You also have a downward attack in the form of an elbow drop that can be performed by pressing DOWN and ATTACK while in midair.

While the game has a strong focus on combat, it is just as heavily based on platforming, with environmental navigation challenges throughout. The barbarian has a 2x jump height and is able to mount any 2-block platform, while he is able to grab and pull himself onto ledges that are 3 blocks high as long as the player is pressing UP at the time. The visual design of the world is very much tile-based, clearly informing the player as to which areas are possible to reach. Interestingly, while the barbarian does not have a double jump ability, he is able to perform a midair jump if he gets knocked back, giving the player the opportunity to make a last minute save.

In addition to jumping and mounting ledges, the barbarian must frequently climb up chains or vines, and he can move horizontally across them by hanging beneath and performing a hand-over-hand movement. The player may also drop down onto a chain and press UP to hang from it – and press DOWN to dismount – allowing for some more complex sequences, and adding a last-second failsafe over some spike pits.

When hanging or climbing, you can swing your sword to the left or right, as well as perform jumps. 1-way platforms make an appearance as well, and you can ledge grab your way up through them, as well as jump-drop down as with traditional action games. There are some other odd contraptions as well, such as moving 1-way platforms with chains hanging beneath them, and these are used in more complex sequences – and even a boss fight – where you must transition from one to the next while also avoiding spikes and other hazards.

Often, enemies are mixed into the environmental challenges as well, forcing the player to avoid attacks or destroy enemies in mid-jump while still executing proper landings or grabs. Of note are sequences that mix in waves of birds moving in a sine wave pattern ala the Medusa heads in the Castlevania series. Killing them serves no purpose as they spawn indefinitely, so you must time your jumps to avoid their attacks while sometimes killing one to give yourself room to maneuver.

Many enemy projectiles may be blocked or reflected with your sword, allowing you to perform complex moves while slashing enemy arrows out of the sky, or knocking sorcerers’ energy blasts back at them. One sequence features a lengthy forced-scrolling elevator ascent with arrow-firing soldiers on either side, forcing you to move quickly, avoid spikes, and swat away incoming arrows.

While most enemies fall with one or two strikes of your sword, soldiers are somewhat more difficult, and they come in several varieties. Sword wielding soldiers will dash straight toward you, even jumping to reach your location, and they can block some of your sword swings. Spear tossing soldiers can chuck spears all the way across the screen, moving in a shallow arc, and these cannot be blocked; however, you can dodge the spear and then run up to the soldier and give him a few healthy whacks. There are also spear soldiers who will not toss their spears, but will rather jut them out in front to stab you. Since spears have a much greater reach than your sword, you may need to jump and give the soldier a top turnbuckle elbow drop to take him down. Interestingly, all killed enemies remain in the environment, rather than flashing and disappearing as is customary in this sort of game.

The barbarian has six units of health, and checkpoints are frequent, appearing at each screen transition. Unlike most other platformers, spikes do not kill you outright, but rather take away one unit of health, allowing you to recover from missed jumps so long as you can get away from the spikes before your temporary invincibility wears off. Occasionally, you will encounter a Golden Axe-style blue gnome with a knapsack slung over its shoulder. Repeatedly attacking the creature causes it to drop coins and health-restoring chicken legs, which restore two units of life.

Breakable blocks are mixed among the regular blocks that make up the construction of most worlds, and these can be broken to reveal the occasional chicken leg, as well as the rare full-sized chicken that completely restores your health. You may also find coins that add to your score, and diamonds that add greatly to your score but tend to be very well hidden.

At a couple of points during your adventure, you encounter some kind large-toothed catlike creature, and you can mount the beast and ride it. The creature moves quickly, and it causes damage to enemies that it bites as you bash into them, although you can still swing your sword to cause additional damage. If the creature takes damage, you will be knocked off and the creature will run a short distance away, but you can chase after it to mount back up and continue. The creature moves considerably faster than the barbarian, but its jump is lower, and you are often challenged with building up speed to cross a large gap. You can also use the creature Yoshi-style to jump off of its back and reach higher platforms that you wouldn’t be able to reach on your own.

The game presents several boss battles, each offering its own unique challenges. The first boss is reminiscent of the first boss in Contra, with mounted turrets firing from a high position, and enemy soldiers streaming out from below. Another boss tosses bombs at you, requiring that you knock them back and use the resulting explosions to damage him. You can cause direct damage as well, but not nearly on the scale as an explosion. Another boss features platforming, combat, and deflection mixed into a single scenario, requiring mastery of all of your skills.

While there isn’t a tremendous amount of variety in the physical construction of the environments, new gameplay is regularly introduced. These include sequences with skeleton hands popping up out of the ground, complex sequences of chain jumps while dodging enemy attacks, a long elevator ascent, and stacks of blocks that can be destroyed to send larger blocks falling onto enemies’ heads.

Tiny Barbarian DX is planned as a 4-part series, each of which is meant to tell a new tale in the ongoing saga of the Tiny Barbarian. Completing the first episode, subtitled “The Serpent Lord”, offers a short ending followed by a “to be continued” statement. Players who purchase the game are granted access to all future episodes as they are released.

Episode 2: Ruins of Xanadu
Episode 2 picks up where the first chapter left off, with the tiny barbarian and the rescued maiden lying in a cave near a roaring fire. Then, the bikini-clad woman wakes up to see the barbarian snoring away, and she goes over to try to wake him up. When he goes on sleeping, she kicks him in the gut and walks out of the cave. Your first action is to wake up the barbarian with a button press and then head out of the cave, which is situated in the side of a cliff.

The opening area is all about ascent, as you climb vines to make your way up the cliff face, and periodically enter caves to complete platforming challenges and move ever upward. Outside, a long fall usually means instant death as you drop off the bottom of the screen. Within the caves, however, you are more likely to land on solid ground and lose a bit of progress… and sometimes you can grab a horizontal vine on your way down, which lets you halt your descent and recover to your previous position.

Caves are filled with a number of dangers, including falling rocks that fall straight down, requiring players to run under them or time their jumps properly to get over them. Occasionally, you encounter falling spiked platforms that will smash you to bits if they land on you, but you must also use them to move forward. When one of these platforms hits solid ground, it imbeds itself in the rock and lets you use it as a stepping stone to reach slightly greater heights. When falling, the player must time his jump precisely to land on it and then quickly jump away before it falls off the bottom of the screen.

Eagles and snakes from the first chapter make a return, but the game is largely populated by entirely new creatures, including plants that spit poison dust, agile gorillas that chase you through the environment, larval creatures that spout caustic slime, and wobbly slime mummies that burst open to reveal more larval creatures. The game is also packed with a wide variety of bee-type creatures, including honeybees, dashing hornets that fire stinger projectiles, and some strange hybrid bee creatures that can fly around, walk on two legs, and fire some sort of weapon.

The honeybee is the most interesting of these creatures, as you can actually jump on the back of one of these giant bees and ride it around. Players have the option of simply jumping on a bee, or whacking it with a sword swipe to stun it first (though a second strike will kill it). From there, holding the JUMP button causes the bee to ascend, and letting off the button causes it to slowly drop back down, while the player has full control of its movement to the left or right. To dismount, the player must press UP and JUMP.

Bees are used throughout the game in a variety of challenges. For one, players must often navigate obstacle-packed environments filled with poison-spitting plants and falling rocks, and getting hit knocks the barbarian off of his buzzing mount. At that point, he may remount the same creature or go back to the hive to grab another. While riding the bee, pressing DOWN extends the bee’s stinger and allows the player to smash through thorny vines and attack enemies. The barbarian can also swing his sword while riding bee-back, allowing him to attack enemies directly.

When you reach the top of the cliff, you find the bikini lady attempting to fight off a swarm of bees with a sword, but a gorilla takes notice of her – with a heart appearing above his head – and he dashes in after her. The gorilla grabs the maiden King Kong-style and runs off into the jungle, leaving you to give chase.

Soon you find yourself running for your life as a rolling boulder chases you through the jungle. Fortunately, the boulder doesn’t kill you instantly if it hits you, but it does toss you back a bit, pushing you a good ways ahead of the rolling death rock. As you run, you have to make your way over and under obstructions and past enemies, which the rock easily crashes through.

Eventually, you reach a dead end, which lets you climb up and out of the way so that you can drop down behind the rock and continue your descent… only to find another rock rolling after you, this time covered in poison-spewing plants!

In the depths of the jungle, the player uses vines to swing back and forth to reach new areas. The barbarian can slide up or down the vines for a better position, with the greatest leaps performed by sliding all the way down to the end of the vine and then timing your button press properly to send yourself sailing into the air.

Gorillas chase you through many of these areas as well, and they are excellent jumpers and climbers, allowing them to reach almost any area that you can. And they can attack from a distance by throwing brown rocks… er, well, probably not rocks… since they seem to be manufacturing them from their own bodies…

Tougher vine jumps incorporate eagles as well, requiring that the player dispatch enemies beforehand, or make some daring midair sword slashes. As before, missing a jump often drops you down into a previous area to make a new attempt.

The first boss you face – in an homage to Donkey Kong – is a barrel-rolling gorilla. The player must complete several sequences where he avoids barrels by jumping over them, running under them, and eventually dodging bouncing barrels while climbing vines. At the end of this sequence, the barbarian faces off against the giant primate in a locked arena. The gorilla jumps around the room to various platforms and tosses more barrels at you, and just when you think you’ve won and saved the girl once more… she is abducted again, this time by a bee, furthering her purpose as a damsel in distress.

From here, players take flight once more, this time in a forced scrolling section with obstacles to dodge, and eventually gorillas flying around in machines equipped with turrets. There’s even a “shoot the core”-style boss encounter at the end, followed by a lengthy forced scrolling platforming sequence over an insta-death drop off as you make your way through an airship.

Eventually, you find yourself underground, making your way through Egyptian ruins and surrounded by insectoid enemies before facing off against another boss creature, this time of the insect variety. Some of the more complex challenges in this area center on dispatching swarms of hybrid man-bees and using a limited bee supply to fly through dangerously tight corridors that are packed with enemies.

Once the player reaches the end of this challenging sequence, he finds himself facing off against the episode’s final boss, followed by another “to be continued” message, teasing the next episode.

Episode 2 also introduces a few new options that retroactively apply to the first episode. The most important change is the auto-grab option that lets the barbarian automatically grab vines and ledges without the need for the player to press UP. The option is disabled by default but may be toggled on in the Options menu. This allows the player to more easily save himself from a long fall and make easier leaps to distant ledges. The second new option is largely cosmetic, as it allows the player to flex the barbarian’s muscles (this was originally only available as an idle animation). Technically, this move causes damage to nearby enemies, but sword attacks are far more effective at dispatching enemies than body builder posing.

Episode 3: Sinister Tower
Episodes 3 and 4 were released together, three years after the previous episode. Episode 3 has a Castlevania-inspired introduction, which teases a floating castle hovering over a village at night. The darker tone is emphasized in the environments by gothic architecture, jutting mountains in the distance, and generally darker color tones. Basic enemies remain in place with fast-moving animals and spear-wielding baddies, along with a bunch of enemies tossing axes in high arcs, which complicates environmental navigation along ropes and around spike pits.

A new gameplay element is the ability to move behind walls in the background, avoiding some enemies in the process, and a miniboss encounter features a boar that is able to move between foreground and background layers to pursue the player.

Eventually, the player makes his way up a series of chains, heading toward the base of the floating castle and dodging pesky sine-wave bats in the process. The interior of the castle features strange colors, particularly its bright green plant life, with trees sticking up in the background, patches of flowers growing between bricks, and huge towers overgrown with vines. Enemies here consist of purple blobs, spitting plants, and armored boomerang throwers, along with some critters in the form of snakes and spikey porcupine-esque foes.

Environments continue to grow more strange and grotesque as the player moves through the castle, with strange architecture, gnarled columns, tentacled gateways, and lizard-like platforms. Obstacles include spinning gears, crushing walls, and a couple of platforming sequences that see the player ascending the outsides of tall towers. The player explores several distinct areas of the castle, facing several minibosses along the way, eventually reaching the top and taking on the final boss of the episode in an extended multi-phase battle.

Episode 4: Threat from Beyond
Episode 4 sends the barbarian into a jungle environment, which is thicker and more colorful than previous arboreal areas and has a more upbeat soundtrack. Basic level layouts and enemies are repeated from Episode 1, with the player climbing across vines and avoiding attacks from snakes and eagles. Even the rideable creature from the first episode makes a return, but this time, the player must use it to chase down a convoy of wooden vehicles, frequently dismounting to board these conveyances to fight enemies and remove obstructions before returning to his mount and moving forward.

Then the fight moves back indoors and sees the hero battling enemies amidst cowardly cultists and facing off against a boss. Soon thereafter, things take a surprising turn, with a drastic change to the game’s theme and basic gameplay, resulting in an energetic finale where the player engages new and returning enemies in fresh and exciting ways. The game ends in grand fashion with another huge multi-phase boss encounter and even a nod to the original Tiny Barbarian game (see below).

Tiny Barbarian DX was developed by StarQuail, a 2-man studio based in Ellensburg, Washington, made up of Daniel Roth and Michael Stearns, with music by Jeff Ball. The game was funded via Kickstarter.

Tiny Barbarian
In 2011, Michael developed a freeware game called Tiny Barbarian, featuring the small-in-stature Cimmerian taking down enemies in a tale inspired by Robert E. Howard’s Conan story “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”. The game features some basic swordplay, and some of the platforming designs that would go on to be used in the DX version. The barbarian travels left to right through an ice based world battling rats and soldiers in a 15 minute adventure that terminates in a boss encounter.

Development on Tiny Barbarian DX was started in 2012, using StarQuail’s Astroman engine (see below), featuring much more technical swordplay, new enemies, new platforming and navigation mechanics, and more complex level designs.

Astroman is a platformer-based adventure game which finds an astronaut crash landed on a hostile alien planet. You must track down missing ship parts to restore your craft’s functions, allowing you to move outward and explore more planets and find more parts. Taking a nonlinear Metroidvania approach, your character’s abilities also grow during the journey, allowing him to increase his jump height, lengthen his life bar, and even acquire a limited-use jetpack.

The game is spread out over nine block-based worlds with three different themes. There are also space flight sequences as you move from planet to planet. Progress is made not only by upgrading your abilities but also overcoming numerous platforming challenges, and using your limited ammunition to take down cartoonish enemies.

Crystal Skies
In Crystal Skies, you control a pet fish as it navigates the Great Cosmic Spinning Vortex. This is a nice way of saying that you’re controlling an ex-pet fish as it navigates the waters of a flushed toilet.

Because Bubbles the goldfish is navigating a land of swirling toilet water, the player is tasked with navigating and jumping through an ever-rotating maze while avoiding obstacles. By collecting the requisite number of coins, the exit will open, allowing the player to continue to the next swirling vortex of doom.

Sky Puppy
In Sky Puppy, players take to the skies with a puppy named Wilford that can fly by flapping his big floppy ears. The Sky Puppy travels through the skies collecting doggie treats while avoiding flying spiked balls, eye patch-wearing kittens, and laser-firing UFO’s. The game has one-button control, only giving the player control the flapping of Wilford’s ears. By holding down the SPACE BAR, Wilford ascends, and by letting off, he falls. When on the ground, Wilford will walk back and forth, giving the player the opportunity to send Wilford flying off in a particular direction.

The levels are laid out as vertically-oriented obstacle courses, filled with enemies and objects. Air currents will push the Sky Puppy around as well, and the player must finesse the SPACE BAR to keep him riding through the current. Quick recovery is also a must, since it’s possible to take additional hits if you don’t react in time.

Each level is timed, and collecting doggie bones will add 3 extra seconds to the clock, but getting hurt drops a whopping 10 seconds, so avoiding enemies is crucial to survival. Unfortunately, the lack of direct control over the character makes avoidance difficult, meaning that repeated playthroughs – and thus foreknowledge of enemy placement – is necessary to complete a number of levels.

There is also level branching, similar to that found in Sega’s Outrun series, so the player is not required to take the same level-to-level path in each playthrough. Character designs are done in a cutesy style, and the overall design of the levels is very bright and colorful. There are 45 stages in total, with 15 different 2D backgrounds ranging from cities to snowy mountains to haunted castles to a fleet of spaceships, and eventually extending into outer space.