It’s thanks to games like A Hat in Time and to a lesser extent, Yooka-Laylee, why I remain cautiously — and maybe a tad naively — hopeful that 3D platformers can still shine as brightly as they once did in the late-90s/early 2000s. A product of their time and their time only they may be — the unsavory visage of three blocky, polygonal dimensions swept aside by smart level design and an attractive visual style — call it nostalgia for the past, but even amidst the technical limitations that both the N64 and original PlayStation had, you could still appreciate the thought and care placed in the craft of many a game’s levels, stages and worlds alike. So often developers confuse the nostalgia of old for some lower threshold of acceptance, platformers in this day and age regularly going about disguising a void and accompanying skybox with places to stand or jump between.
At the risk of going off on some verbose, rose-tinted “heart and soul” tangent concerning a genre admittedly niche to begin with, I will say this. As someone having grown up with these types of games on both consoles at the time — and still appreciate them from a design sense decades on — a lot of one’s fondness is of course emotion-driven. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility to claim a good platformer — a good 3D platformer, to be more precise — takes something a lot more methodical and delicately-arranged for it to resonate. Even if your starting point lends itself to similarly-nostalgic releases of year’s past. So blatant, concern immediately sets in that this is doomed to be another one of those instances of a developer thinking that because it reminds you of another [possibly better] game, that’s enough to carry it through. You get no prizes for taking a gander at Tinykin and having both Paper Mario and Pikmin spring to mind. Or in the former’s case: the early Paper Mario entrants whose novel aesthetic needn’t have to rely on gimmicks related to paper-craft.
So Tinykin is already appeasing to nostalgia; its core premise being that of a traditional 3D platformer full of nooks, crannies and similarly out-of-shot areas that may or may not house a handful of nectar lumps to hoover up. Nectar being Tinykin‘s golden coin or musical note, if you will. All the while commanding an ever-increasing troupe of critters of varying traits, that can be tossed at particular items. The latest build granted access to two types: a standard pink variant used to carry objects and knock others to clear the way. And red’s which explode on contact but are used primarily to ignite objects like candles. Nothing we haven’t seen before all those years ago. Yet Tinykin isn’t satisfied with just playing up to the crowd, nor is its gameplay hook one that feels singularly throwback with nothing else to support it. And this is where the charm and as a result, the real joy of a game attempting to evoke the delight of platformers comes to define one’s brief time spent and spent well. Similarly a call-back it may be, you can’t help but smirk at a detail so inconsequential as your titular Tinykin giving off that Pikmin-like grunt as they work together to shift an heavy object. Or the ample number of “yay!” cries that trigger when an obstruction is cleared.
The assumption is that these little details, much like the “2D characters in a 3D world” aesthetic, will quickly lose its luster or even get annoying after the twentieth repeated play. But honestly, I couldn’t help but smile continuously throughout this brief slice of Tinykin. And for more than just getting to experience another slice of verbal gobbledygook from a fellow NPC devoid of actual voiced lines. Because even if you’re the sort entirely divorced from such nostalgia or welcome memories of 3D platformers of yonder, within Tinykin nestles a curious environment surprisingly smart in its structure and more so with how well it manages to guide and distract alike. Sure you could see this game as but another grand space littered with “stuff” to do rather than some coherent world with purpose — a design that admittedly plays well into the ant-sized perspective. But what this game gets right, where perhaps so many fail to catch onto, is that it’s those same minute, seemingly unimportant details in its world-building that prevent these levels from feeling too stagnant and artificial.
Distraction is a concept Tinykin seems all too happy to adapt when it comes to initially working out the layout. How to reach certain places, which ascending platforms to take, which sections are likely to hold some contextualized item or device crucial to the main objective. There’s certainly a touch of the fetch quest formalities at play here, but again Tinykin manages to side-step the possible grievances with this formula by making sure its level design is arranged in such a way to instill intrigue. Regardless of whether or not you’re adamant on getting 100% of the collectibles available, it’s through a combination of visual/audio cues and suggestions of nestled-away oddities to at least take a look at where Tinykin‘s quest structure is in fact validated because of its level design. That giant piano that has a grate blocking access to its interior? You want to go in there. And not just because it’s vital to some side-quest, but you just know that stepping inside will trigger another contextual shift in music. Cue another welcome chuckle as the level’s main theme, as you rightly deduced, transitions to a piano solo variant. In much the same way you hopped into that guitar lying on the floor, to find a make-shift bar with an acoustic guitar equivalent kicking in.
It’s all these small, brief but pleasant moments that were (and still are) present in the platformers of old. The reasons why, less-gracious in age the era of N64/PS titles may now be compared to something originating on the SNES perhaps, platformers of that period are both fondly remembered but enjoyable to come back to. Those games understood that a successful game of its genre is about more than just the spectacle or the longing achievement of completion. It’s more to do with feeling like your curiosity and sense of exploration can be rewarded — no matter how brief. And Tinykin does that so many times it’s surprising that this is just the first level of a much grander adventure. While the gameplay in so far as puzzle-solving may be straightforward — not least when the game tells you which Tinykin variant to use and automatically assigns it upon the aiming reticle popping up — that doesn’t mean the sense of discovery is sullied. Far from: Tinykin’s greatest strength is in its understanding that levels in any platformer are there to discover as well as make one’s way through.
It may well be that the room-hopping motif of the game will eventually lose its appeal or that the homage to a series like Pikmin falls by the wayside due to how simple if faithful the integration comes off. But these concerns do little to sully what has been a surprising and delightful little trip into the miniaturized world of Tinykin. Credit to developer Splashteam — and publisher tinyBuild too, on the basis of bringing this release to light — for architecting a vertical slice that does admittedly bait one’s love for the platformer genre, but more importantly demonstrates a cunning understanding on how to go about designing levels and regions you’re so quickly tempted to scurry inside and outside of. And when all’s said and done: to casually mess around within such a well-curated environment, because I simply wanted to. Wasting time near the end for no reason other than the novelty of skating on a bar of soap — an emblematic example of how well Tinykin has introduced itself. A game after my own heart. Nonetheless, this is a delightful little discovery and one whose tentative Summer release has an increased level of interest.