Level design is so integral when it comes to separating not just the good platformers from the bad, but the good iterations from those absolute classics that decades on still stand the test of time. Not to say this aspect of game design isn’t important in any genre — as much as they may take a more back-seat approach in favor of more important elements or mechanics — and yes, this statement isn’t entirely a shocker. You’re telling me a genre all about navigating the geometry of one’s surroundings should put emphasis on how they’re built? No way! Sarcasm aside, think of any great platformer from the past and you’re bound to call upon the way those levels, worlds or environments are built.
How said surroundings are as much about instilling the desire to overcome the challenge as much as they are a sense of discovery, exploration and curiosity. Art-style, music and yes, writing too, can play their part along the way. But the joys of the humble platformer and the joys of level design in general are very much one and the same. Wrestling with, coaxing and indeed convincing a player’s line of thinking — without a single audio or verbal cue — to go one way over another, suggestive or otherwise. For those indifferent or simply not a fan of this genre, this may all sound like conjecture and all-too-convoluted a view for what’s a relatively straight-forward premise. But as someone who treats level design as one of the most vital components of any game, regardless of genre or general direction, it just makes a game like Tinykin shine brighter than its slick, upbeat, easy-to-get-into pitch already professes.
And it’s largely down to just how well developer Splashteam hone in on that very philosophy and deliver on a game that’s all too happy in letting its players loose amid these many tempting routes and pockets for exploration. A philosophy most of all that asks: what is it about platformers that still, to this day, makes them such novel but fascinating entries to dissect? Or at the very least, be avidly excited for in the hopes they inspire recollections of what came before. Yes, that reliance on nostalgia and “how things were back in the days” is a double-edged sword, as we’ve discussed ample times previous. It’s hard not to utter the likes of Pikmin, Paper Mario and even the Rare games of the N64 era when speaking of Tinykin as a whole. A combination of novel aesthetics, momentary puzzle-solving in transporting key items from one place to another, all of which is wound into an environment chock full of verticality and welcome distraction. And to top it all off, thanks to a trustee bar of soap, just like any classic Tony Hawk Pro Skater entry, the levels here are just a pure treat to move around in.
High hopes then and high stakes given such comparisons. But these influences thankfully don’t end up coloring too much of the expectation going into this and it’s because Tinykin manages to keep within the confines of its own ambition and intentions why the brief six-hour run-time to reach end credits feels sufficient. At the point where the miniaturized, house motif may arguably be in the extremely early periods of wearing thin, the game has reached its climax. But it’s here, in that very specific style of setting, where Tinykin‘s risk of potentially growing stale is such a non-issue. Not that there shouldn’t be a counter-argument that perhaps a level set outdoors or at least one not confined to some large-scale rectangular shape wouldn’t go a miss. Sure, the idea that the game’s “levels” are merely that of different rooms/color palettes, rather than entirely conflicted environments, does risk limiting the appeal. But where Tinykin may be intentionally limited on all-round structure, it’s how Splashteam have crammed so much smaller detail and opportune platforming into each of its interiors where those brief six hours of play-time end up being six hours of near-consistent, undiluted joy.
It all starts with the delightful way Splashteam utilize everyday objects in terms of world-building. In a world where anthropomorphic insects have formed a kind of society and culture dwelling within what is a quintessential typical 90’s period house. How an ordinary kitchen resembles a farm in certain spots — how an over-flowing kitchen sink is transformed/engineered into a waterfall complete with taped-together straws leading down into a river/stream made out of everyday sponges. A kid’s bedroom transformed into a kind of carnival-like amusement park chock full of toys, games, model structures and its own electric, rollercoaster-styled race-track. Structurally, it’s hard not to ignore the rigid rectangular confines as noted, but as you quickly find, the grander details aren’t the focus here. It’s all these small, subtle, comically-apt touches that make each of Tinykin‘s environments ones you can’t help but poke around in.
Which inevitably means that the act of platforming itself is bolstered more so by that drive of self-made objectives. How do I get up there? How do I get the other side of those railings? Can I reach those parts near the ceiling? Eventually added to by the hard-to-deny temptation on taking a diversion off your already pre-determined route by way of a collectible or tucked-away corner. Those that perhaps require you to voluntarily descending, only to then make that eventual climb up all over again. It takes some doing for a game to overwhelm a player with so much to figure out and lead them towards (lead them away from in fact) and yet Tinykin never feels like it’s providing too much at any given time. It helps that the game makes sure to dot plenty of short-cuts and ways in which one can create a sort of fast-track between pivotal points, but what makes this game as joyous to move about in most of all is simply how slick and fluid its controls are to begin with. More importantly, how consequence and the fear of death is limited to simply forgetting to cushion one’s fall. Tinykin actively encourages its players to be curious, to be adventurous, to take those risky glides across a perilous drop and it’s that encouragement why this game is such fun to simply move around in.
Particularly in the case of controlling your titular troupe of Tinykin companions, the game surprisingly decides against obstructing progression with any semblance of similar risk or heavy-handed management. For one, Tinykin themselves can’t die or fall off a platform — move too quickly across a given space and your troupe will simply spawn next to you. This more relaxed approach to how you utilize these creatures also comes in the way the game automatically selects the type of creature for what one may likely want to achieve. Find a destructible object nearby and the game will instinctively lock-on to said object, with the red types ready to hurl as projectiles. Aim at a collectible and the game will deduce that the starting pink types are the ideal fit. Later on when the green types are unlocked — which act as vertical ladders of a sort to help you reach higher spots — point anywhere on the ground and the game will know this is likely what you’re hoping to achieve. While this may undermine any possibility of puzzle-solving or deduction to naturally prosper in Tinykin, at the same time it means that one’s adventure continues with that same brisk, free-flowing pace.
And this is forgetting the fact that hunting down Tinykin to help you in achieving these goals is also one of the more fundamental gameplay loops throughout. Interactions with specific devices or items, often requiring a set number of a particular type. At times the game offering similarly-subtle conundrums on whether it’s worth dedicating one Tinykin to carry a collectible — thus rendering them unavailable for as long as they’re holding said collectible — or saving such numbers up so as to help lift a more sizable object in typical Pikmin-esque fashion. Complete with a delightful group grunt as they begin their path forward. But again, Tinykin manages to avoid this form of gameplay from feeling all too like a fetch-quest by cleverly sprinkling about ample amount of opportunities and side activities to make it seem less like a bunch of irksome “go here, come back, go there again, come back again” instructions and more like one is building up a kind of interconnected web of routes and unlockables to return to. Admittedly if one were to offer criticism, the fact the game is without any kind of map in general — more specifically, one where you can place down markers or reminders of some inaccessible item to return to — does seem like one of the few, rare oversights.
Even so, there’s an eagerness that never fades into combing through each and every one of Tinykin‘s hidden corners. Partly because the way the game is organized always makes it a temptation to reach, but it’s also in part thanks to the sound design. How, much like level design itself, Splashteam have recognized something as simple as a contextual change in a level’s theme, can add so much. A repeated comment this may be from prior initial impressions, but by far one of the best moments in Tinykin is in its first level — wandering into the inside of a giant piano, to find the level’s theme transition to this solo piano version. That focus on alternate mixes and instrumentals for each of the tracks is such a small detail in the grand scheme of things, but nonetheless a welcome addition. Further making later areas like that theme park-styled bedroom one whose grand assortment of areas to trudge through feel even more like they’re brimming with their own standalone details and personality.
Early on in one’s adventure it’s clear the tone here is one of a passive, laid back approach to challenge and accomplishment, but that direction in no way diminishes what ends up being one of the most delightful and well-curated IPs in this genre for some years. Largely in part due to Splashteam’s attention to detail in the broader scope of level design, but whose strengths are reliant too on how slick the controls feel and how easy they’ll convince you to stick around in its series of levels thereafter. Its lesser-focus on genuine deduction, on top of one’s skill with aiming and group management alike, may put those looking for a meatier sense of difficulty, off from ever setting foot inside the enormity of its setting. But while Tinykin may not be that type of game, it does little to sully this brief but upbeat trek. Because it’s Splashteam’s clear love for the pull and allure of platforming that ultimately delivers. A combination of a streamlined length that doesn’t overstay its welcome, terrific level design, fluid controls and an overall aesthetic that’s both charming and well-integrated, Tinykin is a joy to play and an easy recommendation for any fan of 3D platformers.