There’s clearly a lot of love for the old-school platformer at Blue Sunset Games. They’ve followed the ‘90s rule of making the main character an anthropomorphic animal – this time a Tyrannosaurus Rex called Borti – and then they take him on a journey that’s effectively a museum tour through every platformer that’s old enough to vote.
The levels in Tiny Hands Adventure are all connected by a hub tower that’s basically a Banjo-Kazooie home world. Jump into a portal and Tiny Hands Adventure will shift the camera, perspective and – occasionally – art style to match the game it wants to reference. One minute you’re running towards the screen with a stone wheel hurtling towards you like level 1-1 of Crash Bandicoot, and the next you’re strapped onto a 2D plane and winding around a tower like Pandemonium. There are Ratchet and Clank space levels, barrel-dodging Donkey Kong levels, Pac-Man mazes, and basic 2D platformer levels that could be Mario if you squinted.
Tiny Hands Adventures sports twenty levels in total, and while they don’t have a single new idea to share between them, they’re better designed than you’d expect from a copycat platformer. There’s variety in each, as your combat is tested, then your jumping, and it may even switch perspectives halfway through. Secrets spin off from the critical path, as you’re rewarded with gems (five are hard to find, and one red one is easier, as it’s a hard requirement for unlocking a boss), and you’ll occasionally stumble across areas that need skills you have or haven’t unlocked from a boss yet. If you’ve ever veered off the triple-A path and played a budget platformer, Tiny Hands Adventure will surprise you by being more accomplished in the level design than it has any right to be.
Complete a level, gain its red gem, and you’ll get closer to unlocking the boss at the end of each floor of the tower. These bosses apply the rule-of-three, and require you to whack them thrice before they’re defeated. These are an incredibly mixed bag, and tend to be the source of the game’s biggest frustrations. The opening boss does the old ‘mortars in the air’ trick, casting shadows where bombs are about to fall, and then asks you to pull off reasonably intricate platforming while every platform has the shadow of an incoming bomb. For an opening boss, it’s surprisingly unforgiving. Yet the end-game boss feels like a tutorial boss, teaching you the game’s mechanics and being as easy as pie. It’s a bizarre switcharoo. The bosses range from the benign (a charging armadillo dude), to the maddening (a salamander that uses the power of poor collision detection to defeat you), and none of them sit in the middle. Often the difficulty comes from Tiny Hands Adventures’ decision to be one-hit-kills for little Borti.
Generally, the difficulty of Tiny Hands Adventure is pitched between two odd stools. This isn’t a game that you could shove into a young player’s hands and leave them to it: the platforming’s too exact, and there are countless tech issues (more on them in a mo) that stop it from being accessible. But the levels are so short, and checkpoints pretty frequent, that a hardcore player is going to truck through it in a short amount of time. We reached the end within two hours. Credit to Blue Sunset Games, as some longevity comes in the form of gaining all the gems within a level, which in turn introduces a hard mode. We found the gems fun enough to find, but didn’t get the compulsion to complete each level on hard mode.
We lacked that compulsion, largely because Tiny Hands Adventure doesn’t feel particularly great to play. As it turns out, choosing a T-Rex as your main character might not be an ideal choice; Borti is slow and lumbering, and he’s quite a chunky character for landing on surprisingly thin platforms. When your claws are bigger than the separate slats on a jungle bridge, things just feel a bit clumsy. As we’ve hinted towards, the collision detection is a roll of the dice. You can be miles from a tumbling boulder, or even clear it with a perfectly timed jump, and the game will still tut, shake a finger and toss you to a checkpoint. It all feels wonky.
Some basic design decisions compound things. By opting for a single hit meaning death, all of the game’s issues come more starkly into focus. Enemies are hidden behind foliage or elements of the foreground, so you’ll get ambushed and you’re dead. You’re asked to make leaps of faith onto platforms you can’t see and – yep – there’s an enemy or trap and you’re dead. Explosive crates don’t look much different from normal crates. There’s loads of these easy-to-solve issues, more than Borti could hold in his tiny T-Rex arms.
Plus there are the bugs. We played a level that was near pitch-black, wondering how we were meant to guess where the platforms were. It was on the tenth or so runthrough that the lights turned on and we realised it wasn’t actually meant to be that way. Almost all of the achievements were borked for us, so we felt unrewarded for completion, and one of the game’s ‘special skills’ items – the machine arms – doesn’t have a working animation. You just float over chasms. Again, there are plenty more examples.
Tiny Hands Adventure isn’t much to look at either, mainly because it’s a bin full of scraps. There are photo-realistic spiders wandering about (arachnophobes beware), but then you’ll come across Skylander-like bosses, while Borti himself looks like a shonky 3DO knockoff. It feels like someone wandered through a Unity sale and just bought a trollyful of models without thinking how they’d look together. But let’s take a moment to recognise the soundtrack; Tiny Hands Adventure is full of absolute bangers, and we were genuinely sidewinded by how good it sounded. It shuffles from techno to Final Fantasy battle music to twee jingles, and they’re all great. It’s not exactly a reason to buy, but it softened a lot of the issues.
As you’d probably expect from a budget platformer that features a T-Rex main character, Tiny Hands Adventure on Xbox is awkward, unwieldy, and from a completely different time. If you’re blessed with patience and go all misty-eyed when someone mentions platformers like Croc and Bubsy, then you might find some enjoyment here. For others, it’s probably worth leaving this fossil in the ground.