Tiny and Big: Grandpa’s Leftovers is the poster child for indie titles with a hipster feel. Literally – the game looks and animates like a poster for hipster bands you haven’t heard of. Black Pants Studio, the game’s German-based development team, crafted the doodly look of Tiny and Big to give it the look and feel of a living graphic novel.
But Tiny and Big isn’t all show, and the really stunning and innovative part of the game is the puzzle-platforming action. The gimmick, and the real draw of the game, is the laser-cutting tool used to create a path through levels. Cliff too high? Slice it in half, and use a grappling hook to yank the top half out of the way.
Does Tiny and Big’s spin on standard platforming make it a cut above the rest, or does its hook leave it hanging? Find out after the break.
The main character, Tiny, has three tools at his disposal: the laser, the Sticky Rocket, and the Grappling Hook. The laser cuts through almost every object found in the game, the rocket attaches to surfaces and applies propulsion to free-moving objects, and the grappling hook lets Tiny leash far-away objects of any size and drag them into position. The concept for each is relatively easy to understand, but the controls, specifically those for the sticky rocket and the laser, take a second or two to sink in. Luckily, Tiny and Big starts out with a rad little Gameboy-themed tutorial which applies just the right amount of hand-holding to things moving in the right direction.
The story swiftly interrupts the player just after the tutorial ends. Tiny and his best friend, an AI which speaks through a radio, are on a quest to recover a pair of magical “pants,” or to the anglo-impaired, underpants, which he inherited from his recently-missing-Grandpa and subsequently lost when his brother, Big, stole them. Just as Tiny shuts off his “RealityBoy,” a boulder falls from the sky, destroying the taxi in which Tiny and the Radio were riding. From then on, it’s a simple journey on foot to catch Big and thwart the powers he has gained by wearing his Grandpa’s “antique” underpants on his head.
So the story isn’t Game of Thrones dense, and Black Pants may have borrowed a certain theme from Dav Pilkey, but it doesn’t waste your time on exposition, and for a story about magic underpants, it’s not pants-on-head… well, you get it.
After Tiny escapes from the car wreck, the player is dropped into the second part of the tutorial – a large sandbox contained in a valley. The graphics become extremely striking in this first zone, as previously the RealityBoy had delivered everything in a monochromatic green. The majority of the game takes place in a surprisingly colorful desert mesa, with a surprise setting change at the very end. Tiny and Big’s uneven lines, intentionally ugly character design, and hatched shadows look like something you’d find in an abandoned Moleskine, or on the cover of something only available in vinyl. As Tiny interacts using his tools, black text appears, delivering a satisfying “ZOT!” “GUNNO!” “GANASH!” “POUND!” “POK!” or the rare but highly-valued “SMURTLE!” with each sound effect.
In the sandbox, the player has to recover the laser battery, the grappling hook, and the sticky rocket, just to ensure that the concepts learned in the first tutorial translate to the rest of the game.
You don’t know it as you enter, but this first zone is the highlight of the entire game. It’s harsh to say- this is the first level, and it’s not even really a level. But as things progress, Tiny and Big only gets more linear. Located in one area are a slope with rails, a neatly-sized block, and a tiki head about fifty feet away. Use the sticky rocket correctly, and you can knock the tiki off of its pedestal. It’s a really creative use of the tools the game provides, and a setup for excellent puzzles later on. Unfortunately, it all falls flat as the use of tools in later levels boils down to bridge-making and hefting Tiny onto awkwardly large blocks.
Even though finding solutions gets a little bland as the game progresses, Black Pants did a great job making the laser tool feel snappy and satisfying. By the fourth time you’ve cleaved a ten-ton boulder in half the novelty should wear off, but the comic book-style sound effect text and the simplicity of the action ensures it’s a grin-inducing activity every single time. The only issue is that, Tiny being quite tiny in relation to his surroundings, most of Tiny’s surgery is done at a low angle to the patient. It’s an annoying reality that, no matter where you stand, most blocks you encounter are really difficult to cut neatly in half without a diagonal slant to them, making maneuvering the pieces with the grappling hook or sticky rocket just a little more fiddly.
Speaking of fiddly, Tiny and Big has some incredibly awkward platforming. The camera, while controlled by the player, still seems to exert some weird pressure on Tiny as he runs, listing him to the left or right like a crappy shopping cart during complicated sections of the game. With the keyboard controls Tiny moves only at top speed, turning precise turns, backpedaling, manipulation while jumping, approaching steep drops without falling off, and dodging boulders into what is basically hell. An artsy turn in the level design means that a decent portion of the platforming involves avoiding innocuous chasms which will kill you, especially if you’re not giving Tiny a half-second braking time as you move.
The iffy controls, as well as that dodging boulders part, combine to create the biggest black mark against Tiny and Big. Tiny’s brother Big shows up with the power to chuck boulders at you fairly early in the game. With this newfound power, he guards a long bridge, designed as a gauntlet for the player to cross. To get through the level, aptly named “The Horrible Moment,” the player has to quickly create bridges to get closer to Big, then chop whatever he is standing on in half, all while dodging or cleaving the boulders he throws. So, instead of plotting elegant solutions, scanning the area carefully for collectibles, or enjoying one of the freshest game mechanics since Portal, you’re frantically throwing down bridges, slapping pillars into roughly the right position, and fudging jumps in an attempt to stop the onslaught of boulders.
And, when you miss a boulder, you go back to a checkpoint. A checkpoint which, if you’re lucky, will only require you to repeat less than three steps of your journey. The checkpoints are in all levels of Tiny and Big, not just in “The Horrible Moment,” but this level is your most glaring introduction to them, as I can close to guarantee that anyone who plays this level will probably die. At least a dozen times.
The level turns into a physics-based Super Meat Boy – completing complex physics puzzles on the fly before catching up to the spot you failed on before, then suddenly a big fat boulder and you’re doing it all again. I actually encountered a part in the gauntlet where I inadvertently cleaved the road I needed to use to proceed in half, then, after getting crushed by a boulder, realized I had checkpointed after making the level unbeatable, and had quit the level and start from the top.
Bridges got made like you never seen.
But that’s just the problem. “The Horrible Moment” soured me on the rest of the game. Sure, there could be an alternative solution to this hole in front of me, but the first one I think of is the one which was fastest when trying to reach Big. And even when Big returns as a slightly less bothersome pest later on, he stands as a reminder of how he took away your creative approach.
Death continues to be a pretty constant companion further into the game, and really, with the option to restart from a checkpoint already available, I don’t really understand why checkpoints became the immediate consequence for platforming failure. The worst thing that can happen in Tiny and Big is to remove the possibility of advancing forward. Bridges come up shorter than expected and fall into holes, ladders get re-sized one too many times and become useless, or structural supports get lazed by accident. In these cases, it’s absolutely necessary to return to a checkpoint to get all the blocks in their starting positions. Compared to the humility of realizing the mistake you’ve made and checkpointing yourself, whipping a block into your head accidentally is an infuriating way to get dragged back to a checkpoint.
Which brings me to my final point – Tiny and Big is a good start. There is a lot to like about this puzzle-platformer. The best parts of the game are when it gives plenty of space to slowly think out solutions, or experiment with the laser on a roomful of goodies. When it’s not being infuriatingly difficult, it’s a joy to carefully navigate the terrain and gather the collectibles (highly-ironic Boring Old Stones, arcade machines which serve up retro challenges, and seventeen different music tracks from bands you’ve probably never heard of). When there’s room for it, developing an elegant solution feels rewarding, and with an array of challenges, from using the least number of cuts or finishing a level in the least amount of time, Tiny and Big gives a lot of room for players to squeeze out a lot more time than it takes to just beat the game once.
If you can forgive Tiny and Big’s flawed design choices, I think laser-slicing-and-dicing boulders can do a lot to compensate for the game’s wrongdoings. That, and magic underpants.
If you’d like to try Tiny and Big for yourself, Black Pants Studios released a free demo version, Tiny and Big: Up That Mountain, which is a close approximation to the gameplay found in the full version.
Tiny and Big: Grandpa’s Leftovers was released June 19th, 2012 on GOG.com and Steam.