A forgotten arcade treat gets a stylish updating.
Put aside any notions you might have about how good you are at video games, for TumbleSeed cares not. This game is hard.
That's because TumbleSeed's core mechanic is completely alien to anything you've likely played before. Instead of having direct control over your character, the titular TumbleSeed, players are instead tasked with rolling your round avatar by adjusting the angle of a horizontal beam. One analogue stick adjusts the height of the plank's left side, while the other handles the right. Pulling off even the most basic move is equal parts maddening and mesmerising.
Actually, maybe it is familiar to something you've played before, if you're seasoned enough to have been in the arcades in the early 80s. TumbleSeed takes its cues from Taito's lovely 1983 arcade parlour game Ice Cold Beer. While still wildly entertaining in moderation, Ice Cold Beer was beholden to the technical limitations of its time: namely that it wasn't actually a video game. As such, its mechanical obstacle course was set in stone (or rather melded from metal, but you get the idea).
Chicago-based game developers Benedict Fritz and Greg Wohlwend were big fans of Ice Cold Beer and realised that its unique premise had weirdly not been co-opted into a video game. With contemporary simulated physics being as convincing as they are, the team realised it could craft a precise enough facsimile to Ice Cold Beer's core concept and use the magic of video game design to flesh it out into something more dynamic than the antique arcade cabinet could provide.
In other words, TumbleSeed is Ice Cold Beer on the Holodeck. And boy is that refreshing!
The dev team could have just made a series of pockmarked arenas and tasked players with navigating such hazards, but instead that's merely the tip of the iceberg. Instead, TumbleSeed's procedurally-generated vertically scrolling stages offer a beautiful, dynamic ecosystem of overlapping dangers.
While large pits present the biggest perils - as rolling your TumbleSeed into such holes will reduce hit points and reset progress - there's a complex series of flora and fauna skittering about in pursuit of your panicked pearl. Spiders will leap about at diagonal angles, flies will hover around valuable resources, and snakes will endlessly slither about on your tail. (Forget Harry Potter: snakes haven't been this scary since Beetlejuice.)
Thankfully, TumbleSeed's increased hazards are counterbalanced by a rich system of rewards. Beyond manipulating your TumbleSeed's mobility, the game's other core mechanic involves tactically managing resources to gain power-ups. The core currency used in TumbleSeed is crystals. These can be collected in the environment or grown through planting seeds in plots of soil liberally scattered throughout the odyssey. Once obtained, these crystals can be planted to attain various perks.
Planting a FlagSeed will create a respawn point so you won't have to start a stage from scratch should your TumbleSeed plummet down a pit; a ThornSeed offers a protective pike spiraling around your spherical avatar; and a HeartSeed is what in Zelda parlance we call a "piece of heart" (i.e. collect four of them for an extra hit point). Like any good roguelike, you'll frequently be offered new power-ups, each with their own cost/benefit analysis to work out. Should you grab the SpringSeed to bounce over hazardous terrain, or the MissileSeed to sprout homing rockets? Decisions, decisions.
Cleverly, TumbleSeed's developers have crafted a robust series of mini-games around Ice Cold Beer's humble premise. Between stages there are small villages with their own gambling parlours offering such tasks as a shooting range and obstacle course. There's even a series of side-missions with an elder assigning tasks ranging from completing the game's first section in under two minutes, reaching the second stage without taking damage, or collecting a bounty of 15 crystals. Complete enough of these and you'll be given the option to teleport to later stages. (Much like Spelunky's shortcut system, this is great for practice, but pros know that a well-played fresh start will lead to greater glory overall.)
The whole thing is wrapped up in a pretty package by Threes!, Ridiculous Fishing, and Hundreds artist Greg Wohlwend. The clean, crisp colours add a real sense of liveliness to a game that's often doing its best to destroy you. Like Fez before it, TumbleSeed manages to craft a surprisingly characterful world out of such a systems-focused conceit. My only gripe here is that I had a couple of issues early on where it could be difficult to determine which colours and shapes were cosmetic versus which occupied a physical space, but this melts away after a few rounds.
TumbleSeed is challenging in all the right ways. It never feels mean-spirited, yet it requires patience, perseverance, and experimentation to unlearn everything you know about how to manipulate a video game character. Not since Nathan "Radd" Spencer decided that having a bionic arm meant that he was above jumping has an avatar been such a cruelly comical delight to control. (Though QWOP's clumsy marathon runner comes close.) TumbleSeed may be based on an arcade classic, but it's effortlessly merged Ice Cold Beer with lessons learned from modern masterpieces like Spelunky. The result is a surprising delight that feels at once vintage and vogueish.