Remember the days when 3D platformer characters needed their goofy noises and grunts translated into speech through text boxes? The days when it was OK to have a game world that didn’t rely on accurate shadows, falling debris, and characters with crows’ feet and reflective, over-teary eyes.
Maybe not, maybe an N64 is in the same category in the public imagination now as a penny farthing, and games like Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, and Donkey Kong 64 are like exhibits at a Victorian freakshow; curiosity-arousing, but not really appropriate entertainment in the modern age.
The heyday of the 3D platformer seemed to have been between the release of Crash Bandicoot in 1996, and Jak and Daxter in 2001 (the inclusion of gunplay in Jak’s sequels already signalled that this Golden Age had come to a close). It was a five-year period where the games industry was excited about bringing the eccentricity and cartoonish fun of 2D platformers into the 3D realm.
Before it was feasible to make games that looked realistic with any degree of success, it didn’t seem entirely unlikely that 3D platformers were ‘the future’. Now, Mario seems to be the only remaining standard-bearer for the genre, and given the painful unpopularity of the Wii U, it’s quite possible that his inevitable debut on the doomed console will go by mostly unnoticed.
Mimimi Productions’ The Last Tinker attempts to recapture some of that old 3D platformer magic with a beautiful psychedelic cut-out visual style, while relying on platforming and combat mechanics that seem designed to nurture fledgling gamers for hypothetical future regurgitations like Assassin’s Creed XXII or Batman: Arkham Planet. It’s a strange combination, but may be a logical way to try and avert modern gamers’ gazes away from the the homogeneous mainstream, while accepting the fact that tricky platform-jumping – and bouncing off creatures’ heads – just doesn’t satiate the gaming public anymore.
Aesthetically, Tinker has what it takes to rank among the 3D platform greats, and the fact that it’s doing it on on the PC of all places (though Xbox One and PS4 versions are inbound) is particularly amibitious. But does it have enough beneath its shiny surface to not only engage PC gamers, but give the out-of-vogue genre a much-needed revival?
The Last Tinker tells the story of Koru, a teenage ginger chimpman who is tasked with uniting the balkanised City of Colors, comprising of green, red and blue folk. In so attempting, he accidentally unleashes a malignant grey force called the Bleakness, which spreads throughout the vibrant land and threatens its very existence. Naturally, the threat of the world going grey makes the people of red, green, and blue colour need to realise that they need to unite. It’s up to you, Koru, to make this happen.
Tinker has the looks and (most of the) character to warm 3D platform nostalgics to it. German studio Mimimi clearly have a passion for the genre’s history, as demonstrated by its use of sounds instead of speech; something we haven’t seen used so well since the Banjo-Kazooie days. It’s a brave move in modern gaming to eschew spoken dialogue, but Tinker pulls it off in honest-to-N64 style. Text boxes, meanwhile, are giant bits of card that you can see the back of when you walk around them. The world is surreal and unapologetically colourful, though a little lacking in variety.
All the characters will bring a smile to your face, from the timid bunnyfolk of the Green District to your floating sheeplike sidekick. Particularly likeable is the oafish mushroom Biggs, who follows you around gleefully upon request, and can be used to stomp on switches and can be ridden to charge through hordes of bleak-lings or bleak-webs.
Every great platformer needs a lead character who burns himself into the imagination, which is something that Tinker is missing. Koru’s cold, chimpy countenance doesn’t endear him to the player, he doesn’t speak or make appealing noises like the rest of the cast, and he’s not expressive enough in cutscenes for you to get a feel for his character. There’s no edge to him on the one hand (Crash, Conker, Jak & Daxter), and not enough goof (Banjo-Kazooie, Rayman) on the other.
Mimimi played it very safe with Tinker’s gameplay. The ‘platforming’ entails Assassin’s Creed-style auto-jumping. The Arkham-lite combat uses on a couple of attack buttons, with exclamation marks above enemies notifying you when they’re about to strike. A basic upgrade system doesn’t save it from getting quite repetitive, which isn’t helped by the unvaried, monochromatic baddies. There are a couple of interesting moves, such as the power to send your enemies running away in fear, but it’s a shame this isn’t combined with more platformy combat.
One of the great myths about 3D platformers is that they’re ‘kid’s’ games. The reality is that the greatest games of the genre are gruellingly difficult. You’d see a jigsaw piece in Banjo or a star in Mario Galaxy, and it’d be up to you to work out how to get to it. No suggestive camera shots to reveal what you should do, or trails dragging you to the very exact spot you need to go. Beneath their cute, fluffy aesthetics, they hide challenging gameplay systems that would leave the pampered modern gamer flummoxed.
Beneath its visual style that wonderfully captures the spirit of 3D platformers of yore, Tinker has a shallow and forgiving gameplay system that treats you like a kid (which is exactly what we don’t want people to think if we’re to get people playing these games again). The same can be said of the story, whose cutesy allegory holds little appeal for an escapism-seeking adult. This is fine (for 10-year-olds), but undermines the idea that 3D platformers can be the most universal of genres, to be enjoyed by everyone.
Mimimi have created a vibrant, beautifully presented 3D platformer filled with characters who need a strong, photogenic protagonist to lead them. It’s incredibly ambitious to work in a genre whose golden age has long since passed, and whose best iterations have exclusively come from some of the most reputable developers of all time.
With mainstream developers now steering clear of 3D platformers (as if they’re scared of getting all the colours of the rainbow splattered on their grey camo khakis), and indie developers sticking to the more time-tested and affordable formula of 2D platformers, any attempts to reinvigorate the genre should be commended. With The Last Tinker, PC gamers get a rare splash of 3D platformer nostalgia, albeit not one that’s likely to trigger a new wave for the genre.
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