Sidescrolling platformers used to be everywhere. Super Mario Bros. codified the essentials, and then developers spent more than a decade iterating and innovating in the genre until 3D gaming started to take over. But the kids who played those platformers grew up and became developers themselves, and the indie scene is enjoying an ongoing resurgence of high-quality platformers, from Shovel Knight to Celeste. In fact, the genre’s approaching a similar level of saturation to in the old days, and it requires something special to stand out. Fortunately, Asylum Square founder and developer Joe Manaco and designer Steffen Künstler don’t have to worry about that, because their game Tiny Thor has both an innovative hammer-throwing mechanic and the development dream team to back it up.
Inspired by classic SNES and Amiga titles, Tiny Thor is a 16-bit platformer with all the emphasis on movement and jumping puzzles that one would expect, but you attack enemies by throwing Tiny’s hammer, Mjölnir. The hammer ricochets across the screen, bouncing off enemies, walls, and numerous environmental objects, sometimes even feeling a bit like Arkanoid or Breakout. Using guide lines to help you, you can throw the hammer at precise angles to achieve trick shots that, for example, hit a shielded enemy from behind or solve a physics puzzle. The entire game has been artfully designed — and redesigned — around this mechanic.
“Every few months (we think about if) we should redo it altogether because we learned so much,” said Manaco of the game’s level design. He was half-kidding — but full restarts have happened before. “We’ve basically done that one or two times,” said Künstler jovially.
It has been a long road to the Tiny Thor we see today. Joe Manaco, whose real name is actually Jochen Heizmann, created the original prototype for the game back in December 2012 during a 48-hour game jam. Manaco has been developing games his whole life, and in 2007 he joined German game developer Gameforge, which at the time worked on browser games and mobile apps. Likewise, Künstler has a decade of game development experience, primarily in strategy and browser games, and he and Manaco first met at Gameforge as colleagues.
Manaco actually did not continue development of Tiny Thor right away, but over time, he did develop ambitions of creating a game of his own — lofty ambitions. He didn’t just want to make games inspired by things he grew up playing, like The Adventures of Lomax; he wanted to make games with the people who made Lomax.
“I always wanted to do a game with some heroes of my youth, but I didn’t know any of them,” said Manaco. He had developed a savings from working at Gameforge, so he actually emailed Henk Nieborg, an outstanding artist and co-creator of Lomax, to ask if he was interested in working on a project with him. Thus, he and Nieborg began collaborating. After one initial development misfire, Manaco contemplated revisiting Tiny Thor with Nieborg. So, “Henk did a mockup for the game, and it was just so insane good,” said Manaco. “And I thought, ‘Okay, I have to do this.’”
It was then that Künstler became involved in the development, initially in a small role but quickly becoming a critical force in the game design. They eventually began sharing their work online, and amazingly, it soon caught the eye of the level designer of 1990 classic Turrican — which was coincidentally the game that had inspired Manaco to become a game designer in the first place. The two talked, and the Turrican designer put Manaco in contact with Chris Hülsbeck, the composer of Turrican, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, and myriad other projects. Sure enough, Hülsbeck agreed to compose Tiny Thor, and Manaco had recruited another one of his heroes to the project.
Composer Fabian Del Priore, a collaborator of Hülsbeck’s, eventually joined as well. And last year, accomplished pixel artists Nauris Amatnieks and Andrew Bado joined the project, greatly expanding upon the groundwork established by Nieborg. Amatnieks is providing background and environmental art, while Bado “has expanded the range of Tiny’s movements and all the other enemies tremendously.”
Screenshots instantly sell the graphical fidelity of Tiny Thor, which is rich in both color and detail, but it will look even better in motion. Nieborg had created over 150 frames of animation for Tiny, but with Bado, that number has ballooned to an incredible 300.
Tiny Thor’s development has been a case of talent attracting talent, but Manaco and Künstler are utterly humble and honest that the game was not just born good. In fact, the game was just a “pretty basic platformer” at first, and they only discovered the game’s core hammer mechanic when Manaco removed gravity from Tiny’s hammer throws by accident. Even after that serendipitous moment, the pressure was on to deliver something that played as good as it looked and sounded.
Manaco explained, “It was like, ‘Oh, Henk is working on it. Chris is working on it. It’s like a dream team.’ And the game — (it wasn’t) that good, to be honest.” Künstler recalled a similar feeling, “We have all this potential from the graphical and sound side, and let’s not flounder the gameplay.”
The hammer ricochet mechanic necessitated redesigning Tiny Thor, since what they had built did not demand the player to throw the hammer in all the cool ways the developers wanted. Or worse, as Künstler explained, “I was always afraid the player would just throw the hammer, and it kind of kills everything on the screen and (the player) doesn’t have to do anything.”
The solution they arrived at was to zoom out the camera and create more expansive spaces in which to play. In these larger spaces, throwing the hammer at random won’t hit anything, and strategy is required to progress. “All of a sudden, the players played the game like Steffen wanted them to play them,” said Manaco, “and it was so good a feeling to see that it actually worked out.”
Player feedback has been invaluable for Asylum Square on Tiny Thor. For instance, for a short period early on, performing trick shots with the hammer actually required mana that recovered over time or was restored by gems. But with this constraint in place, the developers discovered that players didn’t try to perform trick shots at all and instead used a more basic attack to fight everything. The developers swiftly removed the mana system and continued redesigning the game around trick shots.
Künstler feels that they have really hit their stride with the development of Tiny Thor in the past nine or 10 months, with all of the design elements starting to connect and expand in interesting ways. Levels contain an expanding array of environmental objects, including traditional boxes and switches but also things like ice vortexes and spore bumpers. Throwing Tiny’s hammer through an ice vortex makes the hammer create an ice trail everywhere it goes, imaginatively expanding platforming possibilities, while spore bumpers let Tiny and his hammer bounce around at high speeds, a bit like springs in Sonic the Hedgehog.
An element with overt Sonic the Hedgehog inspiration is Tiny Thor’s heart mechanic. Tiny has no health bar; if he gets hit, he dies. However, you will be able to find a “heart” occasionally in the environment, which will allow him to survive one hit without dying. When Tiny gets hit while holding the heart, the heart will jump out of Tiny like how Sonic loses rings. Tiny can attempt to get the heart back before it disappears, but the heart will actively try to get away from him. It might be riskier to try to retrieve the heart than to just keep going without it, but behind the scenes, Manaco has coded the game to ensure players will always have a fair chance of retrieving it.
Otherwise, like several contemporary platformers, Tiny Thor makes use of a checkpoint system. That way, the developers can create a variety of challenging level designs without frustrating players by forcing them to replay large sections they had already completed. The game will ultimately comprise three huge worlds, with early levels taking only five-to-10 minutes to complete but later levels taking much longer as they become labyrinthine. Künstler tentatively estimates one playthrough will last six-to-10 hours, potentially longer.
Levels will be largely linear, with complexity and difficulty increasing gradually. Each world will have a mid-boss and main boss, with each main boss having its own cool theme song and each mid-boss offering Tiny a new ability, like a downward hammer thrust. Asylum Square recently showed off a boss with Tetris inspiration in development, and prior to that, it unleashed the Kraken.
And while Tiny Thor does have a story, about Tiny maturing and taking responsibility for his mistakes, it won’t be the emphasis. Exhilarating action is the star of the show, enhanced by extremely fluid movement inspired by titles like Celeste. Tiny will be doing a lot of dashing and wall jumping while throwing his hammer.
With Tiny Thor, despite their team’s pedigree, Joe Manaco and Steffen Künstler are not looking to just cash in on nostalgia. They simply want to make a challenging game that is fun to play every step of the way. Künstler encapsulated the game’s design ethos when he talked about red gems that are hidden in the game. Finding these gems doesn’t unlock secret super abilities as rewards — it just unlocks even harder secret levels. It’s a conscious decision, because they don’t want power-ups to feel like the only rewards in the game. Instead, as Künstler explained, “We want the gameplay to be the reward itself.”
Tiny Thor will launch for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, Xbox, and PC “when it’s done.” The developers invite you to join their Discord to follow its development and potentially take part in a new closed beta in the coming months.