When Matthew Taranto ended his webcomic Brawl in the Family in 2014, it was a sad day for many. The comic provided a fun, lighthearted look at a bunch of Nintendo’s most popular characters. It lampooned gameplay mechanics, poked fun at gaming conventions, and created stories surrounding Kirby, Jigglypuff, and many other Super Smash Bros mainstays. With the comic’s conclusion, Taranto was able to focus entirely on a different passion: completing his own video game. Tadpole Treble harnesses the youth and innocence of Brawl in the Family, but that’s where the similarities end.
Tadpole Treble is a wholly unique game, overflowing with charm and joy. The story is about a tiny lost tadpole named Baton, and her journey to swim back home across a winding river. Stages are shaped like musical scales, and players control Baton by moving her up and down the scale in order to dodge obstacles and collect items. Every level takes place across a different aquatic environment with its own unique challenges. More importantly, stages have distinctive musical themes and unique songs that play in the background. In a particularly novel twist, notes and obstacles always appear on the scale in the places that the song’s notes would normally be. This means that the layout of the level follows the musical composition of the song.
Though the game is based around music, it is not a traditional rhythm game. Players can move freely up and down the scale, but the rhythm can help to time certain actions, such as striking a passing reed for bonus points. Flowers can also be struck to the rhythm of the music, which allows Baton to catapult into the air and collect point bonuses.
In addition to the rocks and stationary hazards that inhabit each stage, dangerous animals are also present. From mindless trout to hungry piranha, the water is a crowded and unsafe place. In one stage, a pelican flies overhead, eager to swoop down and capture you in its bill. Every level introduces new hazards and gimmicks. These can range from having health that constantly drains, to simply having to swim left instead of right.
My favourite level is Thunder Creek. Here, Baton swims through a sandy desert, filled with cacti and old animal bones. This is one of a few songs that features a vocal track. Early on, the stage is easy and slow, but the lyrics speak plainly about the upcoming perils of Thunder Creek. As the song ramps up in intensity, so too does the level’s difficulty. The experience is almost cinematic, like a high-end ride at Disneyland. Thunder Creek is one part intimidating and one part encouraging, as the lyrics actually sing of your progress as you approach the ending. Every player will likely have their favorite levels and most memorable moments, because the game is full of them, from the NES inspired Chiptune Lagoon, to the dark and dreamy Midnight Bayou.
From start to finish, Tadpole Treble is a short game that can be finished in under two hours. Each level is no longer than the song that it contains, and even the toughest stages are manageable with a little practice. Fortunately, there’s lots of unlockable content that is linked with accomplishing specific goals. Collecting all 100 bubbles in a given level is a difficult task, as is attaining an S rated score. You can even earn medals for earning an F score, which is much harder than it sounds. Doing so requires you to avoid collecting items, while deliberately taking damage in order to break up scoring combos. By completing in-game goals, players can earn new songs, bestiary entries, and other goodies. Tadpole Treble is an easy game to beat, but a difficult game to master.
Outside of Adventure Mode, players can work on making their own levels and composing their own songs. There’s an assortment of instruments in the creation center. Once selected, they can be attached to a grid, which like the game itself, is based on a musical scale. These notes can then be modified into sharps or flats and have their pitches raised or lowered. Obstacles and pickups can also be attached to the grid in order to make complete, comprehensive levels to play.
Visually, Tadpole Treble is an adorable game that calls to players of all ages. The colors are bright and vivid, and each new environment looks and feels different from every other. Levels are busy, with a lot of moving creatures and obstacles. At times, the screen can become cluttered with activity, and certain visual effects can be distracting. Baton is so tiny on the screen that it’s possible to become lost or disoriented.
Of course, in a game like Tadpole Treble, the music is one of the most important features. Every song is well-composed, with a distinct personality. Songs can be high-energy and exciting or sad and subdued. But quality aside, you won’t necessarily like every song. I certainly didn’t. Tadpole Treble is, after all, a child friendly game, and consequently, some of the songs sound like they’re written specifically for kids.
Protip: Try to beat the final boss on your first or second try. If you don’t, you might be like me, wishing you had a power drill so you could excavate the song from your brain the messy way.
The music may not appeal to everyone, and the same is true of Tadpole Treble as a whole. It’s a cute, high quality game, but it’s simple and seeks to provide a casual experience. All actions are done by moving up and down, with occasional timed button presses. Fortunately, the game’s tougher challenges genuinely enhance its longevity, and will provide hours of entertainment for those who fall in love with it. The game makes great use of its novelty, and does exactly what sets out to accomplish. I recommend Tadpole Treble to music lovers, casual gamers, and everyone who wants a little bit of joy injected into their lives.