Giving Tumbleseed Another Roll

By Alan Wen on at

Earlier this month, indie rolling-roguelike Tumbleseed finally received an important patch on Nintendo Switch. It significantly improved the game, because it dialled-down the absolutely uncompromising brutality of what was there at launch. I was among the early adopters who, despite finding much to admire, abandoned the uphill battle after a few hours of just too many failed attempts.

To be fair, I had at least made it to the halfway mark of the four-stage mountain. To appreciate just how difficult players had found it, the developers provided a frank and thorough post-mortem. The stats showed that only 0.2% of players ever managed to beat the game while, making me feel a little better, only 8.3% reached the game's halfway point at the Desert. It's hardly a straight comparison, but 7.2% of players have platinumed Bloodborne. Tumbleseed was difficult in the wrong way.

Yet there was much that the game did get right. Upon revisiting Tumbleseed post-patch, what immediately pulled me back in was the unique control scheme, inspired by 80s mechanical arcade game Ice Cold Beer. Similar to Super Monkey Ball in that you don’t have direct control over ball-shaped protagonist TS, you’re balanced on a beam that you tilt up and down using the left and right analogue sticks, slowly but surely rolling your way to the top while facing ever-increasing obstacles.

It may take a while to get used to, but the analogue sticks make smooth gradient adjustments to the beam possible, better than the original cabinet’s janky joysticks. Soon it’s possible to get yourself rolling at just the right speed and then push both sticks up to manoeuvre through a path in between holes in one satisfying motion. It’s worth making comparison with Snake Pass, another Switch release with its own innovative control scheme: with this game, I would argue, technical shortcomings add to its difficulty, from fiddly movement to a misbehaving camera. But Tumbleseed, in terms of its controls, is flawless.

The problem was always with the execution. Sure, the game is supposed to be a roguelike, which suggests randomly-generated levels and permadeath. The trouble is that getting to grips with the control scheme is already enough of a challenge without everything else that it throws at you. It was tough in Ice Cold Beer just controlling the beam to avoid holes: in Tumbleseed, you also have to deal with ever-trickier enemies, insta-kill spikes, sudden changes in the environment, even mystery power-ups that can do more harm than good. The mounting obstacles didn’t just feel like a stiff challenge, but began seeming oppressive and at times downright wilful.

It all comes to a head when you reach the Jungle, where the majority of players fell off. It can be best summarised by this yellow abomination:

With other enemies you can take your time learning their movement and attack patterns, but this so-called banana snake simply just chases you with no let-up. Faced with not enough attack thorns to kill it — worse, lose them all if you get hit just once — and items that may stab you in the back, this section more or less forced players to operate like a speedrunner. It’s certainly the strategy I adopted and, as my patience wore thin, I simply felt something was wrong with the game. As lead designer Greg Wohlwend put it, “Employing these strategies is like playing the game on the hardest difficulty from the outset. They only work if you can beat the game in under 10 minutes and have full mastery of the controls.”

But how do you fix a game like Tumbleseed without compromising the core challenge and unpredictability that is fundamental to a roguelike? Even if I wanted the developers to give me a break, I respect their creative intentions. Is this the equivalent of asking FromSoft to make Dark Souls without the idea of losing your souls?

The masochists needn’t fret over compromise. With the new update, what you find in the opening menu are the 4 Peaks it's named after, each based on one of the 4 sections in the original Adventure mountain. That mountain, the original game basically, remains towering above all, with unpredictable deaths and suffering intact.

Some might call it an extended tutorial, a chance to practice each stand-alone area before the hardcore instinct cajoles you into tackling the meat of the mountain — to continue a theme, “the real Tumbleseed starts here!” But for many, the 4 Peaks will turn out to be the real Tumbleseed.

Each mountain consists of two sections, with a camp in-between and a sort of boss room at the top, with the final two mountains unlocking when you've conquered the first pair. Most importantly, these mountains eschew the roguelike randomness, keeping the same layout no matter how many times you replay. And instead of rolling the gauntlet every time, you can focus on just one stand-alone mountain and practise against those specific obstacles. In this way, far more than before, you have a chance to see Snow and really feel what Tumbleseed is about.

It’s still by no means a cakewalk (cakeroll?). The foes and deathtraps that would catch you out unexpectedly are still a nightmare, but this time figuring them out becomes a possibility, rather than just being thrown something different and more terrifying each time. To give you another leg-up, power-ups have also been revamped with no more adverse effects, while adding more useful auras. New passive abilities include stopping you from losing hearts if you fall down a hole or, even better, one that stops you from losing all your attack thorns if you get hit — a real boon that gives struggling players more of a fighting chance. More auras can be unlocked on each mountain via quests, such as killing 3 enemies or increasing your hearts to 5, which works as an incentive to both replay levels and takes some of the sting off failed attempts.

Even with these changes, it takes time for old habits to die. Take this example, when I had confidently made my way up to the top of the Desert and its boss room, only to be repeatedly blown away by a pair of the most profoundly irritating enemies of the game.

Their nose-cannons follow you, firing, and seemed impossible to confront. This was because I was still in the mindset that power-ups were a risky double-edged sword, so was initially skipping the power-up room in the middle of the level. Turns out it contains a reflector that could bounce those projectiles right back into their proboscises.

That's the 'new' Tumbleseed writ large — now when I find things frustrating, I look for what I'm missing rather than getting angry. After the few hours it takes to master the 4 Peaks, you've experienced Tumbleseed’s essential elements and could walk away satisfied. There’s no longer any pressure to traverse the mountain of madness. And yet, I was intrigued to take what I learned and give Adventure mode another roll.

Obviously, it remains tough as ever. But this time, there was no longer a sense of frustration but rather a mix of newfound confidence and curiosity of how far I could go. It was a pleasant surprise to beat my previous personal best on my first attempt and, as it turned out, the 4 Peaks had instilled skills that made me more able to adapt to randomised adversities. Even our yellow slithery friend — two, no less — felt manageable.

Almost two weeks later, I’m surprised to find I’m still logging in on a daily basis to improve myself on the one-attempt-only daily challenge. Of course, the randomness means the ordeal can still be a crapshoot and often a moment of rashness or hesitation will snuff you out. But when you embrace the permadeath alongside your new skills, you really feel how this update has transformed the experience. You might find a beneficial aura along the way that survives a mistake, or a weapon that can make mincemeat of the enemies that usually end your run. One day, you'll suddenly see you’ve gotten higher than you ever thought possible, and it feels wonderful.

The summit is always a long way away, and there probably aren't that many more beyond the original 0.2% that have seen it. But now I feel at peace with that, because just attempting the journey has become a pleasure in itself.

That’s quite a comeback from a game I'd initially abandoned after a few days. We're so used to games being updated that sometimes we don't notice the more radical changes, and especially when a developer has realised a game's problems and fixed them. Tumbleseed is one of the year's most original games and, now that it's been re-configured to better show why, it's the perfect time to give it a roll. And if you need any more advice, I’ll leave it to the wise old mentor: