Review: Tadpole Treble


Just keep swimming, just keep swimming

If I had to pick one word to describe Tadpole Treble, that word would be "charming." It's a simple premise, and it seems to have been inspired by the musical tadpole pond minigame in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. The creative team behind this title is also responsible for the webcomic Brawl in the Family, and it's clear that they have a deep respect for both Mario RPG and another Super Nintendo classic, Mario Paint.

Tadpole Treble was successfully kickstarted back in December of 2013, and has been available as a Steam Early Access game since May 6 of this year. Although it doesn't appear to have been changed significantly from the Steam release, the Wii U version does offer some additional features that may make it more worthwhile for people who own that platform.

Tadpole Treble (Steam, Wii U [reviewed])
Developer: Bitfinity
Publisher: Bitfinity
Released: May 6, 2016 (Steam), August 11, 2016 (Wii U)
MSRP: $9.99

Players are tasked with guiding a newly-hatched tadpole named Baton through multiple aquatic levels, avoiding obstacles and collecting things like bubbles and health-restoring food. The twist is that each level is also a musical staff, and the obstacles you're avoiding correspond to every note in the song. Theoretically, you could print out screenshots of the level and (if you can read sheet music) you'd be able to play the music yourself on your instrument of choice.

The gameplay is uncomplicated, using only the directional pad and one button. Baton can move up and down the musical staff in one-note increments, and she can't move right or left. The levels she swims through autoscroll in time with the music so there's a little bit of Rock Band or Guitar Hero influence as well, since you have to be looking forward on the note chart to see what's coming towards you. Baton can also swing her tail at some elements of the level to punctuate a song with clapping or a cymbal crash. This frequently opens up new areas in the stage or provides her a safer path when the rest of the music's level gets especially intense. Once Baton has avoided enough obstacles, the player can hold down the tail-slap button to grant themselves temporary invincibility and the ability to smash through the note obstacles for a minor point bonus.

I did have a little bit of trouble using the d-pad to move quickly up or down the scale, though that may just be my decaying reflexes. I'm not sure if this problem would be lessened if I were playing with a keyboard. The Steam version does support controllers, but the standard Xbox 360 controller's d-pad is notoriously squishy, so keep that in mind if that's how you intend to play.

There's a fair amount of content here for the price, and each level is clearly meant to be replayed over and over to uncover hidden secrets and improve the player's ranking. It never gets terribly difficult, but each level has a new feature or two that keeps the gameplay from becoming stagnant.

The hand-drawn graphics aren't complex, so it's pretty easy to tell when you've made a mistake. That said, I would have appreciated the ability to listen to the song before playing it so that I would have an idea of what I was in for. It was pretty much impossible for me to get a good rank the first time through a stage since I didn't have the melody in my mind yet to use as a reference.

Each stage offers several challenges to the player beyond simply finishing the level. There's one "challenge fly" in every level that requires you to perform a specific task to achieve it. Every stage also has 100 bubbles that can be collected by swimming through them, and once you reach a certain point in the game, these can be traded to a large bullfrog named Etude for bonuses like a sound test mode, hints on how to collect challenge flies, a bestiary of the enemies and obstacles, and other goodies. Etude also offers advice from time to time, and this can be quite humorous.

A rhythm game is only as good as the songs it contains, and Tadpole Treble doesn't disappoint. Each level is a completely different genre of music, from the 8- and 16-bit inspired Chiptune Lagoon to the spaghetti-flavored Cowboy song you'll hear in Thunder Creek. There's even a love song in Midnight Bayou, sung to you by an amorous male tadpole named Sonata. I didn't expect to like the songs that had lyrics, but was surprised when they became some of my favorites. For what it's worth, my wife doesn't usually like to watch me playing games, but sat down beside me as I went through this one. She said she was enjoying the music and the animations of things happening as I played through the levels. 

Tadpole Treble contains a comprehensive level editor, and it's pretty clear that the game's creators took their cues from Mario Paint. It's easy and fun to play around with, and the icons for things like changing the speed of the song, adding sharps and flats, or changing the instruments are self-explanatory. Different notes can be selected and placed on the musical staff, and you can choose from several instruments for each note, similar to the different stamps you could use in Mario Paint. Once a level is completed, the game can generate a QR code with the level information on it that can easily be shared. If you'd like to try this composition mode, BitFinity has put a free version on its website, though you'll need to use a browser other than Chrome to try it out.

Unfortunately, I ran into a bug when playing with this mode on the Wii U, and when I tried to play through my own level Baton would move down, but couldn't move up. I could still make sure that everything sounded OK by using the toggle to make Baton invincible while the song played, but this made it impossible to gauge the difficulty of the level I had created by playing through it myself. I don't know if this bug exists in the PC version, but hopefully it will be fixed in a patch soon.

As I said, the Wii U version offers some additional features that might sway your decision on which platform to buy it on. The ability to play solely on the GamePad is nice, but the best feature may be the composition mode, which lets you use the GamePad to drag and drop notes on the staff very easily, kind of like building a Mario Maker level. You can also use the Wii U's built-in camera to scan QR codes generated by other players. 

Tadpole Treble runs well for the most part. There are load screens before every stage and storybook-like cutscenes, but they don't take too long and you're back in the action pretty quickly. I did have it lock up on me once after I died during the third act of the final level, but apart from that it ran (ahem) swimmingly.

I enjoyed my time with this game. It's kid friendly, but there's a good level of challenge throughout, and getting 100% on everything would require a lot of practice. I think the composition mode could even be used as a sneaky way to teach kids a little bit about musical theory, since it incorporates an actual music staff. It's a simple game, but it does exactly what it sets out to do and it has a cute, clean aesthetic that serves it well.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. One of the game's creators also contributes alongside of Chris Carter and Jonathan Holmes at Nintendo Force Magazine. As always, no relationships were factored into this assessment.]

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Tadpole Treble reviewed by Kevin McClusky



Impressive effort with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.
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Kevin McClusky
Kevin McClusky   gamer profile

I'm a longtime member of Destructoid, and you may have known me in a prior life as Qalamari. ... more + disclosures



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