Timothy and the Tower of Mu: only masochists need apply

Timothy and the Tower of Mu is a new pixel art platformer from developer Kibou Entertainment and publisher Playism. It’s been in development for a while; back in 2021, it won the Pixel Game Maker MV Contest with its demo that was released during Steam Next Fest. And, indeed, it looked rather promising: it was an interesting combination of two distinct types of platformer: exploration and precision.

On paper, the idea of combining the sprawling world of an exploration-centric platform adventure with the “fail, learn, repeat, succeed” process of precision platformers would appear to make sense. They’re both offshoots of the same basic genre, after all, and as part of your explorations of a perilous environment it would make sense for you to come up against some significant challenges.

Timothy and the Tower of Mu

And on some levels, Timothy and the Tower of Mu does work quite well. It’s certainly satisfying to make it through a screen or two of difficult platforming and be rewarded with some story, a shop to purchase consumable items or a shortcut back to earlier areas, should you find yourself needing to backtrack for any reason.

It certainly looks the part, too, making use of the “enhanced NES” kind of aesthetic so popular among creators of faux-retro titles these days. It’s higher resolution than a real NES, but the limited colour palette and well-drawn pixel art makes for a lovely atmosphere — and the animation on both main character Timothy and the various other characters he encounters is excellent.

Sound, too, is very good, with a variety of excellently catchy chiptune themes accompanying the action, with the overall tone of the music generally giving you a good idea as to whether you’re in a more “plot” or “action” sort of area. It complements what’s happening on screen well, and helps you prepare for what might be ahead.

Timothy and the Tower of Mu

So why do I sound so hesitant? Well, it’s because Timothy and the Tower of Mu, while certainly looking the part, has some fairly fundamental problems with both its basic mechanics and its overall difficulty curve that make it difficult to truly enjoy. And that’s a real shame, because there’s definite potential for a solid retro-style adventure here — and one that has plenty of depth beyond simply traversing perilous environments.

The plot behind Timothy and the Tower of Mu is that our hero Timothy once healed his sick grandfather using a magic mushroom, not knowing that the mushroom carried a deadly curse: while it would immediately heal any ailment, anyone who consumed it would die in a year’s time.

When the time came for Timothy’s grandfather to pass on according to the conditions of the curse, Timothy set out on an adventure to the legendary Tower of Mu, an ominous structure where supposedly if you reach the top, you can have a wish granted. Timothy, of course, wanted nothing more than to have his grandfather back in perfect health.

Timothy and the Tower of Mu

As you progress through Timothy and the Tower of Mu you’ll encounter the two distinct parts of the game. During more exploratory sequences, there generally isn’t much in the way of threats to Timothy; these sequences tend to be designed in such a way that you can find items, uncover lore and talk to other characters.

In the precision platforming sequences, meanwhile, things feel much more like a rigidly structured platform game: Timothy starts at one end of a gauntlet of traps and enemies and must make it to the other end. Each new “screen” features a save point, allowing you and Timothy to try again should you happen to fail — though each individual screen is relatively long compared to a level in something like the classic Super Meat Boy, meaning that you can be set back quite a way by a single careless step.

Part of the problem is the prevalence of instant-death traps around the precision platforming stages of Timothy and the Tower of Mu. While Timothy has a Zelda-style heart meter allowing him to take several hits from enemies before expiring, getting spiked up the bum, squished, chopped up or otherwise mutilated will generally kill him immediately. Realistic? Yes. Fun? Emphatically not.

Timothy and the Tower of Mu

This problem is further compounded by the fact that healing items occur extremely rarely in the wild; in my time playing, I only saw one, and it came in the form of an enemy that ran away as soon as I got on the same platform as it, making it near-impossible to acquire. This means that if you take a couple of hits from enemies while traversing a stage, you can put yourself in a very difficult situation for subsequent screens. And, to add insult to injury, the save points save your current health status, meaning that even if you continue after a death, you may still only have a single hit point left.

The combination of instant-death traps, hard-to-replenish health and annoying save system makes a surprising impact on the enjoyment factor of Timothy and the Tower of Mu. Yes, you can acquire consumable food items that let you replenish your health whenever you wish, there’s a surprisingly detailed cooking system once you locate a public kitchen, and certain exploratory areas feature fountains where Timothy can fully restore his life.

But in the former case that requires money — which is also quite hard to come by in the game’s early stages — and the latter two, of course, require you to actually reach them — as well as having gathered enough ingredients in the case of cooking.

Timothy and the Tower of Mu

I’ll give you a practical example from the early game. I’d made it through a challenging screen, but had taken two points of damage from enemies along the way, leaving Timothy with just a single hit before he’d expire, regardless of whether it was from an enemy or a trap.

The next screen featured a gauntlet of traps, followed by a long ladder leading down to where an enemy was waiting. Said enemy was able to fire homing shots at Timothy, and began doing so while he was climbing down the ladder. Said homing shots took a while to dissipate, requiring some active dodging to avoid being hit — quite difficult to do while “stuck” to the ladder, as it’s needlessly difficult to get Timothy to actually jump off one.

Cue repeated attempts at this screen, often masterfully making it through the traps before being bonked by this enemy repeatedly because the game’s mechanics simply made it too difficult to avoid their attacks. And I don’t mean difficult in a “git gud” kind of way; I mean difficult in a “these controls don’t work consistently” sort of way.

Timothy and the Tower of Mu
This guy. Fuck this guy.

We’ve already mentioned that it’s tricky to jump off a ladder, but there are other control issues also. One commonly occurring scenery element is a series of “hooks” that Timothy can grab onto, then jump off as a means of ascending vertical passages. A good idea, were it not for two things: firstly, some seriously dodgy collision detection on the hooks, meaning that at unpredictable intervals, Timothy will simply fail to grab onto them despite obviously overlapping them; and secondly, an ill-advised “stamina” system that limits the amount of time Timothy is able to hang before falling.

This latter instance is yet another case of something we’ve seen in a few other indie games recently, including Arsonist Heaven and Sofiya and the Ancient Clan. And that is the artificial limitation of a core game mechanic with no good reason other than to make playing the game more annoying.

Timothy and the Tower of Mu’s stamina mechanic is presumably intended to induce a sense of panic while climbing up these vertical passageways, but in practice it’s just irritating. All too many sequences like this involve timing how you pass by traps — and this sometimes means pausing for a moment to allow a trap to safely trigger before it inserts itself into your fleshy bits.

The stamina mechanic makes this very difficult to do, since hanging around for too long will simply cause Timothy to lose his grip, requiring you to do the whole sequence again in the best case scenario, and sending you falling to your death in the worse case. The game isn’t better for the stamina mechanic, and it would be actively more enjoyable without it. The platforming is already challenging enough; the stamina system just feels artificial and forced.

Timothy and the Tower of Mu

Another more major control issue is Timothy’s inability to attack while walking. Timothy is armed with a catapult which can be used to dispatch most enemies, but in order to use it, you need to actively stand still, then fire. Unless you’re jumping, of course, in which case you can use it freely in the air, which feels rather inconsistent.

Timothy’s inability to shoot while moving really throws off the rhythm of combat at times, and this isn’t helped by the sluggish response from the game’s fire button, making it sometimes feel like a bit of a crapshoot as to whether or not Timothy will actually attack when you tell him to. Timothy and the Tower of Mu would be much better served with a “shoot as fast as you can hammer the fire button” system as seen in games like Mega Man and Blaster Master; I suspect what we have here is some sort of attempt to give the combat a feeling of “weight” for some reason, but it just doesn’t work.

All of these issues are extremely frustrating, because Timothy and the Tower of Mu is so close to being an amazing game. Its audio-visual aesthetic is beyond reproach, offering yet another amazing-looking “modern retro” game to the growing lineup already on the market. The story setup is intriguing, and the hints of narrative you get as you progress provide good incentive to keep plugging away at the game. Plus the unsettling atmosphere created through the music and the visuals is rather wonderful.

Timothy and the Tower of Mu

It’s just a shame that the actual mechanical and structural aspects of the game make it so difficult to enjoy. There’s a great game in here really struggling to get out; perhaps a patch or two from the developer can allow this game to really shine, but for now I’m sad to say this is probably only one for the most hardcore masochists out there.

Timothy and the Tower of Mu is available now for PC via Steam.

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Pete Davison
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