Just about the most disappointing thing about 2017 was waiting for the console debut of ‘A Hat In Time’. After writing hundreds of words regarding its release, I failed to notice the game was PC only and had to wait nearly two whole months for the Xbox One version. Truly a tragedy.
Now, thankfully, A Hat in Time is in house, and contains the whimsy, magic, and tight control I was promised. There’s a heck of a lot of good, and some bad in this magical hat simulator. But almost all of it brings you back to a time where the world was big, your eyes were bright, and a quality video game could leave you feeling as dumb as a bag of rocks.
What do I mean, and why is this a compliment? Read on to find out.
1. It’s ‘For All Ages’ (But Occasionally Scandalous)
What’s the difference between Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse? Attitude and audience. Bugs Bunny would routinely make jokes only ‘adults’ would get, parodying celebrities like Groucho Marx. Mickey Mouse would…not. Famously, Robin Williams once said Aladdin’s Genie felt like they snuck a loony tune character into a Disney movie – and that’s why he took the role.
A Hat in Time has its own brand off-the-wall humor peppered throughout the game. When prompted to enter a search term on the game’s ‘Internet’ my response ‘returned no results’ (I typed in Poo) and the game stated my inquiry would be sent directly to the government.
Another example: during a murder mystery on a train, a character is killed and a pool of blood rests under him. Cartoony, but grim. At the end, when the culprit is revealed, the graphic nature of that scene is recontextualized.
You’ll also be sneaking into Casino and movie-sets where you’re billed for mandatory property damage, and a lot more. A Hat In Time is silly and warm like a Mickey Mouse cartoon, but has just enough Bugs Bunny in there to keep adults genuinely entertained.
Even if the game occasionally…gets under your skin.
2. The Frustrating Moments Feel ‘True’ to the Genre.
“Screw platforming, I’m just gonna bounce my butt on this lava all the way to shore” said your humble author, mid-way through a mission requiring the smashing of lava dripping faucets, one of which so far out of the way and so tricky to get to, the prospect of returning so daunting, I damage bounced my way back to safety.
So off I went, bouncing off the lava, Mario-hot-butt style, all the way back to the mainland, with one health bar to show for it. All I needed was a volcano to land in.
Chewie…we’re home. This mission, which occurs early on, is frustrating in the good way. It’s a spike in difficulty that harkens back to missions in the classic 3d Platforming era that sought to truly test the player.
Like the pure platforming levels in Mario Sunshine, or the quests for Jinjos in Banjo Kazooie, this ‘faucet’ level is the first time you’ve had to put all your learned skills together in a do-or-die situation – jumping on to tiny, rounded platforms in order to thwack these faucets ‘off’.
Meanwhile, another mission features stealth mechanics that’ll remind players of the early parts of Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, as enemies emit a FOV that only stops when they all laugh or turn away from you. You need to go around them or jump over, else find yourself way back at the beginning of the section.
Yet another challenges you to a race with a man on a rocket that you’ll surely lose…unless you have the right item. What item? The game makes you figure that out for yourself, which is the kind of open-endedness most games today would never dare try; for fear the player may play any number of other games as opposed to experimenting in this one.
Finally, in almost a direct homage to those previously mentioned Sunshine levels, there are a series of ‘time rift’ challenges that ramp the difficulty up to 11, with mind-bending design and rotating platforms to land on.
It really does feel like ‘the games of old’ as they’d say. Iterating on what came before, sure, but also keeping in some of the frustrating elements that kept players coming back to those old games – be it a niggling challenge you can’t beat, trick you can use to beat a level a bit easier, or simply the “WTF!” nature of losing or dying in a ‘cheap’ way, only to come right back for more.
As a result, it’s nice to finally play the game on what many gamers would deem its ‘proper’ home…
3. It Feels Great on Console.
It’s likely most PC players played A Hat in Time with a controller, sitting at their computer desks absolutely mesmerized. But if you ask me, there’s no better way to play, or control, hat girl, then from the comfort of your living-room couch.
That said, playing for the first time, I was confused for a minute. Why, after I jump and dive, am I lying prone on the floor? Why can’t I move? Then I hit the jump button again and was up and on the move. “Ahhh it’s to keep you in place” I thought to myself.
This little mechanic meant the world, as it prevents button mashing upon landing from a particularly tricky jump.
The control here is nearly perfect. When Hat Girl runs, there’s a determination on her face typically reserved for a child making a bee-line for the cookie jar. You can almost hear her screaming ‘want want want want want’ as she runs. That sort of attention to detail – in a run animation, speaks volumes to the care behind the scenes.
Her momentum carries her just the right amount, and turning and jumping and stopping all feel tight, save for a couple of caveats. Some enemies can be booped on the head via the X button on the Xbox One, and sometimes the targeting especially during the first boss, feels a little off.
That said, when performing double jumps and air dashes, wall jumping to collect relics, using a sprint ability to make it through a quickly closing gate, or any number of the other abilities provided by the various ‘hats’ you get in the game, the game feels good in your hands and looks great on consoles.
Mostly. The game could use a bit of anti-aliasing or smoothing, but the rough edges also lend it a retro vibe, feeling almost like a thoroughly re-mastered PS1 title in its aesthetic. I was reminded of Croc and Ape Escape of all things while looking at, and playing the game on my console.
As you play, you slowly open up your spaceship to all sorts of new wonders and challenges that grow with the player, steadily taking the difficulty curve up as you get better at the game; making it a nearly perfect family experience, or a great game to introduce your friends to, especially when you discover all the little treats the game has in store…
4. There’s A Easter Egg Riddled Hub World.
You can dive, Scrooge McDuck style, into a bed of pillows in A Hat in Time. This is not a drill. And I mean literally dive (there’s a button and everything). In fact, it’s quite possible this dive manuever may be the first thing you do in the game. It’s right there. In a world where open-world games sometimes feel too empty, here’s a hub-based game where the world hub is packed to the brim with silly and exciting things to do.
In no particular order you can: Play a Text Adventure Game. Use a slide. Watch TV. Ride a Vacuum Cleaner. Interact with a variety of computer consoles. Store food. And much more.
One of the joys of Mario 64 was how the castle continued to grow and change and evolve. As a kid, I initially thought I ‘beat’ the game after the first Bowser encounter. But the fact the castle hid so much awesome stuff, and slowly doled it over time, gave Mario 64 a magical, ever-expanding quality.
While A Hat in Time’s progression isn’t as epic as Mario 64’s there’s actually quite a bit more to *do* in your hub world – so much you might even end up just a little confused…
5. You Might Even Need A Guide.
“Where do I go?”, “Did I do something wrong?”, and “It says I need a key item?!” were words said by me just a touch too often when playing A Hat In Time. This too, made me feel like a kid again. In particular, during the final parts of the game’s first two worlds I was greeted with a message stating I was missing a key item; specifically to race a Mafia man on a rocket, Koopa-The-Quick style. I had obtained the speed-shoes, but it seemed I needed something else. What was it? I had no idea.
And like that, for better or worse, I felt like a kid again, as this problem was my number one issue with games like Banjo Kazooie, Mario 64, and especially Donkey Kong 64. And it was a strange sensation. Literally two decades after my first 3D platformer and I’m still getting ‘stuck’? Still not sure where to go?
Awesome. Well, not awesome, just…proper. Not all nostalgia is rosy, after all.
But A Hat in Time, certainly is.