My relationship with 3D platformers has always been a strained one. The first one I had any experience with was Super Mario 64, and I never really had a taste for the style. In fact, to this day I have yet to properly complete the game. As a kid, my brother was a huge fan of Banjo Kazooie, but I seemed to like that game even less than Mario. It’s levels were more interesting, but Banjo didn’t control as fast as Mario. Sentiments like this would continue throughout my life and even though I tried several different games in the genre, very few were to my personal liking. Indeed, it seemed like I was always searching for that perfect 3D platformer to sweep me off my feet, but it never came.
However, like Steve Perry once sang, don’t stop believing. And in that sense of 1980’s arena rock, I kept looking, and that lead me to the recent release of A Hat In Time.
The story of A Hat in Time is intentionally simple. An adorable alien known only as Hat Girl is traveling through time and space in hers spaceship. Her ship is suddenly stopped when it gets too close to a world called “Mafia Town” by a lone member of the mafia hitting her up for a passage tax. The Mafia member breaks open a window in the space ship causing Hat Girl, and the 60 hourglasses used to fuel the ship to go flying out into space. Now without power to her ship, Hat Girl needs to go on an adventure through several worlds to reclaim her hour glasses.
A Hat In Time borrows its gameplay style directly from games like Super Mario Sunshine. Hat Girl has a double jump, can dive in the air, can run up and hop off walls, and has several different weapons to fight with, though an umbrella is the default. The main gimmick of the game is the use of several different abilities that are selected by wearing one of the several hats in the game. The default, or “Kid” hat, allows the player to see where their objective is. Some of the others include the Witch hat, letting you throw bombs to break crates, and the Sprint hat that allows you to run faster. Hats can be swapped either through a menu, or by using the d-pad on a controller (num keys on a keyboard). There’s also an assortment of pins that give you different abilities when equipped. These can be as simple as a magnet for gems, or vital tools that prevent you from taking damage when you fall from great heights. They can be swapped out at will, and they never give you a sense of risk vs reward as much as a feeling of having a cake or eating it.
It’s apparent almost immediately that the controls have been masterfully tuned. Hat Girl never goes in a direction or angle you don’t intend her to, and depth perception is never a serious issue. Further, the camera, one of the biggest hurdles in 3D platformers, is one of the best I have ever seen in a game so far. It follows you perfectly, and you never feel like you’re not in complete control of it. After only a few minutes with the game, I felt like an olympic superstar with all the maneuvers and acrobatics I was pulling off, just begging the game to through more obstacles my way to test my skill.
Each world is filled to the brim with things to collect. From gems that are used as currency, to yarn used to create new hats, to tickets used to open vaults, you never feel like there is nothing to do. In fact, you can get so caught up in exploring the many colorful worlds in search of secrets, that it’s easy to lose track of the main objective.
Like many 3D platformers of old, you are given a hub world filled with minor activities to explore in the form of your wrecked ship. As You Progress through the game, you unlock more and more rooms, which in turn allows you access to the other worlds in the game.
There are 6 worlds, and each world contains 10 hourglasses. 7 of which are in regular chapters, and 3 are in hidden challenge levels called Time rifts. It is entirely possible to complete the game without collecting all 60, and in fact, some chapters are impossible to complete without specific items. Thankfully, the game informs you of this before entering the chapter, so you don’t waste your time. Completion of the optional Time Rifts grants the player several rewards such as comic books that tell side stories about the world you’re in, and an hour glass. At the end of each, the player is greeted with a slot machine. You get to roll 3 times for a reward of your choice which can be either a new color for your hat, a new design for the hat, or a remix of one of the in-game songs. You are given the option of giving up that reward to spin for a different one.
You encounter several enemies throughout your adventure. Most of these can be taken out by either using your umbrella to melee them, or by jumping in the air and tackling them. However, other enemies take a little more effort to defeat. The mafia members in particular require the player to not only use the umbrella, but also tackle in order to get the best outcome. Hat Girl has 4 hit points, losing them all forces the player back to the beginning of the segment they are at, there isn’t a huge penalty for dying outside of lost progress, so players can feel at ease when they play the more difficult sections.
Boss fights are frantic, over the top, and a joy to experience. Each one has a unique personality based on their world, and are accompanied by combat maneuvers not seen elsewhere in the game. It’s difficult not to be charmed by the zany and cartoony nature of these bosses, but they also pose a serious threat to players not prepared for the spike in combat difficulty. Though it should be noted that none of the bosses are terribly difficult.
There are few things more difficult in art than capturing the feel of a specific era in time. Further, it’s even more difficult for these things to actually evoke a true sense of nostalgia with the recreation. A Hat in Time not only does this, it does this better than almost any game I have ever played.
Unlike other indie darlings such as Shovel Knight, A Hat in Time managed to embrace its inspiration without adding elements that don’t seem possible on original hardware. Every inch of the vibrant, cartoony environments look exactly like they were stolen from the Gamecube/PS2 era. There were moments when I forgot I was playing a modern game, and instead a forgotten gem in my back catalog and that is a very good thing. As I played I started reminiscing what it was like playing these types of games in that moment in time and started fantasizing about just what it’s commercial would look like on Saturday morning when I was watching Fox Box, creepy whispering narrator and everything.
Everything you see, is extremely adorable. From the enemies you fight, to graffiti on the walls, to Hat Girl herself, it’s hard not to have a huge grin on your face from the charming look of everything.
It’s hard to say definitely what aesthetic this game pulls more from, Legend of Zelda The Windwaker, or Super Mario Sunshine. It meets somewhere in the middle to create a game that will definitely age well. I see A Hat In Time looking just as excellent as in 15 years as it does today.
The soundtrack is one out of a late 1990’s early 2000’s cartoon and I love ever second of it. Each tune is catchy, popy, and will be stuck in your head for hours after each play session. Further, the boss battles take on a heavy metal sound that is unexpected at first, but quickly creates the perfect showdown mood.
The voice acting is also of a notably high quality. Until playing this game, I never expected the sentence “Down with the mafia!” to make me laugh, but it did and I am not surprised why. Every voice actor commits to the role and gives off a humorous portrayal of the many wacky characters you encounter. However, if you are not a fan of the spoken dialog, you may purchase the option to have each character speak in mumbles ala Banjo Kazooie for 800 gems.
Throughout the entirety of my 30 hours with A Hat in Time, I felt like I was 9 years old again, playing games in the living room before being called to eat dinner with my family. However, unlike that time, I truly found a connection to a game in a genre I mostly played because it was the only thing available. Rather than just getting enough hour glasses to complete the main story, I actively sought out all 60 of them simply because I enjoy doing so. I was drawn in to the game by its strong mechanics, catchy music, and charming aesthetic.
A Hat in Time is an incredibly competent game that doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest, and they simply don’t make games like this anymore. And that is a real shame, because this one is a winner.