A Different Hat-Based 3D Platformer
Between Super Mario Odyssey and Yooka-Laylee, 2017 is slowly ushering a return of the 3D platformer collectathon. But not many people may realize that another game was planting seeds of the genre’s revival years ago. A Hat in Time was Kickstarted back in 2013 by the developers at Gears for Breakfast, who were hoping to tug at the heartstrings of a generation who grew up with the Nintendo 64 and GameCube. I was excited about the game’s initial development, but it soon disappeared from the radar, and I had assumed the project was a bust. Thankfully, A Hat in Time made it out just in time to celebrate the genre’s return, and it’s worth the wait.
Here’s the Video Version for your viewing pleasure!
You play as the unnamed Hat Kid, a bright-eyed girl who flies a time-powered spaceship. When a mafia member breaks in, the spaceship’s hourglass-shaped Time Pieces fall out onto the various planets below. Thus begins Hat Kid’s journey to retrieve the macguffins, I mean, Time Pieces. The story is fluff, but the characters are extremely likable. Hat Kid is an absolutely adorable platforming mascot. She may be silent, but she is expressive. Her actions speak for her personality, whether she’s jumping in a pile of pillows or hiding from monsters. I couldn’t help but smile at her playful expressions. The supporting cast is just as endearing, particularly the contract-obsessive ghoul and the cunning Mustache Girl.
At first glance, the game looks like any other 3D platformer from past generations. And to an extent, it is. From your spaceship hub, you travel to self-contained planets to search for collectibles. New areas open up with every Time Piece. There are only five chapters but they feature incredibly diverse worlds. In fact, other than the first world, which is a formulaic giant sandbox area, I was surprised by every unique challenge the game offered. One moment, you could be stealthily sneaking around a movie studio, while another may require you to solve a murder mystery by finding clues scattered around a train. And those missions take place on the same planet! On one hand, jumping from one conceit to another gives the impression that the developers were just throwing ideas around. On the other hand, the numerous gameplay changes kept the adventure fresh throughout. No chapter ever dragged, and they constantly provided exclusive locations per mission.
Unlike in Super Mario 64, you can only acquire the Time Piece associated with the current mission, so it’s almost pointless to sequence break or go out of your way within a stage, which is unfortunate. Perhaps it’s for the better, since I found it easy to get lost in the more open-world areas. Luckily, the linear areas were spot-on and even delivered a strong Super Mario Galaxy vibe. As such, I enjoyed them more than the sandbox segments.
A Hat in Time also avoids some of the major action and camera pitfalls that dragged down platformers from the past, presumably thanks to years of hindsight and evolving game engines. Hat Kid controls smoothly and is equipped with a helpful double jump, wall climb, and jump dive for both wide vertical and horizontal movements. You can also combine these actions to ensure that you safely land on any platform. I always felt confident controlling her, and as a result, I was compelled to make more death-defying jumps. Not to mention some level layouts suggest the necessity of these advanced maneuvers, which made it all the more satisfying to successfully land them. And the camera is just as smooth. I had no issues whatsoever keeping the perspective focused on Hat Kid, which helped immensely for all my crazy leaps.
The platforming is excellent, but combat is more on the basic end. Your primary weapon is an umbrella for whacking enemies, as well as a dive bomb attack. I found it difficult to accurately land hits before getting hurt myself, at least for the smaller enemies. The large bosses, on the other hand, were amazing feats of skill. Each boss utilizes patterns while hiding vulnerabilities. It’s a decidedly old-school formula, and one that brought me back to the heyday of tough end-of-level boss encounters that required the utmost patience. I won’t spoil the details, but each boss fight was better than the one before it, and helped the otherwise underused combat shine.
And of course, what would a good collectathon be without collectibles? Aside from the important Time Pieces, you can also collect yarn balls to knit together new ability-granting hats. And you can use orbs, the in-game currency, to purchase badges to enhance those abilities. This simple power-up system made way for interesting puzzles and platforming challenges, though the fact that certain hats were required to beat the game put a halt to the otherwise stellar pacing.
With five chapters consisting of up to seven acts each, the game only takes about seven hours to beat. But I was compelled to keep going past the credits and collect every single thing I could find, easily increasing my playtime by several hours. The most fascinating hidden missions involved finding a Time Rift hidden within a level. Encountering it led to a hardcore platforming bonus stage reminiscent of the water-pack-less levels in Super Mario Sunshine. Needless to say, these extra areas were some of the best parts in a wonderfully designed world.
Though, the actual visuals are a bit underpowered. This totally works for the N64 nostalgia, but the textures were overly jagged, basic, and blurry. But as far as the aesthetic design is concerned, the world is vibrant and colorful. Every area is excellently themed, and I love the effort that went into creating a whimsical atmosphere. The music is equally compelling, as if it was lifted out of Banjo-Kazooie or Super Mario Galaxy. Every song fits so well, from the magical catchy main theme to the more melancholy and downright scary tunes in the haunted planet.
A Hat in Time is that rare Kickstarted game that had a lofty goal and succeeded. Not only does the game live up to the 64-bit collectathon nostalgia that so many of us have been craving, but it also revamps the standard formula. Every level feels completely different from the last, and a diverse mission structure keeps the adventure from growing stale. It’s a wholly charming experience that made me smile silly. Hat Kid controls like a dream and is also a ridiculously cute mascot whom I’d like to see more of, along with more adorable hats. Anyone who has fond memories of the 3D platforming genre would do well to check out A Hat in Time.
A review copy was used for this article. This review was originally written in October 2017 for DarkStation.