Look, I really, really want to keep despising Kickstarter and everything it stands for. I had plenty of fuel for my unquenchable flames of crowdfunding rage last year, what with Mighty No. 9 being a shiny turd, and the overall mediocrity of Yooka-Laylee helped keep the fire burning. But gosh darn it, I just can’t work up the same level of righteous indignation over game developers being handed free money for pretty words when amazing games like A Hat in Time keep resulting from crowdfunding campaigns. It’s tough being me.
Anyway, A Hat in Time: you know how Yooka-Laylee really wanted to be the resurrection of the 32/64-bit-era collect-a-thon platformer but ended up focusing on all the unpleasant aspects of the genre? Okay, so A Hat in Time is doing the same thing but incorporating just enough modern design that it feels new and fresh while still retaining the nostalgic appeal of those older games. Retro for retro’s sake is only good when you’re selling nostalgia; while nostalgia makes for easy money, it doesn’t make a great game all on its own, and A Hat in Time understands that.
Our heroine, Some Girl in a magician getup with a cape and hat, is cruising the stars in her ship when she’s set upon…by the mafia?! Yes, la famiglia is out for blood today, so they steal all of our girl’s magic hourglasses; those things were powering her ship, so until she gets them back she’s not going anywhere. Some Girl needs to hit the streets and find those hourglasses if she wants to have any hope of making it home, but they aren’t just laying around for the taking – many hourglasses are hidden behind challenges, locked away in difficult-to-reach places or in the hands of baddies.
Getting those hourglasses back is going to be tough work, in other words, but Some Girl’s ready for it. She can run, for instance! She can jump! She can whack people with an umbrella and divebomb into them! Perhaps most interestingly, she can use special powers offered by her currently-worn hat – new hats are available by stitching them using yarn found throughout the various worlds. These offer tricks like a sprint dash and explosive alchemy. Controlling Some Girl feels great; she’s highly responsive and snappy in a manner much like Mario was in the classic Super Mario 64 and her moves all flow together nicely.
More than that, though, A Hat in Time’s charm stems from how…well, charming it is! In my time with the game, the most obviously well-designed aspect of A Hat in Time was the attention paid to detail. Each level has its own unique, adorable title card, for instance, and the levels themselves all feel unique despite many taking place in the same world. Some Girl, her friend/rival Mustache Girl and the enemies she deal with are all vibrant, appealing characters; the dopey early-stage Mafia baddies were a personal favorite. Environments are well-designed and full of little quirks and gimmicks to check out. Even the bonus areas, the Time Rifts, make for fun and enjoyable challenges on top of looking great.
A Hat in Time nails much of what made the classic collect-a-thons fun to play, but it’s not entirely free of the genre’s woes. The camera, for instance, is a pain in the ass as it usually is in this kind of game; it just loves to clip through things when it’s not actively conspiring to muck up your jumps by aiming in precisely the wrong direction. There’s also some general polish issues here and there, ranging from collision issues to buggy animations, but on the whole A Hat in Time feels better at launch than Yooka-Laylee did and should only improve with time.
Really, A Hat in Time is a must-play and an example of nostalgia done right. That’s something special after over a decade of indie dev after indie dev showing us how to do nostalgia wrong. Here is a game that would have felt right at home as a weekend Blockbuster rental for the Nintendo 64: you’d wake up early on Saturday to pour yourself a bowl of cereal and play through it, hoping to find just one more hourglass. I’m not sure it’s possible to lavish any greater praise on this game.