A Hat in Time feels like the evolution of a very specific, lost-to-history subgenre: the "B" game 3D platformer. While Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie and Jak and Daxter and Rayman 2 comprised the sort of "A" games of the genre—big budget affairs with polish to spare—there were also other respectable 3D Platformers in the 90s-to-early-2000s. They didn't have the bigger teams and budgets of the headliners, but they were clever, well-designed all the same.
I'm thinking of games like Chameleon Twist, a beautifully-designed, low-poly meditation on lateral twisting as a game mechanic. Or Space Station Silicon Valley, a weird, brilliant game that had you taking on different robot animals in order to progress, using that little sliver of adventure game DNA that I'm so fond of in platformers.
That this game reminds me of them is a very good thing.
Like those more off-kilter titles, A Hat in Time goes all in on goofy charm, preferring to throw some light puzzling and other mechanics in with the pure platforming. That platforming, crucially, feels good, with plenty of augmentable powers on top of the more typical running, jumping, whacking and diving. Hat Kid (yes, that is the protagonist's name. I think...) has a jump that's just a few shades floatier than Mario's, but she can easily double-jump and dash in mid-air, allowing her to cover a ton of distance over enemies or land. She's small and nimble, and quickly turns on a dime of you need her to.
And you can find magical yarn throughout the stages, allowing you to craft new hats—like a sprinting hat that lets you tear ass through stages, an ice hat, and a "detective hat" that lets you solve crimes.
Its worlds are diverse and cleverly designed, and in its best moments, reminded me of my favorite game of all time, Psychonauts. One early stage, where you need to stealthily navigate a bananas film set where two movies are being shot simultaneously (some cartoon owls are filming a western, and their rival penguins a… disco kung fu movie?) gave me intense early Double Fine vibes.
Again, this is a good thing.
I think it's safe to say I went into A Hat in Time cautiously. I was burned pretty badly by another recent 3D platformer, Yooka-Laylee, a game that looked wonderful and sounded even better, but fundamentally misunderstood what was amazing about its inspiration (clever level design and a fun moveset). A Hat in Time looks more modest, but does so much more with its gameplay.
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Instead of creating a huge, sprawling space with a bunch of things to do in it, worlds are segmented into missions. There's plenty of room to explore—and reasons to do so—but you never feel as if you're in a big empty space. There is always something fun to do, and pushing the Left trigger highlights your current big picture objective, so getting lost or tied up with boring tasks is never a risk.
It's a tighter design mentality—to narrow the scope and focus on distinct missions—and for a game of this size, that's absolutely the right call. I never felt bored or aimless here, nor did I feel like half of my objectives were going to be boring iterations of common tasks (looking at you, Yooka-Laylee). Everything I did in my first few hours felt fresh, exciting, and—dare I say it—fun! I bonked a bunch of beefy mafia guys on the head, and faced off against a pissy mafia chef in an epic 2D battle. I stealth-platformed my way around that aforementioned, utterly bananas movie set. I engaged in pulpy detective-novel antics on a sepia-hued train full of wannabe ID-thief crows.
I still have plenty yet to play, but I'm actively looking forward to whatever lovably batshit thing the game throws at me next.
Like Psychonauts, the premise changes constantly, the visuals shift, and the result is a pleasantly bouncy experience that kept me guessing.
I don't think A Hat in Time will replace Double Fine's first adventure in my heart—it's just not on the same level, story-wise. But its infectious, lovably weird energy and commitment to keeping the player guessing are coming from a similar place.
I'd love for this title to inspire a renaissance of this kind of game. But even if this is all we get, I'm happy to be pleasantly surprised by A Hat in Time and its colorful, chaotic vision.
Note: Racist YouTube creator Jontron's performance is still included in the game.