Everyone knows the scene in Despicable Me when Agnes sees the stuffed unicorn at the carnival booth. “It’s so fluffy I’m gonna die,” she states simply. So the Steve Carell mad scientist character has to win it for her by blowing up the booth. As they walk away from the smoking ruin, Agnes clutches her newly won unicorn and snarls, “It’s so fluffy!” Her voice has dropped several registers. It is ragged with mad glee at the fluffiness of the unicorn, now locked in her fingers. It is so fluffy.
That’s how I feel about A Hat in Time. Not the precious cuteness of “it’s so fluffy I’m gonna die”. But the ragged mad glee once she gets her hands on it.
Hat in Time is a cute game, to be sure. Take a look at any screenshot. But it’s something else entirely once you get your hands on it. It’s brimming with sly surprises that are far cuter than just their visuals. It is full of twists and gimmicks and one-offs and gags and delightful outbursts. It knows what you’re expecting and it will give you that. But it also knows what you’ve been doing. It knows you’ve already played Banjo-Kazooie and that you’ve got Mario Odyssey on your Switch and that you probably grew up making stubby-legged characters hop over chasms. It knows your hard drive is full of open-world games clogged with filler, padding, and pointless collectibles.
So the developers at Gears for Breakfast have focused on how to make a platformer exciting and surprising, which is something too few game designs struggle with. The platformer is an established mode of videogaming. Run, jump, occasionally bonk something. Repeat as needed. To improve on their competitors, most platformers belch out more color and noise. They include pointless collectibles as padding, or open-worlds as filler, or character advancement as busywork, or costumes as distraction, or boss battles as speed bumps. They throw in more stuff to keep you busy longer. The king of content is quantity. If a game keeps you busy long enough, who cares if it’s good? Here’s a blue world, here’s a red world, here’s a green world, this one has robots, this one is a desert!
That’s not how Hat in Time works, even though it has the usual stuff. It has collectibles, open-world exploration, character advancement, costumes, and boss battles. But none of these is a fundamental part of the game. None of these is a gameplay pillar. They’re all present and accounted for, but in small portions, very careful not to wear out their welcome. They are not the basis for the game, but incidentals within it, calculated to entertain or amuse.
For instance, I never had to play a boss battle more than twice, if that. The boss battles are like musical numbers rather than obstacles. They don’t exist to challenge my reflexes or to test how well I’ve learned to time a butt stomp or to encourage me to grind more 1ups. They are not making sure I’m keeping up. It’s the opposite of Cuphead, because it couldn’t care less how good I am at videogames. The boss battles exist only to entertain me with a show. Hat in Time doesn’t want to push me back to a checkpoint, because there are things ahead it wants to show me. So glad you could make it, it says effusively, taking you by the hand and pulling you forward. I’ve prepared something for you. It lifts a shiny silver lid and, behold! Why would it keep sending me back to the door?
It’s not just that A Hat in Time is easy. It is easy. But it’s easy because it’s not concerned with making you good at A Hat in Time. It’s not asking you to work for it. It doesn’t expect you to perform. There were many times when I looked at a jump and girded myself for repeated failures, only to have the jump connect exactly as I intended. Whether it was hitting a small branch or working out some sort of vertical wall run or timing a moving platform or daunting grappling hook puzzle. Once I knew what I wanted to do, Hat in Time had no interest in challenging me on the solution, any more than a riddle should expect you to phrase the answer a specific way. When you know the answer, you know the answer. No one wants to play “now guess how to express the answer”.
Once you strip away this level of demand from a game, you better make sure there’s something where the challenge usually is. If I don’t have to cultivate skill or grind out advancement, why am I here? And this is where Hat in Time is an absolute delight. It doesn’t expect you to perform, because that is its job. Each level is a new show. Each level is a way for Gears for Breakfast to playfully juggle the familiar tropes. Stealth, collectibles, goofy cartoon characters, quests, puzzles, bosses, a spaceship hub, loot, character powers, monsters, locked doors, jumps, all presented with mischief, humor, and childishly ebullient charm.
I’m tempted to provide examples, but that would just ruin the surprise. I’ll just give you a little example. At one point, you need a photograph to forge an ID. So after some platforming around, you get a picture of Hat Kid, the main character. But for some reason, A Hat in Time drops you into a rudimentary paint program. Now you can draw on the picture. Why? Will you be scored? Will you earn gems to buy upgrades? Does it matter what you draw? Whether you draw? Suffice to say, A Hat in Time won’t waste your time. It has put you in the paint program for the same reason it does everything else: because whereas most games are content to occupy your time, A Hat in Time has something it wants to show you. Now get busy with the virtual crayons. It’ll be worth it.