The classic 3D platformer has seen a bit of revival lately, reminding of us of simpler times with bright primary colours and the likes of Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon, and our very own moustached plumber. We’ve already seen a few attempts at bringing back the good old times, such as Yooka-Laylee and well as re-releases of Crash Bandicoot and the aforementioned Spyro. Now, 2017’s acclaimed A Hat in Time has finally made its way to Nintendo’s hybrid device. Let’s see how it holds up in the house of Mario.
Despite originally being mooted for the Wii U, A Hat in Time has taken its time to come to the Switch, ultimately debuting on the PC before making the leap over to the PS4 and Xbox One. It’s strange that it has taken so long given that Nintendo's console is arguably where the natural audience would be. Indeed, A Hat in Time feels like an old friend who has returned home after a long absence. The game is written using the playbook of Super Mario 64, the granddaddy of all 3D platformers. You play as Hat Kid, a girl travelling happily through space until her spaceship is attacked by the mafia of a planet she happens to be passing. Her precious ‘time pieces’ are scattered all across this planet, and since this is vital fuel for her spaceship, she has no choice to go and get them back – with your help, of course.
The plot isn’t the most intriguing, but it’s charming enough to get you invested. In terms of gameplay, everything feels instantly familiar as soon as you get started. The usual array of 3D platforming abilities are at your disposal, including double-jumping and wall jumping, and various other tricks that involve (ahem) jumping. Interestingly, your main method of attack is to smash enemies with an umbrella, which isn’t something that many other games let you do, Parasol Stars aside.
The game’s main innovation is the titular ‘hat’, or more precisely, ‘hats’. Hat Kid gains different abilities depending on what hat she is wearing, with the default headgear rather usefully revealing the direction of the stage’s objective. Sprint Hat grants a burst of speed at the press of a button, while Brewing Hat lets you brew at cauldrons. These hats really change up the gameplay, and there are loads to unlock, as well as various customisations. These can be switched between through the left shoulder button, and you'll be doing that a lot if you want to properly explore the stages.
The structure of the game also follows the template set by Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie in presenting a hub containing doors which are gradually unlocked, granting access to the world within, referred to as ‘Chapters’. Inside each world, however, A Hat in Time takes inspiration specifically from Super Mario 64 by separating its objectives into individual, defined missions (which the game calls ‘Acts’) that are gradually revealed.
Completing each objective grants the player a valuable time piece, which are analogous to the 'stars' found in Nintendo’s classic. Players are granted a huge amount of freedom regarding how they obtain these since new worlds are unlocked not by simply completing each act, but by obtaining enough time pieces; there is no obligation to complete each stage in order. In typical Mario fashion, players can move onto the next chapter as soon as possible if one particular chapter is infuriating them. You'll be punished for your laziness later as the number of time pieces required to unlock each world increases, but it does help prevent you getting bored sick of playing the same world; you can try a new one and revisit harder stages later. Granted, this is something that the small moustached man in red overalls was doing over two decades ago, but it works just as well now as it did then.
Despite the hats seemingly being important enough to earn a place in the title, it is the worlds themselves which make A Hat in Time so great. There’s a fantastic amount of variety on display, with the opening Mafia Town resembling a charming little seaside settlement, before throwing you head-first into a movie set. A Halloween-inspired spooky forest is another highlight and the fact that all of the worlds are so different and unpredictable means you're always curious to see what the game will do next.
Even within each world, the whole vibe and tone can vary dramatically between each act, with the aforementioned film studio world starting in the modern-day and then suddenly throwing you into a 1930s whodunit mystery imitating Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. That whimsical cartoon-like Halloween also suddenly transforms into a terrifying survival horror-inspired game of hide-and-seek. Suffice to say, the small number of worlds certainly does not result in a lack of variety, and the developers have done a great job avoiding the all-too-predictable array of ice, lava and underwater levels to give players something that really feels unique and special to explore.
The game isn’t perfect, however. There are a few things which do spoil things a little – some of which are specific to the Switch port, but not all. A Hat in Time may be one of the newest 3D platformers on the block, but it still hasn’t solved that one big problem that has plagued most 3D platformers since their inception: the camera. It is strange that despite Super Mario 64 having arguably one of the best cameras in any game, none of its imitators have ever managed to devise their own camera even remotely on par.
A Hat in Time is better than most, but the camera does find itself in the least useful position on one too many occasions, and this can be frustrating during intense scenes. We don’t want to overstate the problem – the camera is good enough, at least in line with its peers – but the quest to find a camera for 3D platformers that matches the one seen in Nintendo's own efforts goes on.
A bigger issue is something we see all too often with ports to the Switch – performance. Despite only targeting a relatively conservative 30fps, the game misses this target regularly. The issue isn't so much a low framerate as an inconsistent one, with A Hat in Time noticeably failing to hit its desired rate much of the time, which results in juddering effect that looks worse than what the actual framerate suggests. Very real drops in framerate occur as the complexity of the stages increases, which makes things even more inconsistent.
Unfortunately, 3D platformers are a genre where a consistent framerate is particularly desirable due to the huge amount of camera movement and precision leaping, and the performance here isn't really good enough. Perhaps related to this, the developers would appear to have oped against using anti-aliasing. Nintendo themselves do this frequently, but in this case, the result is often ugly, jagged edges that stand out even on the portable screen. Reining in visual effects to reach a constant framerate is acceptable, but here we have the worst of both worlds with the game still missing its performance target despite these cutbacks.
However, by far the most significant issue is the occasional actual pauses to the gameplay. These can be almost as long as one second and can occur during particularly intensive scenes (one example being when the UFOs use any kind of attack). These pause the entire game and did make us momentarily think that the game had crashed. They are relatively infrequent, but significant enough when they do occur that it severely impacts gameplay. It's worth noting that the developer has said that a patch to fix various issues is on the way, so these technical hiccups could be a thing of the past in the coming weeks.
Also, like other console ports of this game, the Switch edition doesn’t have access to the vast array of user-made content which has spawned a vibrant modding community for the PC edition of this game. The game’s utilisation of Unreal Engine 3 as well as being bundled with the Unreal Editor has resulted in massive community efforts to create new stuff, ranging from customisations, new hats, new weapons and skins to entirely new stages. This isn’t a problem that exclusively affects A Hat in Time on Switch as the open nature of the PC platform means that most games can be modded to a degree, but the community is so vibrant and the content so interesting that it is something to consider if you have a PC and are wondering which platform to buy this title on.
It is a testament to the quality of A Hat in Time however that none of these issues are significant enough to change the fact that this is still an excellent game. It's a hugely charming, fun and refreshing 3D platformer that stands as one of the best attempts to fully revive the genre. Issues with performance give way to the fact that the worlds are so unique, and every act so fascinating in its concept and execution that there’s no putting the Switch down until you’ve finished. People on the fence about which version of the game to buy might want to keep the above issues in mind, but for everybody else, this is a brilliant and hugely enjoyable game which we highly recommend.
A Hat in Time is a hugely enjoyable take on the classic 3D platformer. The tight, familiar controls and varied, innovative levels result in one of the most fascinating and entertaining games out there. The issues with performance and the camera do little to wipe the smile from our faces while playing through this; if you adore the likes of Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, then you'll fall utterly in love with A Hat in Time.