There is something to be said for trying to recapture one’s childhood. Nostalgia is (and always has been) a popular tool employed by game designers, and it is something that many modern games use to try and recapture childhood wonder. And yet, for the first time in recent memory, a new release has tried a different approach, relying less heavily on nostalgia pandering, and instead on imitating the childlike power of imagination. Lil Gator Game is not just a wonderfully charming game, but a holistic experience that will bring you back to an era you likely haven’t revisited in a long time.

Lil Gator Game follows the story of a young gator and his older sister. As young kids, the siblings spent their days playing in nature, using their imagination to create video game-inspired adventures to go on together. However, as they begin to grow up, Big Sis begins to spend more time working on schoolwork, and less time playing adventures with her brother. Becoming frustrated with Big Sis, Lil Gator decides to work with his friends to create their biggest adventure yet, in the hopes of getting her to join in. Throughout Lil Gator Game there is an overarching theme of embracing fun, no matter one’s age. It is a lesson that should resonate with many people, and is exemplary of the game’s deep undertones and great writing, despite the outwardly cute aesthetic.

Lil Gator Game Review - Screenshot 1 of 2
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

One of the most impressive features is the presentation. The autumn forest cel-shaded visuals look wonderful on Switch, and the game generally runs well. Keeping with the childish theme, all the equipment and items that Lil Gator collects on his quest are either handmade crafts or household objects. For instance, instead of expertly crafted shields from a blacksmith, you will instead collect fancy dishware and skateboards to use. And it is not just the equipment you collect, as the same detail has gone into the world design and “enemies” as well. Despite technically being enemies, in reality, your adversaries are simply immobile cardboard cutouts decorated to look like slimes and skeletons. It really feels as though everything you find in your adventure is meticulously designed to be as close to something a child would use in tandem with their imagination.

At its core, Lil Gator Game is a quest-focused collectathon. Your primary goal is to craft the highest quality adventure you can for you and your sister. To do that, you must solve dozens of animals’ tasks in order to convince them to join you in your “town” (which is really just a playground). These tasks can range from defeating enemies and collecting junk, to helping grow a seed or turning on water pipes. The more animals you recruit, the more you can upgrade your town.

In addition to recruiting residents, completing quests will grant you tangible rewards as well. More often than not, you will be rewarded with confetti (the game’s primary currency), but sometimes you can also get new equipment for your adventure. These can range from new hats and swords to tools such as throwable rocks and ninja stars. There are dozens of equipment pieces for you to unlock, so no matter what quest you decide to pursue, there is always a reward at the end to make it feel worth it.

Despite Lil Gator Game’s collectathon focus, the game draws heavily on some notable modern games; the most apparent comparisons are to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. From shield surfing to the donut-shaped stamina wheel, and even a glider styled after Link's, Gator Game is clearly drawing inspiration from one of the Switch’s biggest, best titles. It features several other references and homages to various game series, such as an Ace Attorney-style court case. Because the game focuses so much on Lil Gator’s imagination, drawing from these notable video game series that he is likely to have played for countless hours makes sense in the context of the world and only adds to the emotional realism the game is shooting for.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

While Lil Gator Game does a lot right, there are some minor areas that unfortunately don’t quite hit the mark. Most notably, the game can feel quite directionless at times. There is no mini-map or compass, nor is there a quest list to help keep track of your current tasks (though sometimes one does pop up briefly during the main quests). This can sometimes feel like you are looking for a needle in a haystack, especially if you decide to take a break and return to the game later. Thankfully, the game’s main island is not too large, so you can wander around and eventually find your destination, but having some sort of journal would have made the adventure much smoother.

In addition to progression issues, Lil Gator Game also suffers from some pacing issues in the writing. While for the most part, the game’s dialogue is charming, there are sometimes instances where conversations between characters can feel like they drag on for too long. Additionally, despite not being a game-breaking issue, it is worth noting that there were instances of the physics engine launching Lil Gator into the sky, especially while shield surfing.

Conclusion

There are few games out there that successfully capture childlike wonder and imagination better than Lil Gator Game. Despite some minor issues with the writing and how directionless the adventure can feel at times, it's easy to forgive small frustrations when a game is as wonderfully charming from start to finish as this. Lil Gator is up there with the best indie games released this year and comes with a recommendation for anyone remotely interested in feeling like a kid again.