A Hat in Time: Hat the Nipper

Despite what anyone who has ever worked in the teaching profession (including myself) might tell you, children are not inherently evil.

They’re not inherently good either, mind you, and that’s what potentially makes them interesting as characters. Particularly characters in some form of interactive media where you get to explore the consequences of “good” and “bad” behaviour in various contexts.

Among other things, A Hat in Time is a joyful exploration of what it means to be a child. A child who has their own spaceship and is clearly a lot more 1) intelligent and 2) affluent than they might let on, but a child nonetheless. Let’s explore this strange and wonderful world through the eyes of the one and only Hat Kid.

A bit of a history lesson is in order first, though. A Hat in Time began life as an unfunded passion project back in 2012. Director Jonas Kaerlev hoped the game would make a nice bullet point on his resumé to help him get hired somewhere, but as he worked on the game — and gathered an international team of volunteers to help him out — he started to realise that he might actually be on to something special.

Kaerlev’s hope was to provide a modern take on the “collectathon” platformer, but was a little skeptical as to whether or not the general public would be open to the idea. Speaking with Polygon in 2013, he expressed his belief that Rare’s Donkey Kong 64 had done significant damage to the popularity of the genre thanks to its notoriously over-the-top amount of collectables.

“It was very tedious to collect everything in order to move on,” he noted. “A lot of people don’t want that. They want to be able to breeze through the game if they so desire, but there are also people who want to collect everything, and get stronger and better.”

Instead, Kaerlev looked a little further back to the genre’s golden age: the early days of the Nintendo 64, and titles such as Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Banjo-Kazooie. All of these followed his perception of what people wanted: they were games that allowed a fairly “straight line to the finish” approach if you so desired, but also rewarded those who went the extra mile and sought out all the additional secrets they had to offer.

He was still skeptical as to how the public would respond to a game like this in 2013, however. With this in mind, when it became apparent that the game would need some actual funding to continue development and become a fully fleshed-out project, Kaerlev took to Kickstarter with a fairly conservative goal of $20,000. He knew full well that this wouldn’t be enough to cover all the costs that the project would incur, but he knew that he and his team just needed a budget so they could figure out the constraints in which they were working.

2013 was a good time for Kickstarter projects, particularly gaming-related ones that tapped into nostalgia for times gone by. This was just a year after Double Fine had smashed expectations with their Kickstarter for Broken Age — at that time known simply as Double Fine Adventure — and around a similar time to Mighty No. 9. There had been a disconnect for quite some time between what publishers thought the public wanted and what the public were willing to throw their money at; genres that had considered to be “long dead” such as point-and-click adventures, Mega Man-style action platformers and 3D collectathons actually seemed to have a rather significant audience of people out there who were hungry for more of the games they had grown up with. Who’d have thought it?

A Hat in Time’s Kickstarter wasn’t quite as much of a runaway success as Double Fine Adventure or Mighty No. 9, but it still smashed through its initial goal with ease. Within 12 hours, the team had achieved 50% of their target. By the day after launch, they were at 200% of the initial goal. A little over a week later, they had raised over $100,000. And when the Kickstarter campaign finally closed, it was just shy of $300,000, comfortably exceeding all of the proposed stretch goals — plus a few extra ones.

It took time for the final product to eventually make it to market. The PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions finally arrived in late 2017, while a Nintendo Switch version — previously claimed to not be happening by Gears for Breakfast themselves — eventually showed up in 2019. And the base game was subsequently supported by two substantial post-release DLC chapters, one of which comes free (as a download code) with the packaged release of the Nintendo Switch version, and the second of which was given free to those who had backed the original Kickstarter campaign.

So now you’re up to date on where this game came from: what is it actually all about?

In A Hat in Time, you take on the role of an unnamed child who is referred to throughout the game as “some girl”, “little girl”, “rude child” and the name that most people have latched on to: “Hat Kid”, owing to, well, her big hat. Hat Kid is a space traveller who is trying to make it back home, but upon entering orbit around a strange planet she is shaken down for a “toll” by the local Mafia of Cooks. Hat Kid’s refusal to pay up causes the Mafia representative to smash a hole in her spacecraft’s windshield, causing all the hourglass-shaped Time Pieces that power the ship’s engines to get blasted out into space, ultimately landing all over the planet below. Whoops.

What then follows is a series of adventures in which Hat Kid must track down the missing Time Pieces, recover them and blast off to make her way home.

There are four main chapters to A Hat in Time plus a finale sequence, and the DLC adds two more chapters. Each chapter unfolds in a specific locale themed around a particular antagonist or group of antagonists, beginning with the Mafia of Cooks.

All worlds except the second are large, open areas that can be explored freely for the most part, but each distinct “Act” of a chapter requires Hat Kid to accomplish a specific task, and sometimes makes significant changes to the environment to make Hat Kid’s various tasks more challenging. For example, the island paradise that is the Mafia of Cooks’ hideout is flooded with lava in one particular Act, requiring you to find your way around mostly using rooftops and structures that are well above ground level.

Kaerlev’s desire to allow people to breeze through the game relatively easily holds true. The path to the Time Piece for a particular Act is always pretty clear, and exactly what is expected of you is always made explicit. But a lot of the fun of the game comes from avoiding that critical path and exploring these worlds; not only are there hidden items around the place, but the worlds are simply a huge amount of fun to explore in the first place.

Each world is very different from the last, and in no two Acts will you find yourself doing the same thing; this is a lesson that Kaerlev and team have clearly learned from Nintendo, who are very much practitioners of this philosophy when it comes to the 3D Super Mario games.

The first world, the aforementioned headquarters of the Mafia of Cooks, sees you accomplishing various tasks around a small open world. The second is a series of discrete, linear challenges themed around movies. The third is a haunted forest that has a decently sized open world to explore — with various areas blocked off until you fulfil various optional conditions — but which has several different challenges to accomplish, often in their own self-contained areas. The fourth is described as a “free roam” world; here, you’re presented with a large open world and several different directions to go off in. There’s a Time Piece in every direction — and unlike in other worlds finding one doesn’t send you back to Hat Kid’s spaceship — but the order in which you tackle the various challenges is entirely up to you.

The two DLC chapters also shake things up in their own intriguing ways. The first, dubbed Arctic Cruise, takes place aboard a convincingly modelled cruise ship, with multiple routes back and forth all over the place that you’ll need to learn. The second, Nyakuza Metro, unfolds in a neon-lit underground cityscape and unfolds as a continuous sequence of events that gradually unlocks more of the free-roaming map for you to explore.

Each world also plays host to two types of Time Rift bonus levels, which are concealed somewhere around the level and which must be found by using nothing more than a “photograph” that shows where they are and some of the surrounding scenery for context.

Blue Time Rifts, which generally unlock simply through game progress, are pure abstract platforming challenges that task you with negotiating a perilous, physically impossible course floating in a strange other dimension in order to make your way to a Time Piece.

Purple Time Rifts, meanwhile, must be unlocked by collecting and assembling various multi-part “relics” — actually fairly mundane items such as a cake stand or a cushion shaped like a hamburger. These provide an opportunity to discover the backstory of several of the major characters in the game through collecting picture book pages; progressing through each stage of these Rifts also requires you to collect specific numbers of shining gold “Pons”, which are inevitably hidden in perilous locations and require some nifty platforming skills in order to reach.

This huge variety in structure and design means that A Hat in Time never feels boring, because you’re never stuck doing one thing for very long. If you’re having trouble with a particular Act, you can always back out and try something else you’ve unlocked — there’s absolutely no need to complete everything in the game in order to see the ending. But it is extremely fun to do so.

A lot of this fun comes from the aforementioned exploration of playing as a child. Hat Kid is a charming, cute character that initially puts across the impression of being a perfect little angel, but the first time you sneak up behind a Mafia sitting on a precarious rooftop girder and shove him off into the ocean for no other reason than “because you can”, you’ll start to realise that perhaps she’s not quite as obviously sweet and innocent as she initially appears. Or is this just a reflection of your own dark desires?

Either way, there are plenty of opportunities for gleeful childishness throughout the game. For example, in the second chapter, there is an Act that involves solving what appears to be a murder on an express train. Throughout this stage — which is mostly populated by owls — you are continually approached by obviously suspicious crows in trenchcoats and hats who speak like William Shatner and claim to be perfectly normal owls before proceeding to ask you a variety of personal information such as your mother’s maiden name, your “favourite combination of letters and numbers” and the body part you feel most insecure about.

Much later in the stage, this information comes back to haunt you in various ways — and the game makes a joke of its otherwise fully voiced nature by having the crows “mumble” the answer you gave them at the appropriate point in the sentence. Naturally, if you’ve done what any normal person would do and fill in the blanks with a variety of childish obscenities, these sequences are immediately 100% more hilarious — and there’s even an achievement in the PC version (just called “Why?”) for typing in swear words.

The great thing about A Hat in Time is that all this silliness feels thoroughly in character for Hat Kid, who is just trying to make her way through unfamiliar worlds, accomplish her own goals and preferably enjoy herself a bit in the process; indeed, at the conclusion of the third “horror” world, she defaces the contract that the ghostly Snatcher attempts to lumber her soul with, instead granting herself free access to his domain and listing her only task as “Have Fun”.

Hat Girl isn’t really interested in getting involved with local happenings if she can help it; she just sort of naturally gets wrapped up in things in her pursuit of the Time Pieces, and in the process often ends up inadvertently befriending everyone who is initially an “enemy”, which is just a delightfully wholesome outcome.

The one exception to this rule is Mustache Girl, a character who shows up early in the narrative and initially appears to be a friendly, if somewhat cocky sort. She has a big chip on her shoulder about the Mafia of Cooks, and sees Hat Girl’s Time Pieces as an opportunity to save her home from what she sees as “Bad Guys”. Hat Girl, having no interest in saving anyone other than herself, politely refuses, making an immediate lifelong archenemy of Mustache Girl; such is the fickle nature of childhood friendships.

The amusing thing about all this is that while Hat Girl befriends a variety of genuinely awful people over the course of the game as a whole, she obviously has a positive influence on them. By the finale, which sees Mustache Girl stealing Hat Girl’s Time Pieces and using them to manipulate time in order to position herself as some sort of supreme arbiter of justice over Bad Guys, all of these absolutely dreadful individuals are united as one to support Hat Girl in her final battle against her rival; her disinterest in their situations and her complete lack of desire to get involved with local happenings means that everyone is quite happy to have her around purely as a cheerful, positive presence while they get on with whatever reprehensible nonsense they were up to before she arrived.

As previously noted, though, Hat Girl is neither inherently “good” nor inherently “evil”, and this is shown in plenty of interesting ways over the course of the game as a whole. Probably the most thought-provoking of these comes in the Arctic Cruise DLC chapter, where her “having fun” ends up having severely disastrous consequences not only for herself, but for everyone on board the ship. While she never actually admits to being the one who caused the disaster — kids never want to own up for fear of punishment, after all — she does at least do her best to make things right by helping to round up the survivors and get them to safety. It’s pleasingly bittersweet and morally ambiguous; while saving the passengers from the sinking ship is an obviously “good” act, for that entire level you’re painfully aware that the whole situation is only happening because you were selfishly pissing about a few moments ago.

Gameplay-wise, A Hat in Time is extremely solid. Its controls are responsive and Hat Kid’s animations are fluid and context-sensitive, giving a very natural look and feel to how she gets around the world. This never comes at the expense of control, however; the priority is always on what button you pressed, not what animation she’s in the middle of, meaning you never feel like you’re having to fight the game itself — only the challenges it places before you. And occasionally the camera in particularly confined spaces.

Hat Kid has a decent array of capabilities, including double jumps, flying dives and a pleasantly forgiving wall climb/jump manoeuvre. The controls never feel like they become overcomplicated, and the game has a good, gradual difficulty curve that challenges you to use more of these abilities in concert as you progress further — as well as unlocking additional abilities through different hats for Hat Kid and badges for her to stick on her hats. Pleasingly, the game never wastes your time with tutorials; the game design is such that you’ll figure out the best way to handle various situations completely intuitively, and over time you’ll become aware of clear visual cues that indicate what the best course of action is in various situations.

The gradual incline in challenge continues with the two DLC chapters; the Arctic Cruise chapter in particular features a monstrously difficult purple Time Rift that will tax even platforming pros, but by the time you’ve reached this point in the game you should be plenty ready for it. On top of that, making a certain amount of progress in the game with this DLC installed unlocks “Death Wish” mode, which challenges you to return to the various Acts and complete a variety of tasks under increasingly unreasonable circumstances.

A Hat in Time’s presentation is particularly worthy of note. While not the most technically accomplished game you’ll ever see — particularly in its Switch incarnation, which suffers long load times, poorly scaled 2D images and a fair amount of pop-in — it does a great job of capturing the heavily stylised look and feel of N64 and early Gamecube platformers. One could even make the argument that, load times aside, the technical shortcomings of the Switch version are nostalgic in their own peculiar way, helping to make the experience feel like a “new old game” in a rather different way to titles that take the 2D pixel art approach. Plus it just feels right to play a game like this on a Nintendo platform.

Where the game does shine incredibly brightly, however, is in its music. The main score by Pascal Michael Stiefel is astonishingly varied and beautifully recorded, featuring live instrumentation and dynamic remixes according to what is going on in the level at the time — a definite throwback to titles such as Banjo-Kazooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day from the N64 days.

In fact, the original intention was to have Grant Kirkhope, Banjo-Kazooie’s composer, contribute seven musical tracks to the game, but after the team determined his style didn’t quite fit with the rest of the soundtrack, his only surviving track is heard in Hat Girl’s spaceship, the main “hub” of the experience. Interestingly, Kirkhope requested that this track be omitted from official soundtrack releases; his reasoning for this seemingly remains unknown, but there does not appear to be any ill will there — he’s still listed as “special thanks” in the game’s credits.

A Hat in Time accomplishes its stated goals with considerable flair. It’s a ton of fun, whether you’re a newcomer to 3D platformers or you’re nostalgic for the golden days of the N64 and Gamecube, and you can constantly feel the love and passion the developers had for this project as you play.

And all with considerably less than 3,821 collectibles. Take that, Donkey Kong 64.

More about A Hat in Time

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