Generous and inventive, this 3D platformer is filled with charm.
On the surface, Lucky the fox is a perfect example of why you should never, ever name your kid "Lucky". His debut adventure was tied to the Oculus Rift, which meant that its impact was always going to be pretty limited. Even then, in amongst all those weird treats that defined the first wave of VR, controlling a cartoon fox as he scampered around handicraft 3D worlds collecting stuff didn't have much obvious appeal. And now he's back with Super Lucky's Tale on Xbox and PC, he's run right into Mario Odyssey's release window.
I say on the surface, though, because the big surprise is that Super Lucky's Tale is sort of brilliant.
And it's also not quite the game I was expecting. I'd expected a straight-up port of the Oculus game, which would have been fine because as 3D platformers go it isn't bad at all. Made of felt and wool and other nursery textiles, its simple levels filled with bottom-bouncing and coin hunts were a straightforward delight - albeit one that was enlivened somewhat by the headset, which meant that you could peer in close at the action or lean back to take in a whole level, while your presence in the world might send lanterns swinging as you bumped into them.
But no, as far as I can tell, Super Lucky's Tale is its own thing, with a far more traditional 3D-platformy art style - there are nice chunky slabs of land floating in space, while the bees, caterpillars and ghosts you take on all have a certain Haribo squishiness to them - and a structure that offers a welcome, if familiar, degree of player freedom. Lucky's Star/Shine/Moon equivalents are clovers, and he collects them while completing a series of self-contained levels accessed from a range of themed hubs. The themes aren't much to get excited about - a mystical cloud-blown kingdom, a spooky carnival - but as you unlock new levels in each one you have a degree of choice as you zip back and forth collecting the additional clovers you'll need in order to access each realm's boss. Alongside the clover for basic completion, each level has a secret clover, a clover awarded for collecting the letters that spell the word 'LUCKY' and a clover for hunting down a set number of coins. Plenty of clover to go around.
This is pretty standard stuff and Lucky's never going to challenge Mario, but who is, really? And this game is simply a joy to play through regardless. Even towards the end when I was grinding clovers - god my day job is weird - to reach the final boss, it was still enduringly pleasant to return to an old level and hunt down missing coins and missing letters. Partly this is due to a potent collision between platforming nostalgia and the endless appeal of collecting things, ticking things off and generally tidying things up. But largely it's because the levels are colourful and inventive and just challenging enough.
There's variety, too: a side-scrolling gauntlet in which you're sliding off watermelons and avoiding the blades of a cuisinart sits side by side with a spooky swamp in which a lamp you carry around reveals ghostly platforms that will allow you to access otherwise impossible reaches. One standout level sees Lucky bouncing over the various cars of a freight train filled with mushrooms, before you fire a cannon at a huge mechanical face built into a barn. (I think that this is the exact plot of Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal.) Another drops you into a version of the painted desert in which everyone is terribly excited about Christmas - and has chosen to celebrate it with platforms that curl, flip over, rotate, and generally try to tip you to your doom.
The way that a variety of collectable is threaded into these spaces is often ingenious, but Lucky's real secret ingredient is much more elusive than clever design. Lucky is weirdly charming: he's a fox, for starters, which is always money in the bank if you ask me, and there's plenty of character in the way he scampers around on all fours or leaps and dives as he tackles a limited, but memorable, range of baddies and bosses. Alongside the standard double-jump and bottom-bounce attack, Lucky can do a lovely thick-tailed spin move, and he can burrow underground, smashing rocks and collecting buried trinkets. He can be a bit fiddly when you're trying to land him on a very narrow platform, but moments that require genuine and sustained precision are pretty rare.
One of my favourite elements of the game is actually the wider cast. Each world Lucky travels to is based around a particular baddy, often drawn with whimsy and a gentle comic touch. The unspoken yardstick of a 3D platformer is what a kid would make of it if this was their first encounter with the genre. I am pretty sure this would fill them with sugary delight.
Yes, it leans pretty hard on genre staples, and yes there are a few bugs - stuttering in busy areas, a few moments where I slipped through the floor, a full-on crash and a moment where the last world's soundtrack didn't load (a double-shame as it focused heavily on the theremin). And the camera can be a bit annoying at times. Rather than giving you full control, Lucky has a semi-fixed view which you can tilt through three different perspectives. It's not an ideal way of exploring a 3D world, particularly since it's hard to see what's behind you. At least the design makes the necessary compromises - many of its environments are basically three-walled areas, like a stage or a sitcom set.
Small annoyances really, and there's so much else in Super Lucky's Tale that is cheerful, generous and designed to evoke delight. I suspect the curse of Lucky may mean that we're unlikely to get the sequel that is left dangling when the adventure concludes, but for now we have this game, anyway: a completely unexpected treat that brightened the best part of a week as I bounced through it with a huge smile on my face.