We'd like to start today by making it clear to everybody out there that we never said Billy Hatcher was for kids. That's simply not true. We were just somewhat bowled over by the childishness of everything from the characters, enemies and presentation to the environments, activities and soundtrack when we first took a look at it earlier this month. The infuriatingly catchy "la la, la la, la-la, la la" theme is still dancing around our head like Teletubbies in Ibiza.
But even in our youthful heyday of homework, blistered thumbs, shiny wrapping paper and pass the parcel, we probably wouldn't have got to the end of Hatcher, let alone spent hours toiling around the candy-coated, fluffy cloud levels of Sonic Team's latest, trying desperately to find five hidden golden coins in each, uncover the secret eggs full of GBA-linkable treats, or strike the right balance between speed and achievement to get an "S" ranking.
It's not that it's especially hard, because the challenges here will eventually fall before the might of even the most decidedly average platform gamer. Fresh from Jak II and Ratchet & Clank's latest, we certainly made steady progress, having only to call upon our indecently vast knowledge of bad language a few times during the course of the game - and usually only when confronted with a 20-minute task we knew we could complete but kept screwing up often enough to have to start over, or one of the game's occasional glitchy quirks.
No, the reason we say it's not for kids is that it's just too good for them! Just as you wouldn't buy a brand new Porsche and give the keys to little Johnny, here you wouldn't want to find yourself groaning about some spoilt brat's consistent inability to grasp objectives like "find the secret behind the waterfall" while you're glancing out over a newspaper and secretly pining for the controller. It's our game, and they can sod off and play Ty The Tasmanian Tiger or something. Right, with that out of the way, it's onto the game...
You must be yolking
As you'd expect from Sonic Team's first new character-driven platformer in almost a decade, Billy Hatcher owes a lot to the competition, but is more than capable of making its own moves too. So although you will find yourself faced with five massive levels, each split into various Mario 64-style missions, and a number of prized "Emblems of Courage" to collect before you can take down the final, all-conquering bad guy and save the world from eternal darkness, you won't be bouncing on Koopa's head and saddling a Yoshi any time soon. Instead, the game relies on a new mechanic of growing and hatching eggs to gain power-ups and complete objectives. In order to understand why, it's probably best to go over the game's background. But, before we continue, you might want to gnaw on a lemon or something sour if you generally respond badly to sugary substances...
As the opening cut-scene giddily teaches you, goggle-eyed youngster Billy Hatcher and his friends are out playing in the woods one day when they stumble across an injured chick, limping away from the squawking and pecking of a pesky crow. Not an attractive blonde lady, you understand, but an actual honest-to-goodness chicken. Fortunately, before the black-clad crowing bastard can do any more damage to the little fella, Billy dives in and clobbers him - and quickly finds himself transported to Morning Land, where perpetual darkness has taken hold. Here, Billy learns from the locals that the evil crows have captured and locked up the five roosters who hold the key to daylight, and, armed with a mystical, clown-like chicken suit, our hero is sent off to quite literally save the day; restoring light to Morning Land and his own world, and foiling the crows' plan to harness the power of the Giant Egg.
Along the way, Billy will encounter a vast number of different coloured and patterned eggs, each of which he can roll around simply by walking up to them. As long as he doesn't stop and race off in the other direction, at which point he's free to do whatever else he needs to do, or send it scooting off a ledge with the B button, the egg will grow with each item of fruit it squishes and absorbs. As you'd imagine, fruit is quite rife, found in crates, left by dispatched enemies and of course just lying around in general. And it generally respawns, as do the eggs, which can be a lifeline if Billy's current charge is crushed to yolk.
With an egg in hand, Billy can jump (A), pound the ground (A and then A again in mid-air) and bounce upwards again to reach elevated platforms (a better-timed version of the previous move), attack enemies and have the egg roll back to him like a yoyo (B), or just roll over them. A lot of the enemies in the game have no real attacks other than their filthy crow-ishness, and these chaps, though they may bounce or fly occasionally, generally just die with a satisfying squelch as Billy trundles merrily over their heads with an egg. Others will lash their tongues at Billy and his egg, slice and dice it with spinning attacks, or just stomp it beneath their mighty feet, but attack patterns are usually easy enough to overcome.
Larger eggs generally do more damage and reach that little bit farther - useful to know when you're trying to grab a coin hung in mid-air - and once Billy's egg has grown enough in size, as indicated by a little meter in the bottom right of the screen, he can hatch it with the R trigger, giving birth to one of a number of things depending on the pattern of the egg.
With 72 eggs in the game (and many of them well hidden or dependent on your finding the right number of coins or other trinkets), there are plenty of different things to keep in mind, whether it's different coloured hats (which instil various powers into Billy that envelope his eggs - from fire and lightning to ice and Goth-ish spikes), limited-use companions (elemental beasts or combative animals that can be sent off to extinguish fires, smash rocks or clobber enemies with the X button), health or weapon pick-ups (held in reserve and used with Y) or other miscellaneous objects (GBA games, bombs, etc). Each of these has various uses, and often a puzzling dead-end is just a question of fathoming which egg will overcome the current problem. Need to get into the aforementioned waterfall? Try freezing it. Faced with a stream and no way to swim it? Have a look in that new egg over in the corner...
A growth genre
This system of using eggs gives Hatcher a feel entirely of its own. Although it obviously draws heavily on familiar platform elements and goals, and represents Sonic Team's first real Mario 64-style endeavour, the game's growing and hatching mechanic is extremely original and intuitive to pick up, and only suffers when marred by issues with the rest of the game - like the way Billy can jump up to a ledge, watch the egg land happily in front of him and then fall comically and frustratingly back to earth below as his own feet fail to find terra firma.
In order to encourage players to stick to the eggs (you won't make any progress without them, in fact), levels are full of switches, cannons and tasks that require them, and various hoops that can be used to propel Billy and his egg - and not just Billy on his lonesome - off in some new direction. Green hoops are manual and let you control your own flight, blue hoops are automatic and often chained together to send you on a particular route, while orange hoops spin like Donkey Kong's barrels, forcing you to try and pick the precise moment to leap out of them and get where you want to go.
This mixture of elements, and the non-linear approach of letting Billy complete two missions per world before he unlocks the next one, mean that activities rarely become repetitive, and you can almost always find something new and entertaining to do. At one stage we grew tired of trying to complete a particularly arduous mission late on, full of narrow platforms which often claimed our eggs and frustration thanks to Billy's hectic pace, and ended up spending the next two hours completing the numerous other missions available in each of the previous worlds. Although each starts with an offering of five (where only the first two have to be completed in order), we quickly discovered that by completing certain missions that rescued Billy's three friends from captivity, the game unlocked a mission for each of them in each of the game's five worlds, too. Add to that the fact that the game's missions are generally pretty engaging and quirky, and that you'll need to tot up 25 emblems to get near the final boss, and here stands an inventive platform game that offers much as you make steady progress. Far better than one which grinds to a halt every half an hour...
Cracks in the shell
However despite being hugely enjoyable and engaging for the most part, with some missions that seem so obvious and brilliant that even Nintendo will be kicking itself over their absence from Sunshine and 64. Others, like the "Kill 100 crows" (then go off to some stupidly distant area of the level to collect your emblem and probably die along the way) objectives, are pretty basic and uninspired, and really there are enough things wrong with Billy Hatcher to render it a slightly less exciting prospect.
For a start, the camera is not exactly the game's most promising asset. At first more than capable, by the end it descends into outright anarchy, clipping inside a wall and completely obscuring the action as you're flung into the midst of a bunch of hugely annoying and aggressive enemies, for example, or switching perspective the second you attempt to make a difficult jump, throwing you off and indeed letting you fall off in the confusion.
There are also a number of egg-related problems, which generally accentuate themselves when you're faced with a "golden egg" mission. In these golden beauts, ya see, lurk the village elders imprisoned by the nefarious crows. It's your job to hatch them as quickly as possible without letting them take a single hit. If anything touches them, you'll have to try again from the point you got hold of the egg. Now, it's nice to break up the generally sedate platforming here with the occasional tense moment of evasive egg-cultivation in the midst of a sea of deadly enemies, but on the other hand it's also a bloody pain when the game decides to combine its fairly twitchy controls with narrow ledges and rail areas.
Billy, don't be a hero
Late on in the game, having spent about ten minutes getting to the halfway point of a level and securing the golden egg, you have to traipse along some narrow platforms, clobbering enemies for their fruit, avoiding those annoying little holes in the ground which spurt flames occasionally and seem to make it into every platform game that's ever made, and eventually roll your prized egg along a little rail and dart through a hole in a nearby wall to collect it on the other side. The latter is a mechanic used occasionally in Hatcher and it works quite well, forcing you to roll the egg gently onto the tracks then hightail it over a ledge or round an obstruction to grab it again on the other side - lest it rolls off into the ether and rob you of your ambition. However, here you're so concerned about the egg that you tend to nudge it really, really gently, and more often than not ours just fell between the rails and we had to start over. Given that there are several of these sections in succession, and that your reward - the Emblem of Courage - eventually spawns on the other side of them, we found ourselves caught up on this section for literally an hour. And it left a sour taste in our mouths - quite a feat given the saccharine sweetness on offer elsewhere.
What's worse is that unlike Jak II and other recent platformers, you're limited by a lives structure. Now, Sega likes lives. It always has. We expected this. However, we didn't expect to put in ten minutes of hard graft only to have to redo it after the game unfairly and repeatedly slaughtered us a few ledges further on. Particularly given the absence of "one-ups" all over the place. The fact that kleptomaniacs will then have to once again uncover and hatch all the new eggs in that preceding ten-minute section - hard work mercilessly undone by the "Game Over" screen - just adds insult to injury. At least the bosses are extraordinarily easy to overcome, eh? Oh.
Yet despite these flaws, Billy Hatcher's togetherness, simplicity and innovative approach help it to clamber above the ranks of also-rans, and it's not quite as hamstrung by its problems as you'd expect. Indeed, every time we go back to it we're gripped by the gameplay, and there always seems to be something else we could be doing if a particular section becomes a pain in the shell. Alongside the single-player story mode, which will take many hours to thoroughly complete - many more than we'd initially anticipated, certainly - there's also a genuinely engaging multiplayer mode to consider, which is a first for a platformer as far as we're concerned, and those downloadable GBA games. Now, we're not usually that bothered about these, especially after games like Wario World pissed demo versions of GBA titles down our link cable, but who can argue with NiGHTS? Who? Not us. What's more, it gives your mate something to do while you're trying to unravel the mysteries of the windmill or clobber a pirate.
It's also delightful to see that, after the relatively clunky and rough-edged delights of the Sonic Adventure games, Sonic Team has apparently mastered the art of finely tuned post-production. Visually the game is a sort of cross between Sonic Adventure and Mario Sunshine, with detailed characters and animations - Billy's running animation is one of the most endearingly cute things we've seen in ages - and simple geometry married to a friendly colour scheme. And the egg visuals are just delightful, with plenty of thought and polish in every design. Granted, the requisite ice, fire, water and circus worlds are hardly avant-garde, and it does occasionally descend into Sonic Adventure-style depths of blandness, but you don't find yourself minding, and the only other problems we could cite would be the draw distance, which has a tendency to sacrifice detail at a distance that seems rather unsporting, and the frame rate, which regularly plummets, right from the first level onwards.
It's also nice, but not surprising given the developer, to find some significant replay value. Apart from trying to capture all the Emblems of Courage, which will take ages, there's also the prospect of going back to find those eggs missing from your collection, to find each level's five golden coins, and to get the best rank for each level, which is no mean feat given the amount of Ds in our copybook. What's more, you'll probably want to do it, because it's just, well, fun!
Free range entertainment
Despite flaws aplenty, we just can't help ourselves recommending Billy Hatcher And The Giant Egg. After a spate of important platform games with engrossing and amusing plots, which sacrifice the roaming of Mario 64 and other top titles for linear progression and rigid structure, it's nice to come across a fairly meaningless but devilishly addictive platform game that isn't afraid of, ulp, hatching a few new ideas amongst the rank and file and giving you options. Granted, it's going to earn its critics, with some problems that just aggravate to the point of throwing the pad down, and it isn't as essential a purchase as Mario Sunshine or Jak II, but it is the best platform game Sonic Team's made since the 2D hedgehog adventures that made them, and that's as good a reason as any to buy it.