Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg
Sonic Team's latest is sweet, cute and cuddly. We can't wait for the merchandise.
"From the creator of Sonic The Hedgehog." They're not kidding. Back in the day, we squirmed a little at the sight of a cuddly hedgehog and his band of saccharine sweet woodland friends rescuing enslaved animals, but at least they were traversing manly electro-labyrinths, and flew around on airships, right? Billy Hatcher, by comparison, is like a triple-strength sugar injection straight to the brain. After a few hours of rolling eggs through fruit and into Nickelodeon reject cartoon bad guys, hatching soft and squidgy animals and listening to kids singing "la la la" on the map screen, you'll probably find your gamepad is glazed in honey and fairies are fluttering out of the other controller ports.
I Feel Like Chicken Tonight!
Cut down to the gameplay fundamentals though, Billy Hatcher is a 3D platformer with a difference. Although you are basically just running, jumping and scouring levels for "Emblems of Courage" (red chicken heads) ala Mario 64/Sunshine/Jak & Daxter/et al, young Billy Hatcher isn't given to bopping bad guys - the evil crows (squawk!) - on the head by himself, and instead has to use eggs. These small eggs can be found in little nests dotted around each level, and by moving towards them Billy can roll them around.
Eggs form the basis of virtually every aspect of gameplay. If you want to kill an enemy, you can roll over it with an egg or throw an egg by pressing the B button. If you want to activate a switch, you'll generally need to pound down on it using the Hatcher equivalent of Mario's "butt stomp" - activated by jumping and then pressing B. If you want to reach higher platforms, you'll have to try the egg bounce, activated much like the butt stomp move, but by pressing B sooner after jumping.
Eggs also need to be fed. Squashed enemies, crates and some elements of destructible scenery will leave fruit behind in little bubbles, and by rolling over these the egg meter in the bottom right of the screen will grow until the egg is huge, at which point you can press the right trigger button and Billy will let out a "cock-o-doodle-doo!" and the egg will hatch.
What comes out of the egg depends on the pattern. In total, there are 75 different eggs in the game, and although some obviously turn up more regularly than others, each has a specific function. Some contain small single-use animals, which replenish your health supply or affect other eggs; some contain larger animals, which will follow you around and perform elemental (fire/water/ice/etc) attacks at the behest of the X button; some endow you with a special ability, like a fiery aura or the ability to walk on eggs like a circus clown; and the more difficult to find contain even greater treasures, like downloadable GBA games (NiGHTS, Puyo Pop, Billy Hatcher sub-games, etc).
Structurally, the single player game is fairly similar to any number of recent 3D platformers. Billy has been charged with a quest (groan, we might tell you more later) on which he has to liberate six village elders and banish six demonic bosses from the region, before moving on to the final showdown with the crows' nefarious leader, who is planning to pinch a sacred artefact. The swine.
What this means is a trip through a series of staple platform worlds (grassy village, sandy beach, fiery mountain, ice world, etc) dispatching crows and overcoming increasingly elaborate setups, firstly to rescue an elder, secondly to take on a boss and thirdly, fourthly, fifthly and beyond to deal with sub-objectives, like rescuing a friend who's been tied up next to a heap of bombs on a five-minute timer.
From what we've seen of the game so far, it's a good genre title, introducing a clever new element (the egg-wielding) and using it to augment traditional platform tasks. So while you'll still find yourself racing a giant bird through an obstacle course, much as you did when the Japanese N64 cost £500 and Mario 64 was the pinnacle of gaming, you'll also have to contend with the gameplay ramifications of the egg - always keeping an eye on which eggs are nearby, considering which egg you're likely to need for a given section and choosing the right time to hatch it, amongst other things - and puzzles geared towards egg use. Sonic Team even separates you from the comfort and security of an egg now and then, forcing you to roll your prized asset gently down a rail and scamper over some rocks to stop it falling off on the other side.
However while Hatcher has impressed us so far with its attempt to fuse something new to an otherwise unremarkable platform template, we're a little worried by a number of things. Firstly, it's only necessary to complete a couple of each of a village's levels before you unlock the next one. With just seven sets of levels, anybody just looking to clear it won't be hanging around long, although perfectionists will have a hard time resisting an array of bonus goals for accumulating further Emblems of Courage and uncovering secrets - downloadable GBA games, etc - not to mention collecting each level's golden coins, which unlock some familiar faces the more you can find...
We're also a little annoyed that despite developing some of the most important platform games in existence, Sonic Team still hasn't quite perfected the camera or level design. The camera is generally OK, but only because we're used to antagonistic camerawork by now - and Hatcher could perhaps do with a sensitivity control for the right analogue stick, or at the very least a "behind the player" button that works all the time and not just most of it.
The level design, meanwhile, is very basic for the most part. Switches are usually in full view, and if not then you're probably barking up the wrong tree, or there's a little yellow chick nearby waiting to tell you what to do. And yet despite this there are definite issues in our US retail code (bought, by the way) that QA should have dealt with. For example, in one area Billy has to ascend a slidey slope by hopping between hoops that propel him into the air, but despite the conditions (imprecise controls, camera flapping everywhere, slidey slope) there's enough room around each hoop for him to fall down to the water below - and die. Which happened quite a lot when we played it, as the decimated Cube pad in the corner will tell you if we can ever get it to work again.
Our biggest worry though is the frame rate, which is unlikely (in our eyes) to get fixed. Sustained drops are not punishingly regular, but when they happen they can be frustrating to deal with - particularly in a situation like the above when the root cause of the frame deficit is some unnecessary bouncing monsters that we haven't time to deal with.
Sunny Side Up
Finally then, we get to the binding sweetness of it all - the game's aesthetic. Thanks to a ridiculously childish plot... OK, we'll tell - Billy is on a quest to bring the sun back to Morning Land, by rescuing six kidnapped elders whose cock-a-doodling is what brings light to the world. Happy? Thanks to this ridiculously childish plot, Billy Hatcher wears a magical chicken suit, enemies are big, round and sweet (even the ferocious dinosaurs look cuddly), and levels are bright and colourful. The eggs are doused in various distinctive patterns and roll around convincingly despite their slightly awkward shape, but the golden eggs in particular look splendid, like polished metal Mini Eggs glinting in the moonlight.
Overall the look is somewhere between Mario Sunshine and Sonic Adventure 2 (or Heroes, for that matter), with environments that err closer to reality than Mario's but are still ostensibly cartoony. Texturing is toonish, varied and fairly detailed, and the animation - particularly on Billy and the bosses - is certainly something worth crowing about. As is the soundtrack, which, despite its disgustingly sweet kiddy melodies, manages to mix in touch of jazz, a touch of cartoon theme tune and a touch of virtually everything else. We might not do it when anybody's looking, but we do hum along to it occasionally.
Perhaps equally bizarre for a sugary Sega platformer is the Battle Mode, which rounds off the Hatcher package. Up to four players can compete here in a split-screen, egg-chucking orgy of animal love (strictly the platonic sense) - playing as Billy or his compatriots Rolly, Chick and Bantam - fighting with eggs, collecting items and generally doing things against the clock. We'll have a more thorough look at this when we review Hatcher, but despite a prominent place on the main menu it seems like a trifling diversion from what we've seen of it.
Retreat From The Sun
Despite moments of class and vintage Sonic Team though, the review scores from across the pond don't seem to be too wide of the mark at this point. This is a good genre game built on solid ground, which takes a few chances and just about pulls it off - but it's so tragically kiddy that even Sonic diehards may find the syrupy aftertaste a little too sweet to bear. There have been moments that we'll no doubt cherish, but we'll have to wait and see whether sustained play brings out more of Billy than we've seen to date.
Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg is due out on November 7th, priced £34.99.