Many years ago, there was a developer by the name of Sonic Team. They made a wide variety of games, but they were best known for their platformers. These games has a distinctive appeal to them: they’d blast you through what were basically elaborate pinball tables, and break things up with all kinds of doodads to mess around with. But sometime in the previous generation, Sonic Team stopped making those kinds of games. (They’re still around; they’re just making different kinds of games.) Maybe the negative critical reception is to blame; or maybe it’s because the market moved away from the genre. Whatever the reason, Sonic Team doesn’t make as many of these platformers as they once did.
Why do I bring this up? Because my recent experiences with Billy Hatcher and the Giant egg have taught me what a regrettable loss this is. Like so many other Sonic Team games, Billy Hatcher makes movement an aesthetic unto itself. You begin with a novel way of moving through the world, add Super Monkey Ball-esque courses that capitalize on that movement, throw in some cartoony charm, and you have the engrossing experience that is Billy Hatcher.
Not that anybody remembers this game as an “engrossing experience.” In fact, my initial opinion of the game was that it offered very little to remember it for in the first place. It all begins with a premise taken right out of Rock a Doodle, of all places: the eponymous Billy has to rescue the Chicken Elders and stop the Ravens from covering the entire world in darkness. It’s the kind of silly and inoffensive plot you’d find in a Saturday morning cartoon. Nothing worth getting worked up over, right? Unfortunately, that premise begins to paint a worrying picture when you combine it with the “cute and full of attitude” vibe that Billy gives off. The game starts looking like it was designed by committee; like it had all the soul sucked out of it to appeal to as many 10-12 year olds as it possibly could. It doesn’t help that Billy Hatcher takes its “collect all the emblems” structure straight out of Super Mario 64. Under circumstances like these, it’s easy to think the game isn’t even trying to engage its player.
I promise you, this game is far more than a cheap Super Mario 64 knock-off. Where Mario focuses mostly on exploration, Billy Hatcher is more interested in movement. You move Billy through the levels by rolling around an egg. You can use the egg to dash, roll around, bounce into the air, and perform all kinds of other feats. While all these actions serve their immediate purpose, I couldn’t help pick up on a performative aspect in each of them. There were so many actions I could take with the egg, and each one felt so tangible that it was only natural I’d experiment and mess around with them. It felt like the game was inviting my interaction just by presenting me with all these options. They were so physical and playful that they moved past being tools I use to advance through the game, and turned into something I looked forward to in itself. The hatching system also helped, since rolling over fruit to grow and hatch the egg added a layer of anticipation to the gameplay.
Indeed, it’s the game’s intelligent use of its egg mechanic that makes it stand out. Over the course of Billy Hatcher, you’re going to use Billy’s egg to accomplish a wide variety of tasks. You’ll use it to beat up 100 crows; to race through an area you’d previously explored; to roll up enough snow to build the head for a snowman. While variety is to be expected in any video game, I’m not praising Billy Hatcher simply because it has a lot of things to do. Rather, I’m praising it because of how well those activities relate to each other. Nothing exists for its own sake; every activity relates back to that central conceit of “find a way to have fun with this peculiar object.” The crow challenge turns the levels into an elaborate pinball game, while the racing sections shift the focus from play to challenge. There’s a purpose behind everything you do, yet nothing ever juts out at you, either. Because every scenario is tied to the same idea, they all organic to whatever situation the game has set up for you. This means the game can create a wide variety of tasks for the player without ever feeling like it’s stretching itself thin.
Yet I think most of the game’s fun derives from how it designs its spaces. On one level, they play out like a contemporary 3D platformer. You get some open spaces and collectible trinkets leading you through them. They’re alright, feeding into the vivacity I’d just praised Billy Hatcher for. However, I found myself more interested in the fast linear sections, and not just because they’re a Sonic Team staple. It’s also because these sections work against the player agency that we often value in games. Many of the most popular games tell us that we can do anything and go anywhere in their virtual worlds. And while this trend has become more pronounced in recent years, it was around Billy Hatcher’s time that this trend really started to gain traction. After all, Grand Theft Auto III was released just two years before this game, and its entire premise was letting the player do whatever they want.
By contrast, the fun in Billy Hatcher comes from sacrificing your agency for a short amount of time. A significant amount of the game involves being led down a linear path, like rolling down a slope or being launched through a set of rings. At best, all you can do is influence how you move forward. This is a very risky move on the game’s part, since it asks the player to put a lot of trust in everything working as it should. However, the risk pays off. By making the player give up control, the game prepares the player to enjoy the speed and flow that Sonic Team games are known for. Watching Billy zip from slope to ring to rail and back to stable land is almost an activity unto itself. It’s somewhere between a game of pinball and riding a roller coaster: quick, uncertain, but with an undeniable thrill. What’s more, it’s because the game took control away from me that I could enjoy that thrill in the first place. Without having to worry about steering Billy to his death (as the game has removed that option), I was free to relax and invest myself in the events unfolding before me. It’s not like I had much choice; watching was the only thing I could do.
The only major fault I could find with the game was with its controls. I know it sounds petty to bring up a technical detail like this, especially in light of how I’d just praised the game for its lack of control. Yet the fact remains that Billy Hatcher will ask the player to take control at certain points, and it’s during those points that the controls feel inadequate for the game’s demands. Consider Billy’s inability to make precise turns. If you ask him to make a sharp right, he’ll carve out a wide arc getting there. These turns become particularly bad when they pop up in the game’s speed sections, as they betray the trust those sections ask of the player. The result of this betrayal is a frustrating dissonance between the game’s mechanics and structures. Granted, that dissonance doesn’t pop up that much. A lot of the courses avoid it, and the generous checkpointing does a lot to alleviate it. Still, it’s something to watch out for.
It’s a problem I’ve seen people bring up with Sonic Team’s games over the years. Their critics have pointed out that for as enjoyable as speed is in theory, an inadequate control scheme will interfere with that joy in practice. No doubt Billy Hatcher’s premise exacerbates things; the game lies between Katamari Damacy and Glover, two games that nobody remembers for their straightforward control schemes. But if Billy Hatcher demonstrates the hurdles that a speed oriented platformer will encounter, then it also demonstrates the ability to overcome those hurdles. Through precise levels and focused mechanical design, the game builds an involved gameplay experience. While there might be limits on what the game can do within that experience, there’s value in what it accomplishes within them.