Back to the present.
We don’t see many platformers these days. The glut decades ago seemed to be a direct result of the transition into 3D with fifth gen consoles absolutely replete with the things, and then…practically nothing. They’re an “old school” genre now, and the rare game that comes along nowadays is always immediately touted as a throwback or tribute to its forebears. New Super Lucky’s Tale is no exception, pitching itself as “a love letter to classic 3D platformers,” but it manages to do much more than just remind you of older games that you liked better.
The inspirations come from too many games to list but I can certainly try. There’s Banjo-Kazooie styled presentation and voices, some Conker in terms of moveset, Crash Bandicoot-esque acquisition of secrets while switching between 2D and 3D levels with Donkey Kong letters scattered throughout, a bit of Sonic in the go-fast-2D levels, Goemon of all things in its music and humor, and I could go on but I’ll spare you. My point is that if you have affection for the genre you’ll almost certainly see something you know and like utilized somewhere in all this.
What matters more is that while I can see concepts and mechanisms that I recognize, not one of them feels lifted for no reason. Every single lesson learned from prior platformers has been used to the fullest here creating an experience that’s as polished as can be without ever feeling outright derivative. It reminded me of the mastery demonstrated by A Hat in Time a few years back, though where that game was excellent until its mediocre ending NSLT maintains its quality the whole way through. It doesn’t manage to quite hit the highs of AHiT but consistency is a quality all its own.
There’s an absurd amount of little details that give the game a ton of personality. From Lucky smiling at the camera whenever he idles while facing it, World 3 being chock full of wrestling references, to enemy projectile patterns spelling insults as they scroll across the screen. You can feel the love put into every level, every character, every line of dialog. It’s a relentlessly pleasant game.
That pleasantness extends to its gameplay and is also where a couple criticisms crop up. The good news is that NSLT controls like a dream. Lucky is incredibly responsive, never feeling sluggish or heavy. You have frankly a ridiculous amount of aerial mobility, albeit not for extended periods, which allows for all kinds of clever platforming challenges and hazards throughout the game. Boss fights are essentially obstacle courses and get into an excellent sense of flow, dipping and dodging past problems until you get a window to bop the baddie, rinse and repeat 3ish times.
The bad news, depending on why you play platformers in the year of our lord 2020, is that clever and quality doesn’t equate to challenging. If you’re accustomed to the genre NSLT is easy almost to the point of being effortless. Rolling credits requires very little of the player, and I say this coming off of a 100% playthrough. For goodness sake, the game is speedrunnable in under an hour and the route mostly consists of pulling some aerial tricks and running a very specific line of levels. Not glitching through the map, not breaking the game significantly, it’s just that short and easy.
By the post-game the levels start to offer a bit of resistance but at that point you’ll be so well acclimated to the game’s controls that they’ll only take one or two more lives off you than usual, if that. That said they’re very well put together and demonstrate the sheer breadth of mechanisms at play. Maybe someday we’ll get a “New Super Lucky’s Tale Maker” so that the community can create some truly challenging levels that push Unity to its breaking point.
Here’s the crux, and why I felt the need to review this despite it being a light breezy thing – nostalgia is a weapon. It’s a powerful thing, something we allow far more space in our heads than is healthy. The vast majority of the platformers we remember so well were made for children. We were children. They were perfectly designed for us, then, in the moment. Expecting a platformer to provide an experience just like we had back then, when we were so impressed by their colorful worlds and our imaginations filled in the blanks and blurry textures, just isn’t reasonable. Let’s stop pretending that games are time machines and enjoy them for what they are.
NSLT is an incredibly well crafted game. It knows exactly what it is, who it’s for, and how to please that audience. However, its aim is squarely towards the same age group that 3D platformers were originally aimed at decades ago. As such it isn’t likely to last long for the dyed in the wool platforming vets out there, but it’ll certainly entertain for its entire duration. Just don’t ask it to do the impossible.
Reviewed on Xbox Game Pass.