“Platformers” and “difficulty” are two terms that have become synonymous in the gaming media since the widespread success of titles like Super Meat Boy, Cuphead, Celeste and the Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy. Even the big N themselves truly upped the ante with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze if online discussions are anything to go by. It would appear that modern platformers tend to shoot for a more hardcore audience. Sometimes, they might throw a bone to the less initiated with some sort of “super easy mode” that tends to feel like an after-thought rather than a meaningful way to include those who didn’t cut their teeth on the 8 or 16 bit era. I feel that some (well, scratch that) a lot of enthusiasts have forgotten that, at the end of the day, playing a video game is about having fun. Sure, conquering some grueling gauntlet such as The Impossible Lair in the recent Yooka Laylee sequel can be satisfying in its own right- but sometimes you just want to kick back and relax with a video game (or at least you should). That’s why I feel titles like New Super Lucky’s Tale are so gosh-darn important.
New Super Lucky’s Tale is the latest Xbox One title to hit the Nintendo Switch, featuring some major improvements over the initial release. Unlike New Super Mario Bros. U, this is not a down and dirty port with window dressing for its Switch port. This version of the game addresses some of the biggest issues critics had with the original release- the camera and controls. Every 3D platformer worth its salt needs to have tight controls and a semi-decent camera, and to this end, New Super Lucky’s Tale truly earned that “New” branding. I rented the original release some years ago and beyond the goofy characters, setpieces and some noteworthy moments in the level design, I often felt like I was playing an entirely different game altogether thanks to the increased camera control and pleasantness of simply moving the protagonist around. New Super Lucky’s Tale encourages exploration in a way that the original simply couldn’t offer thanks to a lot of fixed camera angles and clunky movement.
The game is structured just any other platformer you’ve ever played. There’s good guys, bad guys, and several worlds to explore housing multiple levels each. In terms of actual level design, the best way I can describe it is having Spyro the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot and a touch of Super Mario 3D Land chucked in a blender. There are levels consisting of large, open areas with a laundry list of collectibles to snatch up, sidescrolling stages harkening back to the Good Old Days ™ and oddly enough…endless runner stages. Of course, because this is a 3D platformer inspired by the sixth generation of consoles, there’s also a bit of genre-busting (more on this later).
Personally, I found the “open world” stages to be the most enjoyable and where the game feels most like a modern take on the classic Spyro the Dragon formula in its pacing. Often, you’ll start out observing that there’s some sort of problem taking place between the NPCS and Lucky, the adorable bi-petal fox hero of this adventure, is the one to solve that problem. You’ll of course do this by exploring, platforming and completely the occasional side-objective such as reuniting a band. Because this is a game targeted at younger players, the secrets are often tell-tale and none of the smaller puzzles are going to leave you scratching your head for long regardless of if you’re in the third or second dimension.
Combat is as simplistic as it gets. You can jump, tail-swipe or pounce on monsters to kill them with only a select few needing much in the way of strategy to dispatch. Most of them will also be downed in just one or two hits, even later on down the road. Although basic, perhaps disappointingly so at times, the combat works. So many budget platformers of years yonder failed to understand that combat should never be the focus (Pacman World 3, as much as I love you out of nostalgia, I’m looking at you). I’ll gladly take unobtrusive combat that can be done in my sleep over a needlessly complicated combo system or bullet-sponge monsters in a game like this, thank you very much!
If the enemies don’t pose much of a threat (bosses included) and none of the platforming truly feels like a test, then why did I enjoy my time with this one so much? It’s simple. This game is enjoyable for the same reason that Spyro is– it’s a calming experience with a ton of charm and personality but isn’t entirely brainless in its gameplay. The worlds are vibrant and colorful, the writing is full of tongue-in-cheek humor, and there are quite a few moments where I’d pass through and think “Huh, that was clever”. It’s moments like using a glowing lantern to illuminate invisible platforms in a swamp, earning enough tickets to win the game’s primary collectible at an amusement park run entirely by ghosts and fetching a few golem heads the experience memorable. Often, it’s not easy to truly appreciate the design and aesthetic of a modern platformer because it’s too busy testing you with flashing platforms, rooms lined with spikes and stingy checkpoints. Often, it will take multiple playthroughs of a more difficult game such as the ones I’ve listed above to truly soak in all the work that went into it…Cuphead being a fine example. I feel New Super Lucky’s Tale is a game someone can play and appreciate out the gate, regardless of skill level.
Of course, this game hasn’t quite left out the seasoned gamer who’s still looking for some added challenge. Like Super Mario Odyssey, there’s a bit of post-game content stashed away with a bonus world known as “Foxington”. Within lies a set of platforming challenges putting all of Lucky’s skills to the test as well as some remixed bosses. Because “80’s video game” is also synonymous with “high difficulty”, there’s a snazzy filter and tunes that feel right out of a workout tape to accompany. While none of these will see an experienced player dying more than a couple of times, I could appreciate how each challenge either tested one of the game’s mechanics or spiced up a design element found in the main adventure. One challenge will force Lucky to burrow once he crosses specific points and not pop out at any time as it’s a “stealth” mission. This means you’ll need to be constantly moving as you navigate mine fields, moving platforms and rotating set pieces. Another might see you scrambling to keep up with a lantern-wielding ghost as she lights up your way forward over a bottomless pit and numerous obstacles. I might not have gotten the same level of thrill as I did landing the final blow on the Devil in Cuphead’s expert mode, but I still had a lot of fun tackling this somewhat trickier post-game content.
Unfortunately, despite all the praise I’ve sung for this game up to this point on account of its charm, accessibility and creative moments…it doesn’t come without a few faults. Remember how I mentioned “genre-busting” earlier? Thankfully, it doesn’t rear its ugly head as badly as it did in some PS2 era platformers, but it’s still worth mentioning. Like those inspirations, New Super Lucky’s Tale isn’t as enjoyable when it decides not to be a platformer. There are numerous sliding puzzles and rolling ball stages, the former of which is nothing you haven’t seen before to serve as a puzzle in an action/platform game with the latter being a GreatValue version of Marble Madness. These are dotted throughout each hub world and house the game’s main collectible, but so long as you stay focused on collecting everything the platforming stages have to offer, you shouldn’t have to do too many of these and you probably wouldn’t want to anyways. Why am I complaining when these side levels are mostly optional? Because the actual platforming and exploration was excellent. I feel as if the time spent making these could have been much better spent crafting more levels around running, jumping and having a ghost ask you if you’ve ever heard “Scareway To Heaven”. I would’ve gladly taken brief, “remixed” levels akin to Rayman Legends’ cursed portraits over these diversions.
In addition, there are a few technical issues to note at the time of writing. Frame drops do happen, but they’re fortunately never game-breaking. Loading times are also incredibly long and a bit more frequent than I’d like in comparison to the Xbox One version. It can occasionally take upwards of half a minute whenever you enter a new level, go back to a hub, find a hidden area and even upon death to return to the action. Truthfully, I feel as if both may very well be a result of the hardware the game has to run on. That said, Naughty Dog and Insomniac both found creative ways to optimize their games in the late 90’s and early 00’s, so I also feel as if something could be done to get those times and frame-skips down.
Despite the performance issues and moments where it isn’t doing what it does best, New Super Lucky’s Tale is something I can easily recommend to numerous camps. Those who might not be old enough to have grown up with purple dragons, racoons with canes or whimsical buddy-duos will appreciate its simplicity as well as its silly cast of characters. Those who ARE old enough (and perhaps even older) that just want a new platforming experience that won’t make them break their controller nor fall asleep will get their fix. Those who actually played the game on Xbox One, like yours truly, can appreciate just how much has improved and take on what feels like a brand new experience. Lastly, and I say this because the holidays are fast approaching, it would make the perfect gift for those who want to introduce a loved one to the genre. (I had to hide this game from my girlfriend because, quite frankly, I probably wouldn’t have had time to play or write this review if she saw the adorable fox on the front. Additionally, I have to wonder if I’d ever get to play it at all if she found out you can dress him up in silly costumes with the coins you collect.)