Platformers. They've been around since the dawn of videogames, they're a perennial favorite that never goes out of style, and every person who's ever laid hands on a controller has likely played one at one time or another. But exactly what is a platformer? This can be hard to define. Looking at it from a classical perspective, it usually involves a character with superhuman jumping abilities leaping bottomless chasms while collecting coins, rings, or other such valuable litter in two dimensions. With the advent of more powerful technology, the term has come to represent exploration of large, expansive three-dimensional environments while still retaining the emphasis on precision jumping and the search for trinkets. In both cases, enemies are usually defeated by jumping on their heads or hitting them with some kind of acrobatic maneuver, and in general, they tend to have very little story, instead focusing on kinetic gameplay to carry them along.
Since platforming is a huge genre rife with countless lookalike-playalikes, it really takes some unique twist or creative idea to rise above the oceans of mediocrity. As a good example of what makes the grade, Sucker Punch's Rocket: Robot On Wheels kept the basic formula and added an ingenious tractor beam used for grappling and lifting. In Rare's Banjo-Kazooie, two characters were merged into one to give a surprisingly wide array of play techniques, and Insomniac's Ratchet & Clank brought heavy weapons to the table, replacing the usual hop-and-bop tactics. All of these games are similar at the core, but have the relevance and sophistication to make them standouts.
In addition to a having a special spin on play, the foundation of any good platformer (or any other type of game, for that matter) requires that the player be given a set of rules and behaviors that permit them to reliably predict outcomes and base their actions accordingly. These actions and consequences should be clearly defined, and adhered to throughout the entire game. For example, any player knows that when hitting a certain button, Mario will always jump X height and X distance without fail. It's just a given. Without crucial assurances for these interactions, the game would cease to be enjoyable and sabotage its relationship with the player. Imagine what a torturous, fickle experience a game like Mario would be if he sometimes jumped, or at other times unexpectedly jumped half the distance, or a fraction of the height.
That torturous, fickle experience I just alluded to combines with a lack of engaging play mechanics to create Billy Hatcher And The Giant Egg. A simplistic, by-the-numbers 3D platformer with inspiration taken from Sonic The Hedgehog, Billy Hatcher ends up lagging behind the genre's top games by a wide margin despite its novel concept. Given a "legendary Chicken Suit" and told to rescue the world from evil crows, protagonist Billy Hatcher sets out to save the day by cleansing a trite and predictable variety of traditional levels (i.e., a snow area, a volcanic area, an Egyptian zone, and so on).
On his own, Billy can only run and jump, but acquiring one of the game's plentiful giant eggs unlocks his other abilities, though they're not very interesting or innovative. It's ironic since by accepting the idea of "egg as power," one is led to assume the game will revolve around techniques unique to using eggs. In actuality, the implementation is soft-boiled, adding a layer of complication with no real benefit. Basically, an egg is required to bring Billy up to speed with what every other platform star usually has right off the bat, meaning that there aren't any significantly new slants to the traditional style of play. After all, what platform star can't normally do running jumps or kill enemies with a bounce, regardless of any eggs? In looking at the full scope of mechanics available, the only new things Billy brings to the table are rolling and hatching eggs, neither amounting to much. I really don't understand why Sonic Team chose to structure the game in such a creatively weak manner after going out on a limb with the unusual egg concept, but my suggestion is that they move beyond Platforming 101 for their next venture.
For example, when going down slopes or ramps, Billy clings to his egg like a fly as you control your path like a makeshift bowling ball. These brief, lively segments make for some distinctly Super Monkey Ball moments, and provide a nice break from the standard gap-jumping formula. Disappointingly, there are relatively few areas where it's implemented, much less implemented well. Far more screen time is given to run-of-the-mill jumping, which is especially puzzling given the game's stringent stance towards edges. I can't even begin to count the number of times when I missed a jump but my egg didn't. Constantly (and randomly) falling after hanging your egg at the very lip of an edge is completely annoying to say the least, and requiring such precision seems at odds with rolling a two-ton egg. Needless to say, messing up the most basic element of platforming—the jumping—does not bode well for the rest of the game.
Getting back to the rolling, the game's pathetically sub par programming destroys any possible enjoyment it might otherwise bring during the few times you'll actually get to do it. Besides the slopes, you'll also encounter colored sets of roller coaster tracks. The object is to drop your egg off onto these tracks, and then rush to meet it at the bottom before it lands. It sounds good in practice, but it's the buggiest, most frustrating part of the entire Billy Hatcher experience. Murder was on my mind as I watched my egg not only drop between the planks holding the rails together, but also get immovably stuck in front of the rails, and more often than not pass directly through the rails to its doom! The consistency of malfunction with both the jumping and the rails is totally unacceptable, especially coming from a high-profile developer like Sonic Team. Without having these fundamental interactions in place, it's impossible for the game to succeed as a platformer at all.
The only other possible saving grace, the hatching, is an afterthought of little consequence. By rolling ovum and crushing fruit scattered around, Billy can "feed" an egg to grow it in both size and power. (Juice osmosis, evidently) After reaching maximum girth, Billy can unleash his mighty cock-a-doodle-doo upon the egg to reveal its contents; either a totally nonessential power-up of some sort (jetpack, elemental affinity, invisibility, etc…), or an animal helper. Again putting their fetish for fanciful sidekicks on full display (look up NiGHTS' Nightopians and Sonic Adventure's Chao for more details) the hatched flunkies cooked up by Sonic Team are only used for hitting switches or attacking enemies. At no time do they ever play a major role in the game, and come off as superfluous filler more than anything—again flubbing Billy Hatcher's chance to be a unique experience apart other games in the genre.
Since the eggs don't have any traits that are truly substantial or satisfying, and the most important parts of the platforming experience are busted, Billy Hatcher is only good for delivering a below-average adventure with no real reason to recommend or even play it. Jump this gap here, collect that icon there. Kill the requisite bosses on each level and move on, all while putting up with small glitches and physics bugs. (And I haven't even taken the time to discuss the gutlessly inept camera system or seriously underwhelming graphics!) Developers looking to break into the platform genre these days have to go above and beyond the standard requirements while completely nailing the technical side at the same time, which is no easy feat. Billy Hatcher is a perfect example of a title that fails on both counts. It may feature some interesting weirdness associated with a world full of chickens, chicken suits, and boulder-sized eggs, but between the maddening flaws and the underdeveloped concept, Billy Hatcher is more like a big, fat turkey.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway