Playing Jack ‘n’ Hat, it’s easy to get misty-eyed with nostalgia. It’s clearly been made by people who loved their platformers in the period between 1983 to 1993. Jack looks like Alex Kidd or Wonderboy with a cool-kid makeover, while the first level deliberately echoes Level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. And you just have to scan a trailer to see the Master System influences.
But while Jack ‘n’ Hat echoes the best of that era – and it’s longer and more substantial than most of them – it falls short in terms of gameplay. Jack ‘n’ Hat feels like he’s swapped an intuitive control system for some magic beans. There’s a big hole where they might have been.
There’s a story here, but it’s hard to remember anything of it. It’s not Jack ‘n’ Hat’s first priority. Basically, Dr. Voo Doom has kidnapped the Princess of Ririland, and it’s down to you, the local handyman, to get her back. See what they did there? Princess and a handyman?.
To defeat Dr. Voo Doom, Jack has to gather twenty crystals across twenty levels, accessed from a hub room that’s a series of giant tellies (think a 16-bit version of Rayman Legends’ hub area). It’s a substantial chunk of gaming, as each level is three long-ish sections stapled together, and it’s perfectly possible for a level to take fifteen minutes. The levels are pretty dense, too: aside from the crystal that you have to grab to complete the level, there’s a second crystal for destroying a number of crates and – much harder to find – four letters can be grabbed that spell out J-A-C-K.
The focus on destroying crates is a weird one that never really works. Completionists will want the crate-based crystal as it unlocks rewards on the lowest tier of the hub. Blowing up endless crates doesn’t mesh well with the way Jack ‘n’ Hat handles death, though. Depending on the difficulty setting, you are either restarting the level or restarting from a checkpoint when you die, but the crates you destroyed are all rolled back. That means you have to slowly destroy each one on every playthrough, even on the difficult sections where you might be replaying multiple times. It’s all too easy to stop bothering with that one particular collectible.
At the start, Jack ‘n’ Hat has a single jump, a crouch, and a hat-fling that forms one of his two attacks, alongside a bottom-bounce. Every five levels, after defeating a boss, a new move is added to Jack’s roster, with slides and double-jumps added to the mix. It’s the moves that prove to be Jack ‘n’ Hat’s undoing.
The hat-fling is extraordinarily limited. Your grandad could throw it further than Jack. So, there’s a frustrating limpness to how far you can fire. You can’t throw it from a crouched state. And when you hit an enemy, they have a bizarre knockback mechanic, so the enemy can often be pushed to an area where they are much more dangerous or – in a few cases – impossible to kill. Even worse, some areas can only be bypassed if you jump on a monster’s head. If you didn’t realise that before you killed it, you just have to restart.
The bosses in Jack ‘n’ Hat reveal another limitation of the hat. It takes an age to fire. The bosses are a huge difficulty spike, requiring dozens of hits and memorisation of patterns. When they’re running, firing and bouncing towards you, you need to be tossing your cap at speed, but Jack ‘n’ Hat can’t. It’s a slow, torturous throw, and we lost count of the number of times that we got hit or didn’t even chuck the thing.
Jack ‘n’ Hat’s difficulty is also an iron-maiden of difficulty spikes. It’s entirely possible for a level to be a breeze, while another will stop you dead in your tracks. Latter levels require you to use your new abilities in a pixel-perfect fashion, and – when checkpoints can be frustratingly far apart – the punishment for failure is all a bit onerous. If you were destroying those crates on every attempt, well, you might want to think about stopping.
These are all grumbles that we needed to get off our chest, as Jack ‘n’ Hat has more merit than the criticisms imply. The sheer amount of stuff here, particularly for the budget price point, is appreciated, while the levels – albeit not overly imaginative – are very good at testing the player. Getting to the next checkpoint can feel satisfying, as you huff and puff and pick yourself up for the next one.
And while the odd enemy looks shonky, with one in particular looking like a cross between a ruler and gherkin, it’s all a bag of skittles in game form. Jack ‘n’ Hat is colourful, fun and feels like a lost Master System cartridge, finally found in the back of Yuji Naka’s wardrobe.
Control-wise, Jack ‘n’ Hat isn’t up to scratch. It’s slow, ineffective and clumsy, with the hat-throwing feeling like a bad job rather than Oddjob. But persist, and you have a challenging and generous platformer that may spark a love for the genre, just like the ‘80s and ‘90s classics did.
You can buy Jack ‘n’ Hat from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S