Wow, I sure do love “The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.” I can’t believe Nintendo let me have an early copy — the new angle with the alligator protagonist is really interesting. Unexpected, yes, but maybe the breath of life the franchise needed after all these years. I really think people are going to love this game — wait, what’s that? “Tears of the Kingdom” doesn’t come out until May? And I would never get an advance copy in my lifetime? You mean to tell me I’ve been playing a game about a cute alligator and his friends that gently spoofs “The Legend of Zelda” and nobody told me? Oh, this is gonna be a nightmare for my editors.
Gotcha, didn’t I? Not to fear, friends, I knew I was playing “Lil Gator Game,” an indie adventure game published by Playtonic Games and developed by MegaWobble — the developers’ debut game! Upon discovering that this “wholesome adventure” game released only a little over a month ago, I knew I had to jump on playing and reviewing it.
Gameplay wise, “Lil Gator Game” is mechanically easy. If I had to label the game I would call it open world-adjacent as the action largely takes place on two islands, and while the surrounding water creates an in-game barrier for how far you can go, the land is pretty much yours to explore. We open on the first, smaller island in a flashback of the titular little gator playing a game he calls “Legend of Hero” — weirdly reminiscent of another franchise with a protagonist whose identifying color scheme is green — with his older sister. Once out of the flashback, we meet a slightly older little gator complaining to his friends about how he can’t get his big sister to play with him anymore. She’s home from college but, due to an ambiguous school project, can’t participate in his childhood games. So, taking on the role of the “lil gator,” you recruit your friends into helping you recreate your beloved games using cardboard, imagination and the terrain of the islands on which “Lil Gator Game” is set in hopes of enticing your big sister back into playtime. This is where you learn the basic mechanics of the game like running, climbing and swinging your cardboard sword at cardboard enemies while also navigating the open world. Once this tutorial level is complete, the lil gator gets a text from his friend Tom — a llama, I think? — inviting him to the big island to continue building the game and, more importantly to the game itself, make friends.
Friends are an integral part of “Lil Gator Game,” and they constitute most of my emotional connection to the game, whether good or bad. For example: Do I hate Martin the horse with a burning passion? Yes. Would I die for Velma the cow? Absolutely. While the game’s overall objective is getting your sister to play “Legend of Hero” again, the way to get there is by making friends all over the big island. You do this by taking on challenges and quests ranging from obstacle courses to helping the cool kids realize that water parks aren’t for babies. Completing these missions adds to your friend count, which you’ll use later in recruiting them to help rebuild “Legend of Hero” on the big island’s playground. Collecting friends and beating challenges also yields money (confetti, in the game), objects like a headband that let you Naruto Run and skills, such as shooting a blaster or being able to ragdoll. Much like the game’s mechanics, none of these challenges are terribly difficult, but a handful of them still managed to throw me for a loop.
Listen, I mainly got stuck on the timed trials. One of them, an obstacle course involving tightropes and vanquishing your cardboard enemies, took me so long that my partner — who has much more video game experience than me — offered to try it for me. I told him to go to hell, and then I quit the mission. Well, sort of — I didn’t tell him to go to hell, but I did quit the challenge and promised to come back later (I did. I beat it.). All this is to say that I put my struggles with some of “Lil Gator Game’s” challenges down to two things: my skills and the mechanics. I am not an avid or terribly skilled gamer, but I recognize shaky controls when I see them. Some mechanics, such as floating on a paraglider or jumping between tightropes, were difficult to master and often felt unreliable or underdeveloped. Still, with missions that have no real fail state other than trying again and pretty clear objectives, “Lil Gator Game” is extremely forgiving to the casual gamers among us and makes up for any development issues with its design.
The graphics in “Lil Gator Game” are also shaky but in the best way. The entire game looks like a children’s book — simple, clean, geometric character and landscape designs, while elements like the inventory and quest catalog look hand-sketched with crayon and pencil. The simple design also allows for ease of focus on the gameplay itself as everything looks streamlined, and the graphics don’t compete against the game for attention. They look distinctly indie, but it serves “Lil Gator Game” well in creating an in-game environment reminiscent of childhood and imagination. Besides, I don’t think anyone would approach a video game called “Lil Gator Game” in pursuit of AAA gameplay or graphics — you’re here because you want to experience life as a little gator.
The music and audio, too, contribute to this sentiment. The music that underlies “Lil Gator Game” is simple and childish, even whimsical, as it consists mostly of soft percussion and wind instruments. Of course, this changes to more fast-paced or intense tunes during challenges, and sometimes it disappears altogether while wandering through the forest, letting the sounds of animals and rustling trees reign. Crucially, however, some of the music in the game is heavily inspired by “Legend of Zelda,” but this only contributes to the feeling that we are chasing a childhood memory of a game we once loved.
Ultimately that’s what “Lil Gator Game” is about: childhood and play. By collecting friends through various forms of play we are sold on the idea that the strongest relationships are forged through creativity and helping each other see the value in relaxing and participating in what truly brings them joy. While some of the writing feels elementary or self-help-y in this respect, the premise of the game is still framed around creating our own games and inviting others to join in on them. In an ending that I won’t spoil, the message isn’t lost: This is a video game about the love of games. Success is found purely in play in “Lil Gator Game,” but the ultimate success is playing with others.
Daily Arts Writer Maddie Agne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.