Everyone has something they enjoyed spending time with in the past — a restaurant, a daily video game, a group of friends — only to unknowingly enjoy it for the last time one day. It’s a poignant, and often heartbreaking, truth about how places evolve, tastes shift, and priorities diverge as we all get older. For the hero of the same name in Lil Gator Game, this activity is a live-action role-playing game with his big sister. While his sister comes home from college, Gator puts together a master plan to get her off her classwork for another game. The resulting adventure is a short, sweet, Zelda-inspired romp that conjures up our own bittersweet nostalgia for the activities, places, and people we once spent our days with but, for one reason or another, no longer do.
Like the game session that the protagonist chooses to enjoy with his sister, Lil Gator Game draws heavily from The Legend of Zelda franchise for inspiration. Though Gator’s plan boils down to recruiting friends to decorate the playground and role-play, it unfolds like one grand adventure. Cardboard cutouts of fantasy mainstays like slimes, bats, and carnivorous plants populate every corner of the islands, giving you “enemies” to knock down and collect loot from. Although they take on the appearance of these fantasy-adventure villains, they are lifeless and essentially sword fodder and window dressing. Still, taking them out is satisfying and rewarding, as they crumble pleasantly and drop main currency for mostly cosmetic items.
Exploration is at the heart of Lil Gator Game as Gator scours the islands for friends to help him renovate the playground. Gator can scale any surface (complete with an upgradable stamina bar), swim, jump, and paraglide in search of his anthropomorphic islanders. Exploration is often intuitive and boils down to climbing to the highest area to find your closest friend and then navigating to them. However, since several locations on the scenic main island appear similar and there’s no access to a mini-map, it’s easy to turn around.
Once you’ve found other animals, they often have a small task that you need to complete before joining your cause. I’m not usually the biggest fetch quest fan, but these are healthy and fast enough that I didn’t mind. The quests range from sledding on your shield to helping the other animals in their games; In a thematically consistent search, I had to interrupt a mother’s work conversation so that she could attend a tea party with her daughter. Each mission you complete adds friends to your playground and paves the way for the next upgrade. Lil Gator Game’s handful of main quests require you to recruit high-value animals like a theater troupe or “the cool kids” to join your game, and consist of multiple parts. Although most of the quests are uneventful and repetitive, I’ve loved crossing them off my to-do list and adding the NPCs to my playground. I even went back after rolling credits to recruit the remaining friends.
As you navigate the islands, you’ll also uncover memories of Gator’s younger days playing with his sister. These are nothing more than quick monologue drops as Gator stumbles across areas, but they did a lot to make me feel more invested in the modern story. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but it culminates in several endearing meditations on the importance of being present even as your life changes and your priorities shift. As we age, the world places expectations on us, and meeting those expectations often comes at the expense of the things we once enjoyed. Nothing lasts forever, and Lil Gator Game reminds us that while taking responsibility is good, we should always keep that childish sense of wonder, imagination, and fun.
Lil Gator Game is as short as it is cute, with the main story lasting just under five hours, but that’s about all it needs to be. I loved exploring every corner of the world for new friends, loot, and memories during this time. By the time the story ended, the game had delivered a poignant and touching message about balancing the important parts of our lives. Lil Gator Game isn’t the best Zelda-like game I’ve played, but it’s probably the one I’ll remember for the longest.
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