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A little anthropomorphic gator glides down from a cliff in the woods using a shirt in Lil Gator Game. It has an adorable cartoony look.

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Lil Gator Game is the Zelda-like I didn’t know I needed

It’s got the heart of Wind Waker and the adventure of Breath of the Wild 

Image: MegaWobble/Playtonic Friends

Upon first blush, Lil Gator Game looks like a zoomed-in and smoothed-out version of A Short Hike. While the game does certainly appear to be heavily influenced by the indie darling — from its adorable animal characters to its larger park setting — it was also clearly influenced by another set of games: The Legend of Zelda.

The developers at MegaWobble have packed Lil Gator Game to the brim with Zelda references. The game literally starts off with a conversation between two characters about a “legend of hero” game, and one of the first items you get is a T-shirt turned glider with a design that looks just like Link’s paraglider in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But Lil Gator Game isn’t just a transparent ploy to appeal to longtime Zelda fans through references; it’s the Zelda-like I didn’t know I needed. It combines the exploration elements of Breath of the Wild with a sense of charm and earnestness that reminds me of The Wind Waker, telling an overarching story that’s a joyous ode to those of us who grew up playing Zelda games and wanting to be Link.

Lil Gator Game follows the story of a little gator — I named mine Ham — and their older sister. When you start, you see the two as kids as they decide to make their own version of a “legend of hero” game that they can play outside with two players. Fast-forward a few years, and the older sister has grown up and gone to college. To Ham’s delight, she returns home for fall break, but he’s soon sad to find she’s glued to her computer as she works on a group project. Ham then takes it upon themselves to create a game that’s so cool that their sister can’t help but want to play again, just as the two did as children.

An anthropomorphized gator with big eyes walks along power lines like a tight rope while wearing a bucket on their head in Lil Gator Game. The surrounding world is colorful and cute. Image: MegaWobble/Playtonic Friends

The overall premise of the game is simple. As the little gator, you run around looking for friends and complete their requests as part of your made-up game. There are additional features that I’ll let players discover for themselves, but the bulk of the in-game action involves climbing, gliding, and collecting cardboard scraps from cutout props of enemies to craft new items and outfits. As you explore the forested island park, you’ll venture up and around waterfalls, weave your way through playsets, and take in the fall hues of the yellow, orange, and red trees.

While the gameplay seems to take more influence from Breath of the Wild, what stood out to me, and what I truly love about the game, is how it balances the childlike veneer of the protagonist’s perspective with a poignant emotional core that’s reminiscent of Wind Waker.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker follows a young Link who sets out on a journey to save his kidnapped sister from Ganon. It’s the first Zelda game that made me cry; the clip of Link waving goodbye to his granny against the big blue sky permanently seared itself into my childhood brain. That game, like many Zelda games, has a somber story at its center, but it also features a cartoony, cel-shaded look and markedly whimsical dialogue and world design. Link fights monsters but also meets eccentric characters, like a man who dons an all-white fringe jacket and dances day and night and a group of school children who bully Link but then challenge him to hide-and-seek.

The main gator character in Lil Gator Game looks at grayed-out version of themself and their sister. They are memories and the gator can interact with it to recall what happened. Image: MegaWobble/Playtonic Friends via Polygon

Lil Gator Game contains a similar sense of levity that I miss seeing in modern Zelda games. The game oozes with childlike playfulness; some characters will burst into rainbow confetti to make an exit, and the scrawled text doesn’t have proper capitalization or punctuation. You might turn a corner on a hill and see a monkey wearing a tux and colorful bracelets up to their armpits, or complete an entire quest line to turn on the water for the local splash pad.

But just like in Wind Waker, the childlike nature of the game pairs with its deeper emotional story. As you explore Lil Gator Game’s world, you’ll find that the island is imbued with the memories of adventures past; you’ll occasionally see grayed-out versions of you and your sister that connect to that past. If you interact with these silhouettes, you’ll get to see all the previous memories of your character and their sister — from the two sharing a quiet moment between sheer cliffs to the pair joyfully bounding down a hill.

An image of a little gator texting their sister in Lil Gator Game. There is a goofy selfie on the phone. The texts read: “sis! i found this weird round thing weird right / but my friend revealed himself to be an alchemist!”
I just live for Ham’s selfies.
Image: MegaWobble/Playtonic Friends via Polygon

The stakes of Lil Gator Game are markedly smaller than those in Wind Waker; you aren’t saving your sister from Ganon, but instead from the stress of a group project. Regardless, the emotional drive feels just as important. Whenever you complete a quest, the gator sends a goofy selfie to their sister in a bid to show them how cool everything is. They often double- and triple-text their sister in their excitement, only to receive rather muted responses. The gator’s earnest love for their sister feels almost sad, but also moving, as it neatly captures what a one-sided relationship can look like when people are at different stages of their lives.

It’s a lovely gem of a game that touches on my nostalgia for Zelda but still managed to tell a unique story through the gator and their sister’s relationship. It’s a story about the little gator’s deeper desire to connect with someone again in the present, and how games facilitate that. So if you’re looking for a charming pick-me-up before The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom comes out, don’t ignore Lil Gator Game.

Lil Gator Game was released on Dec. 14, 2022 on Nintendo Switch and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on Switch using a pre-release download code provided by Playtonic Friends. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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