If you have even a passing familiarity with Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, you probably remember its Fulton recovery system. To supply the game’s base-building element with personnel and equipment, you pluck those things out of the open world by attaching them to balloons, which sail offscreen for convenient transport back to the headquarters of your rogue paramilitary operation. By any measure, and particularly by the measure of an obsessively detailed military stealth-action game, it is an immensely silly flourish.
It’s so silly, in fact, that it fits right into the cartoon stylings of Mr. Sun’s Hatbox, as though it always belonged there. Because in this roguelike platformer developed by Kenny Sun, you also head up a rogue paramilitary operation unbeholden to the borders of government or their laws (you are, after all, a delivery person for a company called “Amazin”). The difference is that you operate out of a client’s basement in order to retrieve a stolen package, embarking on missions that resemble the perilous 2D platforming levels of Spelunky. Completing these missions helps fund your operation, supplying you with both an arsenal and an army to make use of it through mission rewards, black-market purchases, and balloons attached to any of the useful-seeming items and characters you may encounter along the way.
Quite unlike Metal Gear, you don’t play as a single character. Instead, you individually control whichever randomly-generated blob-person(s) you’ve selected for a mission, where they may very well die permanently. The characters are distinguished (in addition to various ironic nicknames) mainly by their individual attributes, an array of traits and quirks that completely change how you approach the game depending on a per-mission, per-agent basis. These variables are further complicated by the wide range of available equipment, which includes ping pong rackets, shark hats, and plates of bouncy flan in addition to the typical selection of firearms, explosives, and sharp objects.
Especially in the game’s early hours, many of the character traits are undesirable, and you’re essentially forced to work around what little you have. One agent might have the intensely useful “taser” trait of stunning any guard they touch. But they might also have “dry eyes,” which blacks out the screen every few seconds because they have to blink a lot.
Much of the game involves strategizing around these quirks when possible. Upon snapping a guard’s neck, for example, the “guilty conscience” trait sends your character hopping around in an uncontrollable panic for a few brief yet potentially pivotal seconds during which they might blunder into a trap or the sightline of another guard. To circumvent this, you can take care to kill exclusively (and presumably more impersonally) with weapons, or you can drag each body to some secluded area where it’s safe for your assigned agent to shake off any post-murder jitters.
But it’s easy to lose track of these strategies in the heat of the moment or in the pile of available units and equipment, and the chaotic chain reactions that result are what make Mr. Sun’s Hatbox so special. I have, for example, accidentally bonked my agent with their own boomerang, which activated the “weak bowels” trait of immediately shitting upon being hit, which I then discovered brings a guard to investigate the origin of the brand-new stench. On another mission, I learned the hard way that the “forgetful” trait removes the indicator for the single character you’re supposed to keep alive.
The result is all the fun of a particularly out-of-control Spelunky session with the additional wrinkle of persistent progress; the base-building slyly forces you to not only keep an eye on your equipment stores but to consider your personnel and who among them you can afford to lose. Consistently choosing one specific agent for missions will level them up, giving them more health while they grow out of unhelpful traits and into more useful ones. But that agent thus grows more valuable over time, to the point where their combo of helpful traits becomes difficult to justify risking on anything but the most difficult and pivotal missions, if at all. Furthermore, mechanics like the skill tree are based on the levels of characters you’ve benched to perform those tasks — a seasoned level-7 operative will contribute more to skill tree research than a level-2 newcomer. The game nudges you toward sticking your best units with desk jobs while risking the more unpredictable agents out in the field.
In the process, Mr. Sun’s Hatbox brilliantly answers the age-old question of how to make players take risks and engage with new mechanics rather than exclusively stick to familiar ones. By incentivizing you to court chaos, it creates a gameplay loop where so many of the most intense, inventive moments stem from hilarious failure. It’s the rare game that’s as riveting to lose as it is to win.
Mr. Sun’s Hatbox was released April 20 on Nintendo Switch and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a download code provided by Raw Fury. 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.