Super Lucky's Tale is Xbox One X's unlikeliest launch exclusive

Playful, Inc. director Dan Hurd talks 'playground platformers,' new hardware, and launching with Microsoft's powerhouse console.

It’s fair to say that Microsoft’s exclusive line-up is looking a little thin on the ground this holiday season, leaving the Xbox One X in a rather precarious position. It may be the most powerful console the world has ever seen, but it’s relying heavily on the allure of third-party upgrades like Assassin’s Creed Origins to sell itself. Microsoft does have one retail exclusive coming this holiday, however: an adorable 3D platformer by the name of Super Lucky’s Tale.

Unveiled at this year’s E3 conference, Super Lucky’s Tale came out of nowhere. Developed by a young studio called Playful Inc., it’s the sequel to their debut title, Lucky’s Tale, the Oculus Rift exclusive VR game. Popping up in the middle of Microsoft’s conference, it damn near gave me a heart attack for a split second when I thought it might be Conker; but what is Super Lucky’s Tale, where did it come from, and will it be able to prop up the launch of the Xbox One X as Microsoft’s only holiday retail exclusive?

Luckily, the man with the answers to all these questions - Super Lucky’s Tale’s director Dan Hurd - was more than happy to speak with me and tell the tale of Lucky’s journey to the Xbox.

A fun, exploration-based platforming game with a likeable hero and a cool new world to explore and get to know. That’s Super Lucky’s Tale,” Hurd tells me. “Something that we’re very passionate about at Playful is crafting new [games] that we think pulls in as many people as possible. We love characters and locations, fantastical places to journey to.” Super Lucky’s Tale certainly ticks all the platforming starter kit checkboxes, with a cute, anthropomorphized protagonist, a vibrant world to explore, and tons of doodads to collect - just like the good old days.

It’s been an incredible year for those nostalgic for the great platforming mascots of old. Crash Bandicoot is back at the forefront of the game world thanks to the N. Sane Trilogy, which sold well above Activision’s expectations. Hell, a good Sonic game came out this year in Sonic Mania; if anyone predicted that at the start of the year, they’d have been laughed into orbit. Still, Hurd understands the power of nostalgia, but also the dangers of being drawn in by its siren’s song: “We wanted to scratch all these nostalgic itches, without necessarily remaking the same game that we played in the past. They rarely hold up as well as you would expect, and maybe that’s not even the thing that you would want.”

It’s hard to disagree with that last part, coming off the back of the disappointments like Mighty No. 9 and Yooka Laylee. Both games sought to give nostalgic gamers what they thought they wanted: the same games they played twenty years ago, but with all the pixels a modern console could throw at them. Both games also left fans sorely disappointed, coming out to middling reviews when their forebears, Megaman and Banjo Kazooie had been giants of the industry. Understanding what to bring forward and what to leave behind is key to continuing the legacy of a storied genre, something Super Lucky Tale’s Hurd makes clear he understands: “I think the team has a huge passion for this type of game and some of the big names that leap to mind immediately are Banjo Kazooie and Mario 64, and it’s a lot about the feelings we got when we played those games, right?”

Playful hasn’t just drawn from old platformers as their inspiration for Super Lucky’s Tale though. As Hurd riffs off the list of inspirations, the obvious titles like Banjo, Mario and Donkey Kong come up, but a lot of names you wouldn’t expect ended up having an impact as well. “[There’s] this Double Dragon 2 level that I loved, where this train boss came on and you had to jump on to it and get to this higher door,” Hurd recalls. “It was really difficult at the time because the jumping was abysmal, but it was very evocative to me.” This approach of cherry picking the best elements from different games and weaving them together is nothing new, but it’s intriguing to see Playful’s attempts to refine the genre down into a greatest hits compilation. Watching gameplay, you can instantly recognize features or elements of the level design and say, ‘that comes from Spyro the Dragon,’ or ‘that’s right out of Crash Bandicoot.’

Throughout the leadup to launch, a lot of the Playful team have described Super Lucky’s Tale as a ‘playground platformer,’ so I pressed Hurd to clarify what he meant: “We use that term internally to focus our development on that game, so it’s something that has a lot of relevance to us. As for how that has actually worked into the game, it’s just a set of guiding principles,” he explains. “What we wanted to be at the core of this game was movement, and we wanted Lucky to be able to move and react to you very quickly and intuitively and we wanted his move sets to complement exploration.”

Lucky’s move set is diverse, with the standard jump and double jump being complemented by his ability to burrow underground. The movement mechanics, combined with the level design within the game world allowed Playful to encourage players to stop and smell the roses. “When we say ‘playground platformer,’ we’ve [made] a very deliberate choice,” says Hurd. “We want the player to linger and experience the characters and locales and secrets of a given areas and then we’ll slowly tease you into the next area.”

With its bright, cartoony aesthetic, it’s easy to look at Super Lucky’s Tale and write it off as a kid’s game, but Hurd assures me that there’s something here for everyone. “There’s bright colors and cute characters, but we believe that’s actually part of a language that’s interesting for everybody,” he says. It’s hard to argue that point if you look back on the pantheon of beloved platformers that came before. Rayman Legends is colorful and I damn near ripped my controller in half trying to beat the final stages, so kid-friendly visuals certainly don’t have to tie in with a casual gameplay experience. Playful is trying to strike a balance with Super Lucky’s Tale to please all comers: “We’ve really taken a conscious effort to not just have a central path that a lot of people can complete, but also to have content in there that is a challenge – a challenge across all different skill levels. Even internally in our play sessions, and some external play sessions, we’ve had some that thought ‘whoa this is way too difficult’ so we’ve had to dial that down.”

Microsoft and platformers don’t exactly go hand in hand though. Sure, Microsoft owns Rare, the company behind Banjo Kazooie, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and Donkey Kong Country, but the esteemed studio didn’t make any of those games under the stewardship of Microsoft – these all came from its days with Nintendo. Outside of a few early forays into the genre on the original Xbox with Voodoo Vince and Blinx the Time Sweeper, Microsoft hasn’t made any real attempts to muscle in on what is clearly Nintendo’s turf. So, where did the deal with Microsoft come from?

They [Microsoft] saw the various prototypes we had going on at the studio, they saw the work we had been doing already on this game and they thought [the Xbox One X] ‘is the perfect home for this character and this style of game. Let’s give Lucky a strong foot forward,’” says Hurd. He has nothing but praise for Microsoft, and specifically the team that liaised with Playful to bring the game to the platform: “They believed in the product and they’ve just been superb partners to work with because they’re vision holders like we are […] So really it just came out of meeting and showing what we had been up to and showing early versions of Lucky running around and they were very enthusiastic.”

Launching today, November 7th, alongside the Xbox One X, Super Lucky’s Tale was originally intended to be paired up with Crackdown 3 to bolster Microsoft’s exclusive lineup for the holidays.  Rather predictably though, Crackdown was hit with another delay and pushed back into Spring 2018, leaving the plucky little fox to carry the weight of the console launch all by himself. As a result, there are a lot of eyes focused on Lucky come launch day. Hurd acknowledges the added pressure, but says that he, and his team, see it as an opportunity: “Being in more exclusive company at the launch of this system is huge, but it’s kind of just human nature to be a little nervous about it too. That’s a lot of people who will be getting access to Lucky immediately and we hope that they’re excited to play and have a great time with it. But it’s a big moment when you’ve been working on something for a while and suddenly it’s time to let it go, and it’s out there and everyone can play it.”

Exclusive titles serve a valuable role for a console, acting as a differentiator between it and its competitors, and while Microsoft has had a decent selection of exclusives grace its platforms this generation, it’s still leagues behind Sony when it comes to sheer volume and diversity. Super Lucky’s Tale helps with the latter issue there, but does it serve as a reason to buy an Xbox One X come launch day? Can a single $30 platformer really justify the purchase of a $500 console?

“I don’t know too much about if it does or doesn’t justify a singular piece of hardware,” says Hurd, surprisingly candid in response to my question. “I think it’s a good ambassador title and I hope that’s how it’s received.”

He continues, “We’ve been through similar though; [the original] Lucky’s Tale was a launch game for the Rift and the Rift is home to a lot of different experiences. I do believe that this game is at its best on the hardware we’re showing it on.”

Early reactions to Super Lucky’s Tale has been remarkably positive, although at present reviews are a little more mixed. Playful has been delighted with the fan response when they take the game on the road. “We took it to PAX and to E3 and Gamescom and I’ve just been overjoyed at the response we’ve been getting,” says Hurd. “We have this weird little timer where it’s like, what’s the time until they smile? Somebody cold just walks up and what’s the moment when they crack a smile? That’s really, really short and I love seeing that moment when it happens.”

Of course, it’s disingenuous to imply that Super Lucky’s Tale will be carrying the Xbox One X launch solely on its shoulders when there is a slew of third party blockbusters coming to the platform and looking at their best on Xbox One X. So maybe Lucky can just come along for the ride, diversify the portfolio a little bit, and show that Xbox isn’t just the home of the dudebros. Hurd puts it best when he says that it was about the “the unironic embracing of fun and delight” and creating an ambassador title to show that there is a home for joy on Xbox, alongside all the grim shooters and stab ‘em ups. We’ll know soon enough if Lucky is up to the task.