Everyone has something they loved spending time with in the past – a restaurant, a daily-play video game, a group of friends – only to one day unknowingly enjoy doing so for the final time. It’s a poignant and often heartbreaking truth of how places evolve, tastes change, and priorities divert as we all grow older. For the eponymous hero in Lil Gator Game, that activity is live-action role-playing with his big sis. With his sister home from college, Gator assembles a master plan to pry her away from her coursework for one more game. The resulting adventure is a short, cute, Zelda-inspired romp that conjures our own bittersweet nostalgia for the activities, places, and people we once spent our days with but no longer do for one reason or another.
Like the play session the protagonist wants to enjoy with his sister, Lil Gator Game draws heavy inspiration from The Legend of Zelda franchise. Though Gator’s plan boils down to recruiting friends to decorate and role-play at the playground, it unfolds like a grand adventure. Cardboard cut-outs of fantasy mainstays like slimes, bats, and carnivorous plants populate every corner of the islands, giving you “enemies” to slash down and collect loot from. Though they take on the appearance of these fantasy-adventure baddies, they are inanimate and essentially sword fodder and window dressing. Still, taking them out is satisfying and rewarding as they crumble enjoyably and drop the primary currency for mostly cosmetic items.
Exploration is the primary focus of Lil Gator Game, as Gator scours the islands for friends to help him renovate the playground. Gator can climb any surface (complete with an upgradeable stamina bar), swim, jump, and paraglide in search of his fellow anthropomorphic island dwellers. Exploration is often intuitive, boiling down to climbing to the highest area to find the nearest friend, then navigating to them. However, with several places in the picturesque main island appearing similar and no access to a minimap, it’s easy to get turned around.
Once you find other animals, they often have a small quest for you to complete before joining your cause. I’m typically not the biggest fetch-quest fan, but these are wholesome and quick enough that I didn’t mind them. Quests range from sledding down hills on your shield to helping the other animals play their games; one thematically consistent quest required me to interrupt a mom’s work call so she could attend a tea party with her daughter. Each mission you complete adds friends to your playground, paving 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. Though most of the quests are uneventful and repetitive, I loved checking them off my to-do list and adding the NPCs to my playground; I even went back after I rolled credits to recruit the remaining friends.
As you navigate the islands, you also uncover memories from Gator’s younger days playing with his sister. These are nothing more than quick monologue drops as Gator stumbles upon areas, but they went a long way to making me feel more invested in the modern-day 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 get older, the world sets expectations for us, and achieving those expectations often comes at the cost of things we once enjoyed. Nothing lasts forever, and Lil Gator Game reminds us that while it’s good to be responsible, we should always maintain that childlike sense of wonder, imagination, and fun.
Lil Gator Game is as short as it is sweet, with the main story lasting just under five hours, but that’s all it needs to be. I loved exploring each nook and cranny of the world during that time for new friends, loot, and memories. By the time the story wrapped up, 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 I’ve played, but it’s probably the one that will stick with me for the longest.