Whip it, whip it good
Yacht Club Games has been the “Shovel Knight studio” for a long time. Since the blue knight first took up the spade, the studio has made and published many spin-offs. With Mina the Hollower, it’s trying something different. And a change of scenery feels like it’s ignited a spark for Yacht Club.
Rather than the themed side-scrolling platforming of Shovel Knight, Mina the Hollower takes directly after Game Boy treasures like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening or the Oracle games. This was an overt direction Yacht Club went for, as a “love letter” to the Game Boy Color, as lead artist Sandy Gordon describes it.
“So after doing Shovel Knight, we knew we wanted to do something different,” Gordon said. “And we also knew that we wanted to do something that hit similar nostalgia buttons, but not the same ones, right?”
Gordon cites the Game Boy Zelda entries as inspirations, but also those like Dragon Quest III and Monsters. They went for for something a little more muted and less saturated, but still inspired by their favorite Game Boy Color games. It’s a mix of the new and old, and we got a chance to go hands on with it at PAX East 2023.
There is platforming and navigating treacherous obstacles, all while slimes, birds, and other monsters trying to take you down. Moving through stages becomes a careful dance of spacing and cautious advances. Mina is powerful, but not invulnerable, and depending on the attacks you use, a big wind-up could lead to a big opening. There were a few enemies who had no problem with smacking me down in a couple of hits.
Tools of the trade
Mina is not ill-equipped, however. While the look and style of platforming is quite like Link’s Awakening, there’s a decent amount of Castlevania and even a splash of Bloodborne too. A whip is the basic attack. Mina can control space and range with the whip like a Belmont, keeping foes at a distance and carefully poking and prodding away.
Or maybe you opt for the dual knives instead. They’re faster, and can be charged to throw, creating a never-ending source of projectiles so long as you remember to keep picking them back up. For me, the weapon of choice was the hammer. Aside from a quick swipe that feels meant for doing damage in a pinch, the hammer is all about the wind-up. A normal swing will do some good damage. But the more it charges, the more it can really hurt.
Though most enemies will in one or two good hammer swings, it’s the bosses that made the hammer stand out. I fought a statue come to life, who could charge around the room and slam the walls, altering the configuration of the room’s pressure plates in the process. Learning the first phase was all about figuring out the moveset and openings, while keeping an eye on every tile, especially after it hit the wall.
Of course, there was a second phase, even more chaotic than the first. A sentient statue head, flailing tentacles, and even more pressure plates and arrow traps made this one a real scramble. It normally would have felt pretty frustrating. But with Mina the Hollower, I just kept getting more determined to emerge victorious.
Stick and move
The hammer really captured my attention because of how it took advantage of all the ways Mina brings the Game Boy nostalgia forward. Sure, the art style is clearly taking after a certain era. But Mina moves in eight directions, has the potential to air-dash, and runs at a high frame rate. Its fast-paced action never feels held back by the art style, and there are more modern ideas like checkpoints and a Souls-like resource system.
More over, the hammer has a lot of mobility options to go with its wind-up-and-slam playstyle. While holding a charge, Mina can do a combat roll in any direction. By holding jump, Mina can also burrow into the ground, emerging at the endpoint like Bugs Bunny. And there’s the aforementioned air-dash, which I picked up through a special trinket. When fights really got going, they were a careful dance of dodging and striking, spacing out my strikes to deal big damage while avoiding a counterattack.
“We want this to remind you of things that you played when you were younger, maybe, or just, you know, if you were someone who grew up with a Game Boy,” Gordon said. “But not play like one of those games, exactly. It has a more modern flair.”
When all of these elements played together in harmony, it felt like a careful ballet of attacking and dodging, finding times to strike while avoiding the massive damage. Yacht Club encourages you to stay on the offensive with another trick from the Bloodborne playbook; when you hit something, be it enemy or breakable, you generate some grey health. That grey health is what you gain back when you drink a health potion. Ergo, hit things to get healing. And just as importantly, weigh the rewards of building up a really big heal versus the risks of losing that stocked grey health when you get hit.
Hollow no more
In discussing what takeaways the team would want Shovel Knight fans to have from playing Mina, Gordon said they’d like those fans to trust that the team has the same interest in mind. Even if this isn’t the same Shovel Knight franchise the team has worked on for years, the team’s passion for Mina and the new world is “just as great” as it is for Shovel Knight. They’re really excited for players to dive in and explore all the secrets and mysteries waiting to be found.
I’m not (too) ashamed to admit that Mina the Hollower‘s demo handed my butt to me, several times over. I’d get punched by an enemy and knocked into a pit. Or I’d charge up a big swing, only to eat a big attack in kind. Trying desperately to clear one room using precious sidearms like the Axe or Knife, I might still just get trapped in a bad spot by some angry birds. One room, filled with maze-like corridors and a necromancer that brings defeated enemies back to life, was the bane of my demo playthrough. And I loved it.
Much like Shovel Knight felt like it reframed nostalgia for a certain era into something new, so does Mina the Hollower. I’m curious to see more of what the overall framing looks like, as I spent my time spelunking through just one dungeon. But I’m very eager to see just how it all comes together . She’s small in stature, but Mina the Hollower is looking like another potential hit for Yacht Club.