Burrowing through the past to reach new heights.
It’s not often we get a new game from the talented folks at Yacht Club Games, and even rarer for said game to be outside of the Shovel Knight universe. So when Mina the Hollower was revealed to be gracing the show floor at PAX East 2023 I knew I had to set aside time to get my hands on Yacht Club’s latest foray into reimagining a bygone generation. The only thought lingering and bubbling up underneath my excitement to play Mina for the first time was the impossibly high expectations I held for the game given my adoration for Shovel Knight and holding Yacht Club among my personal pantheon of game developers.
In the slice playable at this year’s PAX in Boston, Mina offered up a few different weapons and abilities deployable across a varied section of the world. Before my burgeoning burrowing skills were put to the test though, an introductory cutscene with dazzlingly detailed pixel art introduced us to the world we were entering. Mimicking the 8-bit stylings of the Game Boy Color, Mina the Hollower‘s pixels are a little thicker than those of the Shovel Knight series but still manages to infuse both the gameplay and story sequences with an abundance of charm and detail that most games from that era could only hope to accomplish. Between the beautifully rendered pixels popping off of the screen and the somehow already iconic chiptunes from Jake Kaufman, aurally and visually Mina continued to showcase the quality associated with the Yacht Club name.
Once the vibe was set with the top of class aesthetic and music, it was time to dig into the other core pillar of not only what makes a game truly great but what Yacht Club continues to deliver, pixel perfect platforming and gameplay. At first, messing around with Mina’s distinct burrowing ability I was failing to utilize this unique input to its full potential. Between popping up at the wrong time to accost enemies or becoming too adventurous with leaping across gaps, with any original game mechanic trial and error are tantamount to the experience. Although, once I gained a comfortable level of mastery with the traversal and combat, Mina’s depth truly began to shine through like a speck of bone dust glimmering through a mound of dirt.
Combat in the demo revolved around one of three main weapons and two side abilities. The three main weapons available in the portion of the game playable were the whip-like chain mace, a pair of daggers, and a large two handed hammer. Each of the three weapons all lent themselves to specific gameplay styles, with the whip being the most all-around for speed and range, the daggers offering aggressive, quick strikes and ranged attacks, and the hammer bringing heavy damage with slower movements. Each weapon offered its own benefits and detriments but I found myself grooving the most with the daggers. Being able to attack quickly, charge up and toss a dagger forward, burrow over and pop out of the ground just in time to snag the dagger mid-air erupted in a fluid momentum that activated my flow state. Not to mention tossing out my side ability of a throwable knife that I could hit and reflect back into an enemy, continuing to combo and punish my foes felt as good as it looked on the screen. Now if only I could’ve locked down the timing with the hammer during my brief moment with this faux Game Boy Color adventure.
Even in this small bite of Mina the Hollower, the burrowing ability added a plethora of palpable gameplay elements that I’m hopeful will be utilized and expounded upon in the full release. Being able to dive under the earth for short bursts of time introduces a level of interactivity not normally found in top-down adventure games of this nature. It creates additional planes of discovery both on the active side when dealing with enemies and when you are passively exploring. Burrowing also added a quickness to traversal and combat that when woven together can deliver fast-paced, twitchy scuffles that instilled a rush while also granting an edge in tougher combat scenarios. The dopamine drip that surged throughout my body when these systems all found rhythm together is a high I’ll be looking forward to discovering over and over whenever Mina the Hollower finds its way onto my gaming console.
Aside from the burrowing mechanic that layered over exploration helps build a fuller more realized game world, the short demo of Mina introduced another unexpected element showing just how alive this world will be. I encountered a few different NPCs that offered more tools and context to the world, but more importantly was able to discover a hidden NPC that enacted a multi-part, optional side quest that teases at the vibrancy and discovery the world in Mina the Hollower will encapsulate. The one major GBC example I can think of when a game from that era introduced this type of quest not alien to modern day games was the trading quest in Link’s Awakening. Although these two quests varied in nature, the persistence of an ongoing engagement outside of the main adventure lends an additional tactile feel to the people existing around Mina and not just existing for Mina.
You can continually see the homage and influence of games of the 8-bit era burrowed beneath the surface of Mina, and though a connection might forge in your brain or a smile may scratch its way onto your face you’ll not once feel as though Mina isn’t digging its own path with that nostalgia and history only elevating what Yacht Club is accomplishing. Mina the Hollower was already one of my most anticipated upcoming games, but the PAX East 2023 demo only helped solidify that not only can the talented folks at Yacht Club craft memorable experiences but also somehow exceed my incredibly high expectations every single time. Mina the Hollower was one of our Best of PAX East 2023 and if this wasn’t on your list of games to keep an eye on, this is me telling you to change that.
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