Retro love letters are a dime a dozen these days. From titles that veer too close to the source material to games that take the kernel of an earlier game’s original concept and expand it into previously unforeseen realms, nostalgic experiences are everywhere in the games industry. Yacht Club Games emerged as an early leader of this trend with its smash hit Shovel Knight, which took the 2D action-platformer genre and gave it several fun twists despite keeping the core gameplay and visual styles faithful to the 8-bit graphics with which many of us grew up. Similarly, Yacht Club’s next game, Mina the Hollower, looks like a faithful homage to The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, but as I found out during my hourlong play session, it’s far more than a cheap nostalgic play.
Utilizing Game Boy Color-style graphics, Mina the Hollower will inevitably draw comparisons to titles like Link’s Awakening, but that’s by design. The team behind the game has obviously demonstrated a strong affection for games coming out of that era and has done little to hide its inspiration. And the combat does feel similar at first; after choosing your weapon – a pair of nimble daggers, a Castlevania-style whip, or a heavy hammer – you embark on a top-down adventure full of dangerous monsters, clever puzzles, and harrowing locales.
Mina can jump just like Link in Link’s Awakening, but she has a core gameplay move that differentiates her from most other top-down action stars. In true Yacht Club fashion, Mina can dig. But she doesn’t just dig, she burrows. As a Hollower, Mina is able to instantly sink beneath the ground and burrow for periods of time. This can serve multiple purposes, ranging from avoiding enemies almost like a dodge-roll to getting underneath low obstacles. If you burrow quickly towards a gap, you can even fly forward for extra distance on your jump. This burrowing mechanic is a fun way to get around, but it’s more than that: It’s essential to master to make meaningful progress in the adventure. Thankfully, it’s intuitive, and the developers have constructed various clever design elements around the mechanic, so it’s far more than just an extra move at your disposal.
Once I got past the obvious visual pedigree and the core gameplay tenets, I found Mina the Hollower perhaps has more in common with Bloodborne than it does with Link’s Awakening. In addition to choosing your weapon, you also carry around healing vials that you can use at your discretion (though, strategy definitely comes into play – more on that later), plus various collectible Trinkets to buff your character. These Trinkets include everything from boosts to your defense or attack power to one that deploys a spider to construct a web over an otherwise impassable pit. My preferred Trinkets involve being able to burrow for longer combined with another that has Mina attack as she emerges from the ground. Players have two slots for Trinkets at the start of the game, but there will be ways to increase that.
As you collect bones, you also level up (or “Bone Up” as it says in-game), allowing you to upgrade Mina’s stats. You can even balance how many bones you want to keep for yourself as currency versus how many you want to convert into experience. Experimentation with all of these elements will be crucial for finding not only your preferred play style but also the play style that works best for each area.
After playing through an introductory area, I’m taken to Bone Beach, a mid-game area that is much more difficult than the tutorial area that I started in. A giant monster has washed up on shore, inspiring bone miners from all over the world to come and salvage what they can from the giant corpse. As you might imagine, it has invited several unsavory characters and monsters.
After experimenting with both the Nightstar whip and the Blaststrike Maul hammer, I decided that the Whisper and Vesper daggers were for me. Using these, I can attack with a standard sword melee, or I could even toss one at an enemy to deal damage – I just have to remember to go retrieve it. I slash through enemies of all kinds, with miners throwing pickaxes, floating skulls that belch out poison clouds, and haunting birds that dive-bomb you.
Thankfully, Mina rewards you for going off the beaten path, offering up rewards like bones, Trinkets, and side weapons. The projectile ax ends up being my favorite secondary weapon, but I also see a portal that you can deploy and warp to and a throwing knife. You can only carry one at a time, and each has ammunition, so you need to be judicious with how you use them.
Speaking of being judicious, the healing vials are extremely helpful, but limited. Rather than simply refilling your health each time you use it, it only refills the yellow portion of your health bar, which is gained by dealing damage to enemies. This means that if you want to get the most out of each vial you possess, you need to go on the offensive to refill the yellow portion, than consume a vial to truly get the most out of it. When you reach a checkpoint, you can replenish not only your health, but also your vials, so as you play, you’ll get a better understanding of how to pace out your heals.
Even as I have less nostalgia for the Game Boy style of visuals than most people my age, I absolutely loved my time with Mina the Hollower. The myriad mechanics that pull inspiration from various sources combine to create something that feels fresh, even as it plays like something that came out more than three decades ago. Yacht Club Games made its name through the fantastic Shovel Knight, but Mina the Hollower might one day take its rightful place alongside the studio’s first iconic character. Sadly, with no release date or window in sight, it might be a while before I get my hands on this game again, but when the opportunity does present itself, I’ll take it with little hesitation.
For more on Mina the Hollower, check out our documentary on the making of the game here. For more of the best games from PAX West 2023, head here.
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