SEATTLE—Last week’s crowded, fun-filled PAX West 2022 expo was very different from the ghost town of its 2021 edition, which meant Ars Technica got to spend time with some of our favorite video game creators. You may have already seen our PAX West chat with the co-creators of the Monkey Island series, where we got a peek at Return to Monkey Island‘s new puzzles, jokes, and delectable animations. But that wasn’t the only interview we conducted.
Below are two additional interviews based on highlights from our time at the four-day expo. Each comes from indie studios whose previous games have impressed: Yacht Club Games (Shovel Knight) and Squanch Games (Trover Saves the Universe). The interviews were conducted after I played each studio’s new game, and I’ll be back tomorrow to report on other gameplay highlights from the expo.
Mina the Hollower
(Release date TBD, platforms TBD | Official site)
My favorite discovery at PAX West 2022 wasn’t entirely surprising, as it hit many of my personal gameplay biases: a Game Boy Color aesthetic; a top-down adventure that recalls the three Game Boy-exclusive Legend of Zelda games; and the development chops of a studio like Yacht Club Games, which is best known as the creator of the incredible platformer Shovel Knight.
Still, Mina the Hollower‘s world gameplay premiere at PAX West included an element I wasn’t suspecting: a healthy dose of NES-era Castlevania. As a result, Yacht Club’s design philosophies veer from Link’s Awakening to make this new game more of an action-first exploration game and less of a backtrack-heavy, “seek action” adventure.
The basic concept sounds pretty Zelda-like: Start from a central “hub” as a lowly, average adventurer (in this case, a timid mouse named Mina), then explore roughly eight zones in 2D, top-down fashion; each contains “overworld” and “dungeon” elements. Beat all of these levels to face a final challenge while getting stronger as you play.
But Mina the Hollower eschews the idea of an inventory that lets the hero solve puzzles and explore new zones along the way. Instead, progress is more like that in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, where players pick which basic meters (damage, health, armor, etc.) to expand as they rack up experience points. (Also, as in Zelda II, each time you upgrade a meter, its next upgrade is more expensive, which may delay your progress if you want to go all-in on, say, attack power.)
Equipping items, meanwhile, works as it does in classic Castlevania games: find the secondary weapon you want by smashing pots or lanterns, then keep it equipped until you stumble upon the next one you might want to use. (If you accidentally pick up a weapon you don’t want, you get a generous amount of time to grab the last one you’d equipped.)
These weapon options shamelessly lift from the Castlevania series and include exploding bottles, tossable axes (which rise and fall in an arc), and throwing daggers, along with the more Zelda-like ability to dash into and tackle baddies. As in Castlevania, their ammo count is based on a mana meter that must be restored through exploration and killing enemies. The game’s primary weapon is a whip as well, and Mina has a slight delay when she flicks her little mouse wrist back before lunging forward and striking.
Mina’s signature maneuver is a burrow, which lets her sneak beneath the earth, move a bit faster, and pop up for an extra-long jump. And this maneuver is certainly the game’s secret feel-good sauce. In combat, it lets Mina craftily dodge enemies and traps, while she can also burrow during overworld exploration to root out treasure, dig beneath and lift larger stones, or sneak into hidden rooms.
Mina also gets a jump move by default (no item needed), which means the level design generally forces Mina to hop around in both battle and puzzle solving. After only minutes of play, I figured out a higher-speed maneuver, which required burrowing to hop and jumping diagonally over gaps or up stairs. I didn’t need long to appreciate the new game’s combat timings, and I quickly discovered how to manipulate or deceive several tricky baddies to attack them before they could wear down my limited health.
“That’s been a secret for the past 5–6 years: our unannounced 3D game.”
Mina the Hollower‘s director, Alec Faulkner, confirmed in an interview with Ars Technica that he began working on a Mina-style prototype in early 2019 while Yacht Club was putting final touches on the Shovel Knight: King of Hearts expansion pack. He’d been inspired by a recent retro-tech project.
“I bought a new Game Boy Color, hacked it, added a backlit screen, and was playing games on a Flash cart all the time,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘These Zelda games sure are cool, but why are there no other 2D Zeldas?’ Nintendo ain’t making a new 2D Zelda nowadays, and no one else tried [during that era]. That’s so bizarre to me: there’s a billion platform games that try to be Mario.”