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Mina The Hollower Blends Bloodborne With Zelda And Castlevania

Zelda, Dark Souls, and Mole Mania are among the game's many influences.


Yacht Club Games's first-ever foray into retro-inspired games, Shovel Knight, has quickly grown into one of the most successful indie franchises in the industry. The team is attempting to strike gold again with Mina The Hollower, but this time it has a new genre--and a new spookier tone--in its sights.

A short demo playable at PAX East last weekend gave a taste of what Mina The Hollower is all about, and it's much more than the classic Zelda-inspired look would let on. Throughout the 15-minute demo, we had a chance to test out multiple weapons, underground traversal through a digging mechanic, and more, and we came away impressed with what we played.

Mina The Hollower puts a horror spin on classic gameplay.
Mina The Hollower puts a horror spin on classic gameplay.

The PAX East demo started us off next to a derelict carriage, with the horse in charge standing next to it. After a well-placed pun lightens the mood--"this carriage is broken down, so I'll have to hoof it!" Mina says--the next screen pits Mina against a few enemies. Experience with Zelda games would indicate a straightforward battle, but this moment is where Mina's open-ended approach begins to shine. Attacking each monster head-on is an option, but so is digging underneath the ground in an attempt to get past them. Once they're behind Mina, she can step on certain tiles to make them fall away, which keeps the enemies on one side of the pit and our heroine on the other.

If combat is the choice, there are three main weapons to try out in this demo. The whip is a "standard" weapon, with average power and a brief delay before the attack hits. The other weapons fall on either side of the scale; the hammer takes longer to attack but packs a wallop, while the daggers are faster but less powerful. These choices, combined with other items in the inventory like secondary weapons and healing items, make each battle approachable in a multitude of different ways. One particular big baddie survived multiple whip shots to send Mina one hit from death, but a quick adjustment to the throwing axe finished the job. There is no one way to tackle any challenges Mina faces in her quest, and that freedom buffs the experience tremendously.

After some time with the demo, we sat down with Mina The Hollower's director Alec Faulkner and lead artist Sandy Gordon to dig deeper into the inspirations, design approaches, and philosophies behind the game's creation so far. We touched on the game's many influences--some obvious, others much less so--as well as the thought process behind designing NPCs and enemies that fit into the game's darker mood.

We spoke about what the team is doing to convey that horror theme despite the game's retro look, from its focus on gameplay to the open-ended approach available in each stage. Finally, we discussed how Mina and other Yacht Club games can serve as an entryway to retro titles of yesteryear.

Mina The Hollower does not have a concrete release window as of this writing, but it is scheduled to launch on Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

This interview was conducted in-person with audio recorded, transcribed, and edited for clarity.

Inspirations to older Legend of Zelda games aside, what games are you pulling from as you design Mina?

Alec Faulkner: Zelda is an obvious one, so we can gloss over it and get to the deeper cuts. There's a lot of Castlevania in there, with the slow and deliberate combat, the whip weapon, and the theming. We're also discovering that when you add classic Castlevania-style combat--dense, slow, and deliberate--to a world you can explore, or one that feels more open-ended like a Zelda, you get what feels like kind of a 2D Dark Souls. So, we've been looking at a lot of Souls games, especially Bloodborne, which was on our minds a lot.

After that, there's all the weird other stuff that we get into and works its way into Mina for whatever reason. At the start of development, we were playing a lot of Game Boy games like Mole Mania, because that's a game where you dig, and there's an above level and a below level. When you switch between them, the screen flips, and it becomes inverted and darker. I'm in the same space, but I'm underground, maybe we could use that to fit our gameplay.

Sandy Gordon: There are very few games in general that are 2D top-down games with platforming elements, which is because it's hard to do that well. There are a few, though, that have gone by the wayside in recent years. Gremlins 2: The New Batch for NES has straight up top-down platforming, moving platforms and everything, and it was really good.

As we play through the demo, we can see some similarities in NPCs and enemies to other Yacht Club games. However, Mina seems to set a darker tone when compared to Shovel Knight's more fanciful approach, so how did you design characters to fit that mold?

Sandy: We consider this to be our take on the Gothic horror genre. Going back to the Bloodborne comparison, we certainly took inspiration from its pseudo-Victorian era theming and aesthetic, and it helped to enhance that dark feel that we're going for. We're using a darker, slightly muted or grounded color palette for a lot of the environments, which are still saturated with that old school Gameboy look, but we also want to keep the tone feeling spooky.

After we made Specter of Torment, we were just really in the mood to kind of maintain that darker thread in some of our future titles, so this was a perfect opportunity to revisit that. Also, we're big Halloween buffs; Halloween is a big celebration month for us in October.

Alec: Honestly, though, embracing that darkness for us is proving to be one of the more challenging parts of making this game. It's way too easy to get in a mood where we make each other laugh, and we keep having to remind ourselves that horror games are supposed to be scary.

Sandy: Yeah, despite the slightly darker tinge that this game will have compared to Shovel Knight, it's still going to have the humor and charm, including a lot of puns, a lot of quirky characters, and things like that. It's not going to be devoid of humor and fun.

Despite the many horror-themed inspirations you mentioned, it's tough to make a game that looks like this "scary." How are you planning to achieve that feeling?

Alec: You have to do it through gameplay. A player has to be terrified to go into the next room. They need to have an opportunity to think about and devise a strategy around that tension. A lot of the gameplay elements featured throughout the game allow you to approach things from multiple angles. Hopefully, that will encourage you to slow down, and take the enemy seriously. For example, there's a room with multiple enemies and cracked tiles that you can break to make the enemy's path to you more perilous, but that impacts your path as well. You can bait enemies around corners, you can take things slowly. Unlike the type of platformer we're used to making, this isn't just a series of challenges one after another; because the character can move in all four main directions, by necessity we have to create systems that allow you to approach things how you want to.

That's where the horror comes from, with the player being terrified, taking each room slowly, and having a lot of approaches to think about, which then makes them stay in that scared space before they dive in.

Sandy: Also, in literature, Gothic horror deals a lot with facing the supernatural. At that time, the advent of modern science was just coming about, and there was a lot of questioning: Are we doing the right thing with these new discoveries or using this new technology? It's a man-versus-nature debate that can create a sense of dread and mystery, and we're leaning into those with the story as well.

If there's a fan of Yacht Club and Shovel Knight that didn't play classic Zelda titles like the Oracle games or Link's Awakening, how will the Yacht Club style come through for them?

Alec: I would hope that with a game like this, and probably any game we make, you play our games to learn why those other games are beloved. I love Mega Man, but it's hard to recommend anyone ever play any Mega Man without adding a lot of caveats, as they might be a little too difficult for someone new. There's a lot of good gameplay there, but there's also a lot of BS. By making a game like this, we are putting our thesis out into the world; these are the fun parts of top-down adventure games, these are the fun parts of character-focused, RPG-ish action games. Here's why those things are appealing, and here's what we would want to change about them to make something better than the sum of its parts.

Sandy: We always say that our games might look and feel like retro games on the surface. But there are a lot of modern sensibilities, like modern gameplay and more polished controls for a contemporary audience. This might push the nostalgia buttons for some players, but it also hopefully doesn't completely feel like an old game.

Alec: If you haven't played an old Zelda, then we want this to be your first one.

In that vein, are you trying to convey the difficulty of those historical games, or are you more interested in being more approachable to someone who may not be familiar with this genre of retro games?

Alec: There are a couple of ways to be approachable, and we're trying to think about all of them. One is simple accessibility: Can every player literally play the game? Can they remap the controls to accommodate any situation? We're going to continue, as we've done in Shovel Knight, to accomplish as much as we can do there.

Another way focuses on gameplay: Can I actually beat the challenge that's in front of me? I think Mina should be a little bit kinder than even Shovel Knight in that regard. It'll still have a difficult core challenge for the people who want it, but because it's more open-ended by design, I think there's more tools we can give the player to allow them to gain the equipment or the experience necessary to tackle whatever might be giving them trouble. Think of it like Souls games: Elden Ring is sometimes considered the "easiest" one, because you can go and explore different areas. If you get stuck, you can level up your character in another area or try a whole different build. For these same reasons, I think people might have an easier time with Mina.

As far as difficulty of older games goes, a lot of that can come from a specific fun challenge, where you understand the elements of each room and the challenge comes from figuring out the best way to approach them. A lot of that difficulty can also come from dumb BS, and that's the only type that we're not interested in retaining. It should be a fair, challenging experience that's as difficult as the player wants it to be, and hopefully we can make a lot of people happy by striking a good middle ground.

Jason Fanelli on Google+

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