Plenty of neo-retro platformers sell themselves on difficulty. Players often view the inherent challenge of 8-bit and 16-bit classics through rose-tinted specs, but can do so without considering why they were so hard. Often, it was due to savvy level design or interlocking systems that resulted in satisfying difficulty curves. Perhaps just as often, the games just weren’t all that good, but it was all you had to play for the next few months, so you persevered until you were Stockholmed into thinking you were having fun.
A Hole New World’s title alludes to its Mega Man and Metroid-vania influences, but promises fresh and exciting variations on well-worn themes. As far as authenticity goes, A Hole New World is certainly convincing – it could have conceivably been made in the late 80s, both for better and for worse.
The game dives straight into the action, forgoing difficulty settings or a tutorial. A brief intro explains that the vast caverns have opened up beneath the world’s surface, and violent monsters have been unearthed in the process. As a ‘potion master’, the player must use their arsenal of combat cocktails to quell the subterranean invasion. It’s a fun concept, but one that seems to be teasing a mechanic that never quite comes into being.
Since each level is effectively split across a horizontal line – the ‘overground’ and the ‘underground’ – and the potion master can seemingly explore two paths toward their goal. My first impression was that the paths varied in both difficulty as well as appearance, but that a true potion master would explore both in order to collect hidden gems (which ultimately serve little purpose outside of boosting your arbitrary score counter). It also seemed as though jumping through a hole in the overground and emerging from the opposite direction in the underground would somehow affect gravity and jumping distance, since your orientation completely shifts from plain-to-plain.
This is not the case. In most levels, you need to explore both paths to progress, and there are no clever tricks or puzzles to be found. A Hole New World is an old-school, cut-and-dry platformer – the dual terrains serve only as a gimmick, and don’t do an awful lot to alter proceedings.
Additionally, the game’s protagonist isn’t nearly as spritely as he ought to be. You unlock a new potion after defeating one of the game’s four bosses, but only by the final stage can the player dash, double jump, or fire a straight-forward shot at enemies. During the previous stages, movement feels slow and sluggish, particularly during boss fights, and the potion master must rely on thrown projectiles that miss just as often as they hit.
One such boss battle sees the potion master fighting a giant face made of ice and fire, who switches between elemental attacks based on damage taken. It’s a frantic fight, at least for the first few tries. Eventually, it becomes monotonous and somewhat mean-spirited. At times, there are simply too many projectiles, traps and pitfalls on-screen to be able to mount a convincing assault; there’s simply nowhere to place yourself in order to escape the boss’s onslaught.
Another boss fight further compounds these frustrations by introducing a one-hit-kill mechanic, and effectively forcing the player to rely on dumb luck rather than skill or quick-reflexes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with difficult games or even harsh difficulty spikes, but A Hole New World doesn’t create its challenges in systemically or mechanically interesting ways – it tends to throw a handful of diverse and unpredictable enemies at you, and expects that your paltry set of potions will be enough to best consistently infuriating obstacles.
This all comes to a head during the game’s final stage. The initial sense of relief granted by the potion master’s improved movement capabilities soon gives way to an unshakeable sense of lethargy. Darting about through dreary and repetitive tunnels whilst attempting to avoid three near-unavoidable enemy types at a time is maddening enough by itself, but add to that the fact that the level relies on the same cheap tricks reiterated over and over again, and you have a level that is clearly unapologetic about its archaic design choices.
All the familiar audio-visual beats are hit on queue – A Hole New World looks the part, even if it occasionally overcrowds the screen, and its soundtrack is authentically chirpy. There are also some fantastic monster designs on display, but they feel trapped in a game that isn’t all that interesting to play.
One can’t help but feel like MadGearGames put a lot of their eggs in the wrong baskets. They’ve created a game that looks and feels like an authentic product of the late 80s, but one that artificially creates difficulty in ways that are frankly rather boring. Where interesting mechanics or methods of traversal could have spiced things up, A Hole New World goes back to the same bag of tricks that have seemed old hat for twenty years now.
That’s not to say there aren’t certain masochistic thrills to be found in A Hole New World. It’s certainly satisfying to finally crush a boss that’s taken close to an hour to beat, or when you finally work out a particular rhythmic approach to progressing through a particularly hard passage. It does encourage various modes of play, and pretty much demands that you approach each new fight in a different manner. But more often than not, the game simply doesn’t make you feel well equipped enough to deal with what’s ahead.
Although I view time as a fairly useless measure of a game’s quality, A Hole New World feels like a serious time-sink, when the sum of its parts is only worth an hour and a half at best. Most of this extra time is spent combing through labyrinthine tunnels and plugging away at frustrating bosses. There are some joyous moments to be had along the way, but when the destination is yet another backwards boss encounter, the journey seems so much worse in hindsight.