A Hole New World, from Mad Gear Games, was successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter way back in July 2015. Reaching over £9,600 of an £8,000 target, it’s clear to see that their vision of NES visuals and modern playability struck a chord with gamers looking for their next retro hit. Well, now it’s here on Xbox One, so let’s see what they have made!
The story is pretty standard for this genre of game. Versee, is a planet divided by the power of a goddess into two Realms; one of Good, one of Evil. Splitting the world this way exhausted the Goddess, so she sensibly split her power into five gems and hid them in the world. What’s wrong with a power nap and a can of Monster?
As you might expect, these gems were found and the main baddy, Lord Baduk, finds one of the crystals and uses it to tear asunder the veil between worlds, before starting an invasion. The people of the Good world, long unused to fighting, are easy prey for the demons, and even their weapons appear ineffective. Luckily, the Potion Master appears to save the day, and with his skill in throwing bottles about soon sets off to settle Lord Baduk down and administer a stern talking to. You then take control of the Potion Master and must run, jump and fling your way through the two realms to restore order to the world.
The controls found in A Hole New World are extremely simple. Based around an NES control pad, there is one button for jump (A or Y) and one button for throwing potions (X or B). RB is used to switch between the different potion types you have at your disposal, and the left stick moves your character. The simplicity of the controls and the gameplay actually formed part of the pitch for the game, as the slogan “You already know how to play! The challenge is in the game, not in complicated controls!” proves. And they are right, the control scheme and the gameplay do all feel immediately familiar. If you’ve ever played a 2D, side scrolling platformer, you’ll be right at home here.
The whole retro vibe is in evidence from the instant you load the game up. The story is told in a series of cutscenes, detailing the initial events using subtitles and animated screens. Once you have control of the Potion Master and have a chance to have a look around, the main sprites have a charming, hand drawn, almost pixel art kind of look to them, and the animation is period correct as well – jumping, throwing and crouching all being smooth and fluid. The controls have a good weight to them, and in some places I was reminded of Ghouls and Ghosts back in the Megadrive era. Very high praise indeed!
As you progress through A Hole New World and defeat the various end of level bosses, extra potions are added to your armory to make it easier to defeat the marauding baddies. As default, you are equipped with a basic potion that can be thrown in an arc. It takes some getting used to, this potion parabola, if you will, as if you are too close to an enemy it will arc over their head, or too far away it will break on the ground before them. Jumping and ducking both change the distance that this potion is thrown, and in addition they can be thrown straight up or down in order to damage the various creatures that are trying to do you harm.
After the first boss goes down, as an example, you are awarded the Thunder Gem, which allows you to throw electrically charged potions that create a vertical lightning bolt, killing anything that hits it. This brings its own challenges, as the potion has to hit the ground to allow the lightning out, so timing becomes more important. There are more potions including fire to unlock and, in a cool graphical touch, as you select a potion to throw around the colour of the Potion Master’s cape changes to match. Obviously this helps you know what type of potion you have equipped before you start throwing and, potentially, missing.
The big selling point is the whole Good\Evil world duality. As you run through the levels, the holes in the floor that would normally lead you to insta-death instead take you into the other world, which plays out upside down. So as you progress through a level, you’ll come to a place where there are impassable spikes growing over the screen, for instance. By simply dropping down a hole, you are immediately sent to the upside down Evil world, where you are, to all intents and purposes, running on the ceiling. Jumps take you further into the Evil world, and the platform elements that you were traversing the right way up, can now be traversed upside down. There are even sections where you can jump down a hole, steer into the next hole and just keep flipping the world without ever landing.
I’m not going to lie, the first time you do this, and see the difference in the backdrops between Good and Evil, it makes a massive amount of sense and you wonder why this isn’t more common. On the Good side of the world, the backdrops are normal – there’s a castle, a forest and so on (even the obligatory ice level shows up). On the Evil side of the line meanwhile, we see things which are much more, well, evil. The Forest is in flames, there are disturbing sculptures to see, and it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into these levels. The layouts are sprawling, and a good excuse to explore, letting you find NPCs and extra lives – signified by a cute little 1up symbol that I haven’t seen in a long time.
So, the graphics are dated but charming, the levels are big, multi layered and reward exploration. Sounds like an awesome game, right? Well, yes and no.
First up is the difficulty level. Now, I’m not afraid of a hard game, but this verges on the ridiculous sometimes. In the good old days, beating a boss was a matter of learning their attack patterns, working out when it was safe to attack and when you needed to dodge. Try as I might, I cannot see any patterns in the boss fights this time around. Every boss seems to come with an enormous AoE attack (at least one, usually more), that either requires ninja like reflexes to dodge, or that you have to absorb, hope it doesn’t kill you and then continue to attack. In addition, when you think “It’s getting a bit toasty up here, I’ll drop down below for a bit of respite”, hey presto the attacks penetrate the barrier between worlds, and you are killed by an attack you couldn’t see coming.
And speaking of not seeing it coming, some of the enemies seem to have been designed to be as cheap as possible. Picture the scene: You’re running through a forest at night, and the sky is a dark grey colour. In the sky are swarms of bats, that are a dark grey colour with two red pixels for eyes. To attack, they turn sideways and swoop down. Now, I’m knocking on a bit and my eyes may not be what they once were, but I could not see these bats. I’d be running along, and then be hit. I’d then have to keep spamming the potion button until the explosions stopped, at which point it was safeish to continue. Then more bats would arrive. It really was pad bendingly frustrating.
The award for most annoying enemy however has to go to… a cloud. These clouds float along, looking all sweet and innocent. When you get close, they fire giant ice arrows which, not only take a precious heart away, but freeze you and knock you back. When you’ve recovered from that, the cloud has floated close again and either repeats the process, or turns into an angry spiky ball of misery. They aren’t fun.
The music however is of special note. It is completely in keeping with the era, being a throwback to the days when we got a few plinks and plonks and were grateful for them. The music resets every time you die, and on some of the harder sections became almost like Chinese water torture, each note drilling that little bit further into what remains of your soul and punishing you even more. As you may have guessed, I’m not much of a fan of the style or the execution, but it is in keeping with the game.
In conclusion then, A Hole New World offers something good – a hook to keep you playing. This is an old skool game, with all the spikes in difficulty that it entails. As Mad Gear Games themselves say, there is no Easy Mode. If you want to beat the game you have to do it the old fashioned way, with persistence and sheer bloody mindedness. It sometimes feels unfairly hard, but the challenge was enough to keep me going back for more. Once you’ve beaten the game once, other modes open up like New Game +, Boss Rush and so on, so the rewards are there to be earned.
Just bear in mind the difficulty. This game will punish any weakness in your platforming skills and leave you staring at the continue screen before you can say “But there was nothing there!”