I went into the mobile title Holedown (grapefrukt, 2018) blind, having only heard a constant stream of praise and excitement for it from game dev Twitter. I’m not usually one for the herd so I kept my distance from it until last week, needing something new to fondle during my commute.

Holedown turned out to be the latest spin on Breakout (Atari, 1976) or what is more commonly referred to as a “brick-breaker” these days as I guess Breakout is totes old and some variations like Peggle (PopCap, 2007) maintain only a tenuous link to Breakout. The last Breakout game I really loved was Shatter (Sidhe Interactive, 2009) although I should admit I got a little buzz, more recently, out of Peggle.

Holedown, though, had me by the throat and wouldn’t let go.

Well, for three days, at least.

If you know nothing about Holedown, think of it as Peggle with infinite balls and pieces rising towards the player after every shot. The player launches a series of balls from the top of screen into the blockfield below and all the player has control over is the firing direction. Each block wears a number, indicating the number of hits needed to take it out. This can easily be in the hundreds in later stages.

A turn is over when all the balls have returned to the top of the screen, after which the remaining blocks rise towards the player – Holedown frames this as a descent – and if a block penetrates the barrier at the top, the game is over. New blocks continue to spawn until the player arrives at the circular “core” which is the level-end boss, a big ol’ superblock.

The original Breakout is actually a terrible game that I could not recommend to anybody in this modern age; once I might have called it hypnotic but today I’m more likely to sum it up as the worst marriage of waiting and frustration you could imagine. However, Holedown developer Martin Jonasson has built an entire game around the best bit of classic Breakout: when the player traps the ball behind the bricks and it bounces its little heart out.

Holedown blocks require a hefty number of hits to break them and as they advance towards the player after each turn, the only way to survive is to trap the ball behind the blocks and set off a long chain of collisions. This is the whole game. Again and again and again. And it feels goooood.

Another brilliant, seemingly inconsequential design choice was smoothing the corners of the blocks and it literally changes everything. Breakout, and many of its descendents such as the almighty Peggle, has relied on blocks with sharp corners, which spikes play with an edge of unpredictability. Smoothing those corners make them a key battleground in controlling where the balls go; an experienced Holedown player will be focused on corner play to manufacture prolonged assaults on the blocks.

Holedown has been doing well not just because of some ace mechanics. Jonasson is an expert at game feel. If you don’t believe me, check out the talk he did with Petri Purho on making games feel juicy in which they edit the look and feel of a Breakout clone live on stage. The very fabric of Holedown shudders with delicious, vital feedback: the blocks wobble and flash with every impact; the screen distorts when the core breaks; the balls accelerate after multiple bounces; crystal “treasure” is counted with obligatory boop noises. It showers players with audio-visual gifts.

I keep bringing up Peggle because Peggle was a masterful exploitation of player psychology: the little pachinko-styled dings of each block through to the no-holds-barred explosion of Ode to Joy when the player takes out the last brick. Peggle, however, screws with your luck according to Simon Parkin’s article on engineered luck in games:

“In Peggle, the seemingly random bouncing of the balls off of pegs is sometimes manipulated to give the player better results,” Jason Kapalka, one of the game’s developers, admitted to me. “The Lucky Bounce that ensures that a ball hits a target peg instead of plunking into the dead ball zone is used sparingly. But we do apply a lot of extra ‘luck’ to players in their first half-dozen levels or so to keep them from getting frustrated while learning the ropes.” Tweaking the direction of any given bounce by just a few compass degrees—but not so much that the ball swerves unrealistically in mid-air—is enough to encourage beginners and not make the game too unbelievable, Kapalka said.

This is where the Holedown has the edge. Unlike Peggle, there is some real sport to Holedown. As far as I am aware, it never egregiously manipulates luck, although balls sometimes bleed out of rebound patterns for reasons that are never clear. I like this particular touch and, moreover, it does not upset your appreciation of the game’s physics whereas Peggle‘s manipulation does. Peggle wants the player to feel glorious but does not care too much about fairness: sometimes I felt I might as well play blindfolded. Holedown cares about the player owning their victory.

Or so it seemed.

The truth is Holedown does not have anything new to reveal as the player progresses. It has clever ideas but they’re all there from the start. For example, there’s the concept of “fixed blocks” on which other blocks rest so if the player takes out a fixed block the whole stack goes up. Smarter players will target fixed blocks because it improves survivability when the odds are against them.

Another idea: the core is circular which makes a very different kind of challenge compared to the miles of blocks you’ve broken through to reach it, as the rebound trajectories can feel random and perplexing. However, every core is identical.

The only thing that really changes across the levels is the distance to the core and the strength of the blocks. In other words, numbers.

I became stuck on the third level “Planet”, always succumbing after a few turns. The blocks were around strength 40 at this point and I had assumed the game wanted me to improve my technique. I kept plugging away hoping I’d unearth a method that would see me through. This moment of revelation never came and I was forced to return to the previous level and “grind” through it a few times to earn enough crystals to increase my ball count. Numbers.

Then “Planet” opened up to me… and my love affair ended. I realised there was a blank space where I expected a demand for better proficiency and all Holedown could now offer was the feelgood addiction, just like Peggle but without the exploitation. Another game that manufactured progress with the relentless rise of numbers.

Once I reached the end of the game and enabled the infinite mode, “Black Hole”, I put the game down.

Holedown is charming and I would advise any gaming commuter to snap it up as it is a masterclass of game design. For some players, it will become the go-to zen game to kill time. But for others, it will take just three days for Holedown to reveal a black hole at its heart.

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3 thoughts on “Black Hole Heart

  1. Caveat: It is perfectly acceptable for Holedown to be a short, addictive game. This is not a criticism! This article is about my response to it.

    We all know I am icky about artificial progression systems – the more transparent, the more icky.

    You do have to improve your techniques as the game goes along. It’s not true that it’s so about numbers. As I said, there more sport to Holedown.

    Also, an argument can be made that the upgrade system is a way of auto balancing the difficulty, that players will grind up to a level they can work with. That’s good, but I was always a little unsure if my skills were improving or it was down to the increasing ball count.

  2. Soooo have we talked about the Level 2 boss of Bit.Trip Beat yet? If you like playing Breakout, you’ll love playing Breakout with a constantly accelerating ball where if you run out of (admittedly copious) lives you lose ten minutes of progress in a game that is not Breakout. Though it’s not as bad as the Level 3 Pong boss, which I have yet to beat even in easy mode, perhaps partly because I never play levels 2 and 3 for some reason. And I kind of like Breakout (have many fond memories of playing Arkanoid and consistently managing to lose on the final boss, which is the one place you can’t continue).

  3. Sounds like we did talk about it but I forgot, Matt 😉 You’re not really selling Bit.Trip Beat to me. All your BTB comments just make me feel I’d hate it…!

    I don’t mind many of the Breakout derivatives that have emerged since Breakout. I think Arkanoid is a real improvement on the Breakout template, although the Atari 8-bit version I played was not good on game feel. I mean I don’t like the original Breakout which is “nice idea, but actually frustrating for most humans”.

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