Holedown is the rare game that everybody seems to love. Game enthusiasts, app-loving commuters, critics and game developers alike have sung its praises since its its debut on the App Store and Google Play in late July. Mobile brick-breaker games have gained traction among more casual players over the past year, but Holedown seems to be the first to find traction across the entire games community. So what’s so special about it?
Holedown is the latest game by Swedish developer Martin Jonasson, who single-handedly runs Grapefrukt Games. Grapefrukt Games’ previous titles (Rymdkapsel and Twofold Inc.) are largely puzzle-based, but Holedown is a bit different. Described as a “spectacle of bouncing balls,” it involves shooting balls and breaking blocks to dig deeper inside various planets.
Its premise isn’t unique, but its polish is. Holedown sports a clean and visually pleasing aesthetic. Its minimal visuals are spiced with charming touches. Aiming the little balls involves a very satisfying drag-and-release mechanic. The effects and soundtrack are as bouncy as the little balls themselves. A bonus: the tiny cheering fellow on the side of the screen providing encouragement.
There’s a thin but effective layer of strategy. Each hit from a ball lowers the number on the brick; get to zero, and it breaks. Bricks with gray numbers can also be destroyed if the blocks beneath them are broken. And when you get a good shot — well, just take a look at the right at how gratifying the brick-breaking is when you nail a tricky angle.
An upgrade system, building to an endless mode, guides newcomers up Holedown’s difficulty curve. The game doesn’t reinvent the genre or do something drastically different from similar titles; in fact, the big pull of Holedown is that it goes back to what brick-breakers do best. Its creator recognizes just how crucial feel and response is to the genre. Perhaps more than any other genre, brick-breakers share the appeal of popping bubble wrap or opening a soda can for that satisfying tsk-pshhhh.
The absence of in-game purchases or ads certainly helps in maintaining that positive feel, too. “Great fun, great mechanics, awesome, simple visuals. No micro-transactions or lootboxes, just grinding through planets and trying to nail the perfect angles,” wrote a user named Martin Kloprogge on the Google Play store in one review of Holedown. The game currently has 4.7 stars on the store from 155 users and over 75 reviews.
Jonasson has said that he focused on making the game feel “uniquely satisfying.” The game was designed to replicate specific moments in traditional brick-breakers, when a ball gets caught behind bricks and bounces all around. Holedown captures that moment over and over, as the tiny little balls manage to sneak behind particularly tight angles, cueing very satisfying sequential brick breaking.
John Moore is a student at Lindsey Wilson College and very passionate about games. He plays a wide range of games — RPGs, platformers, action-adventure games, shooters and strategy games, to name a few — but also happens to be a big fan of the brick-breaking genre and Holedown in particular. Moore said that one of the aspects he enjoyed in Holedown was the celebration of the player’s accomplishment.
“When you pull off a big move and clear a lot of blocks at once, you get to watch them fall in slow motion, the music slowing down with it to let you bask in your accomplishments before speeding back up and throwing you back into the game,” Moore told us. “That method of celebrating the player for their skillful clear of the board — or for just a moment of sheer luck — makes it far more satisfying than any other mobile multiball game.”
Moore heard about the game when developer Asher Vollmer (Threes! and Puzzlejuice) tweeted about it.
“I have very high standards for mobile games,” Vollmer wrote. “There is a very specific amount of attention that phone games should ask of you ... and Holedown is the best example I’ve seen of it in years.”
I have very high standards for mobile games. There is a very specific amount of attention that phone games should ask of you... and holedown is the best example I've seen of it in years. The perfect balance between toy and game.— Asher Vollmer: Ragnarok (@AsherVo) July 26, 2018
“It’s everything you love about ragdoll physics as one incredibly zen game of skill,” indie developer Rami Ismail of Vlambeer told us. Ismail has tweeted about Holedown in praise of it, inviting other developers to chime in about their recent obsession with the mobile game.
Ragdoll physics refers to gameplay where objects are not fixed in place. Instead, they can be pushed, slid, broken, bounced — movement is essential. That’s clear while playing Holedown, and it’s an aspect of the game much unlike its predecessors; it’s a direct contributor to the game’s level of difficulty.
The team at Devolver Digital also chimed in about the game; apparently, the employees there are big fans.
There arguably hasn’t been a brick-breaker game to garner this much acclaim since Peggle, especially not in the smartphone era. Most of the brick-breaker/bubble-popper titles on mobile devices are bogged down with microtransactions, ads and a lack of interest in mechanics focused on feeling good.
While critics praise the smooth gameplay and depth of the Holedown experience, others are making comparisons to last summer’s App Store hit, Ballz (by controversial studio Ketchapp, the creators of 2048), seeing Holedown as simply another addition in the lineup of mobile games with these mechanics. Ballz is still popular, but the studio’s reputation for churning out quickly made, derivative games isn’t exactly a flattering comparison.
Gaming outlets have regularly disparaged these less unique brick-breakers, which are often loaded down with ads — including Peggle Blast, which introduced microtransactions into the beloved franchise.
“Peggle Blast is so hair-pullingly careless about its attempts at monetization, you can’t shake the feeling that somewhere in the bowels of EA, a person in an expensive suit has their feet up on a nice desk and is roaring with laughter,” wrote Gamezebo.
And so Holedown feels like an overdue entry in a beloved genre in need of TLC. It remembers what made that genre stand out in the first place: a focus on rewarding the player, on challenging yet solvable puzzles, and above all else, on feeling good.