This is the twenty-second entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the
1704 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,175,279.81 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
Our next random selection from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is SpaceHole2018, by Zimmbous, AKA Sam Atlas. It does not have any tagline in the bundle at all. I presume this is because the tagline was sucked into a space hole.
As you can see from the screenshots in this post, SpaceHole2018 is psychedelic as hell. Going in, I feared I was in for an eye-searing mess, an explosion of color in which it would be impossible to tell what the hell was going on. I feared a brutal onslaught on my senses that would actively punish me for attempting to play it. But SpaceHole2018 is not that. Well, it is an explosion of color, but it is usually a very calm experience, aiming for wonder rather than terror. It’s also up front about the graphical effects: the opening screen is a big warning message that the flashing lights and rapidly changing colors may be problematic for photosensitive players, and the only way past this screen is to actually type “ok” to give consent. While this screen is up, an audio recording of John F. Kennedy’s famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech plays in the background. I sat and listened to this for a while, before I realized that it was the entire 33 minute speech, and I decided to actually start playing.
I didn’t learn until I was well into the game that it is actually a follow-up to Space Hole 2016 by the same developer, which is also included in the bundle. Note that the first game has spaces in its title on itch.io, whereas SpaceHole2018 does not (although it does on Steam, for some reason); this stymies attempts to find them both in the bundle from the same search terms. But they’re both in there, and Sam Atlas is working on a new game, Space Hole 2020, as well. So there’s plenty more psychedelic space exploration for you, if SpaceHole2018 isn’t enough. But that seems unlikely, because SpaceHole2018 is unexpectedly huge.
Players take control of a space shuttle as it explores strange dimensions. The shuttle can fly freely around the abstract geometry and bizarre structures that it encounters, firing a booster that leaves a rainbow trail in its wake if more speed is needed. The shuttle has no momentum, moving at a constant clip and stopping on a dime. Until the shuttle enters a ball, at which point control switches to rolling the ball across the strange platforms floating in space. The ball does have momentum, and is pulled by gravity, so maneuvering it across the levels can be tricky. But, many of the titular space holes can only be entered in ball form, and only balls can collect the space gems strewn around.
In essence, this plays like Super Monkey Ball. Levels consist of abstract geometry, often made out of blocks or other repeated shapes, and players must roll around to reach exits without falling off. And perhaps attempt to grab space gems from hard-to-reach places. But at any time, players can eject their space shuttle from the ball in order to fly around and scout the area. This let me take stock of each level, determine where the challenges lay, and snoop around for hidden exits or gems. When I was ready, I could return to my ball and try to navigate it. Also, while the space shuttle lacks momentum itself, it can impart momentum to the ball by entering it at speed, and sometimes ball spawn points are floating above the platforms so it’s possible to launch the ball by flying into it at the right angle. If I missed a shot or fell from a narrow platform, restarting at the ball spawn point is instant upon pressing the R key (gamepads are supported as well, but I played with mouse and keyboard just because I’m more familiar with camera control using the mouse).
Levels are small, but there are hundreds of them. And yes, they are incredibly psychedelic. Swirling rainbows pulsate in the backgrounds, otherworldly geometry reflecting the colors back from mirrored surfaces. Chromatic aberration, film grain effects, strange lighting tricks, and more abound. Players might encounter a fountain of stars, or a level built from blocks that explode in slow motion before their eyes. On occasion, motion blur or a huge number of physically modeled objects caused my framerate to plummet, making movement jerky and frustrating, but this seemed to be by design. That’s where the challenge in those levels came from, making navigation a lurching, drunken ordeal. But many levels aren’t challenging at all. It often takes mere seconds to reach another space hole and emerge somewhere else. Some levels are just vistas to gawp at before flying to the hole. Others are bigger, sporting many holes to different places, and some space gems that will take several tries to nab. After careening through a half dozen strange places, players may find themselves back where they started, or off in a new area entirely. The general experience of playing SpaceHole2018 is to constantly adjust to a bizarre new location, changing every few minutes (or less!) to something completely different.
But the thing is, SpaceHole2018 is kind of great. Its levels manage to be constantly imaginative while remaining satisfying to play. The rules of one’s interaction with the levels are consistent enough that it never feels unfair, that no matter what visual spectacle comes next the business of flying around or rolling around is the same. And for all their crazy variety, the levels are well designed and interesting to explore. There’s a method to the madness that slowly emerges, after enough jaunts through hole after hole. A few central hubs act as gateways to different collections of levels, which share some similarities and fall under a common umbrella. There’s the Impure Light Zone, or the Fungal Expansion, or the Violet Fantasy. Some of these pathways are locked until the player has found enough space gems, but I found new paths opened faster than I could explore them. After checking out a few zones, players might return to the Warp, accessible at any time by pressing escape to back out of a level. This is essentially a 2D map of all the levels discovered so far, which players can fly across and choose which levels to revisit. The Warp features handy “area clear” indicators if the player has found all the gems and holes on a given level, which is a godsend to completionists, who may have tried the first of four holes on a given level but haven’t managed to find a way back. Through the Warp, one’s initial wanderings eventually become methodical explorations of specific levels, which makes for a satisfying progression. I thoroughly enjoyed using the Warp to tackle earlier levels and scour them for cleverly hidden gems, savoring each new “area clear” message (which also shows while inside a level).
There are upgrades to find too, granting new abilities. Some of these are essential, like the ability to grow and shrink in size in order to fit through obstacles or more easily balance the ball on narrow beams. But others are less clear in their uses. Being able to rewind a few seconds of time is nice in theory, but I rarely remembered to try it quickly enough to recover from a fall. And if there is some special advantage offered by dropping a “clone” and then teleporting to it later, I never found it (although now that I think about it, it’s probably a much better way to recover from a fall… hindsight!). There’s even a grappling hook, because as we all know, every game is improved by a grappling hook. I was still finding these upgrades after many hours, because SpaceHole2018 just keeps going. Just when I thought I was nearly done clearing the levels, I’d find a brand new hub leading to a whole set of new dimensions. There’s a ton on offer here.
I have to give special note to the music. Composed and performed by dl Salo — who recounts the process here — there are a huge number of tracks, showing just as much variety as the levels themselves. There are solo piano pieces, synth pop songs, ambient soundscapes, operatic vocals, and even some guitar-driven rock that borders on shoegaze. Sometimes the music fades and shifts within a single level, seemingly at random. Sometimes faint voices drift in, as if a radio is being tuned between stations. The music was not written specifically for the game, rather Sam Atlas curated existing music to match the levels he was creating. For example, that guitar rock is apparently from Joy Wants Eternity, a band that dl Salo is in, while other pieces come from different collaborations or from dl Salo’s own collection of unreleased material. The result is a game that’s just as enjoyable to listen to as it is to behold, where each new area brings a new musical wonder to match its visual spectacle.
I could lodge a few complaints against SpaceHole2018. The controls for flying the shuttle can be awkward, and key bindings can’t be changed while playing, only from the Unity launch menu. And since many of those keys are for upgrades that players won’t find until far into the game, they won’t know their preferred key bindings when they start. Mouse sensitivity is controlled by the mouse wheel, and seems to adjust itself sometimes. I would have much preferred setting it on a menu and then forgetting about it. Also, it’s easy to use the mouse wheel by mistake, thinking it will zoom the camera, but that is instead limited to three zoom settings on the F1 – F3 keys. The biggest frustration, however, is a late game area that acts like its own sub-universe, a nested cluster of levels that can’t be accessed individually from the Warp map. It makes for an interesting navigational challenge, but I was trying to find all the space gems, and it was impossible to track them down in there. With no indication of where I should look, I ended up bouncing around between a whole bunch of places I’d cleared already, before finally giving up.
It seems that’s the intent, though. I took to the Steam forums for the game to see if I could learn how many gems there were in total, and found out that even the developer himself isn’t sure. Someone reported finding more than I did, however, so there must still be some hidden away in that tricksy place. I was able to clear everything else in the Warp, so there must be some path I missed or a level I couldn’t find my way back to within that maze. Honestly, I’m OK with it now, coming to view this area as its own thing. It doubles down on the wandering aspect of the rest of the game, and isn’t meant to be mastered. But if you’re the kind of player who wants to find every last thing, be warned. I did learn something very useful during my explorations there: once a player has managed to reach a ball-only hole, they can go through it again later just by flying the shuttle through, and this is accompanied by a (faint) visual que on the hole as well. That helped when I was trying to determine which holes I’d been through already.
By the time I got annoyed at this particular place, however, I’d already played through hundreds of crazy levels, gazed upon countless psychedelic vistas, and listened to dozens of musical pieces. The level of imagination and variety on display in SpaceHole2018 puts most other games to shame. It’s exactly the kind of game I was hoping to find in the bundle, one that I never would have heard of otherwise that offers fresh ideas not found elsewhere. If you’re up for a trippy time, I highly recommend checking it out. For those who missed SpaceHole2018 in the bundle, it’s for sale for a minimum payment of $4.20. Just to be absolutely clear, that price is a drug reference.
That’s 22 down, and only
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