There is a charm to Hayfever that is felt even before the gameplay begins, with its intro of static, retro rendered hand-drawn art bringing to mind the days of the Commodore personal computers rather than the Nintendo, depicting an allergy-prone bumblebee postman who loses all his mail after a bad sneezing fit.
Sneezing is the core gameplay mechanic that Hayfever utilises. The game presents you with a series of small but complex levels to navigate through, collecting missing letters along the way, but they are designed in a way that simply jumping will not get you there. Hitting another button activated a sneeze, which propels the character a little higher and allows for more directional options than a simple jump, for instance, you can launch your character in an upward diagonal rather than a simple arching jump. This is handy for passing through narrow, angled passages.
Dotted around each level are pollen clouds that you can pass through to increase your Hayfever meter, which has three stages: green, orange, and red. The fuller the meter gets, the more powerful the sneeze and the faster and further you can travel. But be warned: You start to lose control of the sneeze when you hit red so you have a limited window to use it before it activates at random and launches you in a random direction, usually into certain death. On later levels, you find red pollen clouds that immediately max out your meter and launch you in whatever direction you choose on contact. Levels will place these along the routes of hazardous, spiky passages so you need to time your button presses just right to make it to the other side.
The gameplay system initially seems quite daunting, especially if you are more accustomed to platformers that follow a more traditional, established style, but it is actually quite easy to pick up. The learning curve in the early levels is quite generous so by the time the challenge ramps up, you will know what you are doing.
It brings to mind the likes of old, largely forgotten Amiga classics like Superfrog and Rainbow Islands, where a unique gameplay hook was used to distinguish it from the Super Mario Bros behemoth because smart devs knew they could never compete with Nintendo’s stunning design work and crisp gameplay with a straight forward platform game.
The in-game graphics are simplistic in the best way, retro in a way rarely called upon these days, where most developers are chasing that NES or SNES sweet spot, Hayfever feels more like something you would have found on an old Amiga and not even one of the more expensive models. I was charmed immediately by every design choice. Everything is distinct, you can look at an area of the screen and know what function that patch of pixels serves. The dangers are distinct from the safe areas, the power-ups are clearly distinguishable, there is zero overthinking to obscure things, if it does not serve a purpose then it is not on the screen. It is a visual treat, a sweet and tangy packet of Skittles rather than a heavy full-course meal.
The music has a jaunty, MIDI sound that immediately puts your mind at ease and a spring in your step. This is helpful when you hit a streak of bad luck while trying to navigate a dangerous stretch of any given level. Hayfever wants to give you a hard time but it does not want you to have a BAD time; the score, the graphics, it all contributes to a fun vibe that encourages you to keep playing when your first instinct might be to shut the game off and come back later.
Hayfever is a throwback to an era of platformer where clean aesthetics, high concept hooks and strong level design meet. It honours the oft-overlooked legacy of platformers that marched to the beat of their own drum, rather than simply attempting to copy Mario, which means it is bringing something that manages to feel fresh and original while still looking comfortingly old school.
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