Ten years ago, indie developer Team Meat released Super Meat Boy, a slick, gory, unbelievably unforgiving platformer that was finely calibrated to send you insane with frustration, while still managing to be highly addictive at the same time.
Hayfever doesn’t look very much like Super Meat Boy. It’s cuter, and more complex. You’re not just running and jumping, but grappling with a host of other movement mechanics too, most of which involve sneezing.
Under the surface, however, Hayfever is a direct descendant of Super Meat Boy – which is to say it’s both fast and eye-meltingly hard.
Before we get to that, though, here’s the premise. You play as Thomas, a hardworking postman with several powerful allergies. Not only does poor Thomas have hayfever, but he’s allergic to smog and peanuts too, and his reaction to each of these irritants is different.
Pollen makes Thomas sneeze, smog makes him swell up like a balloon, and peanuts turn him into a sticky blob that can scale walls and hang from ceilings.
Owing to a pollen-induced sneezing fit, Thomas has accidentally scattered his letters to the four winds, and so he sets out on an epic journey across the seasons to retrieve them. That’s where you come in, with your dexterous little fingers.
Take it sneezy
Hayfever’s controls are very simple. You move with the D-pad or the left stick, jump with B, L, or ZL, and sneeze with Y, R, or ZR. Sneezing, of course, propels you forwards, but only if you’ve got some pollen in your system.
The aim in each of the game’s 140 levels is primarily to navigate a maze-like, hazard-filled map, reach your van, and drive away, but there are also letters to collect. In many cases these are tucked away in hard-to-reach spots.
Clouds of pollen litter the early levels, and you charge your nostrils up by running through them. You’ve only got room in there for three doses, however, and if you take a fourth when all three bars of your pollen meter are full you’ll sneeze whether you like it or not.
In many cases, this is fatal. You can’t control the direction you shoot off in, so as often as not you’ll collide with some deadly greenery, spikes, or a giant insect.
The more pollen you’ve got in your system, meanwhile, the farther you’ll travel. The constraints of the stages mean that sometimes you need pollen, and sometimes you need to avoid it. Hayfever is incredibly rigorous in its demands, and it often plays as much like a puzzle game as a platformer.
That is, to stand a chance of making it through a particularly tricky passage you’ll need to step back and plot your moves, so that you know exactly which pollen clouds to avoid and which to collect, which way to point the joystick, and so on. Then you have to execute.
The game soon inserts new mechanics, such as red pollen balls that fire you off in whichever direction you’re pushing the joystick (as long as you’re pushing it that way for long enough in advance – hasty adjustments are ignored).
Then there are the chevrons that launch you in the direction they’re pointing, rainbow pollen puffs that give you bottomless sneezes for a tiny window of time, and pollen projectiles fired by scarecrows. Bosses also make an appearance.
Snot very easy
But there’s a good chance you won’t get that far. Once you’ve got through the first dozen or so stages, the difficulty starts to ramp up, and you’ll find yourself getting snagged on particular sequences of jumps, or narrow passages, or whatever.
As with the game’s spiritual ancestor Super Meat Boy, you’ll die over and over again, restarting a split second later a few yards back. Death is baked into the premise.
The difference is that Hayfever never feels as slick or intuitive or gratifying. The mechanic of taking on pollen – but only the right amount of pollen – can be infuriatingly exacting in places. Tight controls are a must when the margins for error are wafer thin, but in Hayfever the controls often feel fiddly and imprecise.
But that’s arguably part of the challenge. Like all ultra-hard games, Hayfever forces you to draw from your deepest reserves of patience, calm, concentration, and skill. If you’re made of the right stuff, you may find something here to enjoy.
We don’t fancy your chances of retrieving all the letters though. Try it for yourself now for Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.