4cr Plays – Shovel Knight
Shovel Knight, Yacht Club Games’ Kickstarter-funded retro platformer, has finally been released to your friendly local digital storefronts. Is the game worth the wait? Will it live up to the legacy of those games that occupied your summer days as a kid?
In a rare showing for this site, we actually have a double review today with opinions from both Gregory Gay and TJ “Kyatt” Cordes. Read on to see what they thought of this highly-anticipated game.
Nostalgia is a strange thing, really, and when you think of the interplay between nostalgia and technology the two seem like diametrically opposed forces. Tech is always moving forward, always evolving, always becoming sleeker, smaller, and faster. I am writing up these thoughts as the Google I/O keynote streams on my second monitor and it is clear that nostalgia plays no role in Google’s plans for the year. Everything is about progress, both incremental – nineteen more minutes of battery life, twelve percent improvements in performance – and potentially revolutionary – cross-platform experiences that seamlessly transition from you phone, to your watch, to your car, to your television, and probably, by next year, to your underpants. Other than the occasional protest piece from Scandinavian design gurus, you just don’t see people lamenting the simple technologies of their youth.
Yet gaming is somehow different from other technological fields. One just needs to look to Microsoft’s recent E3 keynote for a clear example. When developers announced that a compilation of the Halo series would be coming to Xbox One the thing that drew the most applause – perhaps more applause than anything else at that keynote – was Microsoft’s assurance that they changed nothing about Halo 2′s multiplayer. And that is hardly the only example out there. A casual glance at the indie scene, a skim of Kickstarter or the recent release list on Steam, reveals that – freed from the shackles of the traditional publisher model and given the tools to bring their inner desires to life – game designers really want to make pixellated platformers. As much as hardcore gamers claim to crave the best graphics and beefiest hardware, what those same gamers really want are the experiences that they remember so fondly from their childhood.
I’m not harping on this to disrespect or dismiss anybody – I dropped an obscene amount of money to help Tim Schafer design a new point-and-click adventure game, just because so many of my fondest gaming memories came from his work at LucasArts. It is just interesting that for years publishers refused to back retro-style projects, yet the moment that a viable crowd-funding platform emerged, it became abundantly clear that there was actually an vibrant market for these kind of games. Think back to just a couple of generations ago. None of us would have predicted that the release lists would be chock-full of sprite-based platformers. Personally, I would have called you insane.
All of that rambling, of course, brings us to straight to Shovel Knight. Yacht Club Games’ debut project is a 2D platformer (check), designed from top to bottom to evoke the feeling of playing an NES game (check) – with art direction and a soundtrack straight out of 1987 (check, check) – and funded by a runaway Kickstarter campaign (check, please).
It’s funny that I ended up even playing this game. I didn’t back the game, and when the developers sent us a few codes to try it out, I actually kept quiet. Enough people were excited about the game that I wanted to let them have at it first. But, most of the other 4cr writers actually had backed the thing and just wanted to wait for the official release, and then, my terrible secret came out – I don’t actually like platformers all that much. Sure, I grew up playing and enjoying my fair share of them, but they were a genre I just grew disinterested in after I discovered PC gaming in the early 90′s. I will grab a Nintendo platformer every other year, play a few levels, and be done with them for awhile. Naturally, as soon as I opened my mouth, I knew that I was doomed to review Shovel Knight.
Surprisingly enough, I actually loved the darn thing.
I knew almost nothing about the game going in, beyond than the top-level summary. I never followed the development updates, I didn’t pour over previews and concept art. I had never even seen any media from the game other than a couple of still screenshots. I took the lazy route and just assumed that it would be yet another hard-as-hell platformer, slathered in blocky pixel art, and with a soundtrack that sounds like two robots copulating. Nothing there that I was overwhelmingly interested in. My assumptions weren’t wrong, per se, but at always, the devil is in the details. My mistake was in turning up my nose at the high-level concept, because – as it turns out – the details were far more interesting than can be expressed in a single paragraph summary.
See, when Yacht Club Games promised a game that evokes the feeling of playing an 8-bit platformer, they didn’t just mean that it borrows from the conventions and aesthetics of the era. They meant that they were making a damn NES game. It’s a subtle difference, but we can break it down along three different dimensions – gameplay, visuals, and storytelling.
One of the hallmarks of the recent platformer boom is that the games are not for the casual. There is this mad rush towards making these things harder and harder, almost with a sadistic glee. Shovel Knight feels refreshingly different. It is hard (don’t think that you’ll breeze through it for one second), and there were several times that I shouted like a sailor at my 3DS during the last few levels. But it isn’t masochist hard. You don’t need superhuman reflexes to beat the game. I suck at these games – it’s probably part of why I don’t play them often – and I was still able to make my way through with a combination of brute force and pattern recognition (mind you, I still died over a hundred times during my initial seven-hour playthrough).
In that way, Shovel Knight is actually more historically accurate. Games were more difficult back then. However, they weren’t difficult on purpose. They weren’t explicitly designed to be frustrating. The games of that era just came out of the arcade mindset, where difficulty was important – death had to be common to keep the quarters flowing – but that difficulty had to balanced in such a way to that players actually wanted to try again. It’s a hard balance to strike, but the best games were those that rewarded the players with the patience to learn the mechanics of a game. Shovel Knight manages this balance fairly well. It is not an easy game, and doing well does require skill, but it isn’t cheap. If you die, it is because you made a mistake. There are clear patterns to the enemy behaviors and architectural layout of each level. You might go down a few times, but when you succeed, you feel like a god.
The platforming physics of the game contribute heavily to that feeling. I hated the New Super Mario Bros games on the DS and 3DS because the movement felt like you were sliding on ice. That might be more accurate to the laws of Newtonian physics, but it doesn’t make for compelling gameplay. The controls in Shovel Knight feel extremely accurate. Jumps behave predictably, there is no awkward movement lag, and every motion feels precise. The controls just feel good – precise and snappy. While I definitely felt frustrated with the game at times, I never wanted to quit. I never felt like the game was out to get me, and it never felt insurmountable. I knew that if I could just try one more time – alright, three more times – I could beat the level. More importantly, I actually wanted to give it another go.
Like the games of past eras, Shovel Knight is a relatively short game. Because I am terrible at these games – and because I enjoyed exploring meticulously for secrets – I spent about seven hours on my first playthrough. It will probably not take you as long as I did. I’d bet the average first run is somewhere around four and a half hours, if even that. However, Shovel Knight is a game designed for multiple playthroughs. Levels are full of hidden treasures to collect and secret passageways to locate. There are collectible music sheets stashed around the world, which unlock a soundtrack that can be listened to, and a massive list of achievements to complete. There’s a fair amount of game there if you’re the type to replay and master a game.
On the Internet, the term “pixel art” is thrown around quite a bit as if it describes one aesthetic. In a way, that is like stating that “painting” is one category when any person with eyes could tell you that Monet and Picasso could have come from different planets. There are commonalities, but the visual language of the 8-bit era is wholly distinct from the 16-bit era, which is still far from what our modern idea of pixel-based art tends to be. Many retro-styled modern platformers actually tend to favor the 16-bit side, particularly when you dive into sprite detail and color usage. Shovel Knight does a pretty good job of looking like an NES game. Characters aren’t just a collection of LEGO bricks, there is no bloom lighting, and the color palate is fairly muted. Technically, it does come off as nicer than what would have been technologically possible on the home systems of the late 80′s, but it does an effective job of evoking that sort of aesthetic. At the same time, Shovel Knight is a surprisingly nice looking game. Within the artificial technological limitations, the developers have made use of excellent art direction and detailed sprite work to present an engrossing, if slightly surreal, world. Each level, ranging from a windswept airship to a haunted art gallery, is distinct and themed to its boss – one of the members of an order of eccentric armored madmen. The design and decoration of each stage invites you to explore its confines and dig through its secrets.
The third dimension that I pointed out earlier – storytelling – is probably the one that was the most confusing. NES-era gaming is not exactly known for memorable storytelling. There is not much text in the game – certainly more than more real NES games, but characters have no more than a handful of lines of dialogue. Instead, tying in nicely with the visual presentation that I gushed on a bit above, Shovel Knight provides context and motivation for your quest mostly through the stages, villages, and overworld. Shovel Knight lays out a world where humans mingle with horses in dresses, a cult worships a giant talking fish, and evil knights live in thematically-appropriate fortresses. Much of this is presented without content. The text only spells out the bare minimum, and leaves a whole lot for the player to interpret. This is, as I cannot reiterate enough, a good thing. Throughout the world of Shovel Knight, there are all of these interesting details to see, and by letting the player build as much context and interpretation as they see fit, the actual core plotline is actually more compelling as a result. Sure, the story isn’t exactly Cloud Atlas, but the world crafted by the developers is actually more interesting than many of the playgrounds presented in million-dollar 3D sandboxes.
Shovel Knight is far from perfect. For instance, only a few of the weapons and items are actually useful – same for the armor upgrades – and I wish that there was a little more to do in the overworld. However, all of that is just nitpicking. For the people that backed Shovel Knight, this is one of the first clear successes of the crowd-funding model. It is exactly the type of game the developers promised, and more.
I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, and I’ve been thinking all day about why I liked it so much. I think the answer is surprisingly simple. It isn’t just that it is a good game. While it certainly is that, well-crafted and meticulously balanced, those factors alone wouldn’t be enough to overcome my general indifference to modern platformers. I think that the reason I loved Shovel Knight is that feels like one of the few products of the current indie retro wave to do more than wear the trappings of a bygone era as a cloak. Shovel Knight succeeds because it doesn’t simply borrow from the past – it builds a compelling, original experience that actually stands both beside and apart from the best of the era. My memories of some of the best modern 2D platformers quickly faded, replaced by the powerful nostalgia-fueled memories of summers playing Mega Man or Castlevania. Shovel Knight was different – it didn’t leave me thinking about how good old games were. It left me thinking about how good Shovel Knight was. How Shovel Knight was perhaps from the same school of design, but was also a game that could have held its own during that period of my life.
The following statement will sound a bit like hyperbolic rubbish, but it could serve as a good lesson to developers that want to stand out from their indie contemporaries. Don’t just build a homage, don’t just copy from the games you liked as a kid. Build something new. Take those conventions as a challenge – as a starting point – and create something wholly new from the cloth of the old. Shovel Knight did that, and feels like both a wonderful throwback and a breath of fresh air all at the same time.
I’m trying to think of digging-related quotes with which to open this review of Shovel Knight, but between Macho Man Randy Savage’s “OOOOOOOHH YEAH, DIG IT!” and Cyrus’ “CAN YOU DIG IT?” from The Warriors, I can’t help but get bummed out over how dead those people are (doubly so for Cyrus – RIP Roger Hill). Before I start bringing up Sugar Smacks, let me just get started with this review.
Shovel Knight, Yacht Club Games’ first release, is a platformer beckoning back to the NES’s golden days. One of the most hyped game Kickstarters of last year, the finished product does both the 8-bit generation and all of its backers proud. From the first level, this game had me, and lost count of the hours I spent playing it the first couple of days.
I also lost count of the numerous tropes and gameplay elements that it borrows from classic NES games. It touts Mega Man’s eight bosses with their respectively themed levels, Super Mario Bros. 3′s overworld map complete with wandering enemies and scrolling treasure levels, Kirby Adventure’s marked areas flush with walls that trigger chain reactions of explosions revealing hidden areas when hit, and Castlevania’s on-hit knockback that almost guarantees you’ll fall into a nearby pit. With exception of that last part, Yacht Club took the best parts of some of the best NES games, and wove them all into a beautiful mock 8-bit tapestry. While you can bounce off of blocks and enemies like Scrooge McDuck and shoot projectiles when swinging your blade at full health like Link, it still manages to feel like its own game – one that could’ve gone pound for pound with anything the late 80s or early 90s had to offer.
The best part about this love letter to old-school platformers is that the medium is the message. Shovel Knight resists the temptation to get heavy-handed with its references in the way that other modern era heavily-pixellated games such as Retro City Rampage do. There are several tongue-in-cheek mentions of the game’s crowdsourcing origins, and the occasional pop-culture quote that is repurposed to make it about shoveling, that’s about it. Yacht Club doesn’t deem it necessary to flood its villages with NPCs shouting “IT’S-A ME!” or “I AM ERROR LOL” to prove that it truly cares about classic gaming.
Despite the motivation for its inception, Shovel Knight is not stuck in the past, and has its fair share of modern elements. The game boasts a few dozen achievements – or feats, as they prefer to be called. These feats range from the whimsically obtuse (bounce off of a hoop a local child is pushing with a stick) to the tauntingly impossible (beat the game without dying once). Speaking of death, Shovel Knight zigs where most 8-bit titles zag by offering infinite lives, although each death comes at the cost of a quarter of your gold, which flees angelically from your corpse. This gold can be recovered by returning to the point of your death, although more often than not, especially if your last death was caused by a pit, trying to retrieve those flying money sacks will result in yet another death or two. It’s a noble attempt to make death matter, but it’s frustratingly implemented, and ultimately pointless once you buy all the equipment and upgrades, which happens somewhat quickly. The only consumable resource, ichor (a magical liquid that grants various buffs), is refilled for free between levels by the Troupple King, a giant trout/apple hybrid.
(Quick footnote: I love how NPCs just tell you how to pronounce words like “ichor” and “Troupple”. These devs clearly spent their childhood playing games before the prevalence of voice recording, reading weird names and words therein, and getting into fights with other kids over how said words are supposed to be pronounced.)
The Gamepad (or bottom screen, if you’re playing the 3DS version) offers speedy access to sub-weapons, and also lets you read Dark Souls-style notes/hints/warnings left by other players. The latter feature looks rather interesting, but since it’s powered by the Miiverse, and Shovel Knight’s community wasn’t set up at the time of this review, I can’t confirm how interesting it is one way or the other. Speaking of unavailable features, many of the stretch goals that Yacht Club promised over the course of its highly successful Kickstarter are MIA in the build we tested, presumably to be added in future patches. That means that at this point, there are no playable boss characters, no female Shovel Knight, no challenge mode, and no multiplayer battle mode yet. That being said, the main campaign available now still offers six to seven hours of robust gameplay. I am eagerly awaiting the stretch goal content, and will most definitely play through the game again as each of the 3 playable bosses.
Admittedly, I never played any of Capcom’s NES games when I was a child, so Shovel Knight was not the nostalgia bomb that I imagine it would’ve been had I not waited until my early twenties to play Mega Man. Nostalgia aside, Shovel Knight is still amazing, with familiar yet unique gameplay and delightfully vibrant levels; walking into a village and seeing an NPC dance around in excitement because, for some reason, he knows that you have a key item that you’re about to give him, makes me excited too. It’s a great game – almost worryingly great. Yacht Club consists of a lot of former WayForward staff, and I do not want to see the same thing happen to WayForward that happened to The Simpsons after some of its writers left to make the outstanding Futurama. I’m really looking forward to both upcoming Shantae games, and the last thing I want to do during one of them is yell “Simpsons did it!”