I had to do a double-take when I realized that Shovel Knight first released back in 2014.
Living In A Hipster Paradise
There are two kinds of retro-gamers; there’s the kind that actually blew at the cartridge slots of their NES games, and remember game saving as either typing out alphanumeric codes, or simply trusting in the battery built into their game cartridge to remember their game progress. Then there’s the other kind of retrogamer that has never known a world in which knowledge wasn’t instantly accessible via the Internet, and cries at night over the missing the opportunity to blow into cartridge slots unironically. Regardless of which side of the spectrum you sit on, Shovel Knight is for you.
Behold The Pixely Glory
Shovel Knight is the simple story of a knight, with a shovel, out to rescue his former-comrade-in-arms, Shield Knight. That’s the story. It’s an old school, 2D, side-scrolling platformer in the 8-bit tradition of the NES days, so really, that’s all you need to know. The game has already been out for a year on other platforms, notably Nintendo machines like the 3DS and Wii U, and, because of its retro nature, this is one of those games that absolutely does not suffer from any porting to other machines. In fact, this is one of those games where the worst possible way to experience it is in a “man cave,” with a subwoofer engaged, an amped up, surround sound system and a massive 4K screen ready to show you glorious high res gaming, complete with party chat and online match making.
Crude graphics and distinct chiptunes all make Shovel Knight feel like a recently unearthed Megaman-esque game that somehow slipped our collective radar in the 80s.
Instead, what you want to do is dig up an old CRT TV, put carpet on your basement floor, call it a “rumpus room,” and play this thing lying chest down, pretending to hope your mother thinks you’re still doing your homework in your room. Yacht Club Games have created a nostalgic, startlingly faithful homage to those innocent—and brutally difficult—yesteryear days or gaming, and as long as you go into this game understanding its intention, it’s a brilliantly executed love letter to a nostalgic era of gaming. Crude graphics and distinct chiptunes all make Shovel Knight feel like a recently unearthed Megaman-esque game that somehow slipped our collective radar in the 80s.
It plays like it too, with the same pixel perfect accuracy and reflex requirements of those older better designed games of the genre, although some modern concessions—like checkpoints and their ability to save your progress—are implemented to ensure you don’t’ have to leave your console on and paused all night in order to keep your game progress. There are no tutorials in this game, but really, when you only have the option to move from left to right, jump, whack things, or whack things from above while jumping, you don’t need a whole lot of hand holding. Bosses are tough, but never unfair, the difficulty ramps up at a steady, merciless pace, and the game recalls the old days of gaming when the lifespan of a game was lengthened because of how hard it was, not how padded out by extra content it was. Shovel Knight is a hard game. It’s the kind of game that’s made for people that never lost their 80s edge of razor sharp reflexes and heightened hand/eye coordination. It’s classic, retro gaming that completely nails the tone it’s aiming for, and feels like it could have perfectly slotted into that bygone era of simple, two button games that demanded much more from the player than many games of today do.
Make no mistake, Shovel Knight is classic, side-scrolling, retro platforming, and if that’s the kind of game you’re looking for, it’s one of the best out there. If you’re all about the high poly models, motion captured Kevin Spaceys, and wall shaking bass, this isn’t your game. If you’re looking for something that will kick you up and down the screen and make you feel like a kid again, burning with determination to “get it on the next try,” then you’ve come home; Shovel Knight is where you belong.
After roughly 25 tries at getting to the first checkpoint in Shovel Knight’s second-to-last level, I decided I was done with the game. It wasn’t that I thought Yacht Club Games’ retro platformer was bad—far from it actually—but because I realized I’d reached a point of diminishing returns. Up until stalling out in the game’s final section I’d been enthralled by the difficulty of each stage. Figuring out how to defeat tough bosses and navigating the titular knight across screens filled with traps provided enough of a challenge to make success exhilarating, but not so much that the game ever became outright frustrating. All of that changed as the difficulty ramped up for Shovel Knight’s finale. At a certain point, having hit retry on a seemingly impossible screen yet again, I realized I simply wasn’t having fun anymore.
This isn’t the first time I’ve put down a game because its difficulty was turning playing it into a chore. In the past, though, I’ve tried to keep going too far beyond what was enjoyable. In From Software’s Dark Souls, a title that I had a lot of fun with for the first dozen or so hours, I found my progress bottlenecked by an incredibly tough boss fight (Ornstein and Smough, for reference). Maybe I had built my character poorly. Maybe I just wasn’t clicking with the patterns necessary to beat a vicious enemy AI. Whatever the case, I kept trying and, unfortunately, kept failing. It wasn’t until realizing that repeatedly attempting to get past this point was making playing the game more of a compulsion than an enjoyable pastime that I stepped away. Now, despite having completed and adored its predecessor and sequel (Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls II), thinking about Dark Souls fills me with dread.
It was in recalling how easily a fun, positive gameplay experience can shift to a negative one that I decided to put down Shovel Knight. Hard games can be incredibly rewarding—learning and implementing the skills required to overcome a stiff challenge often leads to a great sense of accomplishment. But playing to the point where frustration begins feeding into itself hardly seems constructive (it’s why anecdotes about players smashing controllers exist, after all). Aside from generating unnecessary anger, continuing to attempt to get past a punishing gameplay obstacle can also obscure any appreciation of what a title does right.
I loved the difficulty balance of Shovel Knight until it turned up a bit too high. Until then, I was able to clearly see how well designed the stages are and how perfectly tuned the character movement is. If I had kept trying to get past an obstacle that was quickly becoming stress inducing, though, I probably would only talk about Shovel Knight’s positive qualities through gritted teeth. I love Dark Souls—it’s highly original and wonderfully designed—but I don’t like writing about it much because, unlike other Souls games, my immediate memory of it is annoyance and unbearable tension.
The point at which fun turns into needless frustration is obviously different for everybody. Some people get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from overcoming seemingly impossible challenges while others would just as soon play games that concentrate on atmosphere or story but offer no substantial difficulty. There’s also the fact that some players are just more skilled at certain types of games than others. Someone who can breeze through a tough platformer may find themselves stumped by a difficult puzzle or strategy game. Our brains and reflexes function differently, which means that even a professional Starcraft player may be unable to complete the first area in a game like Dark Souls.
Being “good at games” is an umbrella term that doesn’t account for the wide variety of skill sets—and behavioural tendencies—that players possess. Even if, as a critic, I can appreciate how well Shovel Knight’s challenging final levels are constructed, smashing my head against them isn’t going to improve my experience with a type of game I’m not an expert at. For myself, recognizing the point at which a game is giving me nothing but frustration seems important. I’d much rather be able to remember the positive aspects of a well-made title like Shovel Knight than think back on it as a stressful experience just because its final levels were too difficult.
After nearly an extra year since its successful Kickstarter funding drive, Shovel Knight has finally been released. The retro styled adventure platformer has the aesthetic of Super Nintendo games, but brings modern mechanics to create the best of both. Here are a few quick tips and tricks to use when you start playing this indie gem.
Move Like McDuck
The Shovel Bounce is the most important technique to master in the entire game. A shovel bounce is performed after jumping by holding down on the control stick. This allows you to bounce off of enemies and bosses and remain in the air. This technique is mostly used for maneuvering through levels, but is arguably a better attack than the default shovel swing. Being able to successfully chain Shovel Bouncing on a single enemy allows you to quickly be able to deal a large amount of damage to them, while not taking any damage.
Be careful, as Shovel Bouncing only works if you make contact with the enemy. Landing on the ground will immediately cancel the move and will leave you vulnerable for a brief moment. There are also some enemies and bosses you cannot continuously shovel bounce on, and some even have specific counter attacks to deal with the move.
Shovel Knight is filled with many secrets that aren’t necessarily needed to beat the game, but will greatly help you. The lion’s share involve you swinging your shovel blade at walls inside levels. Most breakable walls look slightly different from the regular walls, whether they are a slightly different colour, or have an odd symbol on them.
Tiny walls can be broken for extra health and large gems, but can also sometimes lead to an extra enemy waiting to ambush you. These secret areas usually contain a large amount of gold to collect, which helps when trying to buy upgrades. Some of them contain collectible music sheets that can be taken to the bard in the first village for gold, and to listen to your favorite songs in the game over again. Every once in a while, these secret areas also lead to blue chests, which contain merchants who will sell you sub weapons.
Some levels in the game have areas that can only be accessed by shovel bouncing and platforming over the edge of the screen itself. Always be on the look out for signs that the top of the screen can be reached.
Like Archeology, but With Weapons
Relics are Shovel Knight’s version of sub weapons. Instead of getting them after defeating bosses, you need to buy them from a merchant who hides in secret areas in most of the levels in the game. Each Relic has it’s own magic cost that’s indicated in the Relic equip screen.
Some Relics are far more useful than others, and can be used to skip difficult parts in the game. The Phase Locket is a Relic that can be obtained early on and can help in almost any situation. When used, it prevents all damage for a few short seconds, including instant kill stage hazards such as spikes. It can also be used in boss fights to avoid incredibly annoying attacks that you may find hard to dodge. Another great use of it is against larger enemies who are blocking your path. Using the amulet allows you to run right though them and to the next screen.
Do Everything Ever
The map screen has eight main levels, with more optional levels that are unlocked after progressing in the game. Although they aren’t necessary to complete the game, they are more than worth it to complete. These extra stages are mostly extra challenges that require a certain Relic to complete. They also provide a large amount of loot, as well as collectibles, which you can then sell for even more loot.
It’s also worthwhile to complete all of the encounters and bonus stages which randomly appear on the map. These range from extra boss fights, to a shorter version of a level that contains an even larger amount of loot, which is makes buying Relics and upgrades that much easier.
In recent years, retro style video games have become a popular trend. Another popular trend is using Kickstarter to get funding from potential customers. Shovel Knight, by Yacht Club Games, is yet another in a long line of games that exploits these two aspects, with a humble investment price of $75,000 that brought in over $300, 000 by the campaign’s end. The action platformer takes elements from many old school games while adding new ideas with a retro twist to them, bringing the best of both worlds without many faults.
The story of Shovel Knight is as simple and straightforward as was the case with many games now considered retro. After losing his friend and potential love interest in battle, Shovel Knight gives up on adventuring. In time, a villain known as the Enchantress takes over the land with her Order of No Quarter. Shovel Knight once again takes up his shovel blade to save the land. Other than that, there’s no story to speak of except for a plot twist so obvious that players will guess it before the opening scenes of the game are finished. That being said, the plot isn’t the biggest priority in games like these.
The one thing that can make or break a game like this is the controls. If they’re just slightly off, it can ruin the experience. Thankfully, Shovel Knight’s controls are incredibly tight. Jumping, attacking, and Shovel Bouncing are responsive and easy to pull off. One of the moves players will need to master quickly is the shovel bounce. It will allow players to quickly deal with larger enemies without too much trouble, as well as allow them to access hidden parts in stages that contain more loot.
Like most old school games, Shovel Knight is filled with secrets to uncover. Certain walls can by hit to expose new areas with more treasure and collectibles. These areas also hide merchants who will sell you Relics; Shovel Knight’s version of subweapons. These powerful items all have their own magic cost to use them, much like Castlevania’s heart system. The weapons range from an amulet that temporarily protects you from all harm, to a blade that thrusts you across gaps. Every one of these Relics is incredibly fun to use and are all useful.
Another impressive feat that Shovel Knight nails is the difficulty. Most retro style games have incredibly hard and even unfair difficulty spikes. Shovel Knight has a great difficulty curve that starts off easy, and slowly ramps up to provide a great and yet fair challenge to the player. For a greater, old school challenge, players can choose to destroy checkpoints in levels to gain a lot more loot. However, if they die, then they’ll go back to the start of the level instead of the checkpoint.
Instead of collecting and losing lives, Shovel Knight uses a Dark Souls like death and recovery system. When you die, you’ll lose a random amount of loot. If you can reach the point where you died without dying again, you can claim the floating bags of loot you dropped and continue on with the level. One downside to this is that sometimes when you die, it will be impossible to collect all of the loot you’ve just dropped without killing yourself in the process again. Many times I’ve fallen down a pit, only to come back and find out that the lion’s share of my loot is right near the bottom of the screen and it’s not viable to recover it.
Players can also buy upgrades to the Shovel Blade such as being able to dig up dirt piles faster and being able to fire sparks out of it at full health. Also upgradeable is Shovel Knight’s armour, with new abilities such as dropping less loot after death, and getting rid of the dreaded knockback effect after being hit.
Levels in Shovel Knight are themed after the Order of No Quarter you are challenging. Each of these stages introduce new mechanics to make things feel fresh, however these mechanics only last for a screen, which is some wasted potential. In one level, a Relic allows you to ride over spikes and will jump gaps. It’s only really used in a two screens in the entire game, which makes it feel gimmicky.
Another downfall of the game is the final boss fight. Without going into much detail, the only way to deal damage to the final boss is with the assistance of an A.I controlled partner. Many times they wouldn’t perform the action needed to hit the boss, and resulted in not being able to hit the boss for a good portion of the fight. Even worse than this is that the same A.I is needed to avoid a few attacks that the boss throws out, and they often don’t use the action needed to avoid that attack, making the already tough boss fight more aggravating than legitimately challenging.
Shovel Knight is a fantastic game that brings the best of old school games without much of the frustrations they had.