Shovel Knight and Separating Fun From Masochism

Shovel Knight (PS4) Review 1

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.

How to Win: Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight (PS4) Review 1

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.



Find Everything!

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.